New Orleans — Each team in Super Bowl XX relies heavily on one man to penetrate enemy lines. The difference is that Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears needs virtually no introduction, even to casual fans, while Craig James needs all the help the New England Patriots' publicity staff can provide. Payton is the most prolific ground gainer in National Football League history, with 14,860 career yards, and is among the most admired athletes by teen-agers in the country.
James has been about as famous as your local postman. He keeps delivering, though, and has actually outrushed Payton during the playoffs, with 3.85 yards per carry to Walter's 2.77. Craig has gone over 100 yards his last two games, against the Raiders and Dolphins.
Payton is called ``Sweetness'' for his sweet moves. James has no nickname, but owns the villainous-sounding full name of Jesse Craig James, which belies his choirboy looks and gentlemanly ways.
Payton, of course, has been around a lot longer than James. A first-round draft pick in 1975, Walter paid his dues through many lean years with the Bears and now has finally arrived in the sport's ultimate showcase game. James, on the other hand, slipped into the NFL through the back door, spending his first two pro seasons with the United States Football League's Washington Federals before becoming a free agent and signing with the Patriots in April of 1984. The irony here is that James has gone on to star for a franchise that fired Ron Meyer, his former Southern Methodist University coach. Raymond Berry, Meyer's replacement, was a receiver at SMU in the early 1950s.
James has the utmost respect for his Chicago counterpart, but as a Texas schoolboy his greatest admiration was reserved for another NFL running back. ``I was always a fan of Earl Campbell,'' he says of the former Houston Oiler star, who now plays for the New Orleans Saints. ``Earl is a deceiving runner. He has the speed to run away from tacklers, but he can run over them, too.''
Not too surprisingly, James has similarly blended raw speed and power, but in a manner that sometimes requires multiple viewing to be fully appreciated.
Craig, who is a solid 6 feet, 215 lbs., doesn't wow you with a lot of dazzling moves. He probably uses his blockers as well as anybody, though, and has an uncanny knack for squeezing through the smallest crevice.
James's consistency has allowed the Patriots to use a ball-control strategy, which attempts to minimize errors and maintain possession.
As the season progressed, so did James, thanks in part to his own lobbying for more frequent trips into the line. He finished with 1,227 yards, third best in the AFC and a big leap from his team-best 790 yards a year ago.
Despite the Patriots' solid running attack, many observers question whether they can crack Chicago's brick-wall defense, which in its two playoff games held the Giants' red-hot Joe Morris to 32 yards and the Rams' talented Eric Dickerson to 36. Dickerson and James, incidentally, shared running chores in college for SMU's Mustangs and were known as the ``Pony Express.''
James, too, has experienced the Bears' wrath, gaining just 5 yards on seven carries during a 20-7 loss to Chicago in the season's second week. He did manage, however, to score on a 90-yard pass play.
Though the Patriot offense has improved dramatically since then, Craig knows persistence will be a virtue Sunday. ``The Bears are going to win their share of the battles, but we can't get discouraged,'' he says. And as he can testify, one big play is all it takes to register 6 points.