Originally written January 28, 2012 on Fox Sports Kansas City:
Is there a size restriction on NFL running backs? If you've paid attention to the flap in Kansas City about the future of Dexter McCluster, you could be forgiven for drawing that conclusion. The Chiefs, it seems, were busy scouting running backs during workouts for the Senior Bowl -- despite the fact that Pro Bowler Jamaal Charles is expected to return from injury and McCluster's effectiveness in 2011. They can't seem to make themselves believe that the speedy McCluster -- 5-foot-8, 170 pounds -- will manage to withstand the pounding required in a league full of giants. Last year's offensive coordinator, Bill Muir, admitted near the end of the season that McCluster probably should have been more involved in game plans. "In retrospect, I would have liked to have found more ways to get him the ball more often," Muir said, after McCluster wound up as the team's second-leading rusher despite just 114 carries. "You go into the season thinking you don't want to wear him out." So in an effort to protect McCluster -- simply because he's smaller than most running backs -- the Chiefs crippled their own offense to the point when they couldn't produce more than a single touchdown in any of their final nine games. Is there proof somewhere that a smaller running back will get torn to pieces by huge defenders? No one's ever seen it. And yet NFL coaches and scouts have made this mistake again and again. San Diego let K-State grad Darren Sproles stroll off to New Orleans, simply because they drafted a bigger back in 220-pound Ryan Mathews. That move really worked out well. The Chargers missed the playoffs, while the durable little Sproles (5-7, 180) became a nuclear weapon for the Saints. Sproles zoomed past 1,000 all-purpose yards in only his seventh game with the Saints. Maintaining an average of 168.5 per game, Sproles finished the 2011 season with 2,696 all-purpose yards, breaking the NFL single-season record. "Nobody was talking about my size this year," Sproles told reporters in New Orleans. "I never understood what that was all about, anyway. "Do they worry about every small running back getting hurt? I've only had one real injury during seven years in the league, and that was a broken ankle. "Big guys can break ankles, too. The injury had nothing to do with my size. I think linemen and guys tangled up at the line of scrimmage have more chance to get injured than a small, quick guy who can move out of the way. "Trainers talk about the most common way to risk injury is through fatigue. Well, obviously those great big guys carrying all that weight are going to get fatigued a lot more often than someone my size -- someone in good shape who doesn't have an extra 50 or 60 pounds." McCluster, by the way, wasn't hurt at all in 2011. "I definitely wasn't maxed out," he said. "I've always been small and it hasn't stopped me before, and it won't stop me now." Well, actually it might. That wouldn't be through any failure of McCluster's, necessarily. But maybe the Chiefs will continue to believe he's just too small to be anything more than a kick returner and part-time runner. If that logic seems just a bit like madness, well, tell it to McCluster, Sproles and other smaller backs who have dashed past hapless defenders -- as McCluster did in the Chiefs' 7-3 victory over Denver in the final regular-season game. There is some serious irony in the Chiefs' reluctance to trust a small running back like McCluster. Maybe the staff ought to visit some of those Arrowhead displays featuring Super Bowl IV, when the Chiefs won their lone championship with little (5-9, 180) Mike Garrett as the featured tailback. Garrett scored the clinching touchdown in the Chiefs' 23-7 victory over Minnesota in that Super Bowl, skipping through the middle on a trap play made famous by coach Hank Stram's recorded commentary on the sideline. "Mike's size actually gave him an advantage," said Chiefs Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson. "He could get lost behind the big linemen, and he'd find a hole before anyone could get an angle on him." Sproles has bristled during his entire NFL career whenever the issue of size and fragility have been bundled together by league coaches. "Show me some statistics that smaller guys get hurt more often than all of those giants knocking themselves out in the middle," Sproles said. "They don't exist." McCluster clearly believes that, too -- but there's obviously some doubt among Chiefs management that the little man from Mississippi can produce yards without getting maimed. To prove his point, Dexter goes out of the way to deliver a blow at the end of runs. But maybe he's wasting his time. When NFL scouts come to believe in a certain stereotype, almost nothing can change their minds. They want quarterbacks who are at least 6-4 and 225 -- insisting that only a big man can take the pounding. Never mind that some of the league's glossiest all-time numbers were rung up by comparative midgets like Fran Tarkenton and Warren Moon. Once again it's easy to make fun of San Diego, who ditched the 6-foot, 195-pound Drew Brees in 2006 -- just a year after the entire league ignored Sproles, when he was drafted 130th overall despite running for almost 5,000 yards at Kansas State. Brees, meanwhile, merely broke the NFL single-season passing record last year in New Orleans, throwing for 5,476 yards. He and Sproles must have enjoyed a few giggles at the expense of scouts (and the Chargers) for making such hideous misjudgments about them. Perhaps the Chiefs will shake themselves, look at production instead of size, and conclude that McCluster might make a terrific complement to Charles in next season's backfield. You'd hope so, but the league's history is littered with mistakes made with teams ignoring smaller players. And yet... Maybe Romeo Crennel can take another peek at that tape of McCluster running left, making an instantaneous cut back to the right and racing away from the entire Denver defense. There aren't a lot of big backs who could have done that. Or who finished the season healthy, either.
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