As far back as the early 1990s, Joe Gibbs remembers thinking Earnest Byner would make a great football coach.
"I remember Earnest Byner would run a play [during practice] and if he made a mistake, he'd get up and say, 'I know, I know' before I had to say anything," Gibbs said. "He had tremendous pride."
Last January, Byner signed on with Gibbs to serve as the Redskins' running backs coach. Byner hopes to have plenty of pride in his stable of running backs, a group that includes Pro Bowler Clinton Portis and young players Ladell Betts, Rock Cartwright, Sultan McCullough and John Simon.
Byner is gearing up this week for his first NFL training camp as an assistant coach.
As a player, Byner played in Washington from 1989-93 and helped the Redskins win Super Bowl XXVI in 1991. He is fifth on the team's all-time rushing list with 3,950 rushing yards and was named one of the 70 Greatest Redskins in 2002. After his playing days, he served as director of player development in the Baltimore Ravens organization.
Byner has had designs on coaching for several years. In 2001 and 2002, he considered contacting Marty Schottenheimer about jobs in Washington and San Diego. But Byner felt he wasn't quite ready. Last year, he spoke with both Marvin Lewis and Jack Del Rio about coaching jobs in Cincinnati and Jacksonville, respectively.
In January, when Joe Gibbs returned to Washington, the timing was perfect for Byner to start his NFL coaching career.
"I heard Coach Gibbs was coming back and so I started to make some calls because I'd been thinking coaching full-time for about three years," Byner said. "I had [Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome] call [Redskins vice president of football operations] Vinny Cerrato about a recommendation. Then Vinny called me three days later and I came on down [to interview]."
The opportunity to learn from a Hall of Fame coach in Gibbs was simply too good to pass up.
"I liked everything about Coach Gibbs when I played for him--the kind of coach he is, the kind of leader he is, the kind of person he is," Byner said. "That's the thing I wanted to be a part of--the overall chemistry of what he's been able to achieve over the years.
"I'm looking forward to learning as much as I can from all of the coaches. I told them I'm going to bleed them like a hog."
In Washington, Byner has begun to tutor Portis, one of the Redskins' key off-season acquisitions. During mini-camps, Byner and Portis spent considerable time working together on the intricacies of Joe Gibbs' offense.
Considering Portis's talent, there's not a lot of work to be done. Portis has rushed for 3,099 yards in just two NFL seasons and has 71 catches for 678 yards. Overall, he has 31 touchdowns in his career.
Byner expects Portis to be a "tempo-setter" for the offense.
"Clinton has great explosion, which is key for him," Byner said. "Obviously he's the kind of player who can take it the distance at any time. But he also plays with great temperament. When he doesn't have the ball in his hands, he's hustling.
"So when you have a guy who's a big-time player, who plays every down like it's his last down and can infuse the rest of the team with that kind of energy, it's a positive."
In a 14-year NFL career, Byner played for Cleveland, Washington and Baltimore.
In Cleveland, his teams earned consecutive trips to the AFC Championship game in 1986 and '87, losing both times to Denver. Byner's fourth-quarter fumble in the 1987 contest--referred to in football lore as "The Fumble"--was a key turning point in the 1987 game.
Byner would overcome that play in the years to come. In a 1989 draft-day trade, former Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard acquired Byner from Cleveland for running back Mike Oliphant. It turned out to be a steal for the Redskins.
In December 1990, Gibbs turned to Byner to help propel the Redskins to the playoffs. Byner responded with four consecutive 100-yard rushing games and the Redskins averaged 176 rushing yards per game.
A year later, in the Redskins' Super Bowl run, Byner rushed for 1,048 yards and five TDs while hauling in 34 passes for 308 yards. In Super Bowl XXVI, he scored the first touchdown of the game on a 10-yard pass from Mark Rypien. The Redskins, of course, went on to win the championship over the Buffalo Bills 37-24.
"If you're an athlete, you love winning," Byner said, reflecting on his playing career. "To finally be able to get to the Super Bowl and win, it's still very difficult to put those emotions into words. But it was exhilarating. To be a champion and to play the way we played at that particular time, there was nothing better."
Byner finished his career in 1997 with the Ravens, compiling 8,261 rushing yards, 512 receptions for 4,605 yards and 71 touchdowns rushing and receiving.