Byner Wants Betts to Hold On to More Than Just the Ball
Earnest Byner is not just Ladell Betts's position coach; he's also a man who can empathize with having the ball jarred loose from his hands. That's why he told Betts the story. "Every detail," Byner said.
Every stumble that led to The Fumble.
How he had an omen in the playoff game before the AFC championship game in January 1988, losing the ball against the Colts after a long run. That should have been a wake-up call, he says now.
But the Cleveland Browns recovered and moved on to play the Denver Broncos the next week. And in one surreal moment, at the 3-yard line with 65 seconds left in an heirloom of a game the Browns were about to tie -- gone.
The ball. The season. Everything, really, that he had imagined for himself at that juncture of his career.
"I tell Ladell, 'You don't want to go through the situation I went through,' " Byner said. "I give him the whole story. I tell him all about the game. And I reiterate: 'Hey, man, protect the ball. You don't want to live through the scrutiny of losing a game.' "
Betts listens. Because who better to help correct one of the few holes in his game than a former breakneck back whose name is more synonymous with losing the football than Leon Lett's?
"He alludes to it every now and then -- he's been there before, he knows what it's like," Betts said. "Nobody wants to let the ball go. But it happens sometimes. You got to move on and learn from it. Nobody knows that better than him."
On a slippery night in Landover, Betts didn't do much better than the Redskins' inept running game -- carrying four times for 11 yards and missing a few blocking assignments. But he held on to the ball against Ray Lewis and the elements. And that -- and remaining healthy while Clinton Portis is inducted into the Tendinitis Hall of Fame -- is something Coach Joe Gibbs can be thankful for.
When Portis couldn't come to work every day because of injuries last season, Betts punched in. He rushed for 1,154 yards and four touchdowns, proving himself to be an everyday, Gibbsian workhorse.
He also lost the football more than at any time during his five-year career. He fumbled in five of the final eight games and each of the last three games. He fumbled against Tampa Bay and St. Louis with the game in the balance, mistakes that helped cost Washington those games.
It's no surprise Gibbs put special emphasis on a stripping-the-ball drill during training camp this season, one that involves both offensive and defensive players. On a team that had but 12 takeaways last season, holding onto the ball wasn't just an offensive problem.