Posted by: mdegeorge | November 23, 2010

Tuesday Morning Diagnosis: Meet a different kind of running back

There’s not a whole lot of reason to pay attention to football in Cleveland most days. The 4-7 Browns are stumbling though anther nondescript season waiting on the anointed one Colt McCoy to more robust dividends than Brady Quinn did.

But the shining star in the Browns’ otherwise pedestrian 2010 campaign has been running back Peyton Hillis.

The third-year veteran who spent two seasons as a third-down back in Denver and was traded when Quinn outstayed his welcome has blossomed in the Cleveland backfield. Through 10 games this season, he has rushed for 774 yards on 173 carries, caught 40 passes for 351 yards, and scored 10 touchdowns. He’s had some monstrous games (29 carries for 184 and two touches in the Week 8 upset of New England) and has accounted for almost half (10) of the Browns 21 touchdowns this season.

Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis celebrates his touchdown run in the first quarter of a game against the New England Patriots on November 07, 2010 in Cleveland. UPI / David Richard Photo via Newscom

Hillis ranks 11th in the league in rushing, 11th in yards per attempts (minimum of 100 carries, 4.5), and is tied for third in touchdowns.

His coming out party has been impressive by any standards, holding its own alongside the emergence of undrafted free agent Arian Foster and the long-awaited arrival of the real Darren McFadden. It’s made the Broncos organization look silly, offloading a star in the making for a third-string clipboard jockey. (It’s ironic, since they always seem to be able to create 1,000 yard rushers out of thin air; this time, they’ve just done it for someone else.) And it’s garnered notice from at least one of the game’s top backs, Clinton Portis.

But Hillis’ emergence is made even more spectacular by the select company he’s in as a white running back in 2010.

Since 2002, only one white running back has finished the season in the top 40 in rushing in the NFL: Mike Alstott, who finished 32nd in ’02.

It’s a possibility there could be two backs in that category this season, as the Patriots’ third-down specialist Danny Woodhead currently sits 42nd with 312 yards and their touchdowns.

The prevalence of Hillis and Woodhead among the league’s elite playmakers flies in the face of the NFL’s paucity of white players at skill positions. After Week 10, each of the NFL’s top 28 receivers in terms of yardage is black. (Austin Collie is 30th, followed by Jason Witten and Chris Cooley; Wes Welker is 39th.) And the league has long had a dearth of white cornerbacks in the post-Jason Sehorn era.

Most of the NFL’s position players who are white have come at positions where toughness rather than speed is the priority. Fullbacks, tight ends, safeties, and slot receivers have been spots on the field that have been more diversely populated.

For the record, it’s important to note that the NFL and professional sports in general are some of the purest meritocracies to be found. Often the valuation of talent isn’t limited to merely on-field ability, as non x’s and o’s factors such as marketability and public persona, as well as structural issues such as scheme preferences, factor into personnel decisions. It isn’t that one particular demographic or another is better suited for certain position; it just happens that those who fill certain positions happen to be of certain groups. In fact, racial stereotypes about certain ethnicities’ abilities, such as the long-standing aversion by many player personnel people toward black quarterbacks, are inaccurate, backwards, and can contribute to missed opportunities on the part of the holders.

Even so, Woodhead and Hillis are from a different type of player from what we usually see. Hillis has clearly established himself as a number one back; it’s yet to be seen if he can withstand the 16-game grind down the stretch, but early indications are that he’ll perform just fine.

Woodhead is a dynamic halfback—much like injured teammate Kevin Faulk—who can do a little of everything. His 36-yard touchdown run against the Colts on Sunday proved to be the game-winner. Perhaps more impressive was his tackle on the ensuing kickoff return when he just leveled the Colts’ returner.

And in addition to Hillis and Woodhead, there’s Jacob Hester in San Diego, who has struggled to get carries in a crowded San Diego backfield, though he did come up with a touchdown Monday night against Denver.

Together, the three represent a special type of player the league hasn’t seen in a long time.

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