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Apr. 22 2010 - 2:30 pm | 1,190 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Is Toby Gerhart’s Draft Status Being Affected by Race?

With the 2010 NFL Draft just hours away, Mediate highlights an exchange that took place on Sean Hannity’s show last night between Spencer Tillman and Stephen A. Smith in regards to whether or not Stanford running back Toby Gerhart’s draft status was being affected by the fact that he’s a white player at a position dominated by black athletes. Smith claims that Gerhart is hurt more by what he deems a sub-standard time in the 40 yard dash time (4.53 seconds) than by race, whereas Tillman worried that a NFL team might actually pass on Gerhart because he was white.

In a rare occurrence, I’m actually going side with Stephen A. Smith on this point. For anyone who is a fan of the NFL or who plays fantasy football seriously, it’s well-known how much scouts and team executives fall in love with “measurables”: the forty times, the number of times a guy can bench 225 pounds, how many yards a quarterback can fling the ball down field. These are things that teams stake their reputations on because it’s much harder to sometimes figure out intangibles like intelligence (which teams attempt to measure with the Wonderlic test, an imperfect device at best), desire and work ethic.

At the current moment, NFL teams are enamored with running backs who have game-breaking speed and can catch the ball out of the backfield. Think Houston’s Steve Slaton, San Diego’s Darren Sproles or New Orleans’ Reggie Bush. The recent prototype would, of course be the man who kept Sproles on the Chargers bench for years, LaDanian Tomlinson. Each of those players have the ability to make one cut out of the backfield and possibly make a long trot to the endzone. These hybrid backs are also terrors to defend because they give the offense an extra dimension and create match-up problems (you don’t want to have a situation where a lumbering, 250 pound linebacker has to try to cover a 5, 8” running back with speed in the open field).

If you’ve seen Gerhart play, you know that’s not his game. And that’s ok! He’s a big, bruising, between the tackles runner (similar to the Giants’ Brandon Jacobs). He doesn’t shy away from contact; hell, in some cases he seems to seek it out. He can catch the ball, but not especially well. In many ways, Gerhart is a throwback to different era, a power back in a league that doesn’t feature many of them any more.

In his most recent book, Eating the Dinosaur, author Chuck Klosterman has a long rumination about football and its evolution. I want to quote two passages at length because, setting aside the political commentary therein, Klosterman, I think, gets at the heart of why Gerhart probably won’t be a first rounder:

As of this moment in 2008, the read option is by far the most pervasive offensive play in college football and an increasingly popular gadget play in pro football, especially for the Miami Dolphins (who run it by moving quarterback Chad Pennington to wide receiver and using running back Ronnie Brown at QB, a formation commonly called the Wildcat). If somebody makes a movie about American life a hundred years from now and wants to show a fictionalized image of what football looked like, this is the play they should try to cinematically replicate1. Every week of autumn, I watch between nine and fifteen hours of football; depending on who’s playing, I probably see this play eighty to a hundred and fifty times a weekend. Michigan has just run it three times in succession. This play defines the relationship between football and modernity; it’s What Interesting Football Teams Are Doing Now. And it’s helped me rethink the relationship between football and conservatism, a premise I had long conceded but never adequately questioned.

2. Okay … Let me begin by recognizing that you — the reader of this book — might not know much about football. In fact, you might hate football, and you might be annoyed that it’s even included in this collection. I’m guessing at least fifty potential buyers flipped through the pages of this book inside a store, noticed there was a diagram of a football play on page 125, and decided not to buy it. This is a problem I have always had to manage: Roughly 60 percent of the people who read my books have a near-expert understanding of sports, but the remaining 40 percent have no interest whatsoever. As such, I will understand if you skip to the next essay, which is about ABBA. But before you give up, let me abridge the essence of the previous paragraph: The aforementioned “read option” is an extremely simple play. The main fellow for the offense (this would be the quarterback, whom you might remember as a popular guy from high school who dated lots of girls with bleached hair) receives the ball deep in the backfield and “reads” the weakside defensive end (“read” is the football term for “looks at and considers,” while “weakside” refers to whatever side of the field has fewer offensive players). If the defensive player attacks upfield, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs it himself, essentially attacking where the defensive end used to be (and where a running lane now exists). If the defensive end “stays home” (which is the football term for “remains cautious and orthodox”), there’s usually no running lane for the quarterback, so the QB hands the ball to the running back moving in the opposite direction (which is generally the strong side). Basically, the read option is just the quarterback making a choice based on the circumstance — he either runs the ball himself in one direction, or he hands the ball off in the opposing direction.

Now, why should this matter to you (or anyone)? Here is the simplest answer: Twenty-five years ago, the read option didn’t exist. Coaches would have given a dozen reasons why it couldn’t be used. Ten years ago, it was a play of mild desperation, most often used by teams who couldn’t compete physically. But now almost everyone uses it. It’s the vortex of an offensive scheme that has become dominant. But ten years from now — or even less, probably — this play will have disappeared completely. In 2018, no one will run it, because every team will be running something else. It will have been replaced with new thinking. And this is football’s interesting contradiction: It feels like a conservative game. It appeals to a conservative mind-set and a reactionary media and it promotes conservative values. But in tangible practicality, football is the most progressive game we have — it constantly innovates, it immediately embraces every new technology2, and almost all the important thinking about the game is liberal. If football was a politician, it would be some kind of reverse libertarian: staunchly conservative on social issues, but freethinking on anything related to policy. So the current upsurge of the read option is symbolic of something unrelated to the practice of football; it’s symbolic of the nature of football and how that idea is misinterpreted because of its iconography.

The bolded section above gets at one reason Gerhart’s stock might slip; he’s an anachronism. In the late 1970s and early 80s, nobody would have blinked at seeing a guy like Gerhart, what with big guys like Franco Harris and John Riggins blowing up defenders. Now, though, teams are looking for elusive, smaller players. That’s the groupthink mentality of the league right now: small and fast trumps big and slow(ish).

Here’s the second passage:

3a. Right now, the most interesting coach in America is Mike Leach of Texas Tech, a former lawyer who’s obsessed with pirates and UFOs and grizzly bears. He never played football at the college level and barely played in high school. But his offensive attack at Texas Tech is annually the best in the country, and it seems to be the best no matter who his players happen to be. The Red Raiders play football the way eleven-year-old boys play Xbox: They throw on almost every down, they only punt when the situation is desperate, and they’ll call the same play over and over and over again. The Texas Tech linemen use unnaturally wide line splits and the quarterback lines up in the shotgun, even when the offense is inside the five-yard line. If you describe the Red Raiders’ style of play to any traditional football follower without mentioning the team’s name, they reflexively scoff. But Texas Tech hammers people. Over the past five years they’ve outscored opponents by an average score of 39.4 to 24.8 while outgaining them by over nine thousand yards, despite the fact that Tech is forced to recruit second-tier high school players who are overlooked by Texas and Oklahoma. Everywhere Leach has gone, he’s had success — as an assistant at the University of Kentucky, he found ways to turn an ungifted quarterback (Tim Couch) into a Heisman candidate who passed for 8,400 yards and was drafted first overall by the Cleveland Browns. In a single season assisting at Oklahoma, he designed the offense that would ultimately win a national championship. So how did he do it? What is the secret to his brilliance?

“There’s two ways to make it more complex for the defense,” Leach told journalist Michael Lewis, writing for The New York Times Magazine. “One is to have a whole bunch of different plays, but that’s no good because then the offense experiences as much complexity as the defense. Another is a small number of plays run out of lots of different formations. That way, you don’t have to teach a guy a new thing to do. You just have to teach him new places to stand.”

It’s easy to overlook the significance of this kind of quote, mostly because it seems obvious and casual and reductionist. But it’s none of those things. It’s an almost perfect description of how thinking slightly differently can have an exponential consequence, particularly when applied to an activity that’s assumed to be inflexible. There is this inherent myth about football that suggests offensive success comes in one of two ways: You can run a handful of plays with extreme precision, or you can run a multitude of different plays in the hope of keeping defenses confused. The Green Bay Packers of the Lombardi era embraced the former philosophy (they rarely used more than fifteen different plays in the course of any game, but the fifteen they ran were disciplined and flawless), as did the straightforward running attack of USC during the 1970s and early ’80s4. Two modern coaches (Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer) have both found success at the talent-rich University of Florida, seemingly by never running the same play twice. But the inverted thinking of Mike Leach allows Texas Tech to do both: If Texas Tech focuses on only fifteen different plays — but runs them all out of twenty different formations — they’re instantly drawing from a pool of three hundred options, all of which could still be executed with the repetitive exactitude of the Packers’ power sweep. It wasn’t that Leach out-thought everybody else; it was merely that he thought differently. Instead of working within the assumed parameters of football, he decided to expand what those parameters were. For a while, that made him seem like a crazy person. But this is how football always evolves: Progressive ideas are introduced by weirdos and mocked by the world, and then everybody else adopts and refines those ideas ten years later.

Here again, a similar idea: if a team drafts Gerhart and has success deploying him, don’t be shocked if you start to see more big backs being drafted and incorporated into offensive schemes. At present, many teams just aren’t using backs with his set of abilities.

Now Klosterman doesn’t mention race here at all and it’s mostly because he doesn’t need to. Yes, white running backs and receivers are somewhat novel in the NFL but my guess is that the path to a position for any given player obviously starts much earlier in their development (middle and high school) and has more to do with the expressed desires of what the player wants to be and what his physical talents are as opposed to what a coach feels like player should be because of the color of his skin. The NFL has more or less moved passed things like whether or not blacks can be good quarterbacks. I don’t think there’s a bunch of coaches out there in America who won’t let a white kid be a running back if he has the skill set for it. Coaches, by and large, want to win and they’ll slot a Martian at tight end if they think that will get them a victory. Toby Gerhart is a victim of trend, not of any sort of institutional bias related to race, reverse or otherwise.


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    I'm a native Virginian who adopted California (San Francisco, specifically) before moving to NYC last fall to become a master's candidate at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism.

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