For an NFL running back, Earnest Byner is short and slow. Once, he made a famous fumble that probably cost the Cleveland Browns a trip to the Super Bowl. The next year, again in the AFC championship game, he drew two damaging penalties, then was traded out of town. This season, Byner dropped a pass in the end zone that may have cost the Redskins an important win over the Giants.

There, that's it. That's everything you can say against Earnest Byner. All the rest, and it's a lot, is good.

Yesterday at RFK Stadium, Byner had a day that was far more typical of one of the NFL's grittiest, gutsiest and most respected careers. On Saturday night, Byner went to Coach Joe Gibbs and said: "I want to carry the load. I want to be the man. If it takes 30 carries, okay."

After watching Byner shred the Miami Dolphins for 157 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carrries, Gibbs had to chuckle at Byner's stand-up guy heroics. "I told him, 'Case you don't know it, you're the only one around here that's left. . . . You're going to have to tote it.' "

"Earnest was chugging, chugging, chugging," said tackle Jim Lachey after Washington had outgained Miami 222 to 34 yards on the ground in a best-we-can-play, shake-you-by-the-throat, now-get-outta-town 42-20 victory.

"He'll run around you or through you," added Lachey. "They hung that rap on him in Cleveland, but everybody loves him here. If I had to start a team, I'd take him any time -- on and off the field. As soon as he got here last year, we all knew he was a steal for us."

To say Byner is esteemed within his profession would be an understatement. Before the Redskins traded Mike Oliphant for him, Gibbs called former Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer for a character reference.

"Hi Marty," said Gibbs.

"Take him," answered Schottenheimer.

"Huh?" said Gibbs, nonplused.

"I know why you're calling. You're calling about Earnest Byner," said Schottenheimer. "Take him in a minute. You'll love him."

Gibbs enjoys telling the story because Byner has, indeed, been a theft. "Earnest is extremely tough, bright and well-prepared," said Gibbs. "It's unusual to find anyone who is so physically tough and so mentally tough too."

Last year, with Gerald Riggs injured often, Byner gained 1,038 yards for the Redskins on 134 rushes (4.3-yard average) and 54 pass receptions. This year with Riggs injured again, Byner may obliterate those numbers. With four games left, he has rushed for 761 yards (4.0 average) and caught 28 passes for 236 yards. So, he needs only three yards for 1,000 yards combined -- more offensive yardage than any Redskin.

To put it bluntly, there's no way the 5-foot-10, 215-pound Byner, who came from obscure Milledgeville, Ga., where he played quarterback and linebacker at Baldwin High, should have built the noble career he's had. The 10th-round draft pick from East Carolina, where he was a fullback, has rushed for 4,054 yards and caught 286 passes for 2,728 more. By the end of the season, Byner should have 7,000 yards running and catching in seven seasons -- a thousand per year. Plus 46 touchdowns.

Asked how he fits into comparisons with great backs such as Eric Dickerson, Byner blurts: "I don't know if I do fit. I wouldn't know."

That's Byner -- the last guy in the NFL who'll figure out that he's a star.

"You'd think he was an offensive lineman," says Lachey. "He hangs around with us in the weight room and plays golf with us in the summer."

"He's not real slow," says center Jeff Bostic. "I'm real slow. He can outrun me."

Byner hasn't been clocked in the 40-yard dash in many years, but he does not stay in one place very long.

"For a defender, he must look like a head, elbows and knees all going in different directions," says Bostic. "He runs low and he's a power-packed little running back. He's exceptional."

Despite all this, Byner's career is one of those perverse symbolic ones, like Bill Buckner's in baseball, which seem to be remembered for the wrong thing. On vacation in Germany, Byner was stopped by an American serviceman who wanted to talk about the Browns bobble. Byner's been stopped in traffic and in malls by fans who just yell, "Fumble!"

That's not what any Redskin would say to Byner. They'd just say, "Thanks."

"He's going to have to keep carrying us down the stretch," says Gibbs. "This time of year, and in the playoffs, we're dead in the water if we can't run."

Some guys want the money and glory, but when it gets too tough -- when the club's struggling and nobody else is healthy and the other team has the No. 1-ranked defense in football -- they don't step forward.

Byner volunteered for double duty three games ago when Riggs got hurt. And he'll keep carrying that load until they carry him off. The Redskins got Riggs to be Riggins and Byner to spell him. Now, it's Byner who must be Riggins.

On Sunday night, after the first three-touchdown game of his NFL career, Byner looked ahead -- to the Chicago Bears and, perhaps, 30 or so more carries. He thought for a moment and said, "They say Riggins took B-12 shots."