- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

Coach Steve Spurrier finally has discovered what his predecessors knew: The Washington Redskins lose when they don't give the ball to Stephen Davis.

The Redskins are expected to rely heavily on Davis when they face the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night at FedEx Field. In part, it is because the Colts have the NFL's 30th-ranked defense against the run. It is also because the Redskins will be making their third quarterback switch of the season this time returning to opening day starter Shane Matthews.

And there is a third reason: Washington succeeds when Davis does. The Redskins are just 2-19 since 1999 when Davis gains fewer than 80 yards. They are 25-7 when he gains 80 or more. Davis gained more than 80 yards in both of the team's victories this season but did it only once in the four losses.

"Stephen's always been the key for us," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "I don't think you can say that you can win a lot of games without running. I don't think any coach would have a back like this and not use him. When he's working, we're always in the game."

But this is the second straight year in which Davis has had to prove his worth to a new coach. Davis, who excels by running more than 25 times per game, averaged only 15 carries during the Redskins' 0-5 start last season. Then coach Marty Schottenheimer increased it to 23 and finished 8-3 down the stretch. Davis gained a team-record 1,432 yards, his second Redskins mark in three seasons.

The pattern has held this season. Davis carried 26 times for 104 yards in a season-opening, 31-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. However, he averaged only 14 carries over the 1-3 stretch that followed. Spurrier finally relented and ran Davis 24 times for 91 yards against the Green Bay Packers last Sunday; Davis also had 32 yards that were negated by penalties. Spurrier said halftime deficits have sometimes kept him from use Davis often.

"The plan every week is mixing the pass and rush," Spurrier said. "If we are ever fortunate enough to get ahead at halftime we'd be like all teams trying to run the ball some, make first downs and win the game. We haven't been in that position a lot."

Davis is used to having to prove himself even though he was the first back in Redskins history to gain more than 1,000 yards in three straight seasons, rushing for more than 1,300 each time. Davis is used to lobbying for the ball no matter who is calling the plays.

"Coach knows we can run the ball pretty well," he said. "Don't pass as much in the game and take our shots running."

The Colts' poor run defense invites the Redskins to rely more on Davis than Matthews. However, the condition of the offensive line, which may be without injured left tackle Chris Samuels and guard Brenden Stai, could make that difficult. The Redskins, who have scored an NFL-low nine first-quarter points, need a quick start in order to give Davis more than 25 carries.

"Even the teams that throw for a lot of yards, they keep teams off balance by running the ball," Matthews said. "We haven't been doing anything well at all, really, and turnovers are the big key."

Davis looked comfortable against Green Bay, stretching inside runs a few extra yards to gain 49 yards on 17 carries at halftime. The Redskins seemed ready to push the Packers on their first drive after Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre's game-ending injury. Davis reached the Green Bay 4-yard line, but a holding penalty forced the Redskins to take a field goal that left them trailing 17-9 instead of only 17-14 with 5:55 left in the third quarter. The Redskins lost fumbles on their next two series and never threatened again as Green Bay scored 13 straight points.

Running backs coach Hue Jackson said the Packers game showed the new staff's increased familiarity with Davis' strengths.

"It's not a secret. As you go through the season you find out a little more about your team," Jackson said. "It's a matter of getting it all to fit. We're finding our way a bit."

Oddly, Matthews' return could also increase Davis' receptions. The two combined for a team-high 17 catches over the first three games, but Davis caught only two while Matthews was on the bench the last three weeks.

Although Davis has been slow in his career to get recognition from new coaches, he is steadily cementing his place in franchise history.

When the Redskins' 70th anniversary team is honored Sunday, Davis will be happy to see the overshadowed offensive linemen. Maybe he can convince a few of them to return. After all, they'll already be wearing jerseys.

"There are some great guys on that list," Davis said. "It will be pretty exciting to see them on the field."

Davis was ineligible for the 70th anniversary team because he's three seasons short of the 10-year minimum required. However, he trails the Redskins' career No.2 runner, Larry Brown, by only 457 yards and is 2,054 behind leader John Riggins. Davis didn't regard his exclusion as a snub.

"My time will come," he said. "Maybe the 75th [anniversary] team."

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