Toby Gerhart, Jordan Shipley, Riley Cooper: The NFL's Great White Hopes!

Gerald BallCorrespondent IMarch 5, 2010

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL - DECEMBER 10:  Running back Toby Gerhart of the Stanford Cardinal poses with the Doak Walker Award trophy during the Home Depot ESPNU College Football Awards at the Disney Boardwalk on December 10, 2009 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
Doug Benc/Getty Images

I have done my level best to deny that Toby Gerhart was experiencing reverse discrimination from the media. For instance, I still believe that Mark Ingram's winning the Heisman was the correct decision because the Heisman doesn't go to the best player (wich Gerhart wasn't anyway, Ndamukong Suh was) but the best story, and rushing for 1658 yards for the national champions is a bigger story than rushing for 1871 yards for an 8-5 team.

Example: both Gerhart and Ingram ended their regular seasons with national showcase games. The difference is that where Gerhart's game was against 6-6 Notre Dame with basically nothing on the line, Alabama's game was against 13-0 and defending national champs Florida led by former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and the nation's most highly regarded defense with EVERYTHING (the SEC and national title) on the line. So while Gerhart had the better game statistically (205 yards and 3 TDs rushing with a passing TD) it was still a matchup between 6-6 and 8-5 teams that no one would have paid any attention to had the schools involved been anyone else but Notre Dame and Stanford. If a tailback for 8-5 South Florida has the same game against 6-6 Mississippi State and the same season that Gerhart did, nobody cares. Maybe they spend 5 minutes talking about him on ESPN2.

But Ingram getting 3 TDs against the defending national champs in what amounted to a national championship semifinal? That's a big story no matter who the teams are. So Gerhart received and deserved the Doak Walker Award as the best RB. But Ingram received and deserved the Heisman as the best story. And the "east coast bias" Pac-10 fans should note that despite winning 6 national titles (plus a completely ignored perfect season by Auburn) since 1998, the SEC has only 2 Heismans to show for it, the same number as the Big 10. Meanwhile, the Big 12 has 4 and the Pac-10 has 3. So far from any pro-SEC bias, it can be argued that the SEC is actually underrepresented where the Heisman and other awards are concerned. (Example: no Auburn player from that 13-0 team won a single award.)

But the NFL? That is a different story. The NFL draft should be about the best player, or at least the player with the most NFL potential based in large part on that college career. And I have to tell you ... that player is Toby Gerhart. Playing with suspect athletes around him, Gerhart has 671 career attempts for 3522 yards and 43 touchdowns. That's right, Gerhart was not a one year wonder in 2009. He had 1136 yards and 15 TDs at 5.5 per carry in 2008! This included 101 yards and a TD against that all time great USC defense. His longest run in that game? FORTY YARDS! Against Taylor Mays (he of the 4.33 40 yard dash at the combine) and those FOUR NFL LINEBACKERS!

So, with his 1871 yards and 27 TDs added to an already very solid NCAA career (yes, Gerhart was already on the NCAA's radar entering this season, the only question was whether he would give up his NFL shot for baseball), why are clearly inferior tailbacks like Jahvid Best (who has bust written all over him), Joe McKnight (an even worse prospect than Best), Jonathan Dwyer (whom I like, but he has weight problems and played in a triple option offense), and C.J. Spiller (whom I like, but as a 3rd down back/returner), Ryan Matthews (who played against WAC competition!), and Anthony Dixon (whom I like, but played for mostly losing teams) rated higher in nearly all the mock drafts?

Before the combine, we could have fairly said "we wonder if the guy is fast enough." Not anymore. Gerhart ran a 4.53 at the combine on their slow track. First, Dexter McCluster, long considered an example of SEC speed, ran a 4.58! Second, a lot of people adjust the times at the combine's slow track by taking off as much as a tenth of a second to match the times at pro days and individual workouts, which are on fast tracks. So, Gerhart's 4.53 at the combine is equivalent to a 4.48 or even a 4.45 at a pro day! And what did Reggie Bush run on the VERY FAST track at USC's pro day after spending THREE MONTHS on speed training (because USC holds one of the last pro days, a full six weeks after the combine)? A 4.38. Am I saying that Gerhart is as fast or nearly as fast as Reggie Bush? Not really. BUT GERHART IS 231 POUNDS! A 231 LB. GUY WHO RAN FOR 1871 YARDS AND 27 TDS FOR A WINNING MAJOR COLLEGE TEAM AND THEN RUNS A 4.53 AT THE NFL COMBINE OUGHT TO BE IN THE DISCUSSION FOR A TOP TEN PICK! I am sorry, but it has to be because Toby Gerhart is white.

That's the bad news. The good news is that black QBs and coaches also faced barriers like this, and by succeeding in the NFL, guys like Tony Dungy and Donovan McNabb created opportunities for people like Jim Caldwell, Mike Tomlin and Vince Young to follow in their footsteps. (Though barriers do still remain ... note that a lot of the very people who were trashing Vince Young just a few months ago are now saying that if Vince Young can make it, so can Tim Tebow. Of course, they say that after the obligatory remarks bashing Vince Young's intelligence and ability to learn an NFL offense while saying that none of those "questions" exist about Tebow.) So, if Toby Gerhart does the same thing to NFL defenses that he did to USC's NFL minor league team (Gerhart had great games against USC in 2008 and 2009) then that will result in the NFL taking white tailbacks more seriously.

And that will have a trickle effect on colleges. Again, the NFL is a guide. The hiring of blacks as college head coaches received a real shot in the arm when Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin won NFL Super Bowls. Since then, Turner Gill, Joker Philips, Charlie Strong and Mike London have all taken over college programs in BCS conferences (with Ron Franklin a head coach in waiting) with Kevin Sumlin actually turning down several such jobs, including that Cincinnati. It is also true with QBs, as blacks formerly got into the NFL by playing the position at lower profile schools (i.e. Alcorn State, Marshall, East Carolina) or at programs that run the option like Virginia Tech and Syracuse. You were once more likely to see a black starting QB in the NFL than at the major "passing game schools" in college like USC and Michigan. Now, thanks to black QBs like the much-maligned McNabb regularly leading NFL teams to the playoffs, we have seen or are seeing Chris Leak at Florida, E.J. Manuel at FSU and Jacory Harris at Miami within 4 years of each other, among other things. (Then there is the absolutely loathed Terrelle Pryor at Ohio State, criticized for not going to Penn State, Michigan, West Virginia or Oregon to run the option, and then having his Ohio State coach Jim Tressel criticized for not switching to an option-based attack. Most of the Pryor-bashing is clearly due to Pryor's seeking a situation that would prepare him to be an NFL QB rather than a TE or WR, and Tressel is getting hammered for accommodating Pryor's aspirations.)

So while things clearly aren't perfect, there is still much more opportunity for black QBs and coaches in the NFL and college thanks to the success of trailblazers. So, when Gerhart does succeed in the NFL (I would be thrilled if Gerhart wound up in Philadelphia, so the folks who dislike black QBs but love white RBs and the folks who like black QBs but dislike white RBs will be forced to either overcome their prejudices or hate the Eagles!) the result will be more white RBs who excel in college being taken seriously by the NFL, and more important more white RBs who excel in HIGH SCHOOL being given a shot at the position in college instead of being automatically moved to LB or safety. More excellent white athletes at RB in college means more starting white RBs in college, which means more such types in the NFL. (As an aside, Gerhart fans who compare the kid to Jerome Bettis, Brandon Jacobs and John Riggins ... you aren't helping. First, it confirms the stereotype of Gerhart as a north-south power runner in an NFL that is moving more towards the passing game and is looking for faster, shiftier players. Second, it isn't true. Gerhart is actually a typical, traditional big tailback like Pac-10 products Steven Jackson and Jonathan Stewart, or perhaps a faster Cedric Benson.)

But Gerhart isn't alone. He is going into the NFL with a pair of other white athletes playing positions that we rarely see white starters in the NFL: Jordan Shipley and Riley Cooper. Shipley, despite putting up huge numbers in college, was being looked at as just another middle round slot receiver type, an Austin Collie-Brandon Stokley-Rickey Proehl sort. That is, until Shipley torched the Alabama defense in the BCS title game! Make no mistake, going for 10 catches for 122 yards and 2 TDs against a secondary filled with guys that are going to play Sundays like All-American CB Javier Arenas opened eyes.

Also, while Colt McCoy's injury might have cost Texas a national title (though Alabama fans do have compelling counter-arguments) it clearly helped Shipley's personal stock. It can't be said that Shipley was the product of Colt McCoy getting him the ball or of the shotgun-spread offense. Instead, the plays downfield that Shipley made downfield with the very green Garrett Gilbert getting him the ball should make one wonder if the McCoy offense was holding him back! Of course, the reports of Shipley running a 4.57 in the 40 at the combine is being used to claim that he is nothing but a slot WR after all. First off: watch Shipley get that time down to a 4.50 at his pro day on a faster track. Second, Anquan Boldin ran a 4.7 40. How many Pro Bowls has he been to again?

If Shipley does unfairly slip in the draft, then fine. Word already has it that the Tennessee Titans' Bud Adams loves the guy, and so does the Tennessee Titans' front office. Other than Kenny Britt, the Titans' current WRs are horrible, and Shipley would start easily in Nashville. Again, similar to Donovan McNabb handing off to Toby Gerhart in Philadelphia, Vince Young throwing to Jordan Shipley and would force the stereotypers to either root for one for the sake of another or hate both! (Now in the interests of honesty, a downside on Shipley is that the guy is already 24 years old, which means that for most of his college career he has been a grown man competing against teenagers, and that he is likely already as big and fast as he is going to get.)

But Shipley is not alone among white WRs from national title contending major college programs' seeking their fortune in the NFL this season. Another, who may actually have more upside than Shipley is Riley Cooper of Florida. Cooper is 6'3", 220 lbs., and ran a 4.52 at the combine. It is amazing that a guy with those measurables who had 961 receiving yards and 8 TDs for a 13-1 team in the SEC isn't coming into the NFL with a higher profile. Mohammed Massoquai, for instance, had 58 catches for 920 yards and 8 TDs and was the 18th pick in the 2nd round of the 2009 NFL draft. And Massoquai was not even the top WR on UGA's team. A.J. Green, who will be a top 10 and possibly top 5 pick in 2010, was!

However, Cooper's main problem isn't racial stereotyping. Instead, Cooper is being scapegoated for Tim Tebow's regression as a passer in 2010. They can't question the passing ability of "the greatest college player ever", so his WRs have to take the blame. Since when does "the greatest college player ever" need talent like the offensive rookie of the year (Percy Harvin) and Louis Murphy, who would have started as a rookie for the Raiders had Al Davis allowed him to, but still had 500 receiving yards and 4 TDs as a backup (and a terrible QB situation) in order to make him look good? I say imagine what Cooper's stats would have been in a more traditional offense with a dropback QB throwing him the football. There are a lot of NFL teams where Cooper's size, leaping ability (despite the title of a certain bad Woody Harrelson movie, Riley Cooper has a 40 inch vertical), decent speed, good route running and good hands. Allow me to be stereotypical and propose Patrick Jeffers and Ed McCaffrey as players that Cooper reminds me of (Jeffers' promising career was cut short by injury).

When was the last time that when major, high-profile programs like Stanford, Florida and Texas produced white NFL draft prospects at RB and WR like Gerhart, Cooper and Shipley? It is astounding that the media is doing their level best to ignore them. (NFL scouts and front office people on the other hand are wise to keep quiet in the hopes that they fall to them in the draft.) But if these three great college athletes pan out on the NFL level, they will not only benefit the NFL with their talents, but they will make it much easier for future white athletes at their position to be taken seriously and treated fairly instead of shunted to LB or safety (in the case of RBs) or pigeonholed as backups or ignored altogether (often the case with WRs). The result will be college football and the NFL being a better game.

Who knows ... if Toby Gerhart rushes for 1500 yards a year in the NFL and becomes a Madison Avenue marketing superstar and face of the NFL as a result, the NFL will stop its gravitation towards being a flag football passing league (they are actually talking about banning the three point stance to protect QBs!) and start back playing real football. Only 15 of 32 NFL teams had a 1000 yard rusher last season, and of those only Chris Johnson reached 1420 yards! (Steven Jackson, the fellow whose game Gerhart most closely resembles, was the #2 rusher in the NFL last year). There is clearly a huge need for every down NFL tailbacks (not more oft-injured glorified third down backs like Jahvid Best, Brian Westbrook and Reggie Bush!) and it is shocking that Gerhart is not being considered as the primary candidate to fill that need. 

Now the scuttlebutt is that Gerhart is being downgraded for medical reasons. Yes, Gerhart has a knee injury, but Jamal Lewis had two knee injuries when he entered the NFL, and two more during his NFL career. This isn't about just giving Gerhart, Cooper and Shipley a shot. Instead, Gerhart, Cooper and Riley should be drafted in the same area of the draft as other athletes with similar measurables who had similar college numbers. It is truly amazing that more people aren't willing to come out and say it, especially after ALL THREE ran under 4.6 at the combine.