Flashback Friday: Earnest Byner, Hall of Fame caliber blocking back

OCTOBER 16: Running back Earnest Byner #44 of the Cleveland Browns runs through a hole during an NFL game against the Philadelphia Eagles on August 21, 1988. The Browns defeated the Eagles 19-3. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
OCTOBER 16: Running back Earnest Byner #44 of the Cleveland Browns runs through a hole during an NFL game against the Philadelphia Eagles on August 21, 1988. The Browns defeated the Eagles 19-3. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images) /

Earnest Byner had a Hall of Fame career, and it isn’t just because of his ability as a runner and receiver

Casual fans may not realize it, but Earnest Byner was one of the greatest blocking backs of his generation and the numbers prove it. This article is really for the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee, in hopes of calling attention to Byner’s often-overlooked role as a blocking back.

Blocking is an important part of football, even though it does not add to the player’s own statistics, at least not the ones that people notice, like rushing yards and touchdowns. Here then are some shocking stats about Byner:

Shocking Stat No. 1: Byner accounted for 12866 yards from scrimmage, including 8261 yards on the ground.

For whatever reason, rushing yards is the usual figure of merit, but there is no reason to ignore receiving yards, which provides a better picture of the overall contribution to the team.

Shocking Stat No. 2: If you compile the list of Byner’s running mates over his career, they accounted for a total of 12,892 yards for those years in which they shared the backfield. That does not include the contribution from third and fourth running backs, which in some years was considerable.

Shocking Stat No. 3: Byner helped three different runners gain over 1000 yards from scrimmage in a single season. Kevin Mack, Reggie Brooks, and Leroy Hoard.  Two other runners went over 900 yards partnered with Byner: Gerald Riggs and Bam Morris.

Shocking Stat No. 4: Byner blocked for two players who rushed for 1000 yards (Mack and Brooks), but also rushed for 1000 yards himself in three seasons and just missed a fourth when a knee injury limited him to “only” 998 rushing yards.

Shocking Stat No. 5: Byner was listed at only 5-10 and 215 lbs. That may cause many people to disbelieve his role as a fullback, but look at the film and look at the numbers. Byner was the blocking back as often as he was the feature back.

Related Story. Earnest Byner Should Be in the NFL Hall of Fame. light

Coach Joe Gibbs said this to Washington fans on what to expect from Earnest Byner: “This guy will knock your teeth out.  He’s so tough that I think that carries over to the rest of your team. He’s going to get hit like you wouldn’t believe and yet he’ll step up there in pass protection & drill somebody.” 

Of course, not all of the yards involved Byner’s blocking and certainly there were times when he and his mates appeared in one-back sets. Nevertheless, the top two running backs were responsible for over 25,000 yards on Byner’s teams.

Byner was famously teamed with Kevin Mack for four years in a row in Cleveland. You would think that it was usually the big man blocking for the smaller man, but if you look at the numbers you see that Mack was the feature black, with Byner used primarily as a blocker.

The point is, they blocked for each other to benefit the team  That continued in Washington, where he blocked for veteran Gerald Riggs.  When Riggs slowed down a bit, Joe Gibbs turned to Byner who turned in 1498 yards from scrimmage in 1990.

Of course, Cleveland fans will always blame Byner for the infamous fumble which negated a strong comeback against the hated Denver Broncos.  Byner has always blamed himself for losing the Super Bowl, but the truth is that the Browns defense was not championship caliber that game, having given up 38 points prior to Byner’s fumble (Dude, you did everything you could, but you should have played defense that day. And fans, quit thinking that a defense that gave up 38 points was going to win the Super Bowl!).

But the key point of Byner’s story is he recovered from that defeat and owns not one, but two Super Bowl rings.

Maybe a better question is whether the Hall of Fame is set up to recognize blocking backs. In many cases, it seemed to this reviewer that the recent trend is to reward individuals who were best at accumulating stats rather than contributing to the team.

Earnest Byner does not make the Hall of Stats, but if the Selection Committee looks at total contribution to the team including special teams, there is little question that Byner belongs in that group.

Lately, the Hall of Fame induction speeches by Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson have drawn attention to their fullback, the blocking back who helped them gain all those yards.

For Smith, it was Daryl Johnston, aided abetted by the offensive line, of course.  Tomlinson had Lorenzo Neal lead him up to the stage, which is appropriate because Neal led Tomlinson everywhere. The people who truly know football understand that blocking and doing what is best for the team is still an important part of the game and it’s not all about stats and making yourself look good.

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By the same token, Byner has the same record of propelling others to success, although in his case he also ran the ball and caught passes out of the backfield.  Has there ever been a player who was good at being the blocker as well as the ball-carrier or pass receiver?

Nobody ever did all of those things as well as Earnest Byner.  Nobody.