Wednesday, February 20, 2008

NFL Combine: the prospects for the short player

Modern football has always loved big players because large and fast men tend to crush smaller ones, or so goes the theory, and when the National Football League’s yearly meat market called the “combine” starts tomorrow (Thursday) in Indianapolis, there will definitely be a premium on huge men with quick feet, big paws, and a “mean streak.” As the average weight of an NFL player has gone up—the bigger the better—size plays an important part of who gets selected the earliest in April’s draft, and thus receives the most money. Prospective college players will spend the next six days sprinting, bench pressing, jumping vertically, jumping broadly, and doing specific drills to test agility, and take something called the Wonderlik test to measure their intelligence. Stripped down, NFL scouts will ogle over who looks like an NFL player and measure biceps, calf muscles, and even hand size. The average weight in the NFL has grown by 10 percent since 1985 to a current average of 248 pounds with the heaviest position, offensive tackle, jumping from 281 pounds two decades ago to 318 pounds. As Michael Lewis wrote in his book The Blind Side, offensive lineman, particularly left tackles, must be big and fast to combat defensive linemen who are trying to knock the bejesus out of the quarterback.

But the influx of larger lineman has created something rather ironic: a need for super-quick—often vertically-challenged--skill position guys. The fast-and-big defensive linemen have caused panic. Desperate quarterbacks need to dump off the ball or get sacked. So NFL scouts are not exactly pursuing little people, but they also aren’t shunning them. There is even a growing tolerance for smaller receivers in a league which has never been very fond of short pass catchers.


There’s an old NFL cliche that the “league is a copycat league.” If something works, all of the teams tend to imitate it. The Super Bowl’s leading receiver was the 5’ 9” Wes Welker (11 receptions for 103 yards), the league’s most exciting player last year was the brilliant and smallish returner Devin Hester (5’11) who returned two kick returns and four punt returns for touchdowns, and added two more TDs off of pass receptions. While the Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith (5’9”) had a down year—he did have banged-up and elderly Vinny Testaverde trying to throw to him—Smith is still one of the NFL’s elite receivers.

Running Backs

While shorter running backs have always received a degree of acceptance, arguably the most entertaining running back was the really short Maurice Jones-Drew (5’7”), who ran for nine TDs, sprinted for a 96-yard kick-off return in one playoff game, and leveled tough-guy San Diego Charger linebacker Shawne Merriman in a YouTube classic gleefully celebrated by everyone with a Napoleonic complex. Jones has paved the way for smaller recruits, like Ray Rice, a 5’9” running back from Rutgers, who is a legitimate first round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. (Some scouts are saying he’s too small but, Rice ran for 24 TDs in three years, and might just be the Maurice Jones-Drew of this draft; or, as someone mentioned the other day on Sirius Satellite's NFL Radio--the best source on the radio for insight into pro football--he has similarities to Tiki Barber.)


Given the acceptance of shorter running backs and receivers, you might imagine that size would become less of an issue at quarterback, but that's not true and it probably never will be. In some cases, NFL scouts have overly-emphasized height and left excellent players off their rosters because of it. Guys like Heisman winner Troy Smith (6’0”) was a very good college QB and threw a good ball, but ended up going in the fifth round in last year’s draft, carrying on a decades long tradition, in which half-pint quarterbacks have little or no shot in the pros. Tall quarterbacks have stronger arms, can see over linemen, make their reads, and complete passes. While that is the prevailing sentiment, certain quarterbacks, given the chance, can also get the job done too in their own creative ways. A short history lesson: back in 1985 Donald Trump owned the New Jersey Generals of the upstart, and now defunct, United States Football League. The Donald approached Doug Flutie, the ultimate short QB, to sign with his team. It was an audacious move. Flutie, 5’10” in cleats, was coming out of Boston College, and he was a legend, especially to the more diminutive among football fans. But despite Flutie’s clutch plays in college, unparallel leadership, and Heisman Trophy, which is awarded to the best college player, Flutie was considered too elfish for the National Football League and he was drafted in the eleventh round--the 285th player selected. Trump took advantage of the NFL’s shocking slight, and Flutie took a step down to the USFL for three years, eventually ending up in Canada. Small quarterbacks still face the same size bias that greeted Flutie, who later in his career would prove the doubters wrong—sort of--when he returned to the NFL, make a Pro Bowl, win the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award, and lead the Bills to the 1998 and 1999 playoffs, where he was inexplicably benched for Rob Johnson, a six-foot-five perfect specimen who ended up losing the playoff game to Tennessee in what would become known as the “Music City Miracle.” Even a great clutch QB like Flutie who should have been accepted into the NFL on merit, couldn’t get past height discrimination, and his career, however successful, will always feel like a missed opportunity. Maybe, with the way modern offenses are run, small QBs should now have more of a chance to show their skills, but it is doubtful that the prototype will ever change.

Short people will have to settle for the receiver, secondary (the Indianapolis Colts’ standout defensive back Bob Sanders is 5’8”), and running back positions. Running backs are not necessarily at a disadvantage. Linemen constantly complain that Maurice Jones-Drew is difficult to see. Where the hell is that little squirt? And there is a tradition of great, shorter backs. Modern receivers can be on the short side because they are given more leeway when they go out on a pattern: by rule defenders can’t be as physical. Showing the growing influence of under six-foot receivers, Deion Branch (5’9”) was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX. As for small quarterbacks, they are not—and probably never will be--greeted with high-fives. Although in many offenses, a QB often rolls out, making it not such a disadvantage because he doesn't have to jump or get on his little-bitty tip-toes to see over the line. For example, Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Jeff Garcia, 6’1”, has taken teams to the playoffs on his, by NFL standards, small shoulders, but his stature still creates the impression that he is too small.

Football will always be a game that favors large men. Of the 209 players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, only 26 players are under 6 feet, and many of those stars competed in bygone days when people were smaller and men of the gridiron played both offense and defense making it more of an endurance sport. But Walter Payton and Barry Sanders were all under 6 feet tall, proving running back greatness doesn’t have height restrictions. We’ll have to wait to see if the newer crop of short receivers will also make it to Canton someday. Picking players, large or small, has always been an inexact science. Football, like any sport, is also about heart, which any announcer will tell you, can’t be measured.


Blogger William Plock said...

Very interesting Gary. I will be curious to see if the smaller Elvis Dumervil of the Broncos continues his success. He had enough sacks last year to garner pro bowl attention but never did and I think it's because of his size. Announcers always treat him a little like a side show and seem to be amazed everytime he makes a play. He can't just be a good player, he has to be good "undersized" player, like he can't possibly continue to play that good...

5:56 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home