This parable begins with Ricky Watters. The former 49er, Eagles, and Seahawk sports a mediocre career yards per carry average of 4.1 and bad rap for saying to the media “For who, for what?”. Granted, Watters earned his reputation as running back with a diva wide receiver mentality for celebrating runs under 20 yards with animated celebrations and public criticism of former offensive coordinator John Gruden. He’s also in the news recently for unacceptable behavior as a high school coach.
When it comes to talking about Watters’ skills as a runner, it’s all noise that masks the power, agility, versatility, and durability of an instinctive and valuable football player. From 1994-2000, Watters touched the ball no fewer than 333 times per season. During this span his season totals were no worse than 1110 yards rushing, 40 receptions, 7 touchdowns, and 1550 total yards from scrimmage. And the fact he never missed a game during this seven-year span belies his “For who, for what?’ reputation.
In 2000, Watters was the bell cow of the Seattle Seahawks on his way to posting 1855 yards from scrimmage, which matched a career high that he earned 5 years earlier in Philadelphia. It was the year before Watters would just play four games before retiring from football because, already fearful of air travel, he no longer wished to fly in a post-9-11 America.
Watters’ unexpected farewell to the game didn’t leave the Seahawks empty-handed. Before the 2000 season, Seattle picked Alabama runner Shaun Alexander with the 19th overall pick in the NFL Draft and felt so confident in its depth that it made a trade with Green Bay that sent the Seahawks’ third-string runner and a fifth round pick to the Packers for a sixth round pick and defensive back Fred Vinson.
Vinson was a second round pick in 1999 who, not long into his Seattle career, injured his knee in a basketball game and never made a meaningful contribution to the team. The Packers got the better end of the stick. The runner it received in return was Ahman Green, the third round pick of the Seahawks in 1998.
Green was 21 when he left Nebraska for the NFL. He didn’t start a game during his tenure in Seattle, earning all of 61 carries, 329 yards rushing, 3 catches for 2 years, and a touchdown. From the get go in Green Bay, the Seahawks de facto third string runner before the trade earned five straight 1000-yard seasons.
Ahman Green’s Production (2000-2004)
We don’t know why the Seahawks preferred to pick Alexander in the first round when it had a back of Green’s caliber on its bench. However, Seattle isn’t the only team to deal away backup runners who succeeded elsewhere. Priest Holmes had a 1268 yards from scrimmage and 7 touchdowns for the Ravens in 1998 as a second-year undrafted free agent. After Holmes only played part of the 1999 season, the Ravens picked Jamal Lewis in 2000 and dealt Holmes to the Chiefs in 2001.
One can imagine the Ravens didn’t believe Holmes was a good fit as a power runner due to his size and feared the back would not be durable. While Baltimore was correct with its long view of the two players, Holmes had three seasons between 2001-2003 where he only missed two games and accumulated 960 carries,6587 yards, and 61 total touchdowns. Lewis was no slouch but even with 2271 total yards in 2003, the Ravens runner missed the 2001 season due to an ACL injury and accumulated only 695 carries, 4040 total yards, and 21 total touchdowns during the same span of Holmes’ reign with the Chiefs.
Cedric Benson didn’t fit with the Bears from 2005-2007 and never had more than 674 yards rushing in a season with Chicago. However, he had three straight 1000-yard seasons for the Bengals. Michael Turner toiled behind LaDainian Tomlinson for four years but had three seasons in four years with Atlanta where he gained no less than 1340 yards on the ground and four straight seasons with at least 10 rushing touchdowns.
Tiki Barber was a role player for the Giants from 1997-1999, but from 2000-2006 he had six 1000-yard seasons during that seven-year span, including rushing totals of 1518, 1860, and 1662 during his final three years in New York. Stephen Davis, a back with four years out of five with no less than 1318 yards rushing in Washington and Carolina, was a reserve for his first three years in the league and only tallied 815 yards on the ground during that span.
So when I tell you to be patient with the likes of Eagles runner Bryce Brown, think of these backs that took me longer to write about than it to do find them as fits with my overall point. I profiled Brown as a blue chip talent despite a less than ordinary and uninspiring college career. Today, I’m revisiting Brown during his second year to see if his talent still merits patience. The answer is a resounding yes.
Here’s a run last week against Green Bay where Brown provides fans and opponents a glimpse of his eye-opening skill. This is a run designed to go off tackle where the Packers penetrate the edge and have an angle on the runner, but Brown’s speed, balance, and agility belie his size.
You can see Brown is forced to make his bend outside as soon as he takes the exchange, because of penetration up the middle. This forces a race from the beginning and based on the penetration at the edge, Brown is at a disadvantage in terms of angles. But you’ll see why speed can erase some of a team’s ills.
Brown accelerates and turns the corner on the tackle and once he does, he has a nice alley up the sideline to reach the line of scrimmage.
Although difficult to see with still photos, the acceleration it took to reach this corner is often too much for a runner to bend the run at this angle up the sideline. Not so for Brown, who then finds his second gear to burst up the boundary for the first down.
Then here comes the Reggie Bush at USC move of cutting the run to the inside after generating a ton of momentum. Check out how sharp Brown’s angle is on this cutback after he makes a minor dip inside No.52 at the sideline.
This is as close to a 90-degree cut as you’re going to see from a running back in this situation. While he eventually slips to the ground trying to make a second cut in the open field, the acceleration and control is on par with LeSean McCoy, a back two inches shorter and at least 10 pounds lighter.
Brown’s strength, quickness, and reaction time is also on display with another play in this game where many NFL starters would have been dropped for a loss. This is a 12 personnel pistol run designed to go with his line slanting to the left, but the penetration forces a cutback to the right edge.
As Brown takes the exchange he spots No.53 flying down the line as the backside pursuit without a shot of a teammate blocking this Packer. The angle is clear that Brown gets hit before he reaches the line of scrimmage if he continues his path down hill. It’s impressive that Brown spotted this possibility before the snap and even more impressive that he could diagnose the angle with his peripheral vision while taking the exchange at an angle away from this pursuit.
Brown plants his left foot and makes a sharp cut outside the pursuit, but with second defender coming down hill unblocked, Brown appears dead to rights.
However, the pad level is good enough to get under the first hit. Still, Brown’s pad level doesn’t create great leverage here; this is raw strength and balance.
Brown runs through the first wrap two yards behind the line and during this run he has to step over the second defender.
There is a similar a play I saw Eddie Lacy make at Alabama.
Brown turns a loss of three into a gain of four with his vision before and after the snap as well as his elite athleticism. This is the type of play we see his teammate McCoy make. We also see it from the likes of Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, and Jamaal Charles.
Brown still has lessons to learn as he develops his NFL game, but flashes like these encourage me to believe this second year runner has the talent to do what Green did after leaving the Seahawks for the Packers.
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