At first they were cordial with one another, seemed to be
getting on famously. Eric Metcalf, a new member of the Atlanta
Falcons, and Glyn Milburn of the Denver Broncos met for the
first time this summer when they were invited to Seattle to pose
for a picture. After a bit of small talk, the small fry
adjourned to changing rooms to don the uniforms of their
Upon emerging, Milburn, shod in turf shoes, glanced at the feet
of Metcalf, who was wearing sneakers. "I think those give you a
little extra height," said Milburn peevishly.
"You think so?" said Metcalf. "I don't think so." And the battle
In an issue larded with leviathans, we bring you this matched
set of minnows, two card-carrying members of the NFL's runt
fraternity. M&M had long been linked by similarities
transcending the obvious one: They are the same player, a
quicksilver runner-receiver-return specialist whose
accomplishments are measured in all-purpose yards and whose
coaches have often failed to get the most out of him.
September 3, 1995
And there are other similarities: The two men have the same
number of letters in their names; both could be on the cusp of
breakthrough seasons; neither, on meeting, conceded that he is
more vertically challenged than the other. Metcalf claims to be
5'10" but appears to be an inch shy of that. Milburn, listed in
the Denver media guide at 5'8", is actually 5'8" and change.
When the two stood side by side, Metcalf seemed--even after his
elevator shoes had, at Milburn's insistence, been taken into
consideration--to be taller by a fraction of an inch.
That fraction was all Metcalf needed. Having established that he
is the bigger man--he also has a dozen or so pounds on the
177-pound Milburn--Metcalf suddenly changed his behavior. He
kidded Milburn about his wardrobe, accusing him of shopping "in
the little boys' section at Nordstrom" and of buying "those
kiddie Air Jordans with air bubbles in the heel."
When the talk turned to basketball, Milburn admitted that he
cannot dunk. Mistake. Metcalf, a former two-time NCAA champion
long jumper at Texas whose personal best in that event is
27'8-3/4", can jam a basketball, in a variety of ways. "Don't
worry," he reassured Milburn. "When I was 5'2", I couldn't dunk
Milburn, 24, absorbed the abuse with aplomb. Metcalf, he
figured, has earned some deference. After two seasons in the
NFL, Milburn has seven touchdowns and 3,066 all-purpose yards.
Metcalf, three years his senior, six years in the league and
twice selected for the Pro Bowl, has scored 33 touchdowns,
gained 9,108 all-purpose yards and established himself as one of
the top kick returners in NFL history. Milburn, who returned
five punts for touchdowns in college but not yet one as a pro,
is, as one NFL personnel director puts it, "not quite a Metcalf
but in the same mold."
Milburn has had Metcalf's taillights in view since 1988, his
first and only year at Oklahoma. (What Milburn diplomatically
describes as the "unusual circumstances" surrounding his stay in
Norman--including a shooting and a gang rape in the athletic
dorm, and the cocaine-related arrest of the starting
quarterback--convinced him that he should transfer to Stanford.)
The week before the Sooners took on Texas that year, Oklahoma
coach Barry Switzer had Milburn masquerade as Metcalf on the
scout team. Superbly prepped, the Sooners shut down Metcalf, who
would later be named the Longhorns' Offensive Player of the
'80s, and won 28-13. For his uncanny imitation of the Texas
star, Milburn was awarded a game ball by Switzer.
Since turning pro, Milburn has turned his Metcalf act into a
cottage industry. Whenever the Broncos played the Cleveland
Browns, Metcalf's team for his first six years in the league,
Milburn spent the week preceding the game wearing Metcalf's
number 21 in practice and humbling the first-team defense.
Metcalf was surprised to learn that Milburn was, however
briefly, a Sooner. He claimed not to remember the only Red River
Riot in which both of them played. Who won? He asked.
"I think we did," said Milburn, sounding almost apologetic.
It dawned on Metcalf suddenly: "I can't beat this guy! I never
beat Oklahoma, never beat Stanford, and [when I was a Brown] we
couldn't beat the Broncos!"
"That has nothing to do with me," said Milburn, which is not
quite true. Two of Milburn's finest days as a pro have come
against Cleveland. When the Browns visited Mile High Stadium
last October, number 22 was everywhere, rushing for 38 yards,
and catching eight passes for 76 yards and a touchdown.
Metcalf vividly remembered being upstaged by the younger man.
"They had you running routes over the middle, with linebackers
trying to cover you," he told Milburn enviously. "They use you
like you're supposed to be used."
Left unsaid were the words unlike the way the Browns used me. By
trading Metcalf to Atlanta this spring, the Browns ran up the
white flag on a six-year experiment. In 1989 they sent four
draft picks to the Broncos in order to snag Metcalf with the
13th overall selection. Though he had his brilliant games--a
four-touchdown day against the Raiders in 1992, two punt returns
for scores against the Pittsburgh Steelers in '93--his years in
Cleveland can be summed up thus: The Browns blew the nest egg on
a Ferrari, then used it for quick runs to the minimart.
Was Metcalf a running back or a receiver? He played for three
different offensive coordinators in Cleveland, and none, it
seemed, could decide how best to deploy him. As a rookie he
rushed 187 times; two years later, 30; two years after that,
129. By the end of last season Metcalf was an afterthought in
the Browns' offense.
"If you want to make somebody the Man, why put him in a
smash-mouth offense? Get him into space! Let him dance! But
that's Bill," said Metcalf, taking a swipe at Brown coach Bill
Belichick. "That's that NFC East mentality."
In truth, Belichick, the ex-New York Giant assistant, is
strictly a matchup coach, switching offensive systems nearly
every week. While this gave the Browns flexibility, it prevented
Metcalf from settling into a well-defined role. The man who
longed to get into space and dance was the NFL's most-talented
"Believe me, we won't have problems getting him the ball," says
Falcon coach June Jones. Despite his lack of familiarity with
the Falcons' run-and-shoot offense, Metcalf did some things
during a May minicamp that had Atlanta's coaches shaking their
heads and smiling. "I think he may have been born to play in
this system," says quarterback coach Mouse Davis, an architect
of the run-and-shoot, who drew Metcalf's ire during the minicamp
by repeatedly calling him "Terry." It is an understandable slip
of the tongue--Terry, Eric's father, was an All-Pro running back
and return specialist for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1973 to
'77. "I think the kid may be better than the old man," says
Davis. Others around the NFL disagree. Though Eric has his
father's sweet feet, it is said that the son is softer, more
willing than Terry was to escape out of bounds.
The Falcons, for their part, want him to err on the side of
caution, to live to fight another day. Says Jones, "He has the
skills to catch 100 passes this season, easily, if he stays
Told that a banner season had been predicted for him, Metcalf
responded with a sneer. "That's what I've been hearing all my
career," he said. While Metcalf is a cynic and in Cleveland was
a bit of a clubhouse lawyer, Milburn is a company man. "It's the
story of my life," he said. "Keep the mask on, even when you're
Milburn spent the summer in Denver lifting, running, posing
questions about new coach Mike Shanahan's offense and otherwise
trying to gain the favorable attention of Shanahan's staff. Like
Metcalf, Milburn has impressive bloodlines--his cousin Rod won an
Olympic gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles in 1972--and he is
also looking forward to a fresh start in '95. Shanahan, the
offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers for the past
three seasons, has brought the West Coast offense to the Rocky
It is an offense that has rescued Milburn before. As a junior at
Stanford, playing for Dennis Green, Milburn spent much of the
season running between the tackles and serving as a decoy for
fullback Tommy Vardell. Milburn does not recall the season
fondly. Salvation came in the form of a gentleman with a
passable football pedigree. When Green was named coach of the
Minnesota Vikings, Bill Walsh returned to the Farm, and that
season Milburn found himself running draws, sweeps and reverses,
catching flare passes and returning kicks. He scored 14
touchdowns and was taken by Denver in the second round of the
Bronco fans enshrined him in Canton after one game. In his NFL
debut Milburn accounted for 148 all-purpose yards against the
New York Jets. He caught a 50-yard pass, returned a punt 36
yards and scored on a 25-yard pass play in which he beat a
linebacker over the middle, deked safety Ronnie Lott out of his
girdle pads and outran Eric Thomas--who had the angle on him--to
the end zone.
Reality followed. "I started to press," said Milburn. Trying to
turn ordinary plays into big ones, he was often stripped of the
ball and led all nonquarterbacks that season with nine fumbles.
Last year he cured himself of butterfingers and escaped from a
rut. As a rookie Milburn had been primarily a third-down back.
However, when Rod Bernstine was hurt in the fourth game of the
season, Milburn got more first- and second-down snaps, led NFL
running backs with 77 catches and fumbled only four times.
His busy summer notwithstanding, Milburn is unlikely to earn the
starting job this season. The Bronco staff's desire to get him
the ball is tempered by its desire to keep him out of traction.
"He's not the biggest guy in the world," says offensive
coordinator Gary Kubiak. "We don't want the stuffing beaten out
Noting that he has never missed a game because of injury,
Milburn expressed weariness with coaches who use his size as a
pretext for keeping him on the bench. He said that after racking
up 202 all-purpose yards against the Rams on Nov. 6, "the next
week, I was like the forgotten man."
"Tell me about it," replied Metcalf. He noted that after
wrecking the Raiders with those four TDs three years ago, "I
didn't touch the ball for five weeks." The problem, he said, is
that "coaches are too busy trying to outsmart each other." He
prefers the approach of the 49ers. "They line up and say, 'Stop
us. If you can, then we'll adjust.'"
The Niners, who lost running back Ricky Watters in the
off-season, dearly wanted Metcalf in their lineup. But he came
too dear. The best San Francisco could offer was two low
first-round draft choices. The Falcons offered the 10th pick
"We loved him," says 49er personnel boss Dwight Clark, "but we
couldn't compete." Clark adds that in addition to his quickness,
Metcalf "is bigger than people think."
He is bigger than someone in the Falcons' equipment room
thought. For the photo shoot with Milburn, the Falcons shipped a
uniform featuring pants with a 26-inch waist. "How small do they
think I am?" Metcalf asked.
"That's just the 'little man' thing," said Milburn
sympathetically. "We're lucky they didn't send us Toys 'R' Us
Of the pair, Metcalf lives larger. After the shoot he tried to
sell Milburn, whose favorite store is The Gap, on the benefits
of having a fashion consultant. Upon wandering that morning into
a Banana Republic, Milburn made a beeline for the sale rack and,
after torturous deliberation, bought a $19.99 pair of denim
Metcalf mentioned the time last spring when he bought a
first-class plane ticket to New York for a Knick game. In
contrast, Milburn angrily recalled his room-service dinner from
the night before: "I ordered potlatch soup and a glass of
lemonade. With the service charge," he said, outraged, "it came
to 10 dollars."
Finally, their picture taken, Metcalf headed back to the
football camp he runs during the summer; Milburn, to the
airport. They shook hands and promised to keep an eye out for
one another. Then Metcalf disappeared behind the smoked glass of
his custom Mercedes--a sweet ride of which Milburn said, as it
disappeared into traffic, "Man! That's a $100,000 car."
"You have to understand," Milburn said during the drive to the
airport, "he's been making over a million a year for the last
few years. I'm still a year or two from making my first
million." It is slightly surprising that behind the mask,
Milburn smolders not only with the ambition to catch Metcalf but
also with the confidence that he will. He longs to amass
Metcalfian statistics and compensation; he yearns for the day
when the only thing separating them is that meaningless fraction
of an inch.