Running Back Theorem | Chapter 2: Mythologies of Size

Click HERE to read Running Back Theorem Chapter 1: Why the Fail

Height and Weight vs. Production and Availability:

It may surprise some people out there that larger than life figures like Walter Payton and Earl Campbell were both under six foot tall.

Before we get all mangled in a pile of body mass index (BMI) let’s turn the clock back to simpler times. The year was 1946, and a rare breed of ball carrier was entering the NFL. His name was Marion Motley. This mountain of a man was 6’1” and 232 pounds. Remember, this was a time when most offensive lineman weighed in between 215 to 225 pounds. Motley was also 40 pounds heavier than both starting halfbacks on his team and his QB.

The next biggest skill position player on his own squad was his fellow fullback who was 202 pounds. Find some Motley highlights, and you will see a man amongst boys. To put this is the perspective, Saquon Barkley is currently listed at 5’11” and 233 pounds. Derrick Henry at 6’3” 247 pounds would have been Sasquatch in the 1940s. Just 12 years later the Browns would draft a 6’2″ 232 pound from Syracuse named James Nathaniel Brown.

Motley was the original between the tackles bulldozer!

Motley was the first to push the boundaries of perceived notions for ball carriers. Not only that, but he made it okay for other backs of all sizes to get a chance. I am sure you have heard this statement before, but the NFL is a copycat league. Once Motley appeared and thrived on the scene other franchises would push the boundaries size both big and small.

Motley only played in 105 NFL games. However, he gained 4,720 yards on 828 attempts for a whopping 5.7 YPC. He twice led the league in rushing yards, and he recorded 85 receptions for 1,107 yards (13.0 YPC). All valiant numbers for a two-way horse who was also a starting linebacker most of his career.

Which running backs do you truly love and admire? Do you know their exact measurements? Does it truly matter? Is it scheme or situation specific?

Here is a List of the Top 10 all-time rushing yardage leaders and their heights:

Emmitt Smith 5’9” 221lb

Walter Payton 5’10” 200lb

Barry Sanders 5’8” 203lb

Curtis Martin 5’11” 210lb

Frank Gore 5’9” 212lb

LaDainian Tomlinson 5’10” 221lb

Jerome Bettis 5’11” 252lb

Eric Dickerson 6’3” 220

Tony Dorsett 5’11” 192

Jim Brown 6’2” 232

Historically good but injury-ravaged backs:

Gale Sayers 6’ – He appeared in all 14 games just three times in his seven-year career.

Ahman Green 6’ – Green appeared in 16 games three times over the course of his 12-year career. Also failed to appear in over eight games four times in his career.

Reggie Bush 6’ – In eleven NFL seasons this upright runner appeared in all 16 games twice!

Bo Jackson 6’1” – Jackson never appeared in more than 10 games in an NFL season (four active seasons).

Larry Johnson 6’1” – L.J. played in all 16 games twice in his 10-year career. 

Sorry, Fred just twice!

Arian Foster 6’1” – Just twice in Foster’s eight NFL seasons did he appear in all 16 games.

Christian Okoye 6’1” – In six NFL seasons he was never available for all 16 games.

Fred Taylor 6’1” – He was nicknamed “Fragile Fred,” he played in all 16 games just twice in his 13-year career.

Darren McFadden 6’2” – Twice in a decade in the NFL did McFadden appear in all 16 games.

Barry Word 6’2” – Word played seven NFL seasons and played in all 16 games twice.

Satellite Backs get the name because they are change of pacers or receiving/gimmick players. Certainly, many of them have had their injury woes.

Darren Sproles 5’6” – In 12 years in the league Sproles has played in all 16 games five times. He has appeared in at least 15 in nine of those seasons.

Chris Thompson 5’8” – In five seasons Thompson has one year where he was available for the full 16 game slate. Thompson has also missed 35 games and he been active for 45 total games, ouch!

Danny Woodhead 5’9 – In a decade in the NFL Woodhead has been available for the full 16 games just three times. He has missed a total of 43 games, and he has played in 101 games.

Someone To Think About:

In 12 NFL seasons, the 5’9”/180 pound Warrick Dunn (who would be considered a satellite back nowadays) appeared in all 16 games seven times. Which is pretty amazing for an RB of any size. Dunn also appeared in at least 13 games in 11 of 12 seasons.

Cheers to the underrated Mr. Dunn!

Some All-Time Studs that were Sub Six Feet Tall:

The great Barry Sanders (5’8”/203 pounds) player in all 16 games seven times in ten years.

LaDainian Tomlinson (5’10”/221 pounds) played in all seven times in 11 seasons, and he never played in less than 14 games in any one season.

Emmitt Smith (5’9”/221 pounds) played 15 seasons. In eight of those seasons, he played in all 16 games. He also played in at least 14 games 14 times!

Walter Payton (5’11”/200 pounds) is an interesting study. While growing up and watching  “Sweetness” excel it never entered my mind that he was too small. Payton was and still is the standard for greatness in my eyes. He weighed just 200 lbs. Can you imagine if he was a draft-eligible player for 2018? He would have gone undrafted and might have had to practice squad it and dream for a couple of seasons. Even after that at best he would likely be considered a third-down back with Fred Jackson as his potential ceiling.

Sir Walter was head and heels above the rest!

Curtis Martin 5’11” 210 pounds missed just eight games in his 11-year hall of fame career, and four of those 8 came in his final season. He even had a six-season span where he didn’t a miss a game. Shockingly enough that span came when he was 26 to 31 years old.

Frank Gore 5’9”/212 pounds Has played in all 16 games eight times in his 13-year career. He has only in less than 14 games once, and he has missed a game 2010!

The All-Purpose Machinists:

Thurman Thomas (5’10/200 pounds) played in all 16 games five times in 13 seasons. He appeared in at least 14 games in nine of those years. Thomas also played in 21 playoff games. He recorded four straight seasons with at least 1,829 yards from scrimmage (he went for over 2,000 yards in the final two seasons of that run).

Marshall Faulk (5’10”/212 pounds) played in 16 games six times over the course of a dozen NFL seasons, including at least 14 games in ten of those years. Faulk also appeared in 12 playoff games, had four straight seasons over 2,146 yards from scrimmage and over 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in 1999 (his first year with the Rams). It’s important to mention he also set a then NFL record for total yards from scrimmage with 2,429 yards that season as well.

Faulk was the crankshaft that moved “the greatest show of turf.”

Roger Craig (6’/222 pounds) played in all 16 games six times in 11 seasons. He also appeared in at least 14 games in 10 of those years. Craig had two seasons in which he went over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Craig went over 1,000 yards in both, rushing and receiving in 1985. That same year he led the league in receptions with 92. Craig also appeared in 18 playoff games.

Tiki Barber (5’10”/200 pounds) played in all 16 games eight times in a decade in the NFL. He ended the last five years of his career playing in every single game. Barber had four seasons with at least 1,984 yards from scrimmage. Barber also had at least 2,096 yards from scrimmage in each of his last three seasons.


Jamaal Charles (5’11”/195 pounds) After a decade in the game Charles has just three seasons where he competed in all 16 games. He has endured three knee tears. On October 26, 2008, Charles suffered a grade three ACL tear in his left knee. Then on October 11, 2015, he tore his right ACL, also a grade three tear. Almost a year later Charles tore his meniscus in that same right knee. He would have surgery on both knees a month later. After hearing all that it seems nearly impossible that he would play again. But he did, he saw 92 touches in 14 games for the 2017 Broncos.

So why did he fail to stay healthy? Opposed to some of the all-time greats listed above Charles is slightly under 200 pounds. He also just an inch shy of six feet. His first ACL tear happened as he attempted to swiped his hand forward to get a first. His body was upright and slightly contorted. His plant leg took the brunt of his weight, and he got shoved from behind by a defender. When he fails to maintain a lower center of gravity his body becomes more vulnerable. I would also argue that if he weighed 20 pounds more or if he was three inches shorter, this injury might not have happened. Ironically his selfless act that was intended to move the sticks cost the team his services for the rest of the season.

Chris Johnson (5’11”/195 pounds) played is all 16 games for six straight (he played in 15 games his rookie season). Johnson also started his career with six straight 1,000 yard seasons. Johnson is one the fastest RBs in the history of the game. That speed likely enabled him to remain healthier and avoid would-be tacklers.

Outlier to my Wheelhouse Size:

Doug Martin (5’9”/223 pounds) is my theory buster. In six seasons he has only played in all 16 games twice. This angers me because he is right in my body mass window. Those 5’8” to 5’11” RBs that weigh over 205 pounds are supposed to be the most durable breed. Martin also had a four-game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy. The drug was Adderall. Martin claimed he took it too remain focused through pain and injuries. Taking a stimulant like this to deflect the pain is not a recommended practice. It can lead to suspension plus further or more severe injuries. Martin has never regained his true form. Thus destroying my theory.

The Oversized Outlier:

Eddie George (6’3”/235 pounds) was a carries machine. He played in all 16 games eight straight seasons to starts his career. You also need to factor in that George never had less than 312 carries (403 in 2000 alone) in those eight seasons. He also fielded a total of 347 targets in those eight years.



When I started this chapter, I was hoping to prove something of substantial proportion. At a certain point, I even considered scrapping it altogether. Eventually, I decided to stretch and expand it to show the whole historical picture. The framework is a lot to swallow. However whatever justification you can get from this is my pleasure. There comes a time when you just to show the whole truth and not just the points that prove the ones you are trying to make.

We all get enamored with the next big thing. We find reasons why that 6’2”/240 pounds back will thrive. Unfortunately, they have very little chance of survival. Defense fronts will adjust with bigger bodies up front and they will take a pounding.

Size is just one of the many myths we try to base our opinions on in hopes of calculating our forecasting muse. Size is a factor, not the black and white truth. It is arguable that heart and determination are more important than physical stature. Though it is not tangible, it can be felt.

Who knows what will evolve next or even thirty years from now. It is possible the new mold will be 6’5” 170 “toothpick” running backs.

P.S.-If you are upset with the lack of Adrian Peterson, Earl Campbell, Shaun Alexander and John Riggins here just wait for Chapter 3: Window Blinders #comingsoon


I am searching for the meaning of every bump on the pigskin. From leather helmets to a league with no point after attempts, I am researching with a wide shovel. -married/father/music fan/Raider Nation baby/deli meat enthusiast/three-cone extremist

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    • FFU

      July 16, 2018

      Very hard read. Lots of spelling and grammar errors. Get an Editor man! Or proof read your own stuff before posting. And I quote “Faulk the crankshaft that moved “the greatest show of turf.””. I you are going to put quotes around something you should probably get it right.

      • Joshua Johnson

        July 16, 2018

        We appreciate you bringing this to our attention. We will try harder to ensure this does not happen again.


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