Saturday, October 02, 2010

Little Running Backs: Big Where it Counts (No, not like that)

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 26: Danny Woodhead  of the New England Patriots reacts to the cheers of fans after he into the endzone for a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on September 26, 2010 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

I was at Gillette Stadium last Sunday when Danny Woodhead got in on his first play. Getting the carry by Tom Brady and swerving around the tougher-than-anticipated Buffalo Bills defense, Woodhead seemed to appear out of nowhere.

"I didn't even see him before the snap!" exclaimed a seat neighbor.

And that's the point. Twenty years after Sports Illustrated's Peter King wrote a cover story about the emergence of the tiny running back, it's a game plan that the New England Patriots have embraced, especially in the wake of the Week 2 season-ending injury to Kevin Faulk.

But then again, Faulk is only 5-8. Maybe the Patriots have been onto this for a while.

According to reports of Gillette locker-room regulars, Woodhead's stated stature of 5-9 maybe slightly exaggerated, much like the reports of wide receiver Wes Welker's reported height of the same. (If this was hockey, we'd say they were 5-9 - on skates.) On Sunday, Woodhead was much more effective than some of his taller teammates, like the 6 foot Sammy Morris. These days, where six foot could be considered short in the NFL, it still shocks football fans to see a player smaller than 5-10.

But in a land of giants – 6 foot 2 quarterbacks, 300 pound linemen – being the smallest on the field gives Woodhead, Welker and their diminutive brothers-in-the-game distinct advantages. As King’s 1990 roundup explains, the trend hit a heyday with the emergence of Barry Sanders (who was only 5-8) and Giants playmaker Dave Megget (Wes Welker-size, skinny and short.) In the 1980s and early 1990s, NFL offenses were experimenting (the growth of the situational offense, no-huddles, running QBs) much more than they are today, and use of the smaller back was just one of the innovations of the time.

Smaller backs allow you to spread out your offense, claimed now-commentator, then Atlanta Falcons coach Jerry Glanville in 1990. “Today, you don't make a living running over people,” he told King. “You make a living spreading formations so your offensive talent hits air, not bodies."

It also is much more difficult for defenses to stop a smaller running back due to mindset. It may seem easy for a tall and wide DL to just snuff a small RB out from above like a candle, but lack of stature gives players like Woodhead two advantages over the Vince Wilfork’s of the world: low center of balance (weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down) and ability to change direction easier (it’s easier to move 180 pounds than 325.)

The other advantage of the shorter RB? Heart. Short players often are discouraged from the outset – it’s easy to wait for the growth spurt in high school JV, but when senior year comes and it still hasn’t happened, smaller guys are often encouraged to hang up the helmet. To keep working in the weight room, to keep improving their speed, to keep believing that throwing themselves up against men double their weight for a living – that takes a passion for the game of football, and a deep desire to make this dream happen, no matter the physical limitations.

Danny Woodhead proved his worth in the absence of Kevin Faulk this past Sunday, and if the Patriots are smart, they’ll continue to diversify their offense with the use of the smaller running back.

And my seat neighbor this past Sunday will just have to learn to look closer.

Kat Hasenauer Cornetta is a freelance sports writer in Boston, MA. You can find her writing at SBNation Boston, The College Baseball Blog,, and Inside Lacrosse. She also works on the Hockey on Campus radio show. Follow her on Twitter here.



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