Doug Robinson: It's amazing how small is the new big

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 14 2010 11:17 p.m. MST

Short is rarely a good thing. Nobody likes shortcomings, or to come up short or to be shortchanged or to have a short circuit or a shortfall or put their house up for a short sale or to get stopped short, and shortcuts are generally considered the same as cutting corners. In short, no one wants to be short.

So who turned the NFL into a short story? Short has become a commodity in one of the last places you would expect it. The National Football League has seen the rise — so to speak — of short players. They're not only making rosters, they're making an impact. This is what we've come to: Reporters are looking down on the athletes they're interviewing.

Danny Woodhead has found work as a running back and receiver for the New England Patriots, the best team in the NFL. He's 5-foot-7, 195 pounds.

He got here the hard way. He became the NCAA's all-time all-division career rushing leader at some place called Chadron State, but no team chose him in the NFL draft. Signed as a free agent, he was cut by the Jets early this season. He was pressed into duty with the Patriots because of injuries and since then has collected 711 yards and five touchdowns rushing and receiving.

Opponents might be able to tackle him if they could catch or even find him out there. He looks like he fell off a charm bracelet.

Woodhead's teammate is Wes Welker, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound receiver. In less than four seasons with the Patriots, he has 426 receptions and is a perennial Pro Bowl pick. Another undrafted free agent, he played for four seasons before being signed by the Patriots and lined up in the slot, where he draws coverage from bigger, slower linebackers.

DeShawn Jackson, 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, is one of the biggest big-play threats in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles, averaging a whopping 23 yards per catch on 42 receptions. Against Dallas he caught just four passes but turned them into 210 yards.

Darren Sproles, the smallest player in the NFL, at 5-foot-6, is a speedy big-play threat as a kick returner and third-down back for the San Diego Chargers.

Eddie Royal, 5-foot-10, has 57 catches for the woeful Denver Broncos.

Brandon Banks, 5-foot-7, has been an explosive kick returner and special teams player for the Washington Redskins. He set a team record of 271 return yards against the Lions, including a 96-yarder for a touchdown.

Steve Smith, a 5-foot-9 receiver from the University of Utah, is the best player on the league's worst team, the Carolina Panthers. He was arguably the best receiver in the NFL for several years until injuries and poor quarterback play on the Panthers cut his effectiveness.

Mike Tolbert, another undrafted free agent, is a 5-foot-9 running back from Coastal Carolina University. After two quiet seasons with the Chargers in a reserve role, he has run for 691 yards and 10 touchdowns so far this season.

Maurice Jones-Drew, a 5-foot-7, 208-pound running back, is one of the NFL's top offensive threats again this season, with 1,573 yards rushing and receiving for Jacksonville. Six of the league's top nine running backs this season are under six feet — Jones-Drew, Jamal Charles, Michael Turner, Chris Johnson, Ahmad Bradshaw and Rashard Mendenhall.

This is noteworthy in a league that has grown steadily and dramatically bigger until 300-pound linemen are commonplace and quarterbacks are as big as linemen of the '70s. But shorter players have become increasingly effective in the NFL in recent years.

"In my era, the trend was toward big, bruising running backs, three yards and a cloud of dust," says Vai Sikahema, a Philadelphia sportscaster who played in the NFL for eight seasons at 5-foot-8. "But even then it started to change. Now that is really changing with the spread offenses."

Inevitably, trends in the college game find their way into the NFL. The spread offense — or many elements of it — is now being employed by NFL teams. That forces defenses to spread the field, which means big players are required to cover smaller, quicker receivers in the open field.

"The NFL is all about creating mismatches," says Sikahema. "The trend was bigger and bigger and bigger. Now they're recognizing that small players, if highly skilled and extremely fast, create mismatches with slower, bigger players. Defenders are finding it very difficult to cover these guys. They're putting these smaller players out wide or in the slot, or they are putting them at running back and using them as running backs to use them as receivers."

Ray Rice (5-8), Ladainian Tomlinson (5-10), Frank Gore (5-9) and Jahvid Best (5-9) are among those tiny running backs who are frequently used as receivers. All of them have 46 or more catches this year.

"These are players who are accustomed to being in space and creating their own space," says Sikahema.

Who would have guessed small would be big in the NFL.

e-mail: drob@desnews.com

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