Greg Hill sat on a stool in the Detroit Lions' locker room the other day with a scowl on his face. He had just been asked to address the question as to why his team has had so much difficulty moving the ball on the ground this year, a very sore subject for a back who hasn't been able to do much running.
"Just look at the numbers, man," Hill said as the Lions prepared to play the Redskins Saturday at FedEx Field in a first-round NFC playoff game. "We don't attempt to rush the ball. It's a passing offense. They've made that loud and clear. . . . They just don't call the running plays. It's hard to even remember the last time we had 20 carries in a game.
"They keep saying they want to get the running game going, but then look how many times we rush the ball. Ask anyone. You don't find too many teams getting 100 yards with only 14 attempts. It's very frustrating for all the running backs. You keep hearing we're going to do this one week or we're going to do that. I just can't figure out why we keep saying we want to run it, and then we never do."
Only three teams in the NFL--Atlanta, Arizona and Cleveland--have fewer rushing yards this season than Detroit's 1,245 accumulated by nine different players. Against the Redskins on Dec. 5, facing one of the worst run defenses in the league, the Lions managed only 31 yards on 16 carries in a 33-17 victory.
The obvious answer as to what ails the Lions' running game would be the absence of Barry Sanders. The NFL's secondl-leading career rusher gained at least 1,304 yards or more in nine of his 10 seasons in Detroit before stunning the team and the town by "retiring" just before the start of training camp. The Lions have been scrambling to fill his dancing shoes ever since.
Ron Rivers, Sanders's backup the four previous years, won the starting job in camp and showed promise with 96 yards rushing on 16 carries in the season opener against Seattle. Then he broke an ankle in the sixth game, missed the next nine and came back last week to gain six yards on 11 very rusty carries in a 24-17 loss to the Vikings. The Lions totaled 16 yards on 11 rushing plays for the game, a season low.
Hill, acquired for his reputation as a good runner on artificial turf, came in a trade with St. Louis on Aug. 31 for several draft choices. He gained 123 yards in his first start against Tampa Bay the week after Rivers went down, the only 100-yard game by a Lions running back all year. He's the team's leading rusher with 542 yards and 3.8 yards a carry, but missed last week's game with a thigh bruise and has been relegated to a back-up role this week.
The Lions now are planning to start Cory Schlesinger, their plodding 250-pound fullback, as the primary running back against the Redskins. Second-year man Travis Reece, activated from the practice squad only two weeks ago, will play some at fullback when Schlesinger is not aligned in a one-back set.
Reece never has carried the ball or caught a pass in an NFL game. Schlesinger, a fine blocker, had 43 carries for 124 yards this season, with a long run of 10 yards, and never has started a professional game as the featured back, though he did score two touchdowns in Nebraska's victory over Miami for the 1995 national championship.
Still, does this sound like the formula for getting a running game going in a first-round playoff game?
Coach Bobby Ross believes it is, and also says he's willing to shoulder some of the responsibility for the team's inability to pound out yards on the ground, a necessity for winning games and championships.
"We've got to be patient with the run," Ross said. "The key thing there is me. I'm the one to blame. We've just got to stay with it a little more. Probably 10, 11, 15 runs a game doesn't give you a true reading on it. But you get into a game, you're trying to win and you're not moving it early, so you get away from it.
"It's also more than one thing. A lot of times we have individual breakdowns. Our backs have to create some more on their own. It's not all in the blocking up front. Great backs do that. I haven't necessarily seen that in the last four or five games. Early in the season we had it, but not lately."
What the Redskins will see Saturday in Schlesinger is a 250-pounder who knows no other way than to run straight up the middle and make yards the toughest way possible with sheer, brute strength.
"They better get out of the way," Ross said of his offensive linemen. "He'll hammer it up in there and run right up their backs if he has to, I'll tell you that."
"Maybe that's the spark we need," said Mike Compton, who has started at center and guard on an offensive line that often has been reshuffled this season because of injuries. "We'll get a bruising back in there and have him come right up into the hole, or make his own. He's not the kind of guy who's going to break one for 80 yards. Only way he goes 80 is if everyone dies. But he'll get you three or four yards, and then go back and do it again.
"We're not trying to get too greedy here. If we can get 60 yards or better, it will help a whole bunch, especially in play action and the passing game. Teams don't have to stop our run because we usually stop ourselves. That just lets them sit out there waiting for us to throw, and that's not good."
Schlesinger also would like to think he can make a difference Saturday in Washington.
"It has been frustrating," he said. "I'm part of the running game [as the starting fullback], and people do start pointing fingers at the backs, saying it's our fault. We are called running backs, and we're not running. I think we have good backs, and it helps to have a healthy line. They've been dinged up, they've shifted guys around.
"I guess he [Ross] wants me back there now. Maybe we'll just pound them a little bit. We've got nothing to lose. I think he just wants to make a change to see what will happen. You've got to go after it, and I've just got to make the most of the opportunity. It should be fun."
July 28: Barry Sanders retires
Dec. 5: Lions 33, Redskins 17
Jan. 2: Backing In The competitive portion of the Lions' season seemed over before it even had begun when the dynamic running back ended his dispute with the team by retiring the day before the first training-camp practice for veteran players. The Lions never replaced Sanders or developed much of a running game, but they became one of the NFL's surprise teams in the season's early stages.
Quarterback Gus Frerotte beat his old team and the Lions improved their record to 8-4 with their first victory over the Redskins since 1965. The roar of the Silverdome crowd and the Lions' hard-charging defensive line forced the Redskins into 14 penalties, four turnovers and five sacks.
Detroit finished its season with a 24-17 loss at Minnesota and a four-game losing streak, but already had clinched a playoff berth in the forgiving NFC. The Lions and Cowboys became the second and third NFL teams to qualify for the playoffs with 8-8 records. No 8-8 team has won a playoff game.
A recap of the Lions' 19 losses to the Redskins in Washington:
1 Nov. 26, 1939
Redskins 31, Lions 7
Washington scores 24 points in the second half to hand Detroit its worst loss of the season.
2 Nov. 14, 1943
Redskins 42, Lions 20
Sammy Baugh throws four touchdown passes, then breaks two NFL records on defense with a game-high four interceptions, giving him a season-high 10. He had 11 for the year.
3 Oct. 6, 1946
Redskins 17, Lions 16
Detroit place kicker Damon Tassos's 35-yard field goal attempt with 1 minute 53 seconds to play is low and wide right and Washington holds on to win.
4 Nov. 14, 1948
Redskins 46, Lions 21
Twice in this game, Baugh brings Washington from behind with four touchdown passes. Rookie Dan Sandifer intercepts a pass and runs it back 36 yards to equal Baugh's NFL season interception record with 11.
5 Nov. 11, 1956
Redskins 18, Lions 17
An undefeated Detroit team favored by six points is no match for fullback Sam Baker, who kicks three field goals in Washington's win.
6 Dec. 15, 1968
Redskins 14, Lions 3
Washington third-string quarterback Harry Theofiledes takes over for starter Jim Ninowski with 6 minutes 19 seconds remaining and produces two touchdowns in a 3:03 span to lift Washington.
7 Oct. 11, 1970
Redskins 31, Lions 10
Sonny Jurgensen throws three touchdown passes and Larry Brown rushes for 101 yards in Detroit's first loss of the season.
8 Oct. 17, 1976
Redskins 20, Lions 7
Pat Fischer's interception 3 minutes into the second half turns the game. The Redskins get five sacks.
9 Nov. 8, 1981
Redskins 33, Lions 31
Mark Moseley kicks his longest field goal of the season, a 44-yarder with 43 seconds left to play, to negate Detroit's 499 yards of total offense.
10 Jan. 8, 1983
Redskins 31, Lions 7
Washington allows fewer than 15 points for the fifth straight game in first-round playoff win.
11 Oct. 23, 1983
Redskins 38, Lions 17
In place of an injured John Riggins, Joe Washington runs for a then-career-high 147 yards and third-stringer Reggie Evans rushes for three touchdowns in a driving rain.
12 Nov. 11, 1984
Redskins 28, Lions 14
Otis Wonsley runs for touchdowns of one, one and three yards; Wonsley finished with four rushing touchdowns that season.
13 Oct. 13, 1985
Redskins 24, Lions 3
John Riggins runs for 114 yards and three of his seven touchdowns on the season.
14 Nov. 15, 1987
Redskins 20, Lions 13
Doug Williams replaces Jay Schroeder at quarterback midway through second quarter and throws two touchdown passes, earning the starting job.
15 Sept. 1, 1991
Redskins 45, Lions 0
The Redskins start down the road to Super Bowl XXVI with the largest margin of victory in team history, shrugging off a 1-3 preseason.
16 Jan. 12, 1992
Redskins 41, Lions 10
Washington advances to Super Bowl XXVI with the NFC championship title.
17 Sept. 20, 1992
Redskins 13, Lions 10
Earnest Byner outgains Barry Sanders on the ground, 120 yards to 34, to lead Washington.
18 Oct. 22, 1995
Redskins 36, Lions 30 (OT)
Darrell Green returns Scott Mitchell's pass for a touchdown 3:41 into overtime that gives Washington the win.
19 Nov. 9, 1997
Redskins 30, Lions 7
Darryl Pounds intercepts two passes and the Redskins gain 388 yards of total offense.
Four Lions have tried to fill the hole at running back.
Barry Sanders in '98
343 carries, 1,491 yards, 4 TDs
Lions in '99
356 carries, 1,245 yards, 8 TDs
The new crew:
144 carries, 542 yards, 2 TDs
82 carries, 295 yards, 0 TDs
36 carries, 133 yards, 4 TDs
43 carries, 124 yards, 0 TDs