Nothing excites the senses as much as an amazing run. Or an amazing runner. They all have their own styles. Nifty, tippy-tap moves, bruising power, sleek, gliding strides followed by the lightning cut, the burst. It's an amazing palette of strength and grace and sheer magnificence. We collect the memories; all of us have our own galleries of favorites, and it is for this reason that it is so sad when we start to see a decline of skills.
We read about other players who have hit the wall, who have started the slide, but for some reason, runners are always protected in print until their loss of skill is painfully obvious. Excuses come in bunches. The coach isn't using him right. The system is wrong. The blocking is bad. There aren't any holes. He needs 10 carries to get warmed up, or 15 or 20, and meanwhile the game is slipping away. We read every theory except the obvious -- he just isn't the same player.
Marshall Faulk is on the downside. So is Curtis Martin. So is Eddie George, although his decline has been noticeable for a while. How do I know? Because I've seen it. Some people don't want to believe what their eyes tell them. The trio is effective at times but no longer exciting. No longer do they do anything to make you gasp.
All three are the same age, 30, which isn't terribly old for a quarterback or an offensive lineman, but a dangerous age for a runner. These are things that are embarrassing to talk about, and certainly no writer wants to say that a guy who's still fairly productive is washed up. But the sparkles are off the tiara.
Last week at the Giants-Cowboys game I asked a few NFL people whether the careers of that trio I mentioned were heading downward.
"Well, you certainly don't read that," said Calvin Hill, a consultant for the Cowboys. "It's like the news coming out of Iraq. It's all filtered. You never know what's going on."
"Sometimes when a runner isn't used enough," said Mo Carthon, the Cowboys' offensive coordinator and running backs coach, "it takes something away from his game. There's a certain kind of runner... well, you have to let him know he's the man, that you're counting on him."
I also talked to Carl Banks, Bill Parcells' old strongside linebacker on the Super Bowl Giants and a guy who's as analytical as any former player I've ever met. I asked him if George, Faulk and Martin were slipping.
"Eddie George? Yes," he said. "He's just been banged up too much. Same thing with Faulk. Look at his career. He's had some kind of surgery every offseason for the last five years or so. Each one of those takes something out of a runner, takes maybe a few hundredths of a second off his speed, takes away some of his cutting ability.
"Curtis Martin? Not yet. The problem there is that the Jets are using him wrong. There are three basic plays that he's best at -- the draw, the sprint draw and the trap. But they're pitching to him and he's not a pitch runner. They're running him on the stretch play, and that's not his best one, either."
Well, I hope Banks is right because I've been a great fan of Martin through the years. But I wonder. I remember cuts that he used to make but I don't see him making them anymore. I see him just riding out the play and settling for the yardage that's there, rather than turning on the juice and hitting that extra gear, the way he used to. Same thing with Faulk.
It happens to all of them, except the ones who quit at the top of their game, such as Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, and they're still regarded as oddballs for not wanting to squeeze every last ounce out of their bodies. Emmitt Smith still gains yards, although three or four years ago people started writing that he was on the downside. He's smart and he can pick his holes, and if something annoys him he can turn on a bit of fury for brief stretches in a game. But if someone would sit him down in the film room and show him tapes of himself as a youngster, with that great explosive burst, and then show him film of the Emmitt Smith of today, he'd be amazed at the difference.
Last year there was grumbling that Smith was holding back the growth of a promising young player, Troy Hambrick. You heard the same thing in Chicago when some Bears were unhappy that an older and declining Walter Payton was keeping Neal Anderson off the field.
Part of the problem is that coaches aren't hesitant to work a running back to death, or to keep him in a game longer than they have to. It always kills me to see a premium ball carrier grinding away long after the issue has been decided. Many coaches simply lose track of things.
Was there any reason for Broncos coach Mike Shanahan to put Clinton Portis back in the Raiders game Monday night and let him carry the ball in the fourth quarter of a 31-10 blowout? And that was after Portis had been injured two straight weeks.
And how about Ricky Williams in Miami? Forty-two carries against the Bills Sunday night, 34 the week before against the Jets. All Dave Wannstedt is doing is shortening Williams' career to prolong his own. It'll catch up to Williams earlier than he thinks. Sideline shots of him Sunday night showed a very exhausted player. Last year the Dolphins lifted him on passing downs. Now he stays in. Travis Minor is supposed to be his relief man, but he had no carries against the Bills and only five the week before.
Martin spent too many seasons putting together 30, 35, even 40-carry afternoons, and now it's starting to show. None of them can beat it. Too many carries, too many games playing hurt, getting "nicked up," as the coaches euphemistically call it. The season is only three weeks old, and look how many keynote runners are suffering from something or other: Priest Holmes, Travis Henry, Tiki Barber, Corey Dillon, Portis, Faulk, who's currently out of commission, plus, of course, those who have things wrong that they're not telling anybody about.
OK, you say, Faulk is out because of a broken hand. But many seemingly unrelated injuries occur when that little edge is off, when tiredness creeps in and the reflexes aren't quite as sharp.
"The part I always hated," John Riggins once said, "was when a guy doesn't actually tackle you. He just props you up, so other guys can come in and get free shots. That's what really takes it out of you."
Get the hat on him. Get lots of hats on him. Swarm to the ball. Those are the litanies of the defensive coaches. And the runners pay the price.
In the old days three runners -- two halfbacks and a fullback -- shared the ball-carrying load. Then it became two runners. Jim Brown had a Pro Bowl back, Bobby Mitchell, in the same lineup with him, and then a few years later, he teamed with Ernie Green, a future Pro Bowler. On the Steelers, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier both went over 1,000 yards in 1976.
Now teams have a featured runner and, if he's lucky, a backup. But young legs have a way of turning old pretty quickly.