A LOOK AT TWO OF SUNDAY’S RAIDER, RAM OPPONENTS : THE JAMES GANG : Were It Up to Craig James, the Patriots Would Be on the Run Again, but the Law of Passing Prevails

Times Staff Writer

The desperadoes on the wanted poster are dressed in cowboy hats and Texas longcoats, looking dirty and mean enough to be the real thing . . . or at least extras off the set of a spaghetti western. They are proclaimed to be members of “The James Gang, the Most Offensive Outfit.”

Craig James and his men--the New England Patriots offensive line--might be secretly wishing they had posed for the picture with their neckerchiefs pulled up over their faces.

The Patriots’ running game in 1986 has been offensive indeed. In a word, it stinks.

You might recall that James gained 1,227 yards last season and that his 100-yard-plus performances in the must-win, regular-season finale and three straight playoff upsets were the main reason New England made it to Super Bowl XX.


There’s been nothing super about the Patriot ground attack this season, however. James is the team’s leading rusher with 330 yards. After a slow start in 1985, New England ended up the sixth-best running team in the National Football League. This season, the Patriots rank No. 24.

James himself has called the New England running game “a glaring negative,” “ridiculous” and “pathetic.”

Someone seeing the lighter side of all this took a felt pen to the copy of the poster outside the team’s meeting room in Sullivan Stadium. It now reads: “Wanted: The Apple Dumpling Gang . . . “

Yep, when it has come to rushing the football this season, the Patriots have been as tough as fresh pastry.


But the Patriots, who will face the Rams Sunday at Anaheim Stadium, have the same record (7-3) as their NFC West-leading hosts.

So who needs to run?

“We’re putting points on the board, and I’m not that concerned with how we’re doing it,” quarterback Tony Eason said. “Craig had some great games at the end of last year, and people have been paying a lot of attention to our running game. They’re spending more effort to stop Craig James.

“Our goal is to be balanced, but that doesn’t mean running and passing equally. That means having the ability to take what a defense gives you.”


That’s been of little consolation to James, though. He’s clearly a frustrated young man. Three weeks ago, after Eason’s scrambling had accounted for 55 of the Patriots’ 125-yard rushing total in a 23-3 win over Buffalo, James told reporters that the team’s rushing offense was pathetic and ridiculous.

His teammates on offense weren’t offended. In fact, most shared James’ dissatisfaction.

“He made the statement, and it was true,” halfback Tony Collins said, shrugging. “We felt like he had every right to say it.”

Guard Ron Wooten said he was glad James had taken it upon himself to speak out and “maybe get something changed.”


And tackle Brian Holloway said, “Craig was just venting his own frustrations, but you can’t get upset because they’re the same frustrations all of us are feeling.”

James thinks that the Patriots’ success moving the ball through the air has turned them into a one-dimensional team that might be unable to reverse gears if an opponent is intent on stopping the passing game.

“We have this passing mentality,” James said. “We still work on the run as much as the pass in practice, but, on the field, we’re locked into a passing offense.”

He paused. It’s hard for Craig James to contemplate the negative.


“I’m not embarrassed by the poster,” he said. “Last year we were a running team, this year we’re not. That’s not to say we can’t be a great running team again.”

The poster was a little hard to accept, anyway. Craig James portrayed as an outlaw?


The funny thing is that James’ real first name is Jesse, but he quit using it as a Texas schoolboy because “every time you’d tell a kid your name is Jesse James, you’d end up fightin’ and your britches are full of dirt.”


It didn’t matter. James was destined to wear the white hat, anyway.

For James, the embarrassment of the super drubbing in the Super Bowl was outweighed by the embarrassment of the revelations of some Patriots’ drug problems in its aftermath.

“The game was miserable . . . miserable doesn’t even describe what it’s like to stumble around in front of 100-something million people,” James said.

“I sat down in June and tried to watch the videotape of the game. I made it through the pregame hype but had to turn it off when the game started. I’ve still never seen it.


“But what happened afterward was not fair. We didn’t even have a little parade here, there was so much going on with the drug situation.”

This was not the storybook ending James had in mind. He expected more. His whole life had been, in his own words, “fantasy land come true.”

James met his wife, Marilyn, before he entered high school. She’s the only girl he ever dated, and they’ve been together ever since. She was a year ahead of him and was already attending Southern Methodist University when James was rushing for 2,411 yards and 35 touchdowns as a senior at Houston’s Stratford High School. Stratford was unbeaten that year, winning one of the nation’s most prestigious state championships in front of 40,000 people in the Astrodome.

He could have gone to any college in the country, but he picked SMU.


“I didn’t know anything about SMU and didn’t care anything about SMU,” he said, smiling. “I told Marilyn I’d walk on if I had to.”

There was another heralded Texas prep running back enrolling at SMU that year--a kid named Eric Dickerson--and before long the two were vying for the same spot in the backfield.

They ended up sharing the tailback spot. The “Pony Express” was formed.

James and Dickerson rotated series but were allowed to manage the playing time as they saw fit to keep an even balance. This ground attack was awesome, to put it mildly, and both men ground out three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.


Still, sharing the duties meant splitting the recognition, too.

“I think we both realized that had we been the only back, there would have been more yards,” James said. “But Eric was averaging 19 carries a game and I was averaging 17, so we both also realized the chance for injury would have been a lot greater, too.

“Heck, we were both doing real well, averaging 100 yards a game and all those nice things. But there’s no doubt Eric would have won the Heisman (Trophy) our senior year if it had not been for our rotating system.”

Dickerson has said as much himself, but he now contends that SMU’s revolving-door-tailback scheme was in his best interests.


“At first, it bothered me,” Dickerson admitted. “But I got used to it and I think in the long run it was the best thing for me . . . and probably for him, too. We have totally different styles, he’s more of an insider runner, but I always got along with Craig and respected his ability.”

It’s certainly a mutual admiration society. James calls Dickerson " a great player, who, in my opinion, probably is the best back ever to play this game.”

Dickerson, of course, went on to make his mark in the NFL. James accepted a $2-million contract from the United States Football League’s Washington Federals and became a marked man.

“If I was still there, my career would probably be over,” he said. “I was taking so many hits.”


James also found out what losing was all about. In the two seasons he was there, the Federals were 7-29.

In his entire high school and college career, he had experienced losing just 11 times.

“I didn’t know it then,” he said, “but I had started to lose my love for the game.”

James grew up in a part of the country where football is a religion. He turned down a six-figure offer to play baseball (his brother, Chris, is an outfielder with the Philadelphia Phillies) after graduating from high school because he couldn’t fathom giving up the sport.


Of course, he didn’t much like the idea of leaving Marilyn, either.

“She was my first love, football was my second,” said James, who now includes daughters Jessica (2 1/2) and Caylin (1) in his top three.

His two-year stint with the Federals was sometimes painful, but James was a reborn rookie when the Patriots bought his contract from Washington in April of 1984. He was the first player to jump from the USFL to the NFL.

“The time in the USFL was difficult for him,” said Marilyn, who shares a biweekly newspaper column with her husband.


“He was discouraged. They were losing and he had to adjust to those feelings of losing. For the first time, he felt like giving up. The move was so good for Craig. He regained his respect for the game and his respect for himself.

“It also made him a lot easier to be around.”

In New England, James was reunited with former SMU Coach Ron Meyer, which may not have been much of a blessing. He was No. 2 in the Patriots’ one-back offense behind Collins and didn’t see much action until Raymond Berry took over mid-season.

“I was so conscious of the fact that some players would think I was the coach’s favorite, I didn’t hardly even talk to Coach Meyer,” James recalled. “I think he was thinking about it, too, because I didn’t play much at all the first half of that year.


“They say patience is a virtue, well I could almost see the halo over my locker. Then Coach Berry came in and I ended up gaining 800 (actually 790) yards on the season.”

Last year, James ran for more yards than any Patriot running back since Jim Nance gained 1,458 in 1966.

He’s hardly been a one-man gang so far, but Jesse Craig James may yet end up stealing the show this year.