|10-06-2006, 01:21 PM||#1|
Join Date: Mar 2004
Teams embracing idea of small ball
By Len Pasquarelli
ATLANTA -- In his 16 seasons as an NFL running backs coach, Ollie Wilson has worked with Pro Bowl ball carriers of every shape, size and physical dimension.
One of the league's top running backs tutors, Wilson has had big backs, such as Natrone Means, Jamal Anderson and the late Craig "Ironhead" Heyward. He's mentored in-between tailbacks, like LaDainian Tomlinson. And currently in his second tour of duty with the Atlanta Falcons, sandwiched around a stint in San Diego, his charges include mighty-mite Warrick Dunn, the smallest starter in the league, but arguably the NFL's toughest tailback pound for pound.
Having watched all those players rush for over 1,000 yards at least once in their careers, and earn trips to the Pro Bowl, Wilson has concluded this: In a league where the bigger-is-better mentality permeates just about everything, and is often a cornerstone mind-set for personnel decisions, size really doesn't matter very much, at least not at the tailback position.
"Certainly not in terms of skill level," said Wilson, who has played a major role in helping construct an Atlanta offense that led the NFL in rushing yards the past two seasons and is atop the league again, averaging nearly 40 yards per game more than No. 2 San Diego. "The one area you worry about is durability. And so, while Warrick doesn't particularly like it, we monitor his touches pretty closely. But as far as skill set, no, I don't think [size] is much of a factor now."
That seems to be, in a league where the pendulum swings back and forth on the issue of running back size, the predominant sentiment right now. It's not as if the league is going through a period in which tailbacks are shrinking dramatically, as evidenced by the fact the average dimensions for the 32 starters in the NFL this season is 5-foot-11 and 218.4 pounds. But there clearly is less prejudice toward the smaller backs who once might have been eliminated from every-down consideration.
"It goes back and forth," said Dick Hoak, who has been Pittsburgh's running backs coach since 1972, following a 10-year career as a Steelers tailback. "The [game] evolves, no doubt about it, and certain positions evolve with it. Quickness and speed, those are things that will always be constants."
The average weight of the league's starters this season is only a couple pounds less than in 2005. Part of the reason is that a few holdover starters, like current league-leading rusher Willis McGahee of Buffalo, came to camp this summer 10-12 pounds lighter. But the average size for 2006 is nearly seven pounds less and an inch shorter than a decade ago, so the evolution Hoak refers to seems to favor tailbacks who in the past might have been stereotyped as part-time contributors.
Of the current group of starters, six check in at under 5-10 and seven weigh 208 pounds or less. The top 15 rushers through the first 10 weeks of the '06 season, excluding Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, include five players -- Dunn, Frank Gore (San Francisco), Tatum Bell (Denver), Julius Jones (Dallas) and Willie Parker (Pittsburgh) -- who, by any standard, would be considered "small" backs.
It's another indication that at the tailback position, small ball isn't nearly as frowned upon as it was only a few years ago.
Credit backs like Dunn, Tiki Barber of the New York Giants and Brian Westbrook of the Philadelphia Eagles for the change. Barber and Dunn, in particular, have demonstrated that smaller backs are more than capable of assuming a full-time workload. At a mere 5-9 and 180 pounds, Dunn has seen his rushes increase over each of the last three seasons, at a point when the over-30 tailback is supposed to be slowing down. Barber, who like Dunn is 31, has averaged 315.3 carries and 376.3 touches since 2002, and displayed no sign of physical erosion in any of those seasons.
Westbrook (5-8, 203 pounds) hasn't gotten the carries that Dunn and Barber have logged, but no one does in the Andy Reid-designed offense. The Eagles' star is more a classic space tailback, a player at his best in the open field, where he can utilize his elusiveness to make linebackers and safeties look silly. But the fifth-year veteran makes the most of his rushes -- he ran for 117 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries in a Sept. 24 victory over San Francisco -- and probably could handle a lot more.
From 2001 to 2005, Barber has had 32 outings in which he posted 20 or more carries and three games of 30-plus attempts. Since relocating to Atlanta in 2002, after starting his career in Tampa Bay, Dunn has become a work(quarter)horse, of sorts, with 14 games of 20-plus rushes. In a copycat league where imitation is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery, teams see that kind of production from smaller backs and figure they need to get on board with the latest trend.
"It used to be that teams would look at running backs like me," the 5-10, 200-pound Barber said, "and immediately think, 'OK, he's a third-down guy.' Or, like, 'Well, he's a change-of-pace or complementary guy.' Slowly but surely, by handling the heavier workloads and being productive, proving that we could be durable, we've changed that narrow way of thinking about the smaller tailbacks."
In addition to the starters, there are a lot of complementary tailbacks who are more munchkin-sized, guys like New England's Kevin Faulk and Seattle's Maurice Morris. But there is also a new wave of undersized runners, such as New Orleans' Reggie Bush and Carolina's DeAngelo Williams, who figure to become every-down players in the near future. Parker, who earned a starting spot in Steelers camp last summer and then broke open Super Bowl XL with a 75-yard touchdown run early in the second half, began as a situational back and gradually expanded his role.
The great debate in Pittsburgh this week, rather timely given the subject matter of this column, was over how many carries Parker (5-10, 209 pounds) might be able to handle this year. Coach Bill Cowher went into the season hoping to spell Parker, in much the same manner he used the retired Jerome Bettis in 2005, but has done an about-face, it seems. Parker has 71 carries in three games and, according to Cowher, might be asked to maintain that pace.
"I'm not going to jeopardize trying to win a football game [by limiting Parker's carries]," Cowher said. "It's something that I said earlier, and it's something that we have to keep in mind as we go along and see how this unfolds. We'll continue to monitor it but, as for right now, he's fine."
In fact, in two of three games this season, Parker has 29 or more carries. Around the league, the old reluctance to use smaller backs as workhorses is diminishing even more than the average dimensions of the starting tailbacks. There have been 21 games so far in which a player logged 25 or more rushes, and 10 of those efforts came from backs who are below the league average in terms of height and weight.
"What it's done," Wilson said, "is [debunk] a lot of the stereotypes. You know, you can really outthink yourself in this game sometimes. I've been in situations where we looked at our backs, and saw the trend around the league, and just figured, 'Well, we must be wrong in what we're doing.' But there is no right or wrong way. Whatever works for you is the way you should do it. And right now, there are a lot of smaller backs who are working out pretty nicely for their teams."
|10-06-2006, 02:04 PM||#3|
Join Date: Oct 2001
Location: The Backside of the Internet
RBBC is more of a change of pace thing than a workhorse thing IMO. Hit the guy with the workhorse, then counter with the speed guy.