The Death of the White Running Back: An NFL Mystery

Kevin Roberts@BreakingKevinSenior Writer IDecember 17, 2009

GLENDALE, AZ - AUGUST 22:  Runningback Jacob Hester #22 of the San Diego Chargers rushes the football during the preseason NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the Universtity of Phoenix Stadium on August 22, 2009 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Chargers defeated the Cardinals 17-6.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

A certain article has sparked my interest lately in gathering some information on some of the top running backs (all white) who have been looked over or passed by for various reasons, but all mysteriously linking back to their skin color.

This will no doubt be a controversial piece, but the point here is not to say that racism is alive in the NFL (or sports in general), but more that a caste system is in play and has been for quite some time.

It's no secret that the days of Larry Csonka, John Riggins, and even Mike Alstolt (who played almost strictly fullback) are long gone, but the question is, why?

With the Rooney Rule forcing NFL teams to interview at least one black coach before making a decision, and the argument that there aren't "enough" black quarterbacks in the league, this shouldn't be a touchy subject.

But the fact remains, the running back position is completely dominated by African Americans in the NFL, and there really isn't a strong explanation for it. Outside of the common misconception that blacks are faster, quicker, stronger, and better all-around athletes, there just isn't any proof that would suggest you take any or all black running backs above a proven, elite white runner.

Disclaimer: This article is keeping things relevant, roughly covering the past nine years, and only discussing white runners who actually have played in the league. There may be a few players forgotten (on purpose, or not), while there are others that may not be included (Justin Fargas, among others) that won't make the cut because, regardless of popular opinion, they are not white.

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This article also looks at those players that actually "play" the running back position, but asks why they have small roles or struggle to get on the field, while offering evidence as to why they are more qualified than their role or production suggests.

Without further haste, here is a look at the top five running backs in this decade that have gotten a raw deal, listed in no particular order:

1. Brian Leonard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

He's "listed" at running back, as most white runners are, but he's basically a backup fullback. If you look at the official depth chart for Cincinnati, Leonard would easily be behind Cedric Benson, newly signed Larry Johnson, and rookie Bernard Scott. With the Bengals, Leonard is used very sparingly as a runner, and is usually only active on third downs.

Leonard spent his time at Rutgers as the lead-blocker for now Baltimore sensation Ray Rice, but also spent a good portion of his time running through and around would-be tacklers, while also introducing the world to the "Leonard Leap ."

Leonard was drafted in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams to back-up star running back Steven Jackson, but was inexplicably phased out of the offense, and eventually traded to the Bengals this past offseason.

However, before that ever happened, Leonard actually proved his worth, but then was denied any real chance at success ever again. When Jackson went down with an injury and missed the Week Five in 2007, Leonard stepped up and carried the ball 18 times for 102 yards against the Arizona Cardinals, clearly showing his ability to carry the ball and perform at a high level.

He then went up against one of the league's best run defenses the following week against the Baltimore Ravens, and continued to struggle for the next three weeks behind a horrible Rams offensive line, while also getting very little support from a passing game that featured Gus Frerotte.

In Leonard's case, he showed the ability to run the ball well, despite being surrounded by incompetence and having little blocking. He sustained a shoulder injury the following year, and was trade the Cincinnati this offseason, where he was one of the last players to make the team.

The evidence isn't suggesting that he was a close call for the cuts because of his skin color, but is is suggesting that his treatment and situations aren't the norm for a running back selected in the second round of a draft.

2. Jacob Hester, RB, San Diego Chargers

Hester was drafted in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers as a running back, although he spent most of his time (and still is) as a blocking fullback and a situational runner and receiver out of the backfield.

He may be listed as a running back, but it has been very arguable from the beginning of his career in 2008, that he has never been given a fair shake as a true tailback.

After leading the 2007 NCAA Champion LSU Tigers in rushing, Hester had proven that he could run consistently at a high level, in big games, and against big competition. Yet from day one, regardless of the plans his coaches claimed to have for him, he was buried beneath LaDainian Tomlinson, Darren Sproles, and even daft bust Michael Bennett.

There were even rumors that Gartrell Johnson, picked after him, would be placed ahead of him on the depth chart. Johnso's eventual release due to Hester's supposed "superior" blocking nullified that.

Regardless, in limited action in the NFL, Hester has done nothing to show that he can't get it done as a running back.

In 2008, he began his career with two attempts in his first 11 games, clearly not being given much of a chance as a runner. When he finally handled the ball more in the final five games, he produced 92 yards on just 17 carries, while also scoring a touchdown, and averaging over five yards per carry.

Hester has two runs of 17 or longer, including a 28-yarder, was effective in short yardage, and displayed excellent skills as a receiver.

However, Hester would get no chance to capitalize on his late-season success, as he did not receive a rushing attempt in San Diego's two-game stay in the playoffs, and then began the 2009 season with just two carries in his first four games.

Once again, Hester has to wait until late in the year to prove himself, as he totaled just seven carries on the season going into Week 11. However, he surprisingly saw an expanded role in Week 11's contest against the Denver Broncos, a supposedly strong run defense, and he ran seven times for 46 yards (6.7 YPC).

While there is no doubt that Hester hasn't proven himself at the NFL level, and it's also unreasonable to expect him to get much playing time with LaDainian Tomlinson playing well again, it's still odd that the Chargers preferred to use a 5'8'' running back (Darren Sproles) in short yardage situations over Hester, who excelled in those situations in college.

3. Peyton Hillis, RB, Denver Broncos

Hillis is another "running back" that has played almost strictly at fullback this season despite having great success as the Broncos featured tailback late last season. More on Hillis and why he can and should be playing running back can be found here .

4. Danny Woodhead, RB, New York Jets

Woodhead is a little-known speedster (emphasis on little) from Division III Chadron State, where he broke Ricky Williams' career rushing record (which was broken by another white runner), and went undrafted in the 2008 NFL Draft.

The fact that he wasn't drafted wasn't really a surprise. He played at a small school, didn't face elite competition, and unlike almost every other top running back discussed by draft experts, he was white.

Regardless, the Jets signed him last season and gave him a chance, only to see his season ended by a knee injury. When Rex Ryan took over the following off-season, he said he'd give Woodhead a chance, and he did.

Woodhead made it all the way to the final preseason game, where he busted off two 40+ yard runs, ran for over 120 yards, and scored two touchdowns in a Jets' win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

It seemed, at least for the moment, that Woodhead had broken the mold, made the team, and shown the world that white guys truly can play the position.

That is, until he was cut.

Woodhead was re-signed to the Jets practice squad, but when Leon Washington went down with a season-ending leg injury, Woodhead was called up, but not ironically at all, to play receiver.

Due to his persistence, undeniable talent, and strong work ethic, Woodhead earned some playing time, and ended up proving on two separate occasions that he has something to off to the league.

Although listed as a receiver on most depths charts, Woodhead does serve as New York's third running back, and has rushed for 41 yards on seven carries, while catching five passes for 58 yards.

True, these are small numbers for a small man, but in limited action, after finally getting a chance, Woodhead has displayed the ability to do some special things with the ball in his hands, and could be vying for more touches in the future.

5. Travis Jervey, RB, Retired

Jervey came from a small school, was a small guy, and like all other white guys from small schools, he had to start out scrapping for playing time.

Early in his career, Jervey made himself know to the Green Bay faithful by performing extremely well on special teams, and excelling as a gunner, while also displaying the ability to be an effective running back in his second season, where he ran the ball 26 times for 106 yards.

However, Jervey had issues with holding onto the ball (four fumbles that year), and did not receive a single carry the following season.

However, injuries forced Jervey into action in 1998 (as is the case with most white runners), and he responded by putting up solid numbers. Jervey tallied 83 carries for 325 yards and one touchdown in six games, four being as the full-time starter.

Jervey ran for over 55 yards in four of the six games, one of which he did not start (and only had two carries), and the other in which he broke his leg, which mysteriously equated to his career as a runner officially being over.

Despite being regarded as the (or one of the) NFL's Fastest Men for years, and clearly showing the ability to run the ball, Jervey went on to play for the Atlanta Falcon and San Francisco 49ers, while only rushing the ball 20 more times in the next five seasons.

Really, how does anyone explain that?

There hasn't been a white running back to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since John Riggins. No white running back has been drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft since 1974.

For one reason or another, the times have changed, and the way America looks at the position has changed. White's simply aren't regarded as good athletes, and are drowned by negative stereotypes that they can't jump, aren't fast, or don't have good agility.

The truth is, it starts in the college programs, and it simply trickles down to the pro level. Schools, for one reason or another, usually only recruit black tailbacks, as they're searching for the fastest, most agile burners and play-makers they can find, ignoring the fact that sometimes being the best athlete or fastest guy on the field doesn't necessarily make you a good football player. And it doesn't always mean you're a good running back.

There are thousands of star high school backs that are white every year, yet they are overlooked because black runners are naturally "assumed" to be better. Before you judge the argument, just look at the facts.

It's not just startling or weird that we haven't seen a white running back drafted in the first round or rush for over 1,000 yards in almost 20 years. It's actually kind of sad.

For another solid article on the subject, check out an ESPN writer's take, here .

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