After all these years, Colts' Eric Dickerson still runs with high expectations


INDIANAPOLIS -- In 1978, Ron Meyer, then the coach at Southern Methodist, was asked to evaluate the high school running back he was recruiting from Sealy, Texas.

"I said that he was good enough to play on Sunday, instead of Saturday, the following season," Meyer recalled. "It turned out I was wrong. He really wasn't good enough to play in the NFL until his sophomore year at SMU."

Only Eric Dickerson could create such expectations and he is still struggling to fulfill them.

Some people thought he could lead the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl in the 1985 season without an accomplished quarterback in the same backfield. He got them as far as the NFC championship game.

Two years later, he was gone, his contract hassles with the Rams landing him in Indianapolis.

Dickerson promptly led the Colts to their first playoff appearance in 10 years.

But they haven't been back since, and Sunday they will show up in the Los Angeles Coliseum against the Raiders as losers of their first two games and scorers of only 13 points. And this was supposed to be Dickerson's year of content.

After holding out and being suspended for five games because of conduct detrimental to the Colts, he signed a $10.65-million, four-year contract last year that made him the highest-paid running back in the league.

He reported to camp in July in the best shape of his career, after a rigorous off-season training program, and had nothing but kind words for everyone from the equipment manager to the owner.

But a seventh consecutive 0-2 Colt start and only 34 carries in two games have muted Dickerson's September song. He was so frustrated by recent events that he threatened to hit an Indianapolis sports writer who asked him a simple question about returning to Los Angeles this week.

The fifth-leading rusher in the history of the NFL ranks higher in the AFC for pass receiving, tied for third, than for rushing, ninth, this season.

"I carried 19 times last Sunday and 15 the week before," he said the other day after practice. "About 27 a game would be ideal.

"I'm not a ball hog, but I like to get the ball. If you can run the ball, chew up the clock and throw some . . . that really kills [an opposing] football team."

It has been suggested that, at 31, Dickerson has lost a step.

Meyer, the Colt coach who first saw him play on an October night 13 years ago in a small town 60 miles west of Houston, disagrees.

He said the nine-year pro who has run for 12,027 yards -- 4,699 short of Walter Payton's record -- is at the top of his game, although Dickerson has gained only 124 of those yards this season.

"We're trying to achieve some balance so that everyone can't gang up on Eric," said Meyer, who is also trying to keep his job after 12 defeats in the last 19 games and a decline in attendance at the Hoosier Dome.

"We're trying to get people to stop saying, 'Stop No. 29 and you've stopped the Colts.' "

The problem is that the Colts' passing game has been more lateral than deep.

Young Jeff George, who isn't blessed with an abundance of receivers and has lost Albert Bentley for the season, averaged a paltry 3.16 yards a pass against Miami.

Fifteen of George's 44 completions have been to Dickerson, who has never caught more than 36 in a season with Indianapolis.

He used to criticize the lack of talent and experience in the Colts' offensive line. Now he is puzzled by how the personnel is being used.

"There's talent, but they've been moving around the guys so much," Dickerson said. "One week someone's a tackle, the next week he's a guard, the next week he's on the bench, the next week he's back at guard.

"Some of it is because of injuries and some of it because the coaches want to make changes."

One change Dickerson welcomes is the one moving his old Ram teammate, Irv Pankey, into the lineup at left guard.

It was partially on Dickerson's recommendation that the Colts traded for Pankey, who --surprise! -- was having contract problems with the Rams.

Lining up next to Pankey Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum will be tackle Bubba Paris, the former San Francisco 49er who trimmed down to 324 pounds and showed his new spirit by giving his meal money to the trainer in Miami last weekend.

What is being billed as the return of Dickerson, who gained 116 yards against the Rams in a 31-17 Colt loss at Anaheim Stadium in 1989, isn't really that.

He still maintains a residence in Malibu, Calif., but has a house in Indianapolis, too, and spent much of the off-season with his mother in Houston.

Dickerson was part of one of pro football's biggest deals, when the Colts acquired him from the Rams on Oct. 31, 1987.

The Rams got running backs Greg Bell and Owen Gill and draft choices who turned out to be Gaston Green, Cleveland Gary, Aaron Cox, Fred Strickland, Darryl Henley and Frank Stams. The Buffalo Bills got linebacker Cornelius Bennett.

"I have no regrets about what happened," Dickerson said. "It's been OK for me in Indianapolis. It hasn't been bad."

But sometimes he wonders what it would have been like in Anaheim if he had stayed around to play with quarterback Jim Everett.

"When I look back at the Rams' NFC championship game against the 49ers [a 30-3 loss in 1989], I know I could have helped them," he said. "It would have been a lot closer game.

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