Byner's old legs spring to occasion RAVENS 17, SAINTS 10

September 30, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Tough crowd, that Ravens offensive line. Earnest Byner had just made the second-longest run of his career, a run so long he couldn't believe it when informed of the distance later.

A 42-yard carry by a 34-year-old back -- it's not a typical NFL occurrence. Still, the linemen couldn't wait to tease Byner back on the sideline.

"You owe us one," they told him. "You owe us one."

"We thought he'd bring it to the house," tackle Tony Jones explained after the Ravens' 17-10 victory over New Orleans. "He's got to take that long one to the house."

The house is NFL-speak for the end zone, and Byner didn't even make it to the door, getting stopped at the New Orleans 25.

The Ravens wound up kicking a field goal to take a 10-3 second-quarter lead, and the linemen still hadn't forgotten afterward.

"We told him, 'You're supposed to score on that,' " tackle Orlando Brown said, smiling. "We thought he'd kick it into second gear. He said he was at full throttle."

Hey, give the old man a break.

Byner could have collapsed from exhaustion. He could have retired right then. But as it turned out, he was just getting started.

He broke another long run -- a mere 20-yarder -- in the third quarter. And he finished with 149 yards on 24 carries, his highest rushing total since 1990.

Bam who?

Let's not get carried away -- running against the Saints is like walking into the Fountain of Youth.

Still, Leroy Hoard couldn't have made the plays Byner did yesterday. And when Morris joins the Ravens in two weeks, the running game will be that much better.

That is, if Byner still can move.

"I'm supposed to play golf [tomorrow]," he said. "I don't know if I can make it."

His 42-yard run was his longest since his rookie season in 1984, and the second longest in a career of almost 2,000 carries.

"Was it 42 yards?" Byner asked a reporter afterward. "Oh, c'mon."

"We were coming to save him," Brown said. "We were running behind him, hoping he could cut it back."

Five years ago, the New York Giants rode 34-year-old Ottis Anderson to a Super Bowl title, but no one expects Byner to carry such a load, or the Ravens to make such a push.

Still, Byner proved yesterday that he still can run effectively when healthy -- something he hadn't been the previous two games against Pittsburgh and Houston, when he was suffering from an injured toe.

He also demonstrated the veteran leadership that coach Ted Marchibroda is seeking, addressing his teammates after the post-game prayer and awarding of game balls.

"I told them, we really need to use this as an opportunity to step it up. Not just be happy with the win. Take it to the next level," Byner said.

Such speeches are unusual, but Byner is a unique individual, an inspirational figure, a survivor in the NFL jungle.

He rebounded from his last-minute fumble in the 1987 AFC Championship Game to produce 1,000-yard seasons for the Redskins in '90 and '91.

And he responded to the signing of Morris -- a running back 10 years younger -- with the 20th 100-yard rushing game of his career.

Byner has no illusions about his role once Morris arrives -- "Whatever they decide, that will be the way to go" -- but he can still contribute as a third-down specialist, and perhaps still make seven to 10 carries per game.

"What he did doesn't surprise me," Ravens running backs coach Al Lavan said. "He just has a big heart for this game."

Byner's toe injury, it turns out, was a major hindrance.

"I probably shouldn't have played [against Pittsburgh]," he said. "Me being me, I've always tried to play through injuries. It was bad. It was still bad in Houston. But you've got to play with pain.

"I might have been stupid. I see [Indianapolis' Marshall] Faulk took a couple of weeks off with his [dislocated] toe. But I don't know how bad his was."

Byner probably could have run through New Orleans with 10 bad toes. The Saints entered the game ranked next-to-last in rushing defense, and turned Arizona's unheralded LeShon Johnson into a 214-yard monster the previous week.

Still, Byner had to get the legs churning, had to hit the holes, make the cuts, elude the tacklers.

Byner's 20-yard carry might have gone for longer, but alas, he fell down.

"I cut back and lost it," he said, smiling. "Not because of the field. It must have been the legs."

Before yesterday, the Ravens' longest run had been 16 yards -- by quarterback Vinny Testaverde in the season opener.

Take away Byner's two big plays, and he averaged 3.8 yards per carry, a slight improvement on his previous average of 3.4.

But on this day, you couldn't take anything away from Earnest Byner.

What was it he told all those linemen teasing him on the sideline?

"I gave you all I had."

Pub Date: 9/30/96

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