With one game left in his 13th NFL season, Ravens running back Earnest Byner sat by his locker yesterday, wondering what happened to his year.
The year began with such promise. After beating out veteran Leroy Hoard for a starting job with an excellent preseason, Byner showed he still had something left in his 34-year-old legs. Like the day he rushed for 149 yards against New Orleans to lead the Ravens to their second victory on Sept. 29. With a third of the season complete, Byner was on a 1,000-yard rushing pace.
The October arrival of free-agent running back Bam Morris changed all of that. The two shared time in the backfield initially. But over the past seven games, Morris has started in the Ravens' one-back offense with great success, chalking up three 100-yard games and becoming a Memorial Stadium crowd favorite with his 250-pound frame and straight-ahead, battering style.
Meanwhile, Byner has become an afterthought in the league's third-ranked offense. Since scoring a second-quarter touchdown on a nifty, 7-yard run against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 1 -- the last time the Ravens won -- Byner has not touched the ball. He is primarily a special teams performer.
"It's almost like I basically died as far as this year is concerned," Byner said. "I was running it through my mind the other day, and it still mystifies me, how everything transpired and why it transpired. It's been a strange year. But then again, this is a strange business.
"They told me when they made the deal [for Morris] that me and Bam had to play for us to be successful. That didn't materialize. What can I learn from this? I'm trying not to deal in the negative."
When Morris, after serving a four-game suspension for marijuana possession, arrived, Byner did not exactly accept him with open arms. Shortly before coach Ted Marchibroda named Morris a starter, Byner was upset enough to say the only thing Morris "has over me is his weight."
"He [Byner] didn't know me, but we've grown closer together as a running back corps since I got here and the guys have gotten to know me," Morris said. "I never felt any tension when I first came in. I probably would have if the situation had been reversed."
Byner, who is signed through next season, said he is more disappointed than angry over the deterioration of his playing time. His reversal of fortune has not affected his work habits. Byner remains one of the team's shining examples of how to approach the work week. All month, he has been bothered by either sore ribs or a pinched nerve in his neck, yet has not missed a practice.
"He's the hardest-working player on the team. He's the heart of the team," said offensive tackle Tony Jones, a nine-year veteran who joined the Cleveland Browns as a free agent in 1988, four years after the Browns drafted Byner in the 10th round out of East Carolina.
"He taught me that if I want to play a long time in this league, I had to work hard, during the season and in the off-season," Jones added. "Never relax, always stay focused on getting better. He's a great tribute to the old school."
Byner, who has gained 7,944 yards on the ground and another 4,470 as a receiver, is one of only six active running backs to rush for 7,000 yards.
He also is one of the more distinguished players in franchise history. Last year, two years after returning to Cleveland -- he left the Browns for Washington in 1989 and won a Super Bowl there two years later -- Byner showed he had something left in December. He took over for the injured Hoard down the stretch and rushed 31 times for 121 yards in the Cleveland Stadium finale.
Then, he outplayed Hoard in the preseason. But Marchibroda, in search of a more bruising runner in his one-back system, eventually wanted Morris. Marchibroda added that Byner's reduced playing time does not mean that the 5-foot-10, 215-pound Byner isn't in his 1997 plans.
"I don't feel any less about Earnest than when he was playing all the time," Marchibroda said. "When I told him we wanted to go with Bam more because he could help us, Earnest took it like the professional he is. You want people like him on your team."
Byner conceded that the reduced playing time probably has helped his longevity. He said he might retire after playing out his contract next year.
"I know I can be proud of my accomplishments, but I don't want to finish my career on a down note, team-wise," said Byner, pointing to the Ravens' 4-11 record. "We could do something really special next year. I don't just want to be on the team, though. I want to play. I want to contribute."
NOTE: The Ravens list 17 players -- nearly a third of the roster -- on their injury report for tomorrow's season finale against Houston.
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Houston Oilers
Site: Memorial Stadium
When: Tomorrow, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Ravens by 3
Pub Date: 12/21/96