For a growing number of NFL teams, the way the Buffalo Bills attacked the New York Jets on the ground last Sunday night may be the wave of the future.
What the Bills did was give the Jets plenty of Antowain Smith and also a healthy dose of Jonathan Linton. If Thurman Thomas had not been on the injured list with a bruised liver and kidney, the Jets would have seen him testing their defense, too.
Ground game by committee is becoming the vogue in the NFL.
Detroit was forced to do it because of the absence of Barry Sanders. Using three different ball carriers in varied situations, the Lions surprised the NFL by winning their first two games. Miami, ground-game deficient for years, now has balance with three rookies -- Cecil Collins, James Johnson and fullback Rob Konrad -- along with veteran Karim Abdul-Jabbar. Tampa Bay's attack has revolved around the power of Mike Alstott and the quickness of Warrick Dunn for the last three seasons.
"I agree that it's a growing trend," said John Butler, the Bills' general manager. "You get to use more players, get them ready for anything. One of the big things is that you keep fresh legs in the game.
"One of the underrated things about our Super Bowl teams was that we not only had Thurman Thomas, with his great vision of the field and his quickness, we also had Kenny Davis, who was a different style runner. We could count of Kenny for 500, 600 yards a season."
The use of several backs isn't for all teams, particularly for those with large investments in players like Terrell Davis of Denver, Dorsey Levens of Green Bay, Emmitt Smith of Dallas and now Ricky Williams of New Orleans and Edgerrin James of Indy. Their teams feel they must go the way of the featured back in order to justify the money they're paying out.
Other teams, without a superstar runner, are finding alternatives. One of them is Oakland, which upset the Vikings in their home dome and almost upset the Packers in Green Bay the week before.
"The Raiders, I think, are a coming team," said former Bills coach Marv Levy, now an in-studio TV analyst for Fox Sports Net. "They use Tyrone Wheatley as their power back, Napoleon Kaufman for speed and Randy Jordan for short yardage."
Injuries to running backs are another factor in the change of thinking concerning ground attacks. Jamal Anderson of Atlanta and Kimble Anders of Kansas City are out for the season already. Garrison Hearst may not play for San Francisco until late November, Jerome Bettis of Pittsburgh is just returning from injury and Thomas won't be back with the Bills for at least a month. Williams has been hurt twice. Artificial turf figures prominently into many of these injuries and it won't be going away soon.
Another major factor is that colleges are using waves of backs. Penn State uses five. The Miami Hurricanes used three last season, which was one of the reasons Bill Polian drafted James for Indianapolis rather than Williams. He knew James hadn't been asked to carry the ball as much by Miami as Williams did at Texas. Polian felt James would be more durable and have a longer career. So far it looks like a sound decision.
Armour gets his chance
Remember Justin Armour, the former Bills receiver? He may have found a home with his fourth NFL team. Baltimore's new coach, Brian Billick, wanted a big target for his quarterbacks so he signed Armour as a free agent. In the Ravens' first two games he was their go-to receiver on third down, catching four passes to produce first downs. He did have a disastrous drop in the opener against St. Louis.
Let's make a deal
The trade of Miami running back John Avery to Denver for wide receiver Marcus Nash was in itself rare in that reputable players were involved in a man-for-man NFL trade. What makes it all the rarer is that both players were first-round draft choices just a year ago -- back to back. Avery was the 29th pick in the first round, Nash the 30th. An added oddity was that both were Southeastern Conference all-stars, Nash for Tennessee and Avery for Mississippi.
Three weeks earlier, Green Bay traded offensive tackle John Michels, its first pick in '96, for Jon Harris, Philadelphia's first-rounder in '97. But the only other man-for-man deal involving first-rounders that the NFL's player personnel department could find in its archives was a 1988 trade sending defensive lineman Sean Knight, New Orleans' top pick in 1987, to Denver for nose tackle Ted Gregory, the Broncos' No. 1 in '88. Gregory, the former Syracuse star, never played a game for Denver.
Nothing new, again
In Cincinnati they are referring to the local NFL team as the "S.O.B.s." That's "Same Old Bengals." Further evidence why the Bengals are out of the loop in their own league: A week before the season opened they claimed offensive tackle Jamain Stephens of Pittsburgh off the waiver wire. By opening day Stephens was of no use to them, since the league suspended him for violating the NFL's alcohol abuse policy.
The Bengals were stunned. "I didn't know what Pittsburgh knew," admitted Mike Brown, the Bengals' president. He might have known if he employed more than a skeleton staff of scouts.
Dyson is potential star
Softening the loss of Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair is the development of second-year wide receiver Kevin Dyson. Dyson has 14 catches and two touchdowns, which helps McNair's veteran replacement, Neil O'Donnell. As a starter in the last nine games of '98 Dyson had just 21 catches and two touchdowns.
Dyson was the first receiver chosen in last year's draft, ahead of rookie sensation Randy Moss of Minnesota. He was considered something of a disappointment as a rookie, but now O'Donnell not only has his old Pittsburgh collaborator, Yancey Thigpen, as a target but also Dyson.
The Minnesota Vikings are averaging just 17 points in their first two games. Last year they averaged just under 35 points in 16 games. The difference? Opposing defenses are blitzing the ears off quarterback Randall Cunningham and using zone coverages against Moss, who ate up man-for-man coverages a year ago.