Ravens could take lesson from George's draft history

January 17, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

INDIANAPOLIS -- Just before warm-ups, Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher pulled Eddie George aside. Think back to Draft Day 1996, Fisher told him. Think back to when the Houston Oilers traded down, then up, to choose George at No. 14 and acquire two additional picks.

"We took a running back to win a game like this," Fisher said yesterday after the Titans' 19-16 divisional playoff victory over Indianapolis. "It has taken us awhile to get here. But that was the plan."

For those who fail to understand why the Ravens should attempt to acquire a running back this off-season, George's performance was thought-provoking, to say the least. Errict Rhett and Priest Holmes are competent runners. But the 6-foot-3, 240-pound George is an emerging superstar who can control a game.

Indeed, much as Ravens coach Brian Billick might prefer the explosiveness of a St. Louis or Jacksonville, the Big Back Theory is the more traditional path to success in January. It gives Tennessee an excellent chance in the AFC championship game Sunday at Jacksonville. It even gives Tampa Bay a chance in the NFC championship game at St. Louis.

Could the National Relocation League be any prouder? Three of its final four teams weren't even playing in their current cities five years ago. The only "traditional" power left is Tampa Bay, which began play as an expansion team in 1976, and would have relocated if it hadn't blackmailed its way into a new stadium two years ago.

Ravens fans can take further comfort knowing that Baltimore's former team played before a divided crowd in its first home playoff game in Indianapolis. A sizable contingent of Tennessee fans made the 4 1/2-hour trip from Nashville, chanting "Ed-die! Ed-die!" for George and "Freak! Freak!" for defensive end Jevon Kearse.

The Titans have played in four stadiums in four seasons -- the Astrodome in Houston, the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Vanderbilt Stadium and Adelphia Coliseum in Nashville. They didn't even mind that their fans swarmed the lobby of the team hotel in Indianapolis. They were just grateful for the support.

"I can remember a time coming back to Houston when there were two people playing the Houston fight song after a game," said George, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State. "It was my rookie year. I was like, `Man, we've got a long way to go.' "

George, too, has come a long way, slowly but surely gaining recognition as one of the NFL's elite backs. He is one of only four runners to rush for 1,200 yards in each of his first four seasons, but with the nomadic Titans mired in 8-8 mediocrity, he said that "no one really cared."

Well, Indianapolis cared, and Jacksonville surely will care, knowing that it already has lost twice to Tennessee. George accounted for 93 all-purpose yards in the first game, a 20-19 nail-biter, and 139 in the second, a 41-14 rout in which quarterback Steve McNair threw five touchdown passes.

Yesterday, George made the game's pivotal play, scoring on a 68-yard run that gave Tennessee a 13-9 lead early in the third quarter. Equally important, he wore down the Colts, touching the ball on 29 of the Titans' 57 offensive snaps. His final totals were staggering: 26 rushes for 162 yards, three receptions for 14.

"Look at the ballgame today -- it could have gone either way," Titans receiver Yancey Thigpen said. "But we've got a back that can pound guys, control the clock. That's what we did in the second half. He scored the touchdown early, and we controlled the rest of the game."

Fisher's game plan wasn't a secret. The Titans had averaged 130 or more yards rushing in six straight games. The Colts had allowed 130 or more yards rushing in their previous three. By running the ball, the Tennessee offense could help preserve its defense, keeping Peyton Manning and Co. off the field.

Like Tampa Bay, Tennessee asks little of its quarterback in the passing game -- in two playoff victories, McNair has completed only 10 passes to wide receivers. Like Tampa Bay, Tennessee relies on a fast and furious defense -- a defense that, yes, allowed the Ravens 34 offensive points on Dec. 5.

Can such ground-oriented attacks produce enough points to overcome high-powered opponents like Jacksonville and St. Louis on the road? Maybe not. But Washington and Indianapolis aren't exactly feeble, and Tampa Bay rallied from a 13-0 deficit to defeat the Redskins at home, while Tennessee overcame a 9-6 deficit to beat the Colts in the raucous Hoosier Dome.

Fisher said he thought the Titans would need to score between 24 and 27 points to win, but his defense was so good, it got by with fewer. Tennessee covered running back Edgerrin James with a defensive back rather than a linebacker on passing downs, double-teamed wide receiver Marvin Harrison and pressured Manning relentlessly even though it did not record a sack.

The young Indianapolis skill players wilted, but George never stopped, rushing 17 times for 124 yards in the second half (and also losing a late fumble that led to the Colts' sole touchdown). Billick and other coaches preach balance in their play-calling, but with a back like George, who needs it?

"As any defense we play against knows, we're going to hammer Eddie up in there," said guard Bruce Matthews, a 17-year veteran heading to his first AFC championship game. "He's not only a good runner, he's a big runner, a punishing runner."

The Titans, then the Oilers, knew as much when they traded from No. 9 to No. 17 to No. 14 to land George in '96. When Fisher reminded George of the team's maneuverings yesterday, the running back took it as a challenge.

"It was kind of special. I almost cried," George said, joking.

But seriously, Eddie

"I said, `You're right. This is why you guys drafted me.' "

The Ravens should find the story instructive.

They need their own Eddie George.

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