Veteran Earnest Byner will be the focal point of the Ravens' running game for the first four weeks of the season until Bam Morris returns, but the real key is a rookie named Jay Graham.
The Ravens had counted on Morris to power the rushing attack, but the 6-foot, 245-pound back was suspended by the league Aug. 6 for four games after he violated the NFL's policy on substance and alcohol abuse. That left Byner to carry the early load.
"You know what you're getting when you put Earnest on the field -- a well-conditioned, tough player who knows his assignments, makes smart plays, gives leadership and does everything he can to help us win," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president player personnel.
Byner, who turns 35 on Sept. 15, is in his 14th season. He rushed for 559 yards on 141 carries and three touchdowns last season in the first nine games before Morris was signed, and had 18 rushes for 75 yards thereafter.
Byner has survived because of mental toughness as well as physical endurance. During the off-season, he ran the hill at Oregon Ridge twice a week.
"I always prepare myself to be ready to play," Byner said. "You're only an occurrence away from playing. I still have the quickness in my feet and I'm in as good shape as I've ever been.
"But it's my overall knowledge of the game that keeps me going. I'll go back and look at film from when I played with the Redskins, just to see where I was at, where I am now and where I need to go. That's how I know that I need to lower my hips to get more of my natural strength into a run."
Morris started the final seven games last season and led the AFC in rushing over that span with 618 yards. Overall, he led Ravens running backs with 737 yards on 172 carries (4.3 average), and scored four rushing touchdowns.
Until Morris returns, Byner will share the position with Graham, the team's third-round pick out of Tennessee. The 5-11, 220-pound rookie had a successful training camp, and he gives the team a dimension it lacked a year ago -- speed on the perimeter.
"Jay has quickness and speed," Byner said. "He has the ability to make the linemen work, and by that I mean he presses against the offensive line and gives them a chance to work."
Graham, though, has been bothered by a strained left knee. If he has problems, the Ravens would have to go to another rookie in Priest Holmes, a free agent out of Texas. Holmes, though, may be a year away from being a regular in the NFL.
"He has a lot of natural strength, but he has to get more of an understanding of the offense," Byner said of Holmes.
Running backs coach Al Lavan said: "Earnest Byner is the stabilizing force in the group. We know what we can get from Earnest Byner and we're hoping Jay Graham takes the mantle from Byner. With a healthy Jay Graham, I really like this group. He is the key."
The fullback position is a lot more questionable. The Ravens jTC gave up on sixth-round draft pick Steve Lee, a disappointment since the middle of training camp, and handed the starting job to another rookie, Southwestern Louisiana's Kenyon Cotton.
Free agent Tony Vinson, the former Towson State standout, is in the fullback mix as well. Overall, Vinson has more of the total package than Cotton, he just doesn't have a lot of size. Vinson weighs 229 pounds, compared with 255 for Cotton.
"We're still looking and hoping someone will emerge," Lavan said. "The top three priorities for our fullback is to block, block and block."
Byner said: "Overall, it's a young group. They've picked up the offense already. The only real problem is that they need confidence, and the only way to get that is to go out and perform."
Strengths: Bam Morris is a large, smash-mouth type of runner, Earnest Byner is a smart player and solid leader, and rookie Jay Graham has shown explosiveness on the perimeter.
Weaknesses: Byner is not a breakaway threat and Graham needs to show more toughness.
Comment: Graham must contribute until Morris returns from his four-game suspension.
X-factor: Morris' success will be determined by how well he maintains his conditioning during his layoff.
Pub Date: 8/29/97