Getting cut from the Ravens wasn't the worst fear of rookie running back Derrick Cullors. It was getting cut without being given a real chance to compete for a job.
For a time, he believed this was his destiny. Two preseason games had passed, and the free agent out of Murray State hadn't played a single down. And it appeared he wouldn't make a dent in the third one, either.
Finally, with 4: 29 left in Saturday's loss to the Green Bay Packers, Cullors got his chance, gaining 2 yards around left end before the Ravens were forced to punt.
At this point, he was nothing more than a blip on the screen. But after a Green Bay fumble gave the Ravens possession with 3: 15 remaining, he became much more.
Derrick Cullors became a factor in the Ravens' backfield picture.
Cullors burst through a hole on a draw play, then broke to his right as the defense closed in and scampered for 25 yards, putting the ball on Green Bay's 22. "After that run, I felt the energy of the crowd and the players and it really picked me up," he said.
He ran twice more for 4 yards and made two receptions for 11 before backup quarterback Eric Zeier threw a touchdown pass to Ray Ethridge on fourth down with 1: 06 left for a 15-14 lead.
The game would be lost. But in a sense, Cullors felt as though he had been found. On the bubble before the Green Bay game, he amassed 42 yards on six plays and has survived the first round of cuts. And it looks as though the worst he will do is land on the practice squad.
It's better than being in tears, which he was after the second preseason game against the New York Giants. "As an athlete, you want to contribute, you want to do good," he said. "After the New York game, I felt like I wouldn't get an opportunity."
He spoke with Al Lavan, the Ravens' running backs coach, who told Cullors to be patient and continue to work hard. He got similar advice from the other offensive coaches and a much-needed pep talk from veteran fullback Carwell Gardner.
"That's all rookies. They get down on themselves, on their teammates, on their coaches when they don't get an opportunity to play," Gardner said. "I had to talk to him and tell him to hang in there. I was a rookie at one time. I knew how he felt. I told him, 'Don't get down on yourself. Keep your head in there, wait for your chance and then do something. Then, if you don't do anything, it's time to get down on yourself because then you've got a problem.'
"Like all rookies, he's got a lot to learn, but he's going to be a good back."
Cullors is a veteran in one sense: he has experience in feeling like he's being passed over.
Despite racking up some impressive numbers at Division I-AA Murray State after transferring from Texas Christian prior to his senior year, Cullors' name wasn't called during April's NFL draft.
Apparently, the school-record 1,765 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns last season weren't enough to warrant being selected. Neither, it seemed, were the 207.1 all-purpose yards he averaged per game, nor the 160.5 rushing yards, both of which ranked second in the nation. He also averaged 25.1 yards on kickoff returns and set an NCAA record with 36 points when he scored six touchdowns against Morehead State last October.
Cullors, 5 feet 11 and 181 pounds, was beginning to wonder if anyone outside the Ohio Valley Conference even noticed.
"I felt my stats were enough to get me drafted somewhere in the top seven rounds," he said. "I didn't know being from a smaller school would affect me that much. I didn't think it would make it that difficult, but it did."
He didn't have to wait long to find employment, though. The Ravens contacted him that same day about signing as a free agent.
"A guy's evaluation is relative to what he does on the field," Lavan said.
"It made me feel good that somebody was thinking about me," Cullors said. "I had a feeling that if I was given a chance, I could prove to everybody that I could play. And this was the team I wanted to be on."
The Ravens are glad to have him, even if it didn't seem that way from his inactivity on game days.
"He's been impressing us in practice in terms of running the show team for the defense," Lavan said. "It looked as if he had good running vision. We decided it would be helpful to get a decent evaluation of him, to put him in the ballgame and see if he showed the same qualities. And he did. For him, it's a good first step. We just have to see where all of that fits into our team."
The Dallas native has been timed at 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard dash, but his eyes may be his greatest asset. "At the point of attack, he sees the defense and he has real good ability to respond to and defeat the defense," Lavan said. "After that, it's a matter of your size and your speed and your quickness to take advantage of what you see.
"He's a young player who certainly needs to get bigger and stronger and faster. That would be helpful," Lavan added. "But the fact that he's still on the roster at this point gives you an indication how we've evaluated him up to this point.
"We really don't see him much differently after the [Green Bay] game than we did before in terms of what we saw him do in practice. He was doing the same thing. It's just that 60,000 people saw it."
Cullors doesn't know how much he'll play tomorrow night in Buffalo, or what his chances are of sticking with the Ravens. He'd settle for the practice squad, though nobody could convince him that he wasn't ready to travel with the team.
"I'm just trying to hang in there and see where it goes," he said. "At least I have a foot in the door."
All it took was being able to step onto the field.
Sept. 1 Oakland 1 p.m.
Sept. 8 at Pittsburgh 1 p.m.
Sept. 15 at Houston 1 p.m.
Sept. 22 Bye week
Sept. 29 New Orleans 1 p.m.
Oct. 6 New England 1 p.m.
Oct. 13 at Indianapolis 8 p.m.
Oct. 20 at Denver 4 p.m.
Oct. 27 St. Louis 1 p.m.
Nov. 3 Cincinnati 1 p.m.
Nov. 10 at Jacksonville 4 p.m.
Nov. 17 at San Fran. 4 p.m.
Nov. 24 Jacksonville 1 p.m.
Dec. 1 Pittsburgh 1 p.m.
Dec. 8 at Cincinnati 1 p.m.
Dec. 15 at Carolina 1 p.m.
Dec. 22 Houston 1 p.m.
Pub Date: 8/22/96