Friday, January 1, 2016

Will there ever be a great white running back in the NFL again?

Watching the performance of Stanford's sophomore running back, Christian McCaffrey, in the Rose Bowl, it seems possible that for the first time in decades there might be a good white running back in the NFL. Unlike most great white college running backs of recent vintage, McCaffrey has NFL speed. He uses that on explosive runs from scrimmage, catching passes and returning kicks.

In the Rose Bowl today, he stood out from all the others on the field, as ESPN reported:

"Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, already the holder of the NCAA single-season all-purpose yardage record, broke the Rose Bowl mark in that category during Stanford's 45-16 rout of Iowa on Friday. McCaffrey finished with 368 all-purpose yards, besting the old mark by Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis, who racked up 346 yards against Oregon in the 2012 Rose Bowl. McCaffrey also became the first player in Rose Bowl history with at least 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving."

Although he will not be eligible for the NFL draft until 2017, McCaffrey finished second this year in the Heisman Trophy vote.  McCaffrey set the all-time NCAA football record in 2015 for all-purpose yards in a season. In 13 games he had 3,496 yards, besting the old mark set by Barry Sanders in 1988. Sanders accounted for 3,250 yards in 11 games.

It's likely that if Stanford had won one more game, he would have won the Heisman over Alabama's Derrick Henry, who won the trophy with 2,152 all-purpose yards. McCaffrey beat Mr. Henry by a whopping 1,344 all-purpose yards.

It is, of course, trivial that there have been no great white running backs in the NFL in a long time. Over the last 30 seasons, not one white has finished in the top 10 in yards rushing. The last Caucasian running back to finish in the top 10 in that category was Craig James in 1985, who was 9th best. And it's not as if Mr. James was a great pro back. He played only five seasons in the NFL after a stellar college career at Southern Methodist, and in his last two seasons only ran for 25 yards combined.

While it has been 31 seasons since Craig James had his one good year, it has been 54 seasons since Jim Taylor, a white fullback for the dynastic Green Bay Packers, won the NFL rushing title. Taylor played in the same era as the great Jim Brown, who led the NFL in rushing 8 times in his 9 year career, and in 4 of those seasons, Taylor finished second in rushing.

The reason I think so few whites -- or really no whites for decades -- can play running back at a top level in the NFL is the lack of speed. There are some fast white guys, but they are normally too small to handle the punishment a running back must take in the NFL. Most of the best NFL running backs have explosive speed -- where they can accelerate from a standstill to top speed very quickly when a hole opens up. But in order to survive, they almost always have huge thighs and a big ass, even if they are not very tall. They need that beef in their center of gravity to survive the hits they take from 250-330 pound defensive players.

Not too many years ago, Stanford produced a top-flight white running back named Toby Gerhart. In the 2010 draft, Gerhart was selected in the second round, a high pick for a running back. Unlike McCaffrey, Gerhart has an NFL running back's body. He's roughly the same height as Christian McCaffrey, but he weighs 33 pounds more, and he looks like most of that weight is in his thighs and butt.

Yet Gerhart has been a bust in the NFL. He's never appeared anywhere on an NFL leaderboard. His problem, I think, is that he lacks explosive speed. It's not that he is slow, not that he cannot put up a decent (though not great) time in the 40-yard dash. It's that when he is handed the ball and a hole opens up for a millisecond, Gerhart does not have the explosive burst to race through that hole and gain 10 or more yards. He's the kind of sluggish back who can get 3 or 4 yards, but only if a big gap in the defense is created by his offensive line.

From what I have seen, Christian McCaffrey has enough speed, even explosive speed, to play running back in the NFL. He's clearly faster than his father, Ed McCaffrey, who was for 13 seasons the prototypical white wide receiver or possession receiver. That is, Christian's father did not have great speed. Ed had outstanding hands and could be counted on to make catches of 10-15 yards. He was not the playmaker type who could break free for a 30 yard or longer reception. He did not get a lot of yards after the catch.

The big question mark with Christian at the next level is his size. He is 6' 1", but weighs just 201 pounds and does not appear to be particularly thick in his thighs or ass. So I have to wonder, if he plays running back in the pros, whether he will be able to take the punishing hits of NFL linebackers and defensive linemen.

If professional scouts and general managers who will be grading McCaffrey for the draft see his size as a limitation, he will either be drafted much later than his stats suggest or he will have to play another position. I suspect Christian might be converted into a slot receiver who is occasionally used to run the ball on trick plays or pitch outs. If he is forced to change positions, it's not as if that is unique. Very often in the NFL, great athletes who succeed at one position in college learn that in the NFL their athleticism is better suited to another position.

A reasonable comparison with McCaffrey might be Julian Edelman, a slot wide receiver for the New England Patriots. Edelman was an outstanding quarterback in college. However, he did not have the body of an NFL QB -- in fact, Edelman is built about the same as McCaffrey, 6' 0", 198 pounds. So when the Patriots drafted him, they converted Edelman to a position which better suited his athletic body.

Christian McCaffrey is a great athlete. There is no question about that. But will his athletic ability enable him to play running back in the NFL? I doubt it.

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