Talented Understudy: Lions RB Jerome Harrison

If you distill the role of a running back to that of purely a ball carrier, I am a huge Jerome Harrison fan. I’ve always been. However, I see Harrison’s NFL career as a sad story. Starter talent as a pure ball-carrier rotting on the vine.

When the ball is in his hands, Harrison has reminded stylistically of Priest Holmes as far back as his days at Washington State. Both Harrison and Holmes are smaller runners with patience, burst, and savvy to set up defenders in ways that they produce bigger plays than one might expect from backs lacking the size and timed speed that teams covet from lead backs.

On the field and on the stat sheet, Harrison’s career has been impressive despite limited playing time:

Year Age Tm G Att Yds TD Lng Y/A Rec Yds Y/R TD Lng Fmb
2006 23 CLE 10 20 60 0 15 3 9 47 5.2 0 12 1
2007 24 CLE 8 23 142 0 17 6.2 2 19 9.5 0 15 0
2008 25 CLE 15 34 246 1 72 7.2 12 116 9.7 1 23 0
2009 26 CLE 14 194 862 5 71 4.4 34 220 6.5 2 18 2
2010 27 2TM 12 71 330 1 50 4.6 12 85 7.1 0 23 2
Career 59 342 1640 7 72 4.8 69 487 7.1 3 23 5
5 yrs CLE 51 302 1401 6 72 4.6 61 444 7.3 3 23 4
1 yr PHI 8 40 239 1 50 6 8 43 5.4 0 15 1

However, even after a 2009 stretch where Harrison was the Browns’ offense, Cleveland’s offseason transactions made it clear that they never saw Harrison as the future of the running game. In this case, one could conclude that for most NFL teams size matters.  Priest Holmes was able to get his listed playing weight to the range of 210 pounds. Harrison’s playing weight has never been listed above 195 pounds.

Very few NFL teams feel comfortable placing the running game in the hands of a back they fear will wear down when they need him the most. What bothers me about the way the Browns handled Jerome Harrison is the apparent lack of communication between the coaching staff and the player between 2009 and 2010.

We’re talking about a player who rushed for 286 yards in a game, broke an icon’s team record, and carried this team on his back. According to Harrison, the team never communicated any type of expectation they had for his role heading into the following year.

Think about your workplace. If you were given greater responsibilities at work, dramatically increased the productivity of your department, and exceeded all expectations during the quarter, wouldn’t you expect your boss to at least tell you why he was hiring two new employees to compete for the role you just knocked out of the box?

Unless the coaching staff or personnel management of the team had talked to Harrison, they exhibited poor leadership. Unless Harrison’s claims were untrue, I think the Browns didn’t say anything to Harrison to hedge their bets in case Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty weren’t capable of doing the job. They didn’t see Harrison as a fit for their power running game, strung him along, and then dumped him at the first opportunity they found it convenient.

That’s the harsh business of the NFL. However, the Browns actions – or the Eagles for that matter – shouldn’t tell you that Harrison isn’t a good runner. In fairness to both teams, Harrison’s pass protection has been an issue and few teams are comfortable rolling with a lead back that can’t protect the quarterback. Rightly so.

If I were to speculate why Jerome Harrison is now with his third team in less than a year I would list three factors:

  • Pass protection deficiencies.
  • Low playing weight.
  • Harrison wants to be a starter or regular contributor.

The last point is a big one in terms of the Eagles letting Harrison bounce. In the link I provided earlier in this piece, Harrison stated that if he were the coach he’d be carrying the ball 20-30 times a game because that’s how much he believes in his abilities. You might say that’s a statement typical of a pro athlete. However, I’d argue most backups take the party line and say they just want to help the team win.

Sadly, I believe Harrison could have had a Priest Holmes-like season with the Browns last year. Peyton Hillis is a talent, but ironically the big, bruising power runner the Browns coveted over the diminutive Harrison wore down in 2010. Smaller runners often avoid more of the type of hits the cause bigger backs to wear down. However, it’s not really big backs vs. small backs. It’s straight-line runners versus shifty runners. That’s my theory.

Now, Harrison is 28 years-old and brought in to back up Jahvid Best. He just beat out the runner (Mike Bell) Cleveland dealt him away for in 2010 and Jim Schwartz had this to say about Harrison to DetroitLions.com:

“Every time he goes in, he gains yards. He is a very, very productive runner… Doesn’t get thrown for too many losses and, over the last couple weeks, he’s broken a lot of long runs and really done a nice job working with the team.”

Harrison is now taking the party line when asked about his performance. I can imagine that new perspective happens when he entered the 2010 season thinking he was going to get a real chance to contribute – possibly as a feature back – but not given the opportunity he thought (and many others thought) he earned. Then he was traded and subsequently released at the end of the year after flashing the same kind of skills he showed the year before.

Jahvid Best is a great talent. But I think the Lions found themselves a back up capable of little drop off in production if Best experiences the worst.

Here are excerpts of my 2005 evaluation of Harrison’s 34-carry, 260-yard, 2-touchdown performance against UCLA when he was a senior at Washington State:

Power: Harrison demonstrates good body lean to finish his runs. His thighs are well-muscled for his size, but he’s not very big in the upper body. He reminds me of Thomas Jones during the UVA star’s college career: not big, but runs hard and with good balance. Harrison is not a powerful runner, but he presents a difficult target for opposing defenders to get a solid angle on him. Although I never saw Harrison need to use a traditional form of a stiff arm in this game, he frequently used his hand to push away the hands of tacklers and throw them off balance.

Ball Handling: Harrison fumbled the ball on a first-quarter hand off because he didn’t look the ball into his hands. As a ball carrier, Harrison primarily uses his right hand to carry the football regardless of the side of the field he’s running. He did switch the ball to his left arm on a pitch to the left in the fourth quarter, but this was the only time I noticed him carry the ball in the opposite arm. Harrison also fumbled the ball out of bounds near the end of the first half after he tripped over his own feet while attempting to put a move on the safety coming over top on a reception of a swing pass.

Elusiveness: On Harrison’s third carry, he made a nice cutback inside the tackle, gaining 56 yards and a touchdown. He has nice feet and he can make quick moves to cut back with little effort. Harrison is adept at stringing moves together once he reaches the open field. On the carry the put Harrison over the 200-yard mark in this game (a 39-yard run), Harrison cut back and outran the first and second wave of defenders. He has good enough feet to change direction at full speed. He is also capable of jump cuts and other laterally explosive moves. His lateral moves in the open field were strong in this contest.

Balance: Harrison runs with good balance, glancing blows from an indirect angle do not knock him off his feet. He generally maintains his balance when making sharp changes in direction, even at top speed.

Speed: Harrison doesn’t appear to have top-notch speed. His speed didn’t consistently separate him from the second level in this game. His 56-yard run was a product of excellent blocking in the second level. At the same time, Harrison didn’t appear to be running at full speed because he was patiently waiting for blocks to set up. But even once he got past the second-level traffic, there wasn’t any noticeable acceleration. When Washington State ran the same play later in the first quarter, Harrison had enough of a burst to separate from an undersized linebacker and reach the secondary.

He tried to cut away from the play side blocking, but he was caught from behind consistently on runs longer than 40 yards. At the same time, his initial burst is good enough that Harrison can generate big plays once he gets past the first level of the defense. It’s this short-area quickness and burst that makes Harrison a dangerous runner. He’s a very agile back capable of getting to the second level quickly and changes direction well at his top speed.

Blocking: Harrison’s first assignment was against a defender off the edge of the QB’s blindside on a deep pass play. Harrison positioned himself in the right place to force the defender further outside, but he did not make a lot of contact. Fortunately the ball was delivered quickly. In the fourth quarter, Harrison completely missed his assignment on a two-man blitz to one side. Harrison identified the correct defender, but he missed the block. The blitzing defender almost got to his QB and the pressure forced the passer to release the ball early. In the open field, Harrison did a nice job with his effort to block opponents when his QB was on the run.

Vision: Harrison had some huge holes to run through in this game. At the same time, the Washington State runner is very good at following his lead blockers and positioning himself behind them until the block is made. He also does a good job of finding yards in small gaps when there aren’t huge lanes. His open field vision is very strong. On his second touchdown run Harrison set up a block from a wide receiver coming across the field and he did so with little hesitation. His set up was followed with a strong cut to the right – good patience.

Receiving and Routes: Harrison does a good job on the basic RB routes. He became a more regular part of the offense’s short passing game this year. He caught each of his three targets with his hands. Because of Harrison’s skills in the open field, he’s a very strong option out of the backfield.

Durability: Harrison is a well-conditioned athlete. He’s a workhorse for this Cougars offense. He frequently stays in the game even after 4-5 consecutive carries. He and his linemen wore out the UCLA defense today. As the game progressed Harrison was actually punishing the linebackers and safeties when they were ahead of him. He also carried defenders on his back and pushed the pile effectively. Obviously Harrison isn’t a powerful runner, but his durability and stamina are noticeably good. The UCLA defense tired out before he did. In fact, Harrison appeared as fresh as he was to begin the game. Harrison logged over 300 carries this year and did not break down. I think that despite his size, Harrison could surprise an NFL team.

Overall Conclusions: Harrison had 100 yards in this game with 4:14 left in the first quarter. This was his ninth consecutive 100-yard game dating back to 2004. He’s a very patient runner who follows his blockers and strings moves together in the open field to create more daylight. I’m impressed with how Harrison keeps his runs alive. His balance and vision are big factors.

These skills make him a deceptively good player because physically he doesn’t look impressive. However, he demonstrates stamina. He played all but one play through the first three quarters and he doesn’t leave the field after big runs. Harrison had a 39-yard run in the third quarter and actually carried the ball on two more play without looking tired after each one.

Harrison has a very good feel between the tackles. He’s not flashy, but he’s intelligent and patient. I see a lot of stylistic similarities to Priest Holmes. They are about the same size; they both have adequate, but not great speed; and they run with a lot of patience. I’m not proclaiming Harrison is the next Priest Holmes, but if he can spot holes and burst through them in the NFL like he did at the college level, he can be a highly productive starter in the right system.

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