The Rise of the NFL's Little Men
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because innovation allows more stars to shine brighter.
By Matt Foley
Sometimes you can feel the roar of Heinz Field from three miles away on Pittsburgh’s South Side: Antonio Brown just took a pass to the house. The NFL’s leading touchdown snatcher could have flourished at several positions, but only recently did wide receiver become the ideal fit given his small stature, at 5 feet 10 inches. A decade ago, Steeler fans might not have witnessed the four-time Pro Bowler’s brilliance on display — back then, he probably would have been relegated to a more limited role, like returning kicks.
These days players like Brown need not fear denial on their quest for NFL stardom. The league is currently experiencing an influx of smaller, acrobatic skill players adept at creating big plays in tight spaces and racking up yards after a catch. The results are telling. Through the first six weeks of the season, six of the NFL’s top 10 reception leaders measure under 6 feet, with many more vertically average compatriots close behind. Many of the game’s most recognizable faces — Brown, Odell Beckham, Julian Edelman, to name a few — represent a new class of athlete that is taking over football. For a sport that places immense value on size and strength, this is a huge change. And it starts from the ground up: According to NFL Network analyst and former scout Daniel Jeremiah, scouts have noted what works and have adjusted. “Smaller prospects started being graded more favorably around 2008, about the time Steve Smith was dominating the NFL,” he tells OZY. “Before that, we didn’t totally look past a short receiver, but height was noted as a deficiency.”
I never look at size. If a kid can play, I can put him in position to succeed.
Manny Douglas, head football coach, Narbonne High School, Los Angeles
Over the past decade, the rise of the spread offense in high school and college has bred a new type of skill player (read: not massive linemen) now reaching the NFL. The spread offense is a style of play that emphasizes short, quick passes to — you guessed it — players spread out wide across the field. More traditional pro-style offenses feature two receivers out wide, with the quarterback and the other eight players in the middle of the field, bashing heads and grinding out yards with an emphasis on the run game. Historically, coaches wanted tall receivers who could run downfield for deep passes and leap over smaller defenders to make the catch. In the spread, though, offenses employ up to five wide receivers, forcing the defense to adapt to a fast-paced, prolific aerial attack. Some small professional wideouts are former height-deficient amateur quarterbacks who can run audibles and option routes more effectively, says Will McDonough, investor and entrepreneur who worked for the New England Patriots for ten years.
The spread was developed in the 1920s, but only recently gained widespread acceptance. According to Jeremiah, the spread “enables smaller teams to compete with the big boys” by bypassing the interior line battle: “The spread gets the ball in the skill guys’ hands quickly.” When an offense moves at breakneck speed and covers more ground, giant defenders tire and become less effective.
Nowhere is this concept clearer than at the high school level, where most line talent ranges from putrid to mediocre. Manny Douglas, head coach of the Narbonne Gauchos, was the first high school coach to implement the spread in Los Angeles, in 2004, because his small linemen were sickeningly outmuscled. To adapt, Douglas developed bubble screens and other short passes as surrogate run plays, rarely testing larger defensive lines up the middle. He stopped caring about size. “I never look at size,” Douglas says. “If a kid can play, I can put him in position to succeed.” Last year, Narbonne became the first Los Angeles city school to win a California state championship in 98 years.
There’s another reason the NFL is becoming friendlier to smaller players, who are often prone to injury. With concussion concerns at an all-time high, the league has instituted numerous rule changes to cut down on head injuries. The most notable changes aim to eliminate hits on “defenseless” players — e.g., bone-crunching mollywhops on wide receivers running across the middle of the field. One of the benefits of having big receivers was they could withstand such abuse. Now, though, that’s less of a concern.
Of course, the NFL is a copycat league. Innovation works until it doesn’t; at some point opponents catch up. Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of FootballOutsiders.com and an ESPN contributing analyst, believes that all this might be cyclical. The rise of the spread, he says, does mean more of a role for slot receivers “whose main skills are speed and agility rather than the ability to pick a deep ball out of the air.” But, Schatz adds, “there have been plenty of great tall wide receivers in the recent past, and there will be again.”
Defenses already are responding to the new breed of wide receiver by employing “hybrid” defenders: athletic playmakers who can play multiple positions, like linebacker and defensive back. As this trend continues, the talent level on defense is sure to catch up to the incredible crop of NFL wideouts, eliminating the slowest skill players on offense. It’s all part of the National Football League’s version of natural selection.