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November 04, 2005|Sam Farmer

Kansas City has Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson. Miami has Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown. Pittsburgh has Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker.

More and more these days, when it comes to NFL running backs, it takes at least two to bango.

As defensive players get bigger and faster, and hits become even more violent, teams are going to tandems to get through the season. St. Louis relies mainly on Steven Jackson but still uses Marshall Faulk a lot. And Carolina slugs away with Stephen Davis, then changes speeds with DeShaun Foster.

There are still a lot of teams that rely almost exclusively on one back -- among them San Diego with LaDainian Tomlinson, Seattle with Shaun Alexander and Houston with Domanick Davis -- but saddling one back that kind of load can be like working without a net.

Consider the New York Jets, whose 32-year-old back, Curtis Martin, has accounted for 81% of the team's running-back carries over the last four-plus seasons. Martin, who won the 2004 league rushing title, has cooled considerably this season and isn't even in the top 20 in rushing yards. (He's 21st with 461 yards in 137 carries.)

Granted, the Jets thought they would have a surgically repaired Chad Pennington running their offense at quarterback, not a cryogenically preserved Vinny Testaverde. But they felt good enough about the life in Martin's legs to let backup LaMont Jordan sign with Oakland. Backing up Martin now are a couple of unknowns, Cedric Houston and Derrick Blaylock, who almost never touch the ball.

Working the two-back system as if they invented it, the Steelers run the ball a league-high 57.5% of the time and get major productivity out of Parker and Bettis. Pittsburgh's pattern is to give Parker the ball in the first and third quarters, use primarily Bettis in the second quarter, and split the carries in the fourth.

"You want to be able to pound it inside and pound it outside," Bettis said. "Willie's definitely the home-run hitter. You might call me the bunter or the sacrifice-fly guy sometimes."

Agent Leigh Steinberg, who represents Miami's Williams, said for a two-back system to work in harmony, each player has to put his team before his pride -- and before his wallet.

"They have to make a fundamental decision to subordinate their ego," he said, "because so many of the judgments of player worth are made based on statistics. The decisions that go into the calculations of honors, the ability to make a Pro Bowl, an all-pro team, are primarily made on the basis of statistics."

Relying on two or more backs is not a new concept. NFL teams did it frequently throughout the 1970s, and fairly often in the 1980s. However, in the 1990s the trend shifted to more of a one-back star system. Now, it seems, many teams are collecting at least two highly talented players at the position and trying to get both of them the ball.

It isn't an easy decision for a coach to take the ball out of the hands of his star back and give it to an up-and-coming youngster. But many coaches think it's an essential part of the team-building process.

"I asked that question when I coached the Giants," Jim Fassel, Baltimore's offensive coordinator, told Newsday. "I have Tiki [Barber], our MVP and our best player. How do I have him standing next to me on the sideline? But if you have confidence in the backup guy and he has a role to play, it keeps the other guy fresh. It can be incorporated, no question about it."

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Now that they've started to dispel the notion they're soft on defense, the Indianapolis Colts need to take the next step and prove they can win at New England. Until that happens, they are just another AFC pretender.

That said, Coach Tony Dungy is trying to downplay the belief that Monday night's game against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium is a critical litmus test for his team.

"Really, for us, it's a big game in that it's going to be on Monday night," Dungy told reporters in a conference call this week. "It's against the defending Super Bowl champions, but it's still one game.

"If we win the game, we certainly don't want to feel like all of a sudden we've arrived, or we beat the New England Patriots so our season's over, we can just wait for the playoffs. That will get us in trouble."

But losing Monday could be a big psychological hurdle. The Colts have lost six in a row to New England, including a pair playoff losses at Foxborough that ended their last two seasons.

No one needs to tell Peyton Manning what this game means. He can just glance at the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated.

"When the game is on the cover of major magazines before the game," he said, "that tells you it's a pretty big game."

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