Thirty minutes after Sunday's game against Philadelphia had ended, New York Giant running back Rob Carpenter still was in full uniform, patiently answering questions from an ever-expanding group of interviewers.
Bob Lord, the backfield coach, decided it was time to rescue his beleaguered back.
"Hey Rob," yelled Lord, "let's get a shower and get out of here. It's getting late."
Carpenter looked up anxiously. "Coach, the bus won't leave without me, will it?" he asked, seriously.
"Don't worry," Lord replied. "It'll wait as long as it has to. You're our meal ticket, baby, our meal ticket. We aren't going anywhere without you."
Certainly without Carpenter, the Giants wouldn't be where they are--still alive in the National Football League playoffs after a stunning 27-21 victory over the Eagles. The Giants play at San Francisco Sunday, with the winner advancing to the NFC championship game.
Carpenter spent most of his previous four pro seasons scratching for playing time behind Houston's Earl Campbell. Now he has made the Giants' once-sorry running game respectable.
Since Carpenter joined the Giants after the season's fourth game in exchange for a third-round pick, New York has been 8-5. He gained at least 100 yards five times. The Giants won all five.
New York still has the least-productive offense in the league. But Carpenter's power running and a remade offensive line have allowed Coach Ray Perkins to employ a ball-control, conservative attack. That reduces mistakes, helps shield inexperienced quarterback Scott Brunner and gives the Giant defense a chance to dominate.
Before Carpenter, Perkins was utilizing inconsistent Billy Taylor as his main running back. Taylor since has been waived out of the league. And over the final month of the season, Assistant Coach Bill Austin has worked three new players (center Jim Clack, left tackle Jeff Weston, rookie left guard Billy Ard) into the line.
"We are just now starting to get a feel for one another," said Carpenter about that line, once considered a major weakness. "I like to run where I read blocks and go in one direction while they block their man in another. It takes time to learn how each guy does his job."
The learning process, however, has been enjoyable. Not since the days of Ron Johnson has a Giant team been able run into the gut of a defense as New York did Sunday. And never in Carpenter's pro career has he been in this role, the main back in the offense.
"That's why the Eagle game meant so much for me," Carpenter said, reliving his 161-yard effort, fourth best by a running back in Giant history. "When I was with Houston, what I did might have meant a first down or keeping a drive alive.
"But what I did against the Eagles affected the outcome of the game. For the first time, I had a major role in determining a playoff game. That's a big change, and that's why this was the greatest football day of my life."
Until Sunday, Carpenter's most memorable moment occurred two years ago against San Diego in the AFC playoffs. Campbell was hurt and did not play. Carpenter had a bad knee and was on crutches the morning of the game. That afternoon, he gained 67 yards to help Houston register a major upset.
Still, his Houston days were not particularly happy. He led the team in rushing his rookie year, but after Campbell became an Oiler in 1978, Carpenter was relegated mainly to third-down receiving duties. He was hoping for a trade, but after the Giants pried him away in late September, his immediate reaction was: "Oh, no."
The impression given was that Carpenter didn't really want to come to New York. He now says that was wrong, that the only hangup was rearranging his personal life.
"Never once did Rob indicate to me he didn't want to be a Giant," said General Manager George Young, the architect of the team's resurgence this season. "We worked out a few things revolving around his moving here, that's all.
"I had been following him for some time, and when we got the chance to get him, we made our best pitch to Houston. We knew we needed to strengthen our running game. Call it luck. We were just lucky to get him."
A third-round pick from Miami of Ohio, Carpenter is a compact 6-foot-1, 230-pounder with impressive leg power. He is durable, yet he also has been bothered by knee problems throughout his career. But even with his injury history, the Giants still are having difficulty not calling Carpenter's number play after play.
"It's tough not to keep using Rob over and over," said Clack, a former Pittsburgh Steeler who was lured out of retirement by the Giants in mid-November to replace injured center Ernie Hughes. "He's a joy to block for, because you don't have to do that much. If you just nudge a guy in one direction a bit so Rob can see some space, he'll get through the hole."
On Sunday, Carpenter repeatedly would begin end sweeps, then change his mind and cut up the middle behind Clack, who was dominating middle guard Charlie Johnson. "I couldn't pass up Clack, the way he was blocking," he said. "You'd be a fool not to take advantage of a guy playing that well."
Carpenter also is wise enough to know the Giants won't go much further in the playoffs depending on one running back. He found that out in Houston.
"You can do okay in the regular season with one guy doing the carrying," he said. "But you get in the playoffs, and everyone would gang up on Earl. We didn't have the passing to cut that out.
"I don't want to be the only show in town here. I want to do my part, but we have to spread things around. It's the only way you can really have a chance to win."