Earl Campbell had few doubters in the past. Now he has none.
The 5-foot 11, 224-pound Houston Oiler rookie running sensation put on dazzling show of speed, strength and guts Monday night, rushing for 199 yards and scoring four touchdowns to life the Oilers over the Miami Dolphins, 35-30 in an important AFC game in the Astrodome.
Campbell did hid magic for a national television audience. Actually, there was no sleight-of-hand or hidden-ball tricks in Campbell's repertoire. Taking quick pitches or simple handoffs from his tailback spot, Campbell ground out yards the hard way.
His big gainer and the eventual winning touchdown came on an electrifying 81-yard run with 1:22 left in game.
Weary from carrying the ball 27 times before that, nine of the previous 13 plays. Campbell took a short pitch from quarterback Dan Pastorini and loped toward his right tackle. All of a sudden he saw a hole, burst through and cut to the outside. Once he got into the secondary the only Dolphin with a chance to catch him was cornerback Curtis Johnson, but Campbell pulled away from him.
Monday night's performance was Campbell's best of the season, but not out of character. He has been amazingly consistent, especially for a rookie running back.
He is the leading rusher in the National Football league with 1.143 yards and its leading touchdown producer with 12. Campbell did not play in one game this season because of a leg injury, yet is only 19 yards away from Don Woods' rookie rushing record of 1.162 yards set in 1974.
Oiler center Carl Mauck, who has blocked for Woods and Campbell, said: "Don was like a cadillac. But Earl is like a Sherman tank."
"Barring injury, Earl can be one of the best running backs in the history of th NFL," said Miami guard Larry Little. "He's faster than Larry Cronks, who I played with for many years. He's faster than he looks. He's faster than a lot of backs I've played with and against. It's a pleasure to watch him unless you have to be on the seame field with him. Then he's no job."
"Earl Campbell is awesome," said Houston rookie receiver Mike Benfro.
"He's the best I've ever seen. I don't think he knows his potential. And on top of that, he's a hell of a guy."
"Campbell everything they said about him and more," said Miami Coach Don Shula.
Campbell provides that one ingredient the Oilers needed to become solid contenders - a reliable running back to take the pressure off Pastorini.
"He's a great back," Pastorini said. "He runs with power and speed. He's got all the moves. Before on third and four we'd have to pass. But with him we can run or pass. Earl helps us establish our play action. That opens up holes."
One of Campbell's biggest fans is wide receiver ken Burrough."I don't get as many passes as I used to, but I get a lot more wins," Burrough said.
"When you get a guy like that you're carry to throw the ball as much we have in the past. Earl is my man. The way I look at it, he's putting some longevity in my career. I figured I didn't have but three years left, but with him carrying the load, I figure I'll around longer than I thought."
The soft-spoken Campbell is still the modest young man from Tyler, Tex. He was a winner of the Heisman Trophy last year as a Texas Longhorn.
After his incredible performance Monday that featured touchdown runs of 12, six and one yards in addition to the 81-yarder, he praised his offensive line and then scolded himself.
One thing about the game that stuck in his mind was his missing a block that enabled A.J. Duhe to sack Pastorini in the Houston end zone for a safety that gave the Dolphins a 23-21 lead three minutes into the fourth period.
Even his two fourth-quarter touchdown runs didn't atone for that mistake, Campbell said.
"I missed the block and that spoiled the night for me," he said softly.
"Don't you just love him?" asked Pastorini, shaking his head.
The dynamic Oilers have an 8-4 record, and are two games behind Pittsburgh in the AFC Central, but in position to reap a wild-card spot.