October 14, 1991: Whole Lot In Just One Half

From the very first day, Ricky Ervins made plays. Big ones. Long, dazzling, sometimes spectacular plays. The kinds of runs that make incumbents nervous and coaches geniuses. But if you checked the Redskins’ depth chart, right up through yesterday afternoon, there was Ervins, way over to the right, almost off the page. Third-string behind Earnest Byner and Gerald Riggs.

Recently, a wisenheimer asked Gibbs: “Joe, if a young O.J. Simpson showed up as a rookie, you think you might play him now and then?”

Gibbs laughed too. “And when he does begin to play,” the coach said of Ervins, “I’m going to take the heat.”

Yesterday at RFK Stadium, the Browns learned the hard way what was so obvious to everybody at Redskin Park for weeks, going back to training camp in Carlisle. Ervins may be third-string but he’s no water boy. Thirteen carries for 133 yards, a kick return for 46 yards, two touchdowns, one on a 65-yard run. And he didn’t even play the first half. During one short stretch Ervins accounted for 203 yards, including his kick return and a 15-yard face-mask penalty, which was about the only time the Browns slowed him.

When the game was close, 21-17 Redskins, it was Ervins who lifted them out of a mini-rut with a 12-yard touchdown burst that enabled Washington to reestablish control.

Because Byner bruised his right hand just before halftime and because Gerald Riggs had a hot-cold day (two touchdowns, one fumble, seven carries for three yards), Ervins was needed.

”I said all along that when he started playing he’d make big plays and I’d have to take the heat for not playing him earlier.” Gibbs said.

It’s not that Gibbs has a policy not to play rookies or that Ervins is in some kind of doghouse. But rookie running backs do need time to learn the Redskins’ complicated blocking schemes, lest Mark Rypien lose his head to some blitzing linebacker. Not only that, but why rush a kid into something when you’ve got Byner and Riggs ready and able?

”Who am I going to put him ahead of, Earnest Byner? I’m not going to do that,” Gibbs said. “My only reason for not playing him is that I like the people in front of him.”

Gibbs isn’t going to take any heat. At least, not here. His team is 7-0. He has perhaps the best rushing attack in the league. Other than Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas, no back in the league has been more proficient (at running, catching, blocking) than Byner. And Riggs, even in his diminished role, has done everything asked of him, including score seven touchdowns.

This leaves Ervins with a lot of time to learn about blitzes, and to dream.

”I fantasize every game day,” he said. “Of breaking the long one, of giving glory to the Lord, then high-fiving the fans in the end zone. I never thought I’d break one this long in the NFL. Last year, I’m watching this on TV, thinking how hard it is to break a long one against NFL defenses.”

Ervins said all the right things for a rookie, about the offensive line, about Byner and Riggs, about being perfectly content to play the backup role. The last thing an undefeated team needs is a loud young hotshot demanding playing time because he had a big afternoon, even if his future is so undeniably promising.

”I’m just thankful,” Ervins said. “Everybody knows Earnest is the main back and Gerald is number two. I’m number three. Earnest is my idol.”

Byner laughed when he heard that. He could feel like Wally Pipp right now, desperate to keep his job out of reach of the phenom. He could feel like Joe Montana, who says his backup, Steve Young, feels like the enemy.

But Byner won’t approach it that way. “At this point in my life, because of my faith, it won’t allow me to be envious or jealous of anything Ricky has,” he said. “And being envious is just a sin. I’m playing great ball now, so what’s the point in that?”

Instead of moping around insecurely, Byner grabs Ervins after practices and helps him with the pass blocking schemes, which are particularly demanding of backs. “He’s an exceptional player, that’s all there is to it,” Byner said. “But I told him, ‘If you’re going to play consistently in this system, you’ve got to block; there’s no way around it. You’ve got to pick up the linebacker and safety blitzes.’ “

The blocking will come. The running is already there. On his first touchdown of the day, a 12-yarder that made it 28-17, the blocking (particularly by Terry Orr) was letter-perfect. Still, no Redskins running back has turned the corner with that combination of power and speed since Bobby Mitchell in the ‘60s.

Ervins was the workhorse on the next drive (five straight carries, 32 yards) until Riggs came in for short yardage. And his 65-yarder late in the game was simply a case of finding a tiny hole and tearing through it. “I got lucky,” Ervins said. “I’m just trying to relieve Earnest the best I can. I’m just trying to learn from him, so whenever he decides to retire, I can pick up the slack.”

Ervins is averaging 9.1 yards a carry. There is nothing lucky about breakaway speed.

Of course, Byner will be back in the starting lineup against the Giants, as he should be. But look for him and for Riggs to come out a little more frequently. “I said {Ervins would} make big plays when he got in,” Gibbs beamed. “Now, it’s a matter of starting to find ways to get him in there. He has to play.”