As running back Bam Morris prepares to serve a four-game suspension, the Ravens are reshuffling an offensive backfield that Morris was supposed to lead.
The temporary exit of Morris -- who will not play for the rest of the preseason but will continue practicing with the team for the next three weeks -- means that 14-year veteran Earnest Byner, originally expected to provide the Ravens primarily with a third-down threat, is the top back.
It also means that rookie Jay Graham, the leading rusher in last week's 21-20, preseason-opening loss to the New York Giants, has just seen his stock rise for the immediate future.
"Obviously, we have some young guys who look like they can step in," Ravens running backs coach Al Lavan said. "That process just accelerated. Their on-the-job training is no longer training, especially for Graham.
"As George Allen once said, the future is now, and you're in it. Earnest Byner and Graham are going to have to carry the load. I know what I have in Byner. The primary thing right now is to make sure Jay Graham gets the carries he needs."
Graham carried 14 times for 58 yards against the Giants, and Byner did not play. Byner will start against the Jets tomorrow night. The Ravens intend to get Graham at least the same number of carries he received Saturday, when Graham worked extensively with the first team.
"My goal is to keep getting better all of the time," Graham said. "I've had an opportunity to run with the first team, and it has helped me prepare for playing in the NFL. I'm not at a top level yet, but I'm working to get there."
Rookie free agent Priest Holmes (10 carries for 23 yards against the Giants) figures to get a similar amount of playing time tomorrow. The team wants to take a closer look at free-agent fullback Tony Vinson, who impressed the Ravens with his running against the Giants, but a ligament strain in his right knee will probably keep him out of action tomorrow night.
"This [the Morris suspension] has definitely increased my opportunity to move up [on the depth chart]," said Vinson, who injured the knee Monday in practice and is listed behind rookies Steve Lee and Kenyon Cotton. "I've had coaches telling me this is my chance. I've been feeling real good and comfortable in camp. This injury came at a bad time."
Byner, who will turn 35 next month, was kept in part because of the leadership and example he provides for younger players. He said he relishes the chance to play more. With 7,948 yards rushing, he is one of six active players with more than 7,000 career yards. Byner is 126 yards shy of entering the NFL's top 20 rushing list.
"I prepare hard every year. I'm always excited about playing ball," Byner said. "With the mentality I've been given, I'll be ready to play.
"Jay also is ready to play. Jay should play. He has shown some explosiveness. He has the inherent ability to make the offensive linemen work for him. He needs to be in there."
Said Graham: "My situation doesn't change. I'll continue working on my abilities, trying to get better every down."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: New York Jets
Site: Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
When: 8 p.m. tomorrow
@4 TV/Radio: Ch. 45/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Pub Date: 8/07/97