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Kirwan: You Can Never Have Enough Running Backs

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Just a few years ago, it seemed like the Denver Broncos couldn't satisfy their thirst for running backs. Terrell Davis was the best back in the league, yet they still drafted Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis -- and this year, Quentin Griffin.

The truth is they needed all of them just to keep the offense going. As my mentor, the late Dick Steinberg, has said to me on a regular basis, "You never have enough running backs."

It sounds like someone taught the Cleveland Browns that lesson. Last year they drafted William Green in the first round, then took Lee Suggs in this year's draft. They've also extended Jamal White with a four-year deal and recently extended James Jackson for a year. Suggs is hurt, but head coach Butch Davis still might have enough in his stable to get through the 2003 season. The Browns are not alone in stockpiling backs.

The Buffalo Bills had the AFC's fifth best performer in Travis Henry last season, yet they still drafted Willis McGahee, who won't be ready for another year. The Bills may still need to add one more to the roster.

The Baltimore Ravens have the sixth-ranked runner in Jamal Lewis, but drafting the powerful Musa Smith from Georgia wasn't even an issue for the Ravens. They'll need him now.

Eddie George is the heart and soul of the Tennessee Titans, but just in case he can't carry both, the team drafted Chris Brown. Kansas City has a great back in Priest Holmes, but he's coming off a hip injury. The Chiefs, however, got some insurance by drafting Larry Johnson in the first round, even though they had some other glaring needs. The Oakland Raiders have a fine collection of backs -- Charlie Garner, Tyrone Wheatley and Zack Crockett -- but they still took Justin Fargas on the first day of the draft.

As we speak, other teams are adding ball carriers in hopes of having enough talent to get them to January. Tampa Bay just inked Terry Kirby. And why not, with the off-field problems Michael Pittman is having. It's hard enough to protect a team's interest against injuries -- anything else makes it next to impossible. Green Bay added Lamar Smith and his 10 years of experience.

Indianapolis recently had a setback with backup Dominic Rhodes and his reconstructed knee. Duce Staley decided not to show up at Philadelphia's minicamp because he wants a new contract. Staley knows the team didn't draft a running back this year, but Correll Buckhalter is coming off a serious injury and might be in the driver's seat in that negotiation.

The Panthers found out last year how bad things can be if there's no depth -- remember what happened after top draft pick DeShaun Foster was lost for the season? This year, the team paid big bucks to secure Stephen Davis. The New York Giants and Ron Dayne seemed to patch up their differences quickly. And why not, if you adhere to the adage, "You never have enough backs."

Pittsburgh has not clarified what Jerome Bettis' role will be this year, and coach Bill Cowher said there are no guarantees. If the Steelers let him practice with the team -- even in minicamps -- and risk injury, then it's a safe bet he will be back. Otherwise, why let him practice?

Apparently, the Arizona Cardinals think they have enough backs, as they continue to shop former first-round pick Thomas Jones. He might not look attractive to most teams or fans right now, but one more minicamp injury or holdout this month and he will win the beauty contest.

Not every team has adhered to Rule 1 in the running back business, and there are a few teams that still need to add some depth in order to get them to the end of the season. New England, Dallas, San Diego, Miami and New Orleans didn't draft a backup and have to ask the question, "If our starter goes down, can we keep this thing going?"

One assistant general manager said to me this week, "Try and find a team that will take your call when it's August and you need a quality back in a trade."

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