Minutes before the New Orleans Saints played the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday, Carl Mauck, Saint offensive line coach, approached running back Earl Campbell in the tunnel leading to the Metrodome field. The conversation was brief, but welcomed.
"Hey, we're going to run the football," Mauck said. "Let's go."
"Let's go, what?" Campbell must have thought. "Go tell Wayne Wilson?"
Wilson, the Saints' leading rusher and most likely choice to carry the ball, had almost 200 more yards than Campbell and 35 more attempts. Campbell, meanwhile, hadn't carried the ball more than 12 times in his last 21 games. He hadn't scored a touchdown since coming to the Saints from the Houston Oilers last October. Hundred-yard games? Campbell hadn't had a 50-yard game in his last 18 tries.
And then there were the Vikings, who weren't expected to cooperate with Mauck's plan.
So, of course, Campbell rushes for 160 yards, carries the ball 35 times, scores a touchdown and generally causes countless double-takes across America the following morning. Box score readers found themselves wondering what knucklehead had typed Campbell's name in place of Wilson's. "Couldn't be that Earl Campbell. He hasn't done anything since The Reformation."
But there he was, bringing memories of the old Earl, where 1,000-yard seasons were the norm, and MVP awards were an annual addition to his trophy case. A sampling of vintage Earl from the play-by-play chart of Sunday's game against the Vikings:
Campbell rushes over right tackle for 5 yards .
Campbell rushes right on a pitch for 4 yards .
Campbell rushes up the middle for 14 yards .
Campbell rushes up the middle for 6 yards .
No doubt there were one or two tacklers hanging on for dear life as Campbell pumped those massive oak trees he calls thighs. By the end of the first quarter, Campbell had rushed 13 times for 80 yards. Lately, that's good for two games.
The next Saints' possession saw Campbell carry the ball five of the eight plays. He scored on a 4-yard run and immediately dropped to one knee.
Said Campbell earlier this week: "During practice, I think the offensive line said, 'Hey Earl, you think you'll run hard this week if we block good?' I said, 'It will be a good challenge.' "
And just like that, Campbell had his openings, his 160 yards and his name on the lips of every NFL defensive player who may have considered Campbell's career in the past tense.
It took until Wednesday for the aches and pains of 35 carries to begin to subside. With that in mind, Campbell would like nothing more than to feel the same soreness following Sunday's game against the Rams in the Superdome. Soreness, you see, means activity.
"I think it was about a year ago that I gained 100 yards over in Houston," Campbell said. "That was one of the last times I had that feeling." Until the Minnesota game, there was considerable doubt whether Campbell still possessed the skills to attain that feeling. He was a 30-year-old running back whose style included many a head-on collision. Seven seasons had taken their toll, according to his declining statistics (1,301 yards in 1983, 468 yards in 1984 and 303 yards through 11 games in 1985). Campbell, according to those against the trade that brought him to New Orleans for a Saint first-round choice in the 1985 draft, was damaged goods.
"I am human. . . . I mean every year when a running back starts out, one of his goals is to have a 1,000-yard season, and anything outside of that is gravy," said Campbell, who says he hopes to play three more years. "If he plays in the NFL and does not have that goal, I don't think he should (play)."
Campbell, who needs 773 yards to reach the 10,000-yard mark, said his desire to succeed has never subsided. His ability to succeed? Now, there's another story altogether.
When Campbell arrived in New Orleans midway through the 1984 season, he found another Heisman Trophy winner on the roster--running back George Rogers. By the beginning of this season, Rogers was gone to the Washington Redskins, courtesy of a trade engineered by Coach Bum Phillips. Phillips also had coached Campbell in Houston, and he fully expected similar results now that they were reunited in New Orleans.
It never happened. The lowly Saints often found themselves behind in games, meaning Campbell, an average receiver, would be replaced by a wide receiver or a runner with better pass-catching abilities. The Saints offensive line was hampered by injuries, and hardly a day passed when there wasn't a quarterback controversy. Campbell was used sparingly, and his performances were uninspired.
Enough was enough. Last week, Phillips, in one of his last acts as the New Orleans coach (he resigned on Monday), decided to prove a point: Campbell still could run.
Said Wade Phillips, who replaced his father as head coach: "I think we got to that point that we hadn't done it with (Campbell). He only had carried the ball 12 times . . . the most he had carried it here was 12 times in one game. I think we finally just said, 'Hey, we're going to find out if he can do or he can't do it.'
"And he did it."
Wade Phillips has his theory about Campbell's difficulties. "I think a lot of the thing with Earl is confidence," he said. "We did tell Earl before the game we were going to run him. I think that gave him confidence. I don't think Earl can't play. I just think he's lost some confidence in the last year or so."
Campbell, when told of Phillips' assessment, agreed. "I would have to say 50 percent, yes, I needed some confidence again," he said. "I don't know what happened. It just looked like everything came down to where I was unable to explore my talent on the field all of the sudden. Then, when I'd get out there, I'd have some freak accident. Anything, you name it."
Against the Rams earlier this season, Campbell began the game with a 36-yard run. "Next thing I know, someone hits me from behind, twists my ankle and I kind of pulled a hamstring. There was always something. I've never dropped a football as much as I have this year.
"I guess the good Lord told his angels last Sunday, 'Let's let him go now. He's ready.' "
The Rams think so. Mention Campbell's name and you'd think he was knocking off 100-yard games every week.
"I still hate to see him burst through that line and me having to be the guy having to tackle him," cornerback LeRoy Irvin said. "No one has lost respect for Earl. He's still considered one of the better running backs."
Said Fritz Shurmur, the Ram defensive coordinator: "When a guy puts up 160 yards after everybody has declared him dead, I think that's enough to get your attention. He's got our attention. He kind of looked like his old self."