By Mike Wise
Sunday, August 26, 2007
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.
After linebackers and safeties flail their arms to try to pry the ball loose from Betts and other backs, they often are subjected to the same pressure from offensive players. Byner, the running backs coach since 2004, believes it's more of a mental than physical discipline.
"The thing about holding onto the ball -- it's happened to me, it's going to happen again to other guys -- is really focus," Byner said. "It's really just that simple. When you get in a given situation where contact is imminent -- or you just feel and sense things -- always protect the ball."
It hasn't been a habitual problem for Betts, who did not have a fumble in 2003 and 2004 and fumbled just twice in 2005. But it became a concern last season, and he wants to ensure he doesn't get labeled as a player having trouble holding onto the ball this season.
"I've been working on covering up in traffic," he said. "A lot of my fumbles were good hits where the helmet hit the ball, but you got to focus on holding on because that's the lifeblood of the offense."
That's where Byner has helped, Betts said. "A lot of times it is mental. Most of the time he tells you to keep your head up and hold onto it with both hands in traffic."
When Betts is asked to contrast the euphoria of breaking a long run for a touchdown against the crestfallen feeling of fumbling, he pauses for a moment.
"It's a complete letdown, from a personal standpoint," he said. "You got 10 others guy on offense that are counting on you. You felt like you let everybody else down."
Byner knows more than anyone. A Super Bowl title would come later with Washington. But rushing for more than 8,000 yards and 54 touchdowns over 14 years is unfairly obscured by one play that still lives in Cleveland infamy.
"It's a part of my history, part of my legacy," he said. "In reality, there are so many other plays I remember from my career. But some people remember me because of that. That's fine.
"Looking back, it was a learning tool. This is how I teach. All the experiences that we go through are meant for us learn from but also to pass on."
There aren't many harsher lessons than what happened almost 20 years ago in Cleveland. If Ladell Betts can feel just a little of the pain Earnest Byner felt that day, the chances of him coughing up the football late in the fourth quarter have to be that much slimmer than if his position coach had just clammed up about the experience. It takes an open and honest man to share that with a young back who needs to hear it.