THE NFL / BILL PLASCHKE : Bennett: From Under Covers to All-Undercover

Edgar Bennett remembers when it started, this business of sneaking around a football field.

It was 1992, and he was a rookie running back for the Green Bay Packers. It was his first cold game at Lambeau Field. The temperature was about zero, the wind-chill factor was nearly 20 below.

The kid from Jacksonville, Fla., reacted as every other Packer rookie from somewhere other than Wisconsin or Siberia reacts his first time on the tundra. He panicked.

"I didn't want to leave the locker room," he said. "I didn't want to stand on the field; I didn't want go anywhere near that cold, cold ball."

He spent most of the game hiding out by the sideline heaters until a coach spotted him and ordered him in.

It was a pass play. He ran a pattern toward the sideline. The ball was not thrown his direction. So he kept running. Back to the heaters. The coaches couldn't find him the rest of the day.

Three years later, Bennett has so adjusted to the cold that he is one of those fool Packers who plays every winter game in sleeveless shirts.

"I want the players on the other team to say, 'Watch out for this guy, he's crazy,' " Bennett said.

And still sneaky. While opponents have been chasing Brett Favre and Robert Brooks, a matured Bennett is often the one who beats them.

He runs between tackles on first down, glides outside for screen passes on second down, sometimes runs deep on third down, and yet. . . .

"People think running backs, they think Emmitt [Smith], Barry [Sanders], Thurman [Thomas]. . . . Before this year, nobody has ever heard of me," said Bennett, a former Florida State fullback who finally became a tailback this season when the Packers had nobody else. "In fact, I still don't think anybody has ever heard of me."

Only four players have gained more yards from scrimmage than Bennett (1,424). And with 888 rushing yards, he is on the verge of becoming the first Packer to gain 1,000 yards in a season since Terdell Middleton in 1978. It would end the league's longest drought in that category.

"No one is going to mistake Edgar for Barry Sanders or someone who's going to break a 60-yard run and beat you that way," Packer Coach Mike Holmgren said. "But he makes good decisions."

Like picking up a blitzer with a strong block. Or cutting off a short route early to return for a safety pass.

For those acts and others, Bennett leads our All-Undercover Team, a group of players often known only to those who find themselves looking up at their cleats.

It's no wonder that every contending team in the NFL has such a player.

"It is guys like me who get things done," Bennett said.

NFC UNDERCOVERS

--Dallas Cowboys: Guard Larry Allen. This man, not celebrated tackle Erik Williams or funny man guard Nate Newton, is the most solid player on the line. His pulling and trap blocking have helped the Cowboys score 33 touchdowns on 50 trips inside the 20-yard line, tying for the league lead in that category. With Bennett's Packers, of course.

--San Francisco 49ers: Tyronne Drakeford, nickel cornerback. Nobody is missing Deion Sanders much these days in the Bay Area, and Drakeford is why. A part-time player who is tied for the lead on football's second-ranked defense with five interceptions.

--Detroit Lions: David Sloan, tight end. This third-round draft pick from New Mexico doesn't post conventional numbers but does things such as helping Sanders gain more yards receiving (93) than rushing (90) Monday night. He is the blocker who helps the league's top-ranked offense function from sideline to sideline.

--Philadelphia Eagles: Daniel Stubbs, defensive end. This seven-year veteran didn't even play last season after being released by the Cincinnati Bengals. He showed up in Philadelphia this season and was told to stand behind first-round draft pick Mike Mamula and keep his mouth shut. Now it is Mamula who is doing much of the watching, as Stubbs has seven sacks for the league's second-ranked passing defense.

--Minnesota Vikings: Ed McDaniel, outside linebacker. This journeyman is usually lost in the shadow cast by the Viking guard with the same last name, Randall McDaniel. With only 31 games and 1 1/2 sacks in three pro seasons before this year, he belonged there. But not now. He not only has four sacks, he has a team-high 106 tackles, rare for an outside pass rusher. And aren't those hometown folks from Batesburg, S.C., (pop. 4,023) proud.

AFC UNDERCOVERS

--Pittsburgh Steelers: Carnell Lake, cornerback. How can a Pro Bowl player be undercover? When he switches positions in midseason, moving from safety to cornerback for the first time in his career, and doing it without complaint even though it will certainly cost him a $25,000 Pro Bowl incentive. He's not Rod Woodson, maybe not even a Deion Figures, but while those two guys watch because of injuries, he and Willie Williams have helped the Steelers become the league's top-ranked defense.

--Buffalo Bills: Kurt Schulz, safety. Nobody in the league has more interceptions (six) than this former seventh-round pick from Eastern Washington who started all of one game in his previous three seasons. You have to love a guy who just turned 27, yet has less hair than Jim Kelly.

--Indianapolis Colts: Ken Dilger, tight end. There are several reasons that Jim Harbaugh is the league's top-ranked quarterback during fourth quarters. One of the biggest is that he always has a friend in Dilger, a second-round pick from Illinois. Dilger's 32 catches are four short of the club record for rookies held by John Mackey.

--Miami Dolphins: O.J. McDuffie, wide receiver. The only player in the AFC with more third-down touchdown catches is the Cincinnati Bengals' Carl Pickens, with five. McDuffie has three, helping Dan Marino accumulate the best third-down statistics of all quarterbacks. McDuffie showed up at roughly the same time Irving Fryar disappeared.

--Kansas City Chiefs: Punter Louie Aguiar and punt returner Tamarick Vanover. What better place for an undercover guy than on special teams? Aguiar leads the NFL with 25 punts inside the 20-yard line. Vanover is third in punt-return average, and his game-winning, 86-yard touchdown return in overtime against the San Diego Chargers will be the turning point in their season.

--Oakland Raiders: Dan Turk, center. His 11th NFL season, but first as a starting center. He took over after Don Mosebar suffered his eye injury this summer. Smart, strong, and one of the reasons Harvey Williams has been successful on seven of nine carries on third and one, ranking fourth in the AFC.

CRUISING

--How scarce are quarterbacks? The Seattle Seahawks have informed Rick Mirer that they are exercising a two-year, $8-million contract extension that will keep him in a Seahawk uniform through 1997.

Maybe by then, he will no longer be the fourth-worst qualifying quarterback in the league with a 65.7 rating, a league-high 19 interceptions and only 13 touchdown passes. No quarterback is worse on third down. Only rookie Kerry Collins of the Carolina Panthers is worse in the fourth quarter.

"I guess I am somewhat relieved," Mirer told reporters about the contract extension. He guesses?

--Life with the Jacksonville Jaguars is growing uglier by the minute. They have lost five consecutive games and all hope of having a better record than their rivals in Carolina. Mutiny is at hand after the release of veteran wide receiver Ernest Givins and linebacker James Williams earlier this week.

Givins was the team's third-leading receiver, Williams was its fourth-leading tackler and, c'mon, you just don't put locker room leaders out on the street with three games to play. Some players think intense Coach Tom Coughlin has given up on the season.

"It's going to be a question on all our minds," wide receiver Cedric Tillman said. "Why? Why? Why?"

We will now go out on a limb and predict that the next player released will be Cedric Tillman.

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QUICK KICKS

THUMBS DOWN: To Sega Enterprises Ltd. for its insensitive exploitation of the dangers of professional football.

Did anybody else see its advertisement in a national newspaper this week promoting one of its silly NFL video games? It contained a cartoon that mocked Chris Miller's five concussions, intimating he had a better chance of finding an open receiver now because his brain injury will cause him to see double.

Here's hoping consumers laugh all the way to another brand.

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SAY WHAT? The official statistical report of the Chicago Bear-Detroit Lion game Monday night showed the wind at game time as 1 mph.

The game was played indoors.

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NOW THIS IS SCARY: The following statement appeared on a black-and-silver banner hanging in the end zone at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum last Sunday:

"We will strike down upon those with great vengeance and furious anger on those who attempt to poison and destroy the Raiders, and you will know my name is the fan when we lay our vengeance on thee."

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FRACTURED HISTORY: Aaron Hayden, unheralded San Diego Charger rookie running back, last week became the first player in NFL history to run for more than 100 yards in one game while playing with a steel rod in his leg.

Hayden broke the leg last year at Tennessee, allowing Bobby Beathard to steal him in the fourth round.

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IT FIGURES: Here's how badly things have been going for the Cleveland Browns' front office: Tim Goad's interception of a Brett Favre pass several weeks ago has been officially changed to a fumble recovery after a review of films . . . meaning Goad is owed a $750,000 incentive check after making his second fumble recovery of the season.

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BAD COMPANY: Karl Sweetan, Mike Phipps and Mark Rypien, move over. But not all at once, guys.

Trent Dilfer, Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback, has a chance to break their shared record by throwing the fewest touchdown passes in a season with a minimum of 300 passes.

They threw four each. Dilfer has thrown three, none in more than two months.

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