Ravens backs not handing off Returnees say they can carry bigger load

April 24, 1996|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Going into last weekend's NFL draft, the Baltimore Ravens listed the offensive backfield as an area they had to improve. The Ravens then selected seven players, none of them running backs.

For a team that got such little production from its backfield in 1995 -- the 5-11 Cleveland Browns managed only five rushing touchdowns, two by quarterback Vinny Testaverde -- did the Ravens blow a chance to replenish a dire need, especially by passing on Nebraska's Lawrence Phillips early in the first round?

Team officials say obtaining running back help is still a high priority, and they will bring in a group of free-agent backs to beef up the competition at training camp. Harold Green, formerly of Cincinnati, Gary Brown (Houston) and Ronnie Harmon (San Diego) are among the possible invitees.

As a team, the Brownsmanaged fewer rushing yards (1,482) than Dallas' Emmitt Smith last year. They averaged only 3.7 yards per carry, and their longest run went for 29 yards.

But the Ravens are not exactly panicking over their prospects.

"Why weren't we successful with our running game? Was it because we didn't run the ball well, or was it because we were down two or three touchdowns a lot, couldn't afford to run and needed bigger plays?" asked veteran back Leroy Hoard.

"We had some good plays," he added. "But you wouldn't know it by watching us on Sunday. If everything was organized, it would have been interesting to see how well it could have worked. But it seemed plain and boring and predictable."

Not to mention slow. The bulk of the running fell to Hoard, a seven-year veteran, and 33-year-old Earnest Byner, who should sign a new, two-year contract with the Ravens this week. Both are big, hard-running backs not known for pulling away from defenders in the open field.

Baltimore's other two backs are Earnest Hunter and Ricky Powers, who have three years of experience between them. Hunter, the only free-agent rookie to make the team last year, has excellent speed and was superb in the preseason. But his playing time was reduced after Hunter had trouble protecting the ball.

"I tried to make a big play every time I got in, and that became a problem," said Hunter, 5 feet 8, 201 pounds, who carried only 30 times in the regular season. "When it was time to cover up the ball, I still tried to break tackles. That cost me. It's up to me to erase what happened last year.

"People don't know too much about our running backs," he added. "They just know that, for whatever reason, we couldn't run the ball as effectively as we wanted to last year. I'm here to work at taking care of that problem."

Hunter admitted he was worried about his job future here while watching the draft, thinking Phillips was destined for Baltimore.

Hoard, who missed last season's final month with cracked ribs -- a year after playing in the Pro Bowl -- played golf during the draft. Even the threat of having Phillips come to camp would not interrupt his leisure routine.

"It doesn't matter where you get drafted. You still have to prove you can play here," said Hoard, a second-round pick out of Michigan in 1990. "He [Phillips] is going to go through the same stuff I went through as a rookie. I had to prove that I could play. And after all of these years, I'm still here."

Although he did not score a touchdown last year, Hoard still averaged 547 yards with a 4-yard average. Then there's Byner, who caught a career-high 61 passes, gained 432 yards on the ground and took over for Hoard in December. Byner carried the ball 31 times for 121 yards in Cleveland's final home game. His two rushing touchdowns account for the foursome's trips to the end zone in 1995.

"We've got a guy who went to the Pro Bowl two years ago and we've got another guy who carried the ball 31 times in December. For an old guy, that says something," said Ozzie Newsome, the team's director of football operations.

"And Earnest Hunter is not a project," said team owner Art Modell. "He is going to be a great back. He just needs some more experience."

Newsome said the running game already has been upgraded with the addition of top draft pick Jonathan Ogden, projected as the starting left guard.

Coach Ted Marchibroda agreed, and he has promised a new offensive package that will include varied sets featuring one or two backs, three, four or even five receivers, and even some no-huddle. Marchibroda wants to look at more running backs, but he said he is not scrambling to replace the group he has.

"Everybody is way too hung up on what they did last year," he said. "I think I can safely say we'll score more than two touchdowns on the ground."

NOTES: Tight end Johnny Mitchell, pursued by the Ravens in recent weeks, became an unrestricted free agent yesterday when the New York Jets withdrew his franchise player designation. . . . Since the team will not have official colors and a logo for another six weeks, the Ravens will go through their two-week minicamp, beginning Friday, wearing white and gray jerseys and plain white helmets. "I haven't worn a helmet like this since elementary school," Hunter said. "I wish we could call ourselves The Unknowns. We haven't proven anything yet, and nobody knows too much about us in this town."

Pub Date: 4/24/96

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