Busy George settling in Oilers: The team and its star running back have been on the run in more ways than one, and both are looking forward to a new day in Nashville

August 11, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

In the free agency era, it's no longer unusual for an NFL player to suit up in three different cities in three years.

Eddie George, though, is doing it in the same uniform in his first three years in the league.

Drafted by the Houston Oilers on the first round in 1996, he played in the Oilers' final lame-duck season in Houston in 1996 before the team moved to Tennessee last year and played its home games in Memphis.

Greeted with apathy by the Memphis fans, who were angry that they didn't get an expansion team, the Oilers retreated to Nashville this year and will play at the 41,000-seat Vanderbilt stadium until their new stadium is completed next year.

Nashville's fans don't seem thrilled about the prospect of going to games at Vanderbilt. They've bought only 29,000 season tickets.

But George likes the idea of practicing and playing in the same city instead of playing what amounted to 16 road games.

"I don't know what to expect, but I won't have to be at the airport at 1 p.m. every Saturday," he said. "I'm excited about the opportunity. There's no question we have stability now and can focus on playing football."

The one thing the Oilers can expect is that George will get a lot of yards this year no matter where he plays.

He carried 335 times as a rookie for 1,368 yards and came back to lug the ball 357 times for 1,399 yards as a second-year player.

Despite the honors he's received, George has missed the excitement of playing at Ohio State, where the Buckeyes played front of big crowds and where he had a lot at stake while winning the Heisman Trophy.

"That's something I'm longing for," he said. "The packed house that shows enthusiasm and cares if you win and is behind you 100 percent. I haven't experienced that since I've been in the NFL, except maybe on the road. I miss those big games."

Last year, the club drew more than 32,000 only once at home and that was when 50,677 showed up for the Pittsburgh game and mostly rooted for the Steelers.

"That was kind of embarrassing, to be quite honest with you," he said. "I kind of got fed up with the situation."

Going into this season, George is not only looking for more support at home, but a better record in the division.

The team went 8-8 last year, going 6-2 outside the division, but 2-6 within it, including a pair of losses to the Ravens.

Another aim of the Oilers is to have a more diversified offense. Last year, they were No. 3 running the ball and No. 29 throwing it.

They're hoping that the addition of Yancey Thigpen and Kevin Dyson at wide receiver will provide a more balanced offense for quarterback Steve McNair.

"We were more or less focused on our running game and there wasn't too much respect for our passing game," George said. "Hopefully, this year we'll have some balance in the attack."

George, who will turn 25 next month, isn't going to complain about it, but the Oilers are risking burning him out by running him 692 times in his first two years.

Emmitt Smith ran only 602 times his first two years, and now appears to be on his last legs at age 29.

Earl Campbell, who was a Hall of Famer for the Oilers, carried 670 times his first two years and lasted just eight seasons.

The more he carries, the more nicks George is likely to get. Last year, he was bothered by an abdominal strain and a nagging ankle sprain.

But George, like all running backs, wants the ball.

"I don't think about [the future]," he said. "How long you play the game is how long you play the game. I really have no control over that. The only thing I can do is go out there and do my best and play every game like it's my last."

Coach Jeff Fisher said: "You've got to run at least 30 times in this league to win. That's our philosophy and if Eddie happens to get them all, that's fine. You can't look ahead. You have to do whatever you can to win games."

It wouldn't be surprising, though, that if the passing game clicks, the Oilers will run George less and enjoy it more.

One thing about George is that he doesn't seem to have let

success spoil him. He's one of the hardest-working players on the team.

Oilers general manager Floyd Reese, who drafted McNair and George in back-to-back years to set the foundation for the team, said: "If this team has a lot of success and does some things, that [George's work ethic] is going to be the reason why.

"The big guy just works and works. High draft pick, Heisman and all that and he's out there running sprints. And if he runs sprints, people look at that and can't think of a reason why they can't be running them, too."

George said: "You have to get yourself in the state of mind that you're going to get the ball 30 to 35 times per game. That's all you can do -- get yourself mentally set and physically ready for it."

George learned his work ethic from his mother, a flight attendant who raised him as a single parent. It's been well-chronicled how she sent him to a military academy in Virginia to get him off the streets of Philadelphia.

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