Pro Football : Walker, Not a Straightforward Guy, Would Get Better If He Were Shiftier

As good as their word, the Dallas Cowboys have built their whole offense around Herschel Walker this year. And it was Walker’s ball-control running that made the Cowboys a winner in Arizona Monday night after they had lost their opener in Pittsburgh last week--with the New York Giants coming up Sunday in Texas.

Can Walker run for important yardage against the Giant defense? That will be one of the stories of the National Football League’s third week.

He’s looking forward to it. “Just give me the ball,” he said in Tempe after the Cowboys’ 17-14 victory over the Phoenix Cardinals.

Is Dallas coming back after last year’s 7-8 record?


“We have a young team,” Walker said. “We’ll only get better.”

There would be little or no doubt about that if Walker were a tad shiftier, for he has the power to buckle a linebacker, as well as the speed to run away from a cornerback.

His basic problem, though, as he showed again the other night, is that he doesn’t have what it takes to dodge defensive players. He doesn’t know how to zig, and zig again, or when to zag. In other words, Walker doesn’t have any of the evasiveness that characterizes great running backs.

Thus, over the years, the NFL’s good defenses have pretty much controlled him. They have done it by always keeping a defensive player in his way--by denying him a hole that he can burst through.


This sounds simple enough, but the NFL’s weaker defensive teams can’t really do it. The players on one of the weak ones, the Cardinals, were off balance much of the time as they lunged at him this week. They learned again that you can’t arm-tackle Walker when he has the angle on you. He’s too big and too fast.

There are ways in which Walker is the strangest good back ever. He combines a great desire to play football well with hardly any instinct for the game. A play he made in the first half at Tempe was typical.

On third and 28, with 51 seconds left, he ran out of bounds after a short gain with a screen pass instead of barging forward to keep the clock moving. Most veteran ballcarriers instinctively cut back into the field in such a situation, realizing that it’s important to run off as much time as possible.

They don’t have to be reminded. They just do it.


Walker, of course, has other gifts, his speed, power and receiving ability. With him as the centerpiece in the Cowboy attack, this is a different kind of football team. It can go a long way if he can outrun the Giants.

In the week of the quadrennial Raider-Ram game here, neither side has the look of a winner.

When the Rams have to go all out to beat a team as undistinguished as Detroit, they are not, at this point, where Coach John Robinson would like them to be.

When the Raiders can’t stop a Houston team that has a kid at quarterback, instead of Warren Moon, there is trouble in El Segundo.


Still, only a few cities in America ever present a spectacle like this: a meeting of two major league teams based in the same area and supported by large groups of mutually antagonistic local fans.

The Coliseum winner Sunday will have at least that one game to think about warmly until the next time.

By the way, at 1 p.m. Tuesday, 63,000 tickets to the game had been sold, and a sellout is 92,488. The game must sell out by 1 p.m. Thursday to lift the local television blackout.

The undefeated Buffalo Bills have taken over the AFC East lead despite an offense that has yet to get on track in quarterback Jim Kelly’s third year there. In 2 games, the Bills have scored just one touchdown, and they’re averaging 11 points.


They are obviously winning with a defensive team that now has Art Still at one end, in front of linebackers Cornelius Bennett and Shane Conlan.

The Kansas City Chiefs, who couldn’t afford to lose Still, gave up on him anyway because, as Coach Frank Gansz said, he didn’t show enough enthusiasm for his work.

That somehow reminded Buffalo Coach Marv Levy of his pompon girls. “We have the Buffalo Jills to do the cheerleading,” Levy said.

The Washington Redskins are finding out this month what it’s like to defend an NFL championship. They were nearly an 0-2 team Sunday night after their second bout with highly charged opponents, first the Giants and then the Pittsburgh Steelers.


Quarterback Doug Williams brought the Redskins from nine points behind with two long drives in the fourth quarter that beat a clearly improved Pittsburgh team at the wire, 30-29. Afterward, NBC commentator Merlin Olsen named the other quarterback, Bubby Brister, the game’s MVP.

This was reminiscent of the way sportswriters sometimes choose bowl game MVPs--on the basis of flashy early play.

Brister deserved it, sure enough, right up until Williams pulled it out at the end. Then Williams deserved it.

Both in Washington and nationwide, press and TV reporters had been stepping up the pressure on Williams this month with reminders that he hadn’t won an NFL regular-season game as a starter since 1982 at Tampa Bay.


As a fact, that was largely irrelevant. He has started few NFL games since then, even last year, when Washington won the Super Bowl on Williams’ big last-day performance, a touchdown-throwing performance that rendered his recent regular-season record moot.

Williams, like Jay Schroeder, now of the Raiders, has also been criticized as a mad bomber when the truth is that bombing is one of the Redskins’ preferred ways.

Williams is a master of the controlled passing game as well as of the long game. Twice against Pittsburgh, he went down the field in the final quarter with a beautiful assortment of short passes.

What’s more, he had to do it after losing his best running back, Timmy Smith, who was ejected for doing a Pete Rose routine on an official.


Williams has all the equipment to keep Washington winning, except sound legs. It seems unlikely that he can physically survive the long season, meaning that there would have been an important place for Schroeder on a possibly repeating champion if he had quietly hung around.