SAN DIEGO, JAN. 27 -- It only seems as if the Denver Broncos are the first team in NFL history to have played an entire season without running backs. Of course, the Broncos do have running backs. Perhaps you've heard of them: Sammy Winder and Gene Lang? Perhaps not.
Supposedly, Super Bowl teams have great runners. The Dolphins had Larry Csonka. The Steelers had Franco Harris. The Bears had Walter Payton, the Cowboys had Tony Dorsett and the Redskins had John Riggins.
The Broncos have backs only their coaches know and love. "There probably hasn't been a more anonymous backfield in Super Bowl history," Winder said today, as his Broncos continued to prepare for Sunday's Super Bowl XXII date with the Redskins. "Every Super Bowl team I can remember had at least one household name in the backfield, nationwide. I don't know if we're household names outside of Denver."
How about inside Denver?
As most everyone knows by now, the Denver offense consists of quarterback John Elway throwing the ball to anyone who gets open, the Three Amigos, Steve Watson, the backs, the tight ends, tackle eligible. Anybody.
Elway passed for nearly 3,200 yards this season while Winder and Lang, the top two rushers (not counting Elway) rushed for 1,044, or about six weeks' worth of work for Eric Dickerson.
The role of the running back in the Denver offense is about like the role of the wide receiver in Oklahoma's wishbone, meaning the Denver backs block a lot. Sometimes, as a real special bonus, Winder and Lang will get to catch a pass (the two combined for 31 receptions, or about as many as Art Monk catches by the fourth week of the season).
Winder, the halfback, carried the ball 196 times this season for 741 yards (an average of 3.8 yards per carry). Lang, the fullback, carried 89 times for 303 yards (an average of 3.4). While those are numbers perhaps only a running back's mother could love, they don't mean Winder and Lang have not been productive or effective.
There is simply no tradition of great running in Denver. Only four times in the club's history has a back rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Floyd Little did it once, Otis Armstrong twice -- all in the early 70s -- and Winder himself (1,153) did it in 1984 when Elway first became the permanent starter.
But Winder and Lang, for the most part, seem happy doing what they are asked to do -- blocking, running on a few first downs and short yardage plays, and running out of the shotgun to cross up opponents.
Denver Coach Dan Reeves has spent a lot of time defending his running attack, such that it is. "I don't think we're one-dimensional. Yes, we rely a great deal on John," he said. "But if people stop our passing game, we will run the ball. At least we can keep people off balance."
Winder and Lang should probably both be commended, not only by understanding their roles and not creating dissension by complaining, but also for not getting angry at the jokes and criticism tossed at them through the season.
Winder and Lang say their numbers would be a lot higher in another offensive scheme. But the toughest critics say Denver doesn't run the ball because Winder and Lang can't take it very far very often.
"People are more hung up on individual statistics than what a player does in his particular offense," said Winder, a five-year veteran.
"People look for a 1,000-yard rusher, and I can accept that. But the only important thing in the final analysis is how the guys in the Denver Broncos organization feel about me. If they're pleased with my performance, I don't have one gripe in the world."
Lang, a fourth-year back, was sitting nearby and joked, "Yeah, Sammy can say he's content because he gets more carries than I do."
Asked to describe Lang's role, Winder said, "I told him early in the year, whatever he does, don't let me get hurt."
Lang, too, seems to understand. "We're going to be overshadowed by John Elway, and you have to start with that and accept it," he said. "Personally, I know I'm not going to gain 1,000 yards, and I'd love to do that. But on the other hand, it's an advantage to be on the winning team and have all that goes with winning. I'm sure if you ask Eric Dickerson right now if he'd like fewer yards but have a chance to play in the Super Bowl, he'd say yes."
Steve Sewell also spends some time in the backfield, but he has been switched primarily to receiver. Sewell was, at times, a receiver when he played at Oklahoma, so he's not unfamiliar with this feeling.
He also considers it interesting that the Broncos keep flirting with Dallas Cowboys veteran Tony Dorsett, an aging future Hall of Famer. "A guy like Dorsett would be mighty disappointed unless they changed our entire offense, which wouldn't make much sense since it's been so successful," Sewell said.
When Nick Nicolau, the team's running backs coach, reported for work this morning, he was carrying several copies of a column that appeared in Tuesday's editions of the Los Angeles Times. Jim Murray wrote, among other things, "Running attack! What running attack? I've seen guys running after a bus move faster than these guys . . . I don't know three people who know their names. Elway needs running backs like a lion needs more teeth. He only gives them the ball to fall on it . . . "
Said Lang: "Yeah, well, I've seen much better writers than this guy, also. I didn't know his name either."