- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2000

The slogan reads, "Believe in Stephen," but the Washington Redskins' management withheld a few doubts this offseason while negotiating a new contract for featured running back Stephen Davis.

The Redskins argued that Davis' 1999 output a franchise-record 1,405 yards with 17 touchdowns was his first and only successful season in four. And with Davis hampered at the end of 1999 with a high ankle sprain, he technically hadn't proved his durability.

Now, though, everyone believes. One month after Davis finally signed a $90 million, nine-year contract, the 26-year-old back leads the NFL with 513 yards rushing despite a variety of injuries to his blocking personnel.

Davis never doubted he could duplicate his 1999 success.

"No doubt," Davis said. "I think the only thing that can hold me back is if I have an injury or something. Other than that, there's no doubt in my mind."

Running backs coach Kirby Wilson felt the same way.

"I knew he was going to be successful," said Wilson, a first-year Redskins coach. "The film speaks volumes. Some guys it takes one, some guys it takes two, some guys it takes four years to mature. And for whatever reason, Stephen arrived last season. There's no turning back now. He's getting better and better."

On Sunday in Philadelphia, Davis once again will be rushing without the two blockers considered most critical to his 1999 success, center Cory Raymer and right guard Tre Johnson. Raymer has undergone season-ending knee surgery; Johnson likely will get the same in several weeks.

But Davis actually has enjoyed his best games this season with those two sidelined. Raymer has been out all year. Johnson missed the opener while serving a suspension and most of Sunday's win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, having sustained the knee injury on the second series.

Davis had 133 yards on 23 carries in the opening win over the Carolina Panthers (when the Redskins' No. 1 blocking fullback, Mike Sellers, also was out with a shoulder injury). And against Tampa Bay, Davis had 141 yards on 28 carries.

Meanwhile, left guard Keith Sims was unable to practice until Friday in each of the past three weeks with Achilles' tendinitis.

"I don't worry about who's in there," Davis said "I don't worry about them getting their job done, just as they don't worry about me getting my job done. I can only handle what I can handle, and that's running the football."

That mutual trust is a big reason for Davis' success.

"They all believe in one another; they trust one another," Wilson said. "[The offensive linemen] know that if they do their assignments there's a chance for a big play. And he knows if he makes the right read and hits the right hole, there's a chance for a big play."

Two weeks ago the Redskins faced the league's best rushing offense the New York Giants' tandem of Thunder and Lightning, 253-pound rookie Ron Dayne and 200-pound veteran Tiki Barber. Going against the top-ranked run defense at the time, Davis outgained the 89 yards to 88.

Davis, in fact, is Thunder and Lightning at the same time. He is best known for gaining tough interior yards, but he also can make big gains around the corner.

Last weekend was an example of the latter. The Redskins used Davis on pitch plays to the right exterior, particularly after Davis turned one into a 50-yard touchdown in the first half. Guard Jay Leeuwenburg (in for Johnson) made a nice pull on that play; fullback Larry Centers then cracked safety John Lynch on the same call in the second half, springing a 14-yard gain.

"I'm pretty fast, ain't I?" Davis said with a smile. "No really, it doesn't matter where I run the ball up the middle, outside, just as long as I'm doing my job when I get it."

Davis is fairly adamant about keeping self-analysis on such a superficial level. And that may be what helped skate emotionally through his often ugly, often confusing contract negotiations.

The ultimate megadeal evolved from $3 million and three years about 14 months earlier. Things grew complex when Davis was named franchise player, meaning the sides had to figure out a one-year deal (if the team wanted to keep its franchise tag) and then extend it later on.

The one-year pact finally was signed three days into training camp, allowing Davis to work out with his teammates for the first time since last season ended. The $90 million deal (which, more realistically, pays Davis $15.75 million over its first three years) was signed the day before the opener.

None of the negotiations mattered to Davis.

"Why would I think about something I can't control?" Davis said. "The only thing I can control is if they give me a deal that I really like, I can take it."

The Redskins, meanwhile, have accepted a deal they really like having Davis as their leading rusher once again. And probably by now (particularly because the poker faces have been left at the negotiating table) they unabashedly Believe in Stephen.

"I guess this proves how good he is as a running back," Sims said. "We know [if] we give him a crease, he can take it the distance. It's exciting blocking for a runner like Stephen Davis, and he has proved that what he did last year wasn't a fluke."

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