Nobody hit Doc Patton like a linebacker on a blind-side blitz.

Nobody dropped the baton.

Nobody ran out of the exchange lane, threw a shoe, pulled a hamstring, twisted an ankle, lost a contact lens, or overslept and showed up late.

For the USA Red 4x100-meter men's relay team, that made for a successful Saturday at the Penn Relays.

In other news, Patton, Mike Rodgers, Justin Gatlin, and Walter Dix also won their U.S. vs. the World race in a blistering time of 38.40 seconds.

"I was just happy to finish a relay," said Patton, the team's battle-scarred veteran. "I've had some problems in the past."

The 4x100 relay used to showcase this country's sprinters as well as the standard of excellence and spirit of cooperation that once defined Team USA at the Olympics.

Now, the 4x100 has come to symbolize the decline of American track in relation to the rest of the world - and to underscore the dysfunction, distrust, and disappointment that marked USA track and field at the 2008 Games in Beijing.

But 2012 is a new year, an Olympic year. USA Red and USA Blue went 1-2 in the 4x100 relay on a cool, cloudy afternoon at Franklin Field - passing the baton without incident, quieting the pro-Jamaican crowd, and raising golden expectations for this summer in London.

"I don't want to say anything about past relay teams," USA Red second leg Gatlin said. "But there's no prima donnas on this team."

Boy, it's a good thing Gatlin didn't want to criticize past 4x100 teams. Otherwise, he might have suggested there were prima donnas on those squads.

But his point is valid. The United States hasn't won just one Olympic gold medal in the 4x100 since 1992 - the same number as Jamaica as well as those other sprint factories, Britain and Canada - because of a shortage of speed.

American sprint relay teams have been beaten by dropped batons, bad exchanges, and bad luck. When the U.S. men's and women's 4x100 teams both dropped the baton during preliminary heats in Beijing in 2008, women's star Lauren Williams said, "Somebody somewhere's got a voodoo doll of the U.S."

The 2008 debacle was one of the reasons that a high-profile task force, led by nine-time gold medalist Carl Lewis, took a hard look at USA track and field's performance in Beijing and issued a scathing report in February 2009, citing a "culture of mistrust" and "chaos" in the national organization's relay program.

Things didn't get much better in 2009, as the U.S. team was disqualified in the 4x100 in the world championships for a bad exchange. And at the 2011 world championships in September, Patton was flattened by Britain's Harry Aikines-Aryeetey - who is built like an NFL linebacker - and suffered a dislocated collarbone.

"You have to be like a defensive back in football," said Patton, keeping alive the analogy. "You have to put it behind you. I cried. But I had to move on."

It's a special race, the 4x100 - equal parts speed and synchronicity, footwork and teamwork.

It used to be a showcase event for sprinters in this country, especially at the Olympics. It was a capstone of signature performances by Jesse Owens in 1936, by Bob Hayes in 1964, by Lewis in 1984 and 1992.

But it's tricky. It's a challenge to get that baton around the track, to get all those moving parts to click into gear, to get four divas to sing in harmony.

"It's a lot more complicated than people think," said Dix, USA Red's anchor. "You have a man coming in at 25 m.p.h. and a man going out at 20 m.p.h."

Everything clicked with both teams on Saturday. The USA Blue team of Ivory Williams, Shawn Crawford, Trell Kimmons, and Ryan Bailey won the first heat in 38.47 seconds. The USA Red team dusted the Jamaicans, who had won this event at three of the last four Penn Relays, in the featured second heat.

"Our mission was to get the stick around the track," Gatlin said.

The bar will be set a little higher in London. The competition will be a lot stiffer, especially since the Jamaicans are likely to have the world's fastest man, Usain Bolt, as their anchor.

But every winning relay begins with that first step. For Team USA, a swift spin around the track without incident was a good start.

Contact Phil Anastasia
at 856-779-3223, panastasia@phillynews.com, or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports