Ravens bank on backfield to keep big line an asset

July 25, 1996|By John Eisenberg

We know who isn't going to run with the ball for the Ravens.

Lawrence Phillips isn't.

Nor are Leeland McElroy and Karim Abdul-Jabbar.

Those were the three backs the Ravens didn't take in the first round of the 1996 draft.

They took a lineman and linebacker instead, implying that they were satisfied with their runners.

They made the right move in passing on Phillips, who slept through his final minicamp session with the Rams and later was arrested on a drunk-driving charge. Who needs that?

But the Ravens still left themselves in a vulnerable position by not adding a runner.

Who is going to run with the ball for them?

Leroy Hoard, Earnest Byner and Earnest Hunter, not necessarily in that order. You can look at them two ways.

The negative view: Hoard didn't score a touchdown in '95, Byner peaked as a runner six years ago and Hunter has barely played.

The positive view: Hoard was a Pro Bowler in '94, Byner is a productive old pro and Hunter is an electric talent.

Is it enough? The Ravens think so, and they had better be right. Otherwise, they'll waste the effectiveness of their biggest asset, their massive offensive line.

Right now, Hoard is penciled in as the starting tailback. At 28, in his seventh season, he is a compact, powerful runner who contributed primarily as a pass catcher for four seasons and took off when he got a chance in '94, rushing for almost 900 yards and catching 45 passes.

He still averaged 4.0 yards a carry last season, but his combined rushing and receiving yardage dropped more than 50 percent. He missed the last part of the season with broken ribs.

"For us to be a good team, Leroy has to take two steps up the ladder," said Ravens running back coach Al Lavan. "He has to get significantly better. That's the bottom line. He has to do it. Not doing it is not an option. Otherwise we're just playing games, just going through the schedule."

Lavan, who has coached in Dallas and San Francisco, knows about high standards.

"Everyone on this team has to take a step up," Lavan said. "Leroy is the starting tailback. It's a challenge for him as a player and for me as his coach to step up the ladder."

Hoard missed yesterday's practices at Western Maryland College because of headaches that have recurred throughout training camp, but he admitted earlier that last season wasn't his idea of a dream.

"I blame it on myself," he said. "When things don't go right, always look first in the mirror for what went wrong. My biggest regret is that I was busted up when the people of Cleveland last saw me."

When Hoard went down last year, Byner, 33, stepped in ably at tailback and even had a 100-yard game in December. He had a strong '95 playing mostly on third downs, catching a career-high 61 passes.

Lavan smiles at the mere mention of Byner's name.

"The consummate pro," Lavan said. "I want to coach that guy. He's still trying to learn after 12 years, still trying to get better."

But the Ravens can't expect Byner to carry the rushing load for an entire season after 12 seasons and more than 1,800 carries and 7,000 yards. He just doesn't have enough tread left.

That leaves Hunter, a second-year player who made the team in '95 as a free agent from Southeast Oklahoma State, an NAIA school. The team was stunned by his quickness and play-making potential.

He had a terrific game early in the preseason and the Browns briefly thought they had uncovered an overnight star, but then he began fumbling and making other mistakes and wound up on the bench.

Still, the team thought enough of his potential to use him as a reason for not taking McElroy or Abdul-Jabbar.

"We already have a good, young back," vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome said. "His name is Earnest Hunter."

Lavan said, "In terms of skills and talent, Earnest is on par with, if not better than, the guys in the draft. At least we feel that way. And with his work ethic, we hope he will improve. He's an excellent worker. His work ethic is well above average."

There is no doubt that Hunter, 25, desperately wants to succeed. He stayed in Cleveland after last season to work on limiting his mistakes and moved to Baltimore in May to continue working out.

"Last year was a nightmare for me," he said. "I was used to a major role. I just want to improve."

The team would love for Hunter to improve enough to be utilized. No one else in the backfield has that kind of quickness.

"It'll come down to his dependability and consistency," head coach Ted Marchibroda said. "Right now, it's too early to tell."

It's too early to tell about the entire running game. The line also was an asset last year, yet the running game was anything but fearsome. There are no guarantees this year.

Fired coach Bill Belichick's sleep-inducing offense was no help, of course. Marchibroda's is more inventive.

Between that and the line, the Ravens have the framework of a potent running game in place.

Who carries the ball, and how well, will determine whether that framework is put to good use.

Pub Date: 7/25/96

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