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Downs, Walker replace Hampton, Wheatley in Giants backfield

December 19, 1996

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) _ The dilemma facing Dan Reeves at the start of the season was how to find enough time for both Rodney Hampton and Tyrone Wheatley in the New York Giants’ multimillion-dollar backfield.

For what will probably be his final game as the Giants coach, Reeves has a new problem. No Wheatley, no Hampton and a bargain basement backfield that’s now going to feature Gary Downs and Robert Walker against the New England Patriots.

Downs, a former Giant who was unemployed for the first half of the season after being cut by Denver, signed for a second stint with New York in November. Walker was to be signed Thursday after spending the year on the Giants’ practice squad.

Downs has the only statistics, seven carries for 42 yards and three catches for 20.

Reeves plans to help the two free agents by letting fullback Charles Way carry the ball more and maybe even play a little halfback.

Downs, a third-round draft pick of the Giants who was cut by Reeves in 1995, missed a couple of assignments and lost a fumble playing most of the second half last week after Wheatley (ankle) and Hampton (knee) were hurt against New Orleans.

However, Downs also had the Giants’ second-longest run from scrimmage last week when he ran for 27 yards.

``He’s done a really good job of picking things up and he’s had to pick it up fast because he was thrown in a role where we just tried to use him on third down. Now he’s taking plays and I feel he’s comfortable handling everything,″ Reeves said after Thursday’s practice.

Running backs coach George Sefcik thinks Downs is ready for the Patriots (10-5), who will be trying to secure a first-round playoff bye with a win. He’s also not surprised to have two free agents as his leading halfbacks.

``As long as I have been in this league, nothing surprises me,″ Sefcik said. ``It’s possible that it can be one play and your career can be over. Injuries are part of the game. You have to play with them and around them.″

After being cut by the Broncos, Downs felt his career might be over. He helped coach for a junior high school team and worked as a personal trainer in Atlanta once the season started.

``I stayed in shape like someone would call,″ he said. ``I got calls and went some places to work out, but it didn’t pan out. Some teams were looking for next year.″

The Giants called after Keith Elias was hurt, and Downs has now appeared in five games.

Walker, who went through training camp with the Giants, will probably see most of his action Saturday on special teams.

``I’m happy I finally get a chance to play,″ the West Virginia product said. ``I’ve been working and waiting for it. That was my goal the whole season. It happened the last game. I’m just happy I made it this far.″

Most of the Giants said Downs and Walker face a tough job Saturday, especially since the running game has struggled most of the season, averaging 100.4 yards.

``Not having Tyrone and Rodney can be a great excuse for us, but we’re not going to let it be one,″ said quarterback Dave Brown said.

``It’s going to be very difficult but it’s another thing you have to overcome,″ said center Brian Williams.

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