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Teams Must Be Armed for NFL’s Wars

The subject for today will be the running back as a vanishing American species or, alternatively, if Earl Campbell can’t get you in the Super Bowl, who can?

Perhaps you noticed in the public prints that, of all people, the Buffalo Bills have the best record in the NFL, 9-1.

Now, we’re not talking juggernaut here. We’re talking a team that was 7-8 last season, 4-12 the year before that and 2-14 the 2 years before that. The Lombardi Packers they ain’t.

What’s the basic difference between the team of, say, 1985, and the present one? The quarterback.

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Jim Kelly is a tall, shaggy, savvy guy who likes Buffalo and throwing the football, in that order. That makes him a member of a very select fraternity. Probably consists of him and two snowmen.

But the point is, Buffalo doesn’t have a whole lot besides Kelly and a couple of defenders such as Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett. The rest of the team is pretty run-of-the-mill.

It hasn’t been winning games by a lot--13-10 here, 9-6 there, 16-14, 23-20. Those don’t sound like quarterback blowouts. But they probably are, because Jim Kelly came to the Buffalo Bills fully blooded in the United States Football League and has had 2 years to lock into the Buffalo scheme. And what a good quarterback does is win.

The history of American football is that it has always been a ballad of the running back--your Galloping Ghost, Four Horsemen, Six-Yard Sitko, Alan the Horse, the Gipper. These guys were the romance of the game, the stars.

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Hollywood never made a picture about a guy throwing a winning pass in the last 10 seconds. He was always swivel-hipping his way through a maze of tacklers just missing him as he set sail for the end zone to win one for God, country and Yale--and Toby Wing, who was standing there, crying, in her cheerleader costume.

But the pros, in a way, took the foot out of football. They made it armball. Consider the legendary figures of the pro game-- Slinging Sammy Baugh, the Springfield Rifle, Automatic Otto, Broadway Joe. Not a Galloping Ghost in the lot.

They put you in Super Bowls, not ballcarriers. The Chicago Bears are a rough, tough, take-no-prisoners football team. They bend opposing teams in knots at the line of scrimmage. But they win championships only when Jim McMahon is, so to speak, on the mound. Look it up.

In the early days of the merger of the All-America Conference into the National Football League, Paul Brown, coach of the Cleveland Browns, was widely looked upon as a genius. As long as he had Otto Graham at quarterback, he was.

The Baltimore Colts were the dream team after the Brown-out. They had Johnny Unitas pitching and Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore and Jim Mutscheller catching. They didn’t need much else.

The selection, care and feeding of quarterbacks should be every franchise’s No. 1 priority. There are coaches who insist that the quarterback is no more important than, say, a cornerback. If I were an owner, I’d get rid of that guy.

A Super Bowl was played a few years ago between San Francisco and Miami. San Francisco had Joe Montana at quarterback, Miami had Dan Marino. Everybody remembers that.

But for an expenses-paid trip to the islands of Langerhans, who were the running backs on those Super Bowl teams?

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For that matter, who were they on last year’s Super Bowl teams? Who are they ever in a Super Bowl game?

Anybody remember, right off hand, who were the running backs behind Joe Namath in the famous “I guarantee it” Super Bowl of 1969?

The Minnesota Vikings of the ‘70s had a rock-ribbed defense and not much else. But they went to four Super Bowls, one with Joe Kapp and three with Fran Tarkenton. They lost all four. But with Tarkenton gone, they never even got there.

John Elway--and not much else--put the Denver Broncos in two Super Bowls they probably didn’t otherwise belong in. Nobody seriously thought Sammy Winder or Steve Sewell put them there.

A case could be made that John Riggins won the 1983 Super Bowl game, or Marcus Allen the 1984. But Joe Theismann was at the controls in one, Jim Plunkett in the other. Or they might not have been there.

Calvin Hill, Duane Thomas and Tony Dorsett all ran nice with the football (so does Herschel Walker), but the Dallas Cowboys got in the Super Bowl when Roger Staubach put them there.

Some years ago, after a particularly grueling game chasing a quarterback, Deacon Jones, the Rams’ nonpareil defensive end, was asked why he took such a seemingly reckless charge at the passer. Wasn’t he afraid of the draw play?

Deacon scoffed. “Naw! We ain’t never going to get beat by the run. No team can win regularly in this league on the ground. You got to keep the pass rush. The passer kills you. You can stop the runner anytime you want to, I don’t care who he is.”

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The running back still captures the imagination, makes the magazine covers and the award banquets. He’s nice. And maybe necessary. But can anybody outside of Erie County name two running backs with the 9-1 Buffalo Bills? How about one?


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