Smaller backs hit the big-time

Conventional wisdom has long dictated that the smaller NFL running backs, the so-called "little guys" in the league, were relegated to roles as third-down backs. Stereotypes, of course, are made to be broken.

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In Week 7, at home against the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for 125 yards and had 59 yards receiving. Across the country, facing the Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush racked up 97 yards rushing and 44 yards receiving.

Former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber and current Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, now in his sixth season, were both brought into the league to serve, in theory, as third-down backs. Within two years, each was carrying the full load for his respective team as the featured back. Westbrook is currently second in the league in yards per carry and yards per game. Warrick Dunn, the 11-year veteran now with the Atlanta Falcons, has been an every-down back since he started in the league with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Someone who knows more than his fair share about the topic is former New York Giants running back, and two-time Pro Bowler, Joe Morris -- better known during his years in the NFL as "Little Joe." At 5-foot-7 and 190 pounds, in spite of having broken Jim Brown's rushing records at Syracuse University, Morris was always considered a "little guy." In fact, it took him more than two years to finally convince the Giants, through his on-the-field performance, that he could carry the load.

Ultimately, Morris became an integral part of the team's success from 1982-88. During his eight-year career (he played one final year for the Cleveland Browns in 1991), he rushed for 5,585 yards and 50 touchdowns, adding another 965 yards receiving. He rushed for more than 100 yards in 21 games (including two playoff games) and he still holds the Giants record for most touchdowns in a season with 21.

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Despite being just 5-7, Maurice Jones-Drew continues to be the Jaguars' mighty mite.

Morris had the chance to put up those numbers because he was able to convince his coaches that he could take the pounding that comes with getting the bulk of his team's carries. In 1986, the Giants' Super Bowl season, Morris had two games with 30 or more carries and averaged 22.7 attempts for the season. In a 1985 contest, he had 36 attempts.

Morris discussed what smaller backs are up against in trying to carve a place for themselves as featured backs on an NFL roster.

"First of all, someone has to believe in your ability to play the game and believe that you are able to contribute at the NFL level," he said. "In the world that we live, bigger is always better. Bigger, stronger, faster. But, when it comes to running backs, that's not necessarily true.

"You know you're smaller than everyone else," he continued, "but you don't think about it. You study and prepare like everyone else, but there's one thing you've got to do and that's play at your best level all the time because there's always somebody who's going to want to replace you."

One of the keys to not being replaced is to bring a sense of flexibility and versatility that sometimes goes beyond what even the bigger backs bring to the game with their size and ability to power through tacklers. That versatility involves the ability to cut, to run in the open field, and to have a good burst.

And, in some cases, the smaller size in itself actually has some advantages.

"A smaller running back has a better center of gravity and a better sense of balance," Morris explained. "In addition, you've prepared differently because you've always had to deal with things being bigger than you, you have to adjust to picking up bigger linemen."

However, there are plenty of linebackers who present an unfair and often insurmountable challenge for even the bigger running backs, in which case size becomes a moot point regardless of who is carrying the ball.

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Especially with Deuce McAllister out, Reggie Bush will be relied upon more to carry the rushing load for New Orleans.

"Taking on a linebacker who may be 6-2 or 6-3 and weighs 245 pounds is a difficult chore even for most offensive linemen," Morris said. "So that's not a fair matchup for any running back. You wouldn't put a running back on guys like Adalius Thomas or Shawne Merriman. They can overpower even offensive linemen."

The other advantage that the "little guys" have, as humorous as it may seem, is that it is not uncommon for a defense to actually have a hard time stopping a smaller running back simply because … they cannot see him.

Morris explained, "If someone's in a traffic pattern where people are blocking for him, and he gets behind the offensive line, then you've got to look inside, you've got to look outside. Sometimes a linebacker just can't find a small running back. He may know where the play is going, but unless you can see the back hit the hole, you can't stop him."

However, at the end of the day, the success of any player, including a running back, whatever size he may be, is going to depend greatly on the system in which he plays.

"If you believe in smash-mouth football you need a bigger back," Morris said, "but if you need a running back to bring versatility to your offense you need to have a smaller running back because they're able to run, catch and even throw better than a bigger back. When you're smaller you have to work on your skill sets a lot more. If you don't, you won't be able to compete at the same level."

Need more convincing? Two words: Barry Sanders. At 5-foot-8 and 200 pounds, he was, as Morris succinctly puts it, "magic to watch."