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Rude Awakening
Peter King
September 09, 1996
O'Donnell caught in Broncos stampede, Carter, Phillips running on empty, Haskell's happy return to the sideline
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September 09, 1996

Rude Awakening

O'Donnell caught in Broncos stampede, Carter, Phillips running on empty, Haskell's happy return to the sideline

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Even jets offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt sounded down in the dumps on the eve of his team's opener in Denver as he discussed a couple of the organization's off-season free-agent acquisitions, Jumbo Elliott and David Williams. "We sign these two tackles for all that money [$27 million], and we can't keep them on the field," Erhardt said, lamenting the fact that Elliott (pulled groin) and Williams (sore back) worked together only five days in the preseason. "It's tough to get offensive momentum going."

The tackles' absence on Sunday contributed mightily to the Broncos' getting nine sacks in a 31-6 laugher. Roger Duffy was moved from left guard to right tackle, a position he had never played in the NFL. Harry Galbreath, who was released by the Broncos early in camp, filled in for Duffy. Galbreath had not played left guard since his rookie season, in 1988 with the Dolphins. Harry Boatswain, who played for the Eagles in '95 after being waived by the expansion Panthers, started for Elliott at left tackle.

Quarterback Neil O'Donnell, the Jets' $25 million free-agent pickup from Pittsburgh, lost more yards as a result of being sacked (53) than he gained passing (50). He went down seven times in the first half; last year the Steelers didn't give up their seventh sack until the fourth game of the season. O'Donnell was replaced in the fourth quarter by Frank Reich. "I don't think it was a question of Neal being ineffective," said Reich, who was sacked on his first pass attempt. "I think it was a question of his safety."

Running to Nowhere

Ki-Jana Carter of the Bengals and Lawrence Phillips of the Rams, the best back, respectively, in each of the last two drafts, faced off on Sunday at the Trans World Dome, and their performances in their NFL debuts prompted this opening-week question: What's their problem? They totaled 60 rushing yards on 35 carries, a scintillating 1.7 yards per carry.

The Rams won 26-16, and I Phillips scored on—what else?—a pair of one-yard runs. But with 46 yards on 21 carries, Phillips, the sixth pick in last April's draft, was hardly an impact player. And Carter, who was the first player picked in 1995 and then missed all of last year with a knee injury, picked up 14 yards on 14 carries.

"I'm really disappointed in myself," said Carter, whose afternoon included six carries for negative yardage. "I've never been in this situation before, and I have to erase this game from my memory." But he can't erase the league's most inexperienced offensive line. Like Carter, center Rich Braham and guards Ken Blackman and Rod Jones were also making their first NFL starts, and Blackman and Jones are both rookies. Carter is still not running with the authority that inspired the Bengals to trade up in the draft and then sign him to a seven-year, $19.2 million contract.

Phillips, whose longest run was six yards against a defense that ranked 26th against the run in '95, wasn't much happier. "This is the first time I've felt like a rookie in my life," he said. "I don't think I did a good job, and I don't think I performed like a first-round pick."

Potentially bigger roadblocks lie ahead for both players. Phillips is on probation for assaulting a former girlfriend in 1995, and if convicted on an off-season DWI charge (he is scheduled to go to trial on Sept. 30), he could face six months in jail for violating his probation. Carter, meanwhile, has Cincinnati's newly acquired back, Garrison Hearst, breathing down his neck. Hearst ran the ball just three times for six yards against the Rams, but the Bengals have big early-season plans for him: Hearst could get as much as one third of the rushing workload until Carter is capable of playing full time without pain.

Good News
Receivers coach Gil Haskell is back on the Packers' sideline, having recovered from a fractured skull suffered during the NFC Championship Game last January (SI, Feb. 19). Haskell, who was bowled over and struck his head on the Texas Stadium artificial turf when a play carried out of bounds, says he has no residual effects from the fracture and brain contusion and swelling. Here's one lingering memory from his hospital stay in Dallas: "One morning about 6:30, I looked up, and there was [ Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones. It was a few days before the Super Bowl, and he's in my room for 90 minutes. Before he left, he told me that when I was ready to go home he would send his private plane for me." (As it turned out, Haskell wasn't able to take Jones up on his offer. He needed a fully equipped medical plane to take him home.)

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