By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2007
Robert McFarland would like to tell a story about Washington Redskins running back Derrick Blaylock. Like all the others that detail his career, this one includes an impressive display of athleticism and an injury.
In 1996, McFarland, then the offensive coordinator for Stephen F. Austin, headed out to Atlanta High School in Atlanta, Tex., to watch Blaylock, a star in football and track, run a 100-meter dash. Everything was going well until Blaylock neared the finish line.
Blaylock leaned at the tape, became off-balance and stumbled. His left leg extended farther in front than it should, and everyone heard a loud crack. "He was pressing so hard, it was constricting the muscles in his legs," said McFarland, now the offensive coordinator at Iowa State. "The muscles contracted, and he cracked the femur in his leg."
The next fall, Blaylock started 11 games as a senior for Atlanta High, rushing for 1,382 yards and 14 touchdowns. Still, no colleges offered scholarships and Blaylock, McFarland said, still walked with a slight limp. When Blaylock ran 100 meters in 10.4 seconds in the spring of 1997, McFarland signed him immediately.
At Stephen F. Austin, Blaylock would wait his turn behind other running backs who were older or supposedly more experienced. When he got into games, he made his presence felt, but there always was someone in front and always an injury nagging him.
"Derrick was always, in our opinion, the best running back we had, but at that time, we were blessed with a lot of talent at that position," McFarland said. "We were trying to keep everyone happy."
A six-year NFL veteran, Blaylock, 27, has spent his career following the same formula: sturdy backup, more than serviceable when given playing time, seemingly always battling injury. Now with the Redskins after two years with the New York Jets and four with the Kansas City Chiefs, Blaylock again finds himself fighting to prove he belongs.
On paper, it appears playing time will be hard to come by with Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts ahead of him on the depth chart. Blaylock knows he will have his chances in preseason -- especially with Portis sidelined by knee tendinitis -- and he made the most of his first opportunity on Saturday night. In the Redskins' 14-6 victory over Tennessee, he was Washington's leading rusher with 28 yards on nine carries, with the longest gainer going for 13 yards.
"You never know when a guy is going to go down, so you've got to be prepared," Blaylock said after a recent training camp session. "You've got to know your stuff and know what you're doing, so if someone does go down, the coaches trust in you to go in and perform at the same level as the other guy.
"That's crucial, man. Crucial."
Al Saunders, the Redskins' associate head coach-offense, knows well the importance of a solid backup running back. As the offensive coordinator of the Chiefs from 2001 to '05, Saunders had Priest Holmes, one of the top running backs in the league at the time, and Larry Johnson, a young star in the making. For all the hype surrounding those two, Saunders said it was Blaylock, then with the Chiefs, who pushed the entire group.
"The value of a backup player is the ability to play at a high level on Sundays without very many reps during the course of the week; that's where Derrick Blaylock excels," Saunders said. "What he did for us in Kansas City was back up Priest Holmes and kept Larry Johnson really scrambling for that backup spot."
Blaylock had his best year in 2004 with Holmes injured for part of the season. He rushed for 539 yards and eight touchdowns on 118 carries. The highlight, Saunders noted, was when the Chiefs played the Atlanta Falcons, who then had the league's top-rated defense. Kansas City scored eight rushing touchdowns that day, four of which came on the feet of Blaylock.
Despite his production, Blaylock could see his options would be limited and opted for free agency. He signed with the New York Jets in 2005 but missed nine weeks that season with a fractured foot.
In 2006, Curtis Martin was placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list before the season, and Blaylock was named the starter. After two subpar performances in which he rushed for 44 yards on 25 carries, Blaylock was dropped to the inactive list for the following two games. He did not carry the ball again that season.
"Last year was a pretty tough situation for me," Blaylock said. "I wasn't playing in most of the games, but you know, it's a business. It's frustrating, but you can't let it affect your job. When you bring frustration and all that stuff on the job and let people notice it, then that's bad business."
Making matters more difficult was the death of Blaylock's father-in-law during the bye week last season. He wanted to be upset about his playing situation. He wanted to be upset at Jets Coach Eric Mangini or offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
But he couldn't be. His wife and four children needed him and, besides, he doesn't let frustration come to a boil. "It's the foundation; it's the faith in God that keeps me grounded," Blaylock said. "It keeps me focused, knowing that it's not about me."
Mike Santiago would like to tell a story about one of the best players he said he ever coached. As coach at Stephen F. Austin during Blaylock's career, Santiago once saw him sit out the first half of a game with an injured shoulder against an opponent the Lumberjacks should have clobbered.
At halftime, though, the Lumberjacks were struggling and needed a shot to the arm. After taking one to his own arm -- a cortisone shot to numb his shoulder -- Blaylock entered the game on the first play of the second half and ran 68 yards on sweep. "That was all we needed," said Santiago, now the head coach at Incarnate Word in San Antonio. "I sat him down the rest of the game. He wanted to stay in, but I wouldn't let him."
Santiago said Blaylock's persistence through his struggle to find playing time in the NFL points to the same leadership he saw in college. "He never pouted, never complained, just went in and did what he did," Santiago said. "He was Mr. Reliable. There was never any doubt he was there for the team."
Backup quarterback Todd Collins, who played with Blaylock in Kansas City, uses words like "shifty" and "unselfish" to describe him. But Collins will admit neither of those is Blaylock's most important characteristic. "He just comes to work and works hard," Collins said. "When he gets in, he is prepared to play."
McFarland has one more tale to tell. During spring ball of Blaylock's sophomore year at Stephen F. Austin, he split open his chin, requiring 11 stitches. After a half-hour absence, he returned to the field and finished practice without a word about the cut.
"He's not one to promote himself," McFarland said. "Whether that's hurt him or not, I don't know. All I know is when we gave him opportunities, he produced.
"Maybe we should have given him more."