Gerald Riggs wants the football and Earnest Byner wants the football, and Joe Gibbs has only one. Gibbs knew by the end of training camp his Washington Redskins might have a problem balancing the carries, talents and egos in his backfield.
He had two of the NFC's top 10 active rushers, both of them still in the prime of their careers, both of them accustomed to starting and playing regularly.
Gibbs joked during training camp that the ultimate solution might be easy -- "They'll probably both be mad at me all year," he said.
He never actually meant that, and yesterday said he has dealt with it by trying to split the carries evenly and by being ready to explain why neither Riggs nor Byner played as much as each wanted.
"It always concerns you," Gibbs said, "and I think they've both been around and there's always that chance. But the kind of people they are, I can talk to them. They may not like all of it, they may want to do more, but in the long haul, it's going to be good for both of them. The advantage is they'll stay healthy and won't get as much wear and tear. If one guy's going to carry it every time for us, it's going to be 30 to 35 times a game, and it takes a rare guy who can do that without taking some real pounding."
Amazingly, it seems to be working. Both runners have said that alternating by series or quarters has worked. Both have said they would not shy away from more carries, but they are willing to live with what Gibbs believes is best.
"You can stay ready," Riggs said. "Sometimes you may be in there sooner than you think, so I'm always standing there ready. It's not hard at all to sit around and say, 'Gosh, I can't wait until I get in there.' I'd still prefer to get the ball all the time, but that's not the case here. We have so many things here in this offense, so many people that we use. I just have to be ready for as many carries as I do get."
This was the year that started with Gibbs planning a Nintendo offense. The Redskins had played three wide receivers and thrown the ball 40 times a game down the stretch last season. This time they were going to be motion and magic and they started that way.
Gibbs called 98 passes and 72 runs the first three weeks. Weekly average: 296 yards, 21 points. He said several times he wanted to get back to the run, but kept seeing defenses vulnerable to the pass. Then when Mark Rypien got hurt in Week 3 against Dallas, Gibbs felt he had no choice.
When the San Francisco 49ers lined up to stop the run in Week 2, the Redskins threw the ball. But when the Phoenix Cardinals lined up to stop the run in Week 4, the Redskins ran it anyway and rolled up a season-high 436 yards offense. After getting eight carries the two previous weeks, Riggs got the ball 19 times and responded with 95 yards. That, in turn, made matters easier for Stan Humphries, who went 20 for 25.
Since Rypien was hurt, the Redskins have played twice and called 76 running plays and 53 passes. Weekly average: 382 yards (an increase of 86 per game) and 29 points (an increase of eight per game).
The only question now is whether the Redskins can keep both their backs happy. Byner, who finished last season as the starter, has remained the starter and has had most of the carries the first three weeks.
But in the past two weeks, Riggs has 37 carries for 156 yards and Byner has 28 carries for 117 yards.
Byner declined to be interviewed, but Riggs said it is a system in which both players can thrive.
"It was kind of a rough start at first, because we weren't running the ball as much as we wanted to," he said. "But we've made adjustments to get our running game back in gear."
Riggs's re-emergence in the offense comes at a strange time. It was against the Eagles in Week 2 at RFK last season that Riggs had some of his finest moments as a Redskin, rushing for 221 yards on 29 carries.
But that game also produced perhaps the lowest single moment of last season. The Redskins led, 37-35, and were running down the final two minutes when Philadelphia linebacker Seth Joyner popped the ball from Riggs.
Al Harris recovered and handed off to Wes Hopkins, who returned it 77 yards to the 4. With 52 seconds remaining, Randall Cunningham completed a four-yard touchdown pass to Keith Jackson for a 42-37 victory.
Cunningham called it the best game of his career, Gibbs called it one of his toughest and Riggs said he hasn't thought about it.
"That game is history," he said. "We can't focus on that, because it's not going on our win-loss record this year. Last year is behind. I'm not in a position to do anything about last year. That was one of those weird things that happens in your career. You just hope it doesn't happen again."
The Redskins are coming off a 24-20 loss to the Giants, and while they lost the game, they ate up the clock, controlling the ball for 35 1/2 minutes. They had three drives of 66 yards or more and ended the game with 22 first downs.
Riggs and Byner pretty much alternated by series.
"Those long drives felt good," Riggs said. "You like to be in that situation. When it comes down to those times when you need some crucial yardage or to run the clock down, you want the ball in your hands. I've always enjoyed being in those situations."
His teammates joke that he doesn't break a sweat until about the 12th carry and Riggs said the reason good running backs get better as the game grinds along is hard to explain.
"You go out and play and do some things and may get stuffed the first few times," he said. "But I've always been one of those guys that after I get into it a little bit more, it starts to flow. You get used to seeing different things. You remember things. You'll remember what happened on a particular defense or when a guy was standing a certain way. You get the feeling that you almost know what's going to happen before it happens. You get a feel for what's going on out there, and you're able to react."
Three weeks from his 30th birthday and having gained 7,704 yards in his career, he said: "This is not the best I've ever run. Not at all. But I'm warming up to it. As we go along, I think, barring any nicks or bumps, I can do a lot better than I've ever done before."
The pattern to the substitutions? "It's every series or every two series," he said. "They're just trying to keep us both fresh and coming at people. So far, so good.".
Date ....... Result .................... Riggs ... Byner
Sept. 9 .... W, Cardinals, 31-0 ........ 13-51 ... 17-63
Sept. 17 ... L, 49ers, 26-13 ............ 6-24 ... 11-62
Sept. 23 ... W, Cowboys, 19-15 .......... 2-8 .... 13-57
Sept. 30 ... W, Cardinals, 38-10 ....... 19-95 ... 16-56
Oct. 14 .... L, Giants, 24-20 .......... 18-61 ... 12-61