Back in the offseason, when the Washington Redskins were making their blueprint for this season, they figured Skip Hicks would be the running back they would count on to help them win an important game in December.
They probably will end up being right. When the Redskins play at San Francisco Sunday night with a chance to clinch the franchise's first playoff berth since the 1992 season, Hicks likely will be doing the bulk of the running to complement the passing of quarterback Brad Johnson.
Of course, plenty has happened in between. Hicks lost the club's starting tailback job to Stephen Davis in training camp. Davis is the NFL's leading rusher with 1,405 yards and has a team single-season record. He was named the Redskins' player of the year yesterday by the Quarterback Club and likely will be selected to his first Pro Bowl today.
But he sprained his left ankle in Sunday's 24-21 loss to Indianapolis and may not play against the 49ers. The Redskins hope he'll heal sufficiently to play, and Coach Norv Turner said he felt better yesterday. But the Redskins aren't counting on him, and they're crossing their fingers that Hicks will knock the rust off his game and resemble the big-play threat who set a team rookie record last season with eight rushing touchdowns.
"He played a lot last year and had a good year running in this same offense," Turner said.
The Redskins probably will make some subtle changes to their offense if Hicks starts. They likely will use a few more pitchouts instead of handoffs to get Hicks outside, and offensive linemen will have to adjust to Hicks's bounce-it-outside running style instead of Davis's straight-ahead approach.
The Redskins didn't make the adjustments well enough against the Colts. Davis plowed his way to 70 yards on 14 first-half carries before getting hurt. The Redskins led, 13-10, at the half. But Hicks managed only 39 yards on 11 second-half carries, and the Redskins went scoreless for the first 28 1/2 minutes of the half.
Davis's absence was particularly glaring on a third-and-one play early in the third quarter when Hicks was stopped for no gain and the Redskins had to punt. Davis is a punishing runner who has gotten 12 first downs in 13 third-and-one carries this season--tying him with the Chicago Bears' Curtis Enis for the best success rate in such situations among NFL runners with at least 10 attempts.
It's that contrast in styles that led the Redskins to go with Davis as their featured runner this season in the first place.
When the Redskins released Terry Allen during the offseason and passed up the opportunity to select Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams on draft day, club officials believed Hicks or Davis could be productive as the featured back.
Hicks was the favorite at the start of camp because of his rookie season. Meanwhile, Davis filled in for injured fullback Larry Bowie.
But coaches generally love no-frills runners such as Allen and Davis who take the yards that are there on a given run and rarely have a negative play. Davis always has had speed and added toughness to his game after watching Allen and Brian Mitchell early in his NFL career. Hicks, meanwhile, seemed to annoy coaches, who apparently believed he should have been working harder to earn a starting job rather than expecting to be handed one. Hicks's running style, which produces backward plays as well as long gains, didn't endear him to the coaches either, and they went with Davis.
They certainly haven't regretted the choice. And because Davis has been durable as well as successful this season, Hicks mostly has watched.
He has 156 rushing yards on the season, and he admits the year has been trying on him.
"It's hard," he said. "As an athlete, your nature is to want to play and contribute."
But he hasn't complained publicly. He doesn't dispute the Redskins' decision to go with Davis, and he says he understands his lack of playing time given the success Davis has had.
If Hicks plays Sunday, he might be showcasing himself for other NFL teams as well as trying to help the Redskins ensure themselves of a spot in the postseason. Davis is only 25 and eligible for unrestricted free agency after the season. But team owner Daniel M. Snyder vowed last week to make Davis a career-long Redskin, and director of player personnel Vinny Cerrato said the club intends to resolve Davis's contract situation before he hits the open market. If the Redskins are unable to sign Davis to a multiyear contract before the NFL's free agent signing period begins, they might make him their franchise player.
Hicks's future as a starting running back in the NFL, if he has one, probably will have to be elsewhere. But for one night, at least, the Redskins may have to depend heavily upon him in a big game.
They could go to Mitchell if Hicks falters, but they're counting on Hicks to be productive enough that the 49ers will stack extra men at the line of scrimmage, thus allowing more one-on-one matchups in the secondary. The 49ers are ranked 18th in the NFL against the rush, and 28th against the pass. But Turner likes to use the pass to open seams in a defense for his running game, and he often has said that the Redskins' offense works best when it is balanced.
Hicks's teammates say they have confidence in him.
"He's a good player," wide receiver Albert Connell said. "He can get the job done. It hurt us when we lost Stephen. He's our premier back. We'd love to have him in there. But we have backups who can play too."