Eric Dickerson is like most of the other great running backs in one respect. From one year to the next, backs don't normally improve very much. Remember O. J. Simpson and Herschel Walker as college underclassmen? Good running backs are creatures of instinct.
Dickerson, who ran for 150 yards Monday night, ran the same way at SMU, which is why the coach of the Rams, John Robinson, went after him. He has run that way since he grew up and became a 220-pounder (at least) standing 6 feet 3 inches (at least) years ago.
Where Dickerson differs from most other runners is in his extraordinary blend of speed, power and elusiveness. He is almost as fast as the fastest, as strong as the strongest, as tricky as the trickiest. Probably no other back is that fast and that strong and that slippery.
There has probably never been a runner who combines so many skills with an instinctive awareness to use whatever has to be used--speed, power or elusiveness--at any given instant.
The Rams (3-0) are playing as if they might be a team of destiny:
--On opening day, they met a Denver club that wound up playing without four of its eight defensive backs, including three starters. Thus, the Broncos couldn't use their five-back defenses on decisive pass plays.
--In their second game, the Rams played against a rookie quarterback, Randall Cunningham of Nevada Las Vegas, in his first pro start for Philadelphia.
--On the key play of their third victory, after the Rams had moved ahead, 14-7, Seattle fumbled away the kickoff on the Seahawk two-yard line. The easy touchdown made it 21-7 and took the Seahawks out of the game.
That is often the way champions get things done in a competitive league.
Would John Elway have been the first quarterback drafted in 1983 if NFL scouts had known then what they know now about Dan Marino?
That question will get something of a game-day answer in Denver Sunday when Marino comes in with the Miami Dolphins (2-1) to meet Elway and the Denver Broncos (2-1).
The Denver defensive backs who missed the Ram game three weeks ago are expected to return, all except Dennis Smith, the safety the Broncos need the most.
So Marino may win this one. But maybe not. Talented quarterbacks, unlike running backs, keep improving in the NFL--and Elway is no exception.
Five of the six quarterbacks picked in the first round of the NFL's 1983 draft are starting.
They are Tony Eason of New England, Ken O'Brien of the Jets and Jim Kelly of the USFL's New Jersey Generals, plus Elway and Marino.
The only nonstarter is Todd Blackledge of Kansas City, whose offense was shut out by Miami Sunday, 31-0.
Dave Wilson, formerly of Illinois, is still holding on as the New Orleans Saint quarterback against the challenges of Richard Todd, for whom the Saints gave up a first draft choice, and Bobby Hebert, to whom they have paid or promised $3.5 million.
This week, after Wilson had led the Saints to a 20-13 victory over Tampa Bay, Saint Coach Bum Phillips said: "What I really liked about him and appreciated about him is that he didn't let last week get him down."
The previous week, Wilson had completed 2 of 22 with 2 interceptions.
Perhaps that says something about Todd and Hebert.
A team on the way up, Chicago, will play one that seems to be on the way down, Washington, at Soldier Field Sunday.
The Bears had already begun their move last winter when they upset Washington in the playoffs, 23-19. They sacked Redskin quarterback Joe Theismann seven times that afternoon, and he hasn't been the same since.
The other day, Theismann told Washington reporters: "In a way, I'm almost glad we're playing the Bears this week. We're gonna find out what kind of guts we have."
Charlie Joiner of the San Diego Chargers, who at 37 has played in more NFL games than any wide receiver, still hasn't lost a step, Charger quarterback Dan Fouts maintains.
"I can honestly say that Charlie hasn't changed since the first time we met in 1976," Fouts said. "Oh, he might have a little less hair on top."
NFL defensive coaches have said for years that they can stop any quarterback who can't throw the long pass accurately.
Such a defect in an otherwise capable passer enables the defense to tighten its coverages in the shorter ranges while largely ignoring the possibility of a bomb.
The unique thing about Joe Montana is the success he has in the San Francisco offense with an arm that is too weak and too inaccurate to reach a deep sideline target, or even the relatively easier bomb target down the middle.
Some coaches would look at Montana and say: "I can't win with this guy."
In fact, it is because he lacks a classic NFL arm that Montana was passed over by every team until the third round of the 1979 draft.
The explanation for Montana's achievements with the 49ers is that his coach, Bill Walsh, has designed an offense that fits him.
Years ago at San Diego, Walsh did the same for Dan Fouts--who is as different from Montana as a quarterback can be and still excel in the same sport.
To a degree that is insufficiently appreciated, a coach and quarterback are a team. Good passers have a tough time winning without good coaches. On the other side of the coin, it can be said of good coaches that they almost always have--almost always find--good quarterbacks.