Was Tshimanga Biakabutuka's performance last weekend a fluke, or the long-awaited exhibition of the running back's true talent? That's the question to which the Washington Redskins (2-1) will discover an answer when they host Biakabutuka's Carolina Panthers (1-2) at 4 p.m. Sunday at Redskins Stadium.
Biakabutuka, who set season records for rushing attempts (303) and yards (1,818) in 1995 at the University of Michigan, rushed for a career-high 132 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries last weekend, leading the Panthers to their first victory of the season, a 27-3 thrashing of the Cincinnati Bengals.
He demonstrated glimpses of his talent last year, scoring two touchdowns, rushing 17 times for 103 yards and catching two passes for 71 yards in a 28-25 loss to the Redskins. But in 11 seconds last Sunday, Biakabutuka brought back dreams of what the Panthers had envisioned when they drafted him three years ago, before a multitude of injuries sidelined him.
His 62-yard scoring run on the team's first play from scrimmage established a team record for the quickest touchdown scoring drive. And his 67-yard touchdown run in the third quarter placed him in elite company, making him just the third player since the NFL merger in 1970 to run for two touchdowns of 60 or more yards in a single game. The others: John "Frenchy" Fuqua of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1970 and Detroit's Barry Sanders in 1997.
"It feels good to know your speed is back and you can score any time you touch the ball," Biakabutuka said. "I think Coach [George Seifert] has more confidence in me and that will be a better atmosphere to work in; more chance-taking.
"My confidence has been up since training camp. I felt good when I came in. Like I said, it was the best I felt."
"I do know when you bust a couple [touchdowns] like that, it does a lot for your confidence," Panthers quarterback Steve Beuerlein told the Charlotte Observer after Sunday's game. "So maybe he got the monkey off his back as far as that goes, trying to make the great plays. Now he's done it a few times. Now he can just go out and be himself."
Biakabutuka (6-feet, 210 pounds), the eighth-overall draft pick in 1996, has been plagued by injuries in his brief career: He tore his left anterior cruciate ligament four games into his rookie year, which sidelined him the remainder of the season and slowed him well into 1997. He had regained his starting slot by midseason, but suffered a rib injury against Oakland Nov. 2, 1997. Then-rookie Fred Lane became the starter, and Biakabutuka played sparingly the rest of the season.
Thus far this season, Biakabutuka (third in the NFC in rushing with 224 yards on 22 carries) has alternated with Lane. Seifert plans to continue with the rotation for the time being.
"All I prefer is what works," Seifert said. "Right now, that seems to be the thing to do. They are both giving us a great deal of energy when they get their opportunities. I think both players have been effective in the system."
For Biakabutuka, the key will be to see if he can continue his efforts against a Washington team that displayed its best defensive effort of the season in a 27-20 win over the New York Jets last Sunday.
Biakabutuka said any running back wants to believe he can produce what's expected of him when given the chance on the field, a confidence he gained from his stellar performance last Sunday.
"It felt good. You want to perform. You're called upon to run the ball and score points and I was able to do that," he said. "Then again, it's in the past now and I have to move on and do the same thing this weekend.
"There are going to be times when you get some breaks where you're going to break some long runs, but you have to stay patient and stick with the offense and things will happen," he said.
But Biakabutuka also knows how quickly success can disappear.
"If I come back next week and get 50 yards, then I was a fluke, you know?"
CAPTION: Recovered from injuries, Tshimanga Biakabutuka ran for touchdowns of 62 and 67 yards in win last week.