When the season began, one of the reasons the Redskins were rather lightly regarded in many NFL circles was the presumption that they didn't have one of the league's top six or eight running backs.
It seemed like a legitimate observation at the time.
We know better now.
Nearly halfway through the season, Stephen Davis is leading the league in rushing. Yesterday he had his third 100-yard rushing game. His 11 touchdowns lead the league. He has run inside the tackles like a bull. He has run outside like a sprinter. Ask the Chicago Bears. On the second play of the game, the Bears got caught trying to blitz and Davis burned them by taking the ball 76 yards for a touchdown on a play called "80-Truck."
He is a quiet, tough, video-studying, weightlifting workaholic who has endeared himself to his coaches and his teammates. Oh yes, the Redskins have a dominant running back.
"He's the kind of story I like," Coach Norv Turner said. "The kind of guy who comes in and busts his [butt] for three years, and pays his dues, and learns what this league is about, and gets a little better along the way. He lifts when he's supposed to lift, he's on time. . . . He studies when he's supposed to study, he does all the little things. And then it pays off like it has for him.
"You never heard him complain when he was [sitting behind Terry Allen] in his second and third years," Turner continued. "He knew he was good enough to play. [He said to himself] 'I understand the situation. I'll wait my time and when I get my opportunity I'm going to make the most of it.' He did that in Years 2 and 3. Now that he's getting the opportunity, he's showing he's a great player."
The Redskins' offense is a complex entity that isn't dependent on any one element, except an accurate quarterback. At least three wide receivers, a tight end and two running backs other than the primary tailback are utilized in Turner's system. The wealth is spread. No one player carries the load.
Having said all that, a dominant runner makes the whole thing so much more difficult to defend against. With Davis running like he has, the Redskins can play smash-mouth football, or they can be unpredictably diverse and confound a defense all the way down the field en route to a touchdown. That Davis is now displaying breakaway speed is a huge bonus. "I can tell a lot of opposing teams misjudge my speed," he said.
The Bears, offensively challenged on a good day, are a team that can't afford to fall behind. Davis had 'em in trouble from the second play of the game. "We caught them in a lovely look, trying to get tricky," guard Tre Johnson said of victimizing the Bears' shifting, blitzing defense with "80-Truck." Davis rushed for 143 yards and could have reached 200 if he hadn't twisted an ankle, which is something the Redskins can ill afford.
When Davis was slow to get up after twisting his ankle, the coaches sent Skip Hicks into the game. Davis tried to wave Hicks back to the bench before realizing Hicks was acting on coaches' orders. Davis wasn't being dismissive, he was simply being protective of an opportunity that was a long time coming. "It's always been like this for me." Davis said. "Wait, wait, wait for the opportunity." This is his fourth year in the NFL, but his first real chance to start. When camp opened, he shared top billing on the depth chart with Hicks.
You go to the sideline with a sprained ankle, another man can take your job. Davis isn't a natural. He has to attend every weightlifting session, every film study. Asked how and why he adopted such an old-school approach, he said proudly: "I'm a professional. Those things come along with the job. They can get you better. I had to learn that approach on my own. In college, I wasn't really into it. But I knew if I wanted to play and be any good in the NFL, I had to do everything I could."
It was pretty much only his Redskins teammates who knew he could be a real player, from what happened in practice every day. "We'd sit there and say, 'Whoa, if he ever gets in the game.' " Johnson said. "And they had him play fullback one year, which only makes him more physical now. He runs harder. He's always been fast as hell. In college he was a beast. Something else about him: He's a nice guy. Nice to the fullest extent of the word."
Davis has the luxury of having his locker at Redskin Park next to that of Darrell Green, only one of the wisest men in professional sports. "He's country, he's quiet, he's a nice guy. I give him a hard time," Green said. "I tell him to get rid of those pagers and cell phones and don't buy a big Mercedes. Yes, he is my kind of guy. He's easy to root for. You want a guy like him to succeed. Nobody thought he'd be a great back, but he's battled, he's got better, he's what you want one of your teammates to be."
Davis was one of the many stars in a game that's easy to celebrate if you're the Redskins. Anything that happened after 45-0 doesn't count; it was just garbage time, stuff for coaches to dissect and agonize over. But the Redskins would be ill-advised to think the Bears are anything special. When asked the difference between giving it up to the Cowboys last week and throttling the Bears this week, it was good to hear Turner say, "[The Cowboys] made some plays maybe this team isn't capable of making."
It was instructive to see that the latest loss to Dallas still stings, and that the Redskins after each of those losses were able to rebound with impressive victories.
That doesn't mean, however, trashing the Bears makes up for losing to Dallas. Does it? "No," Tre Johnson said. "Not at all, especially not that first one. No."