Football Dimorphism

What’s that little kid doing on the field?

Football is the ultimate “specialty” sport. Nowhere else do you see such a wide range of sizes, speeds and body types from 350 lb. lineman to diminutive Running Backs. In the NFL, size matters, but not always in the way one would think.

When studying the change of NFL body types over the last 20 years we’ve seen two overall trends: 1) Tackles and guards are getting much bigger and heavier (click here for ESPN article on weight increase and average life expectancy decrease of NFL players) and 2) Running Backs have gotten smaller and more compact.

While most people recognize that linemen are getting bigger, they often neglect the response by RBs in the last 20 years. Barry Sanders, probably the greatest pure RB ever, stood at a whopping 5 foot 7 1/2 inches. Swag:

Now if only they could go back and remaster NFL film magically transforming it into HD glory. I mean, I can’t even tell who’s playing. What’s the score?…savages. If you showed NFL fans NFL Redzone 20 years ago, I’m pretty sure they’d poop themselves. Anyway, I had a point somewhere about Running Backs getting smaller in lieu of larger Linemen.

That’s not to say that there are exceptions to the rule. Large Backs such as Adrian Peterson, Peyton Hillis and Brandon Jacobs have made their careers of off steam-rolling Linebackers and even DE’s–but still haven’t had much success with gargantuan DTs. Football is won in the trenches and you’re only as good as the guys in front of you.

When you want to pound the ball, it makes sense to add some size up front, but you can’t always pound the ball. Defenses tend to figure it out. Peterson makes up for it with his blazing speed, Jacobs uses his immense weight and size, while Hillis succeeds based on his “heart”…whatever that means.

Good luck getting thru this duo.

Simply put, there just isn’t enough “space” for a RB to fit through nowadays. With so much meat up front, the holes and gaps become a lot, lot smaller. You might be super-fast, but it will do you little good running into the combined 750-pound wall that is Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth up front (that is going to be real fun to watch this year, c’mon Jets, ground and pound?).

So as Tackles get bigger, RBs have responded by getting smaller and more compact. Density mixed with speed and agility. With huge bodies on both sides, these guys have the ability to hide behind the O-line, and shoot the gap (however small it may be) when a space opens up. The second they see daylight they’re gone and into the secondary, running at full speed. Out of the top 10 RBs last year we’ve got the following guys coming it at 5’10 or shorter: Rice, Charles, Turner, Mendenhall, Johnson, Jones-Drew and Bradshaw.

Don’t believe me? Well I give you Danny “little man” Woodhead. A stud in DII College Football, this undersized 5 foot 7 Back was cut by the Jets, and embraced by the Patriots. When he gets the ball and has someone big in front of him, it’s a first down, if not a TD. Defenses lose him behind the Pats mighty O-line until it’s two late and his a step and a half behind you. If you can’t run through em, run around them. Go little man, GO!

Then there is the ever prolific Darren Sproles. One of the most entertaining guys to watch on the field. He’s a game changer. He makes huge plays and does it standing 5 foot 7 (do you notice a height theme here?). Watch this 72 yard punt return in the season opener against the Packers (a very solid D and special teams crew). He just put on the afterburners and SEE YA: