Publish date:


Small running backs made big gains in '89, a trend that will continue

Paul Brown, 82, the venerable vice-president and general manager of the Cincinnati Bengals, still chuckles at the sweet irony of one of the last player-for-player trades he made, back on May 29, 1984. He dealt six-foot, 270-pound problem back Pete Johnson to San Diego for James Brooks, a 5'9½", 182-pound running back. After being drafted by the Chargers in '81, Brooks had been most unhappy to learn that his primary role would be to block for Chuck Muncie, a man 50 pounds heavier.

For one thing, Brown, who has never been a big fan of trading, says it might be the best deal he has made in 40 years in the NFL. For another, he did something many of the young personnel bucks in the league thought was silly. The prevailing thought in the NFL then was the bigger the back the better; probably all but a few teams would have seen Brooks as a return specialist, with spot duty in the backfield. Brown looked at Brooks and saw an every-down back, a latter-day Buddy Young, the 5'4" dynamo of the Baltimore Colts in the early '50s.

"There's always been a place in my brand of football for a small, low-gravity back," Brown says. "Since I saw Buddy Young, I've seen how much the little backs can bother big men. Jimmy Brooks and Buddy are basically the same kind of back, so thick and so quick."

Brown didn't know it then, but as had happened so often before in his football career, he was seeing the future.

Entering the '90s, small backs—ballcarriers under 5'10"—are very big in NFL game plans. Players like Barry Sanders (5'8", 203 pounds) of the Detroit Lions and Dalton Hilliard (5'8", 210) of the New Orleans Saints have power and workhorse durability that can dominate a game; the likes of Brooks and Eric Met-calf (5'9", 180) of the Cleveland Browns use speed and quickness for game-breaking capability; and a miniback, such as Dave Meggett (5'7", 180) of the New York Giants, offers the versatility to provide instant offense in specific game situations.

In April, Steve Broussard (5'6½", 201) of Washington State and Dexter Carter (5'8½", 169) of Florida State were the first-round draft picks of the Atlanta Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers, respectively. It was the first time two backs under 5'9" have been chosen in the opening round in the same year.

In short: Short people got every reason to live in today's NFL.

And we're not talking pip-squeaks here. Sanders and Hilliard have thighs as thick as the biggest linemen on their teams. When Brooks lifts weights, he works out with his offensive linemen. Never before in the history of the league have so many short running backs been so durable, so productive and so desirable.

The NFL's leading rusher in '89, with 1,480 yards, was one of the biggest backs in the league, 6'1", 256-pound Christian Okoye of the Kansas City Chiefs. But he needed 90 more carries to take the rushing title from Sanders by only 10 yards.

"Here's what's happened in our league," Falcon coach Jerry Glanville says. "Fifteen years ago, you designed formations in a teacup. Twenty-two men, one cup. Tight. Today, you don't make a living running over people. You make a living spreading formations so your offensive talent hits air, not bodies."

In a league where trends develop slowly, this one is catching on, but it certainly is not to the stage of, say, Buddy Ryan's 4-6 defense in the mid-to-late '80s. Moreover, the third-down weapon that Meggett became for the Giants last year won't necessarily alter the thinking of some offensive brains, for example Los Angeles Ram offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese. The Rams are perfectly happy—and winning—with Robert Delpino or Buford McGee, both six-feet, 205 and very reliable, in the backfield and with lumbering tight end Pete Holohan as the primary third-down receiver.

But taken as a whole, there is much more than a coincidental increase in the use of short backs. To measure their impact, SI asked the Elias Sports Bureau to calculate the total yardage from scrimmage (rushing and receiving yards) gained by all running backs in the NFL annually since the 1970 merger of the AFL and NFL, and then to calculate the percentage of those yards gained by backs under 5'10". The result: In '89, the small backs gained a higher percentage of yardage than they had in any year since 1970. The figures for small backs in the '80s:



Just 5'6½", Broussard was picked 20th In the draft, by Atlanta.