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RBs insist there's gasin the tanks

But some around them say rookies are worn down from long season.

[AP photo]
New York Giants running back Ron Dayne is surrounded by reporters during Super Bowl XXXV media day activities.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 24, 2001


TAMPA -- Wall? What wall?

The Ravens' Jamal Lewis said he never hit it. The Giants' Ron Dayne said he never saw it.

But it was there, that roadblock most rookies come upon after what would have been the end of their college season but is barely half a pro season.

The 11th or, with a bowl, 12th game that Lewis' Tennessee Volunteers and Dayne's Wisconsin Badgers played in 2000 would have taken each rookie running back halfway into his first pro season (four preseason games, eight of the 16 in the regular season).

Add the post-season -- the AFC championship was Baltimore's 23rd game, the NFC title game New York's 22nd -- and these newcomers can be forgiven if they felt they were running on empty.

Ravens coach Brian Billick said several times that Lewis seemed to be wearing down. "I heard that," Lewis said. "I tried to prove him wrong. I don't think I've worn down. ... Maybe I went through a bit of (a lull) earlier in the season. But that wall, that's all talk."

Not necessarily.

Shannon Sharpe, the Ravens' voluble tight end who has trained each off-season with Lewis since the latter was a junior at Tennessee, said, "I thought his (newspaper) clippings in college had gone to his head. ... I told Jamal he wasn't at Tennessee anymore. At Tennessee I didn't care how he worked out, but now he was playing with me. He didn't know what it was like to prepare for an NFL season."

Ravens running backs coach Matt Simons said, in so many words, that Lewis was deluding himself. "When he says there hasn't been a wall, there hasn't been one emotionally and psychologically. But physically, it's there. At some point the body feels some of that fatigue, even if the mind won't admit it."

Simons did say Lewis might have benefited late from having missed most of the preseason and being limited in three regular-season games by an arm injury.

Eighth-year wide receiver Qadry Ismail agreed on both points.

"I believe that every player who's played a full year in the NFL has experienced the rookie wall," Ismail said. "That's where your body clock, your whole mental process says, "My college season is over; I should be preparing for a bowl game,' but we're still going out there and practicing every day and playing every Sunday. ... Maybe because (Lewis) was hurt, maybe it kept him fresher until we started needing him. Maybe coaches should start holding out their rookie running backs until they actually start needing them later in the year."

Dayne started strong in his first three games. His carries and yards fluctuated for the next 10, then dropped off dramatically for the final three. That was partly the product of the Giants relying heavily on running back Tiki Barber.

"With five games left they started giving me the ball a lot," Barber said. "Ron was only getting 5-6 carries, and he's the kind of guy who's most productive when he runs the ball 20 times or more."

"No wall to speak of," Giants offensive assistant coach Mike Gillhamer said. "It was just how our games evolved. We faced a lot of eight-man fronts, a lot of stuff that made it tough for Ron to get going.

"A great back doesn't get 5 yards a carry. It might be 2, then stopped, then 2, 3, then boom, an 18-yarder. Ron just never got the chance to get into a groove."

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