Why you should care
Because this is football like we’ve never seen.
Swap the red and black for green and gold, and the image of 5-foot-8 San Diego Chargers running back Danny Woodhead standing on the sidelines next to 6-foot-9 teammate King Dunlap could be straight from a scene in the classic Notre Dame football film Rudy. Like Sean Astin’s character, Woodhead’s helmet barely crests his teammates’ shoulders. But while Rudy Ruettiger was the unlikely hero who made it onto the field despite all odds, Woodhead isn’t actually all that out of place. In fact, in just the latest quirk in a year of many, NFL fans are seeing even more little men next to big-man frames this season.
Bigger, faster, stronger. That’s been the trajectory for most professional sports, the National Football League included. Except for a few caveats. The median weight for NFL rookies has been going down in recent years, and over the past decade or so, running backs and cornerbacks have also continued to shrink. Meanwhile, the biggest of the big dudes in last year’s rookie class were even bigger than the norm. That makes for some interesting team photos. (It also has some implications for the game.)
The gap between the biggest and smallest players is 128 pounds, according to the Unofficial 2014 Player Census, compiled by the event platform BestTickets.com. Cornerbacks bring up the rear with an average weight of 194 pounds, while offensive guards come in at 322. Heights on average range from 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-5. Regardless of size, though, all the positions are getting stronger and faster. The Korey Stringer Institute, an athlete-safety advocacy institute at the University of Connecticut, did a study that compared the Super Bowl–winning Giants team from 2011 to player metrics collected from 1998 to 2011. Sure enough, the Giants linemen, the heftiest ones on the field, had less body fat than at the turn of the century, yet their body mass had increased. That means they shed fat and replaced it with lean muscle.
But everything comes with a price. Bigger, faster, stronger means harder hits.
It also means the game is going through yet another transition. Yes, fans, it’s not just sports-announcer hyperbole: There are more theatrics this season, more thrilling plays. Tom Brady is on pace to have the NFL’s first 5,500-yard passing season. Even just compared to last year, the majority of teams are averaging a higher percentage of passing plays, and this is the second highest year when it comes to total touchdowns since the ’80s. More passing = more touchdowns = more fans (aka money). Faster players go along nicely with rule changes in recent years, which Scott Kennedy, managing editor of sports media network Scout.com, says have limited defense while empowering offense. Indeed, the NFL has become a speedy league, a switch not all that different from the homerun campaign that MLB ran a decade ago. “As a sport culture, we’ve moved from aesthetic performance to much more heroism,” says Billy Hawkins, a sports management professor at the University of Georgia. The NFL didn’t respond to our request for comment, but for its part has said that rule changes are to make the game safer, not more thrilling.
Trimmer waistlines and higher verticals have come thanks to a better understanding of how the body works, says Robert Huggins, vice president for research on elite athlete health and performance at the Korey Stringer Institute. In the past five years, he says, there have been “exponential” gains in performance-enhancing science and technology. It’s no longer a guessing game. Starting in high school, players are following personalized diets and optimized training plans that ensure the quickest results with the least amount of time on the sidelines. Now coaches can monitor not just a player’s physical exertions with GPS but also what’s going on inside with blood biomarkers. The motto is to work smarter — not harder.
But everything comes with a price. Bigger, faster, stronger means harder hits. Hawkins points out that with increases in body mass and greater size disparities has come a surge in catastrophic injuries. And the science around concussion prevention isn’t keeping pace. “The body can only endure so much, regardless of how you feed it and train,” Hawkins says. What’s more, the specific player prototypes could all just be a flash in the pan. In the ’80s, when the Redskins had success with the Smurfs — short, wide, quick cornerbacks — everyone went looking for their own miniature cartoon characters. Eventually, though, the Smurfs went out of style. Meanwhile, tall and lean wide receivers were au courant several years ago; today, star pass catchers like Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. actually stand shorter than 6 feet tall. There’s only one thing we can count on to hold true. “Over time, the players are always going to be getting bigger,” Kennedy says. Take, for instance, linemen. While running backs have shrunk, the arms race for bulk at the line of scrimmage has only ramped up.
Perhaps that adds even more weight to what 5-foot-8 running back Branden Oliver, who suffered a season-ending toe injury after a strong start with the Chargers last month, told OZY: “They can measure your height and anything else — but ain’t nobody able to measure your heart — and that’s the only thing that matters.”