Los Angeles — There is probably no such thing as a thinking man's running back in professioal football. It is all done with talent and instinct, plus a lot of initial help when the play is developing by the runner's offensive line.
This explains why a rookie like Billy Sims of the Detroit Lions can come into the National Football League and, in his first few games, perform on the same level as Earl Campbell, Franco Harris, or Walter Payton.
Sims tore up the Los Angeles Rams in his regular season debut, carrying the football 22 times for 153 yards and three touchdowns to spark a stunning 41-20 upset in Anaheim. The Rams couldn't stop Billy inside or outside, and generally this is one of the best defensive teams in the game.
The green Bay Packers also saw a lot of Sims' hells, especially on an 87-yard pass reception on which he went sideline most of the way, outran safety Steve Luke, and then stiff-armed Johnnie Gray on the 10-yard line en route to the end zone. Overall, the Detroit rookie gained 134 yards on 20 carries, with the Lions winning 29-7.
Last week against the St. Louis Cardinals Sims wasn't quite so explosive, but he still led all ball carriers with 95 yards and one touchdown as the Lions won their third straight game, 20-7. That's already one more victory than the team had all last year, when it tied with San Francisco with a worst-in-the-league 2- 14 record and then won the all-important coin toss that gave it the No. 1 draft choice and the chance to obtain Sims.
Often when a team has been down for a few years, it has a tendency when it does find someone like Billy to overwork him. It's natural to want to keep giving the ball to your best running back, but it is also folly, because all you're really doing is burning him out.
So far Detroit head coach Monte Clark has kept Sims' workload in perspective, not ever holding him back, but not allowing him to take the cheap shots from the defense that a pack always gets when he's tired and can't protect himself.
Although much of Billy's success seems to come from his being able to start quickly, cut sharply, and use his speed to great advantage, there have also been occasions when he has appeared to be as much of a power runner as Campbell.
Those times have usually occurred when he has carried up the middle on draw plays, the defense has been off balance, and linebackers have been forced to hit him glancing blows from the side instead of straight on. But even 5 ft. 11 in., he appears to be well built, with the benefits of weight lifting resulting in a tremendous upper body.
"We're going to use Sims plenty, because that's why we made him our No. 1 draft pick," Clark explained. "But we're not going to abuse him. No team can run its offense around just one man be successful. That sort of thing makes it too easy for the defense, and besides we've got other people who can do things offensively."
Sims has been the main man, though, and in fact his 382 yards in 67 carries make him the league's leading rusher at this point. He has also scored Six TDs, five on the ground and one via that big pass play.
At Oklahoma, where the forward pass is used at least once, sometimes twice, between every eclipse of the moon, Sims seldom got involved in this phase of the game -- in fact he caught only two aerilas in his entire college career. But because of Sooner head coach Barry Switzer's Wishbone Offense, in which the tailback almost always gets the ball on a pitchout, the idea of catching things while moving was not completely foreign to Billy's hands.
Detroit quarterback Gary Danielson has shwon no hesitancy in throwing to sims , either coming out of the backfield or deep, and so far the results have been pectacular -- six receptions for 180 yards. Undoubtedly he will be used even more frequently as a pass receiver in the weeks ahead.
Ask Sims about his best runs and most of the time he says he doesn't remember them.
"When practically everything you do comes off a reaction, I don't think you always remember clearly what you did on a certain run," Billy said. "A runner doesn't think that way. He's so busy looking for holes, or whatever the defense gives him, that he usually can't tell you how he got form one place to another without being tackled."
Whether the Lions can continue the vast improvement they have shwon so far on a week-to-week basis, or whether they have just caught some of their opponents looking the other way, is mostly speculation at this point.
But there is no doubt that Sims can run, catch passes, and be used effectively as a decoy. In fact, he has started so strong that people are already referring to him as the NFL's Rookie of the Year.