SMALL BUT NOT WITH THE BALL

Hail the "impact player," NFL lingo for the little speedster who can amass big yardage running, catching passes and returning kicks
August 31, 1983

The football lexicon certainly doesn't deal in doublespeak. What more apt term than clothesline? What more dangerous-sounding block than the crackback? Is there a football coach anywhere who would call a blitz a quarterback pacification alignment? The latest phrase heard around the NFL is right out of the same lively tradition. It's impact player. That may sound as though it should refer to a mammoth defensive lineman, but, in fact, an impact player is an all-purpose back of slight build whose "impact" is figurative. He's expected to put the hurry into a rushing attack or, more often, break a short pass for a long gain. With the advent of impact players, the pro game has seen its greatest influx of little men since the invasion of soccer-style kickers in the 1960s. In order to make an impact he often has to take one. Still, somehow, he keeps getting up for more.

Every team in football covets a player like Washington's Little Joe Washington, who works deep pass patterns as well as many wide receivers do. For sheer productivity you can't beat Buffalo's Joe Cribbs, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in both the 1980 and '81 seasons while averaging 46 catches. Few players in the game are as versatile as San Diego's James Brooks, the Jets' Bruce Harper or Miami's Tommy Vigorito, runners and pass catchers all, who ranked among the AFC's top 10 punt returners in 1982. And, in their strike-shortened rookie seasons, Minnesota's Darrin Nelson and Denver's Gerald Willhite showed they can do a little of everything, too.

These seven share certain telling characteristics. Most are situation players, waiting for the right circumstances to come off the bench. The uniform doesn't flatter any of them; none is 6 feet tall or weighs much more than 200 pounds. Pads sit atop their shoulders like the flourishes on a Norma Kamali dress. Almost all have a background in track, at least in high school, and can cover 40 yards in 4.6 or better. Many expect role playing to lengthen their careers. And some have had contract disputes, suggesting that they themselves are beginning to realize their tremendous value.

Bud Goode, the figure filbert whose sports computer keeps tabs on NFL stats for eight clubs, has been aware of the worth of impact players for some time. "In 1982, the most important stat for separating winners from losers was yards per pass attempt," says Goode. San Diego had the highest average gain per pass attempt (8.38), with Cincinnati a distant second (6.94). Baltimore was last (4.75), and Baltimore also was win-less. "There are several ways to increase average yards per attempt," Goode says. "You can try to increase the yards per catch of a wide receiver, who typically makes 18 yards a reception. You can go to a tight end, who might get 12, or you can pass to your backs, who average six. It's easier to improve a running back's average than it is to improve a wide receiver's by the same percentage. There are no 28-yards-per-catch wide receivers."

The handy back with fast feet isn't a completely newfangled thing, to be sure. Rummage through the archives of the old All-America Football Conference and you come across some musty entries with evocative nicknames, men like Edgar (Special Delivery) Jones of the Cleveland Browns and John (Strike) Strzykalski of the San Francisco 49ers. But not until Lydell Mitchell caught 72 passes for the Baltimore Colts in 1974 did a running back ever lead the pro game in receptions. And that was a watershed year in that rules changes restricted downfield contact, eliminated roll blocking and reduced the penalty for offensive holding from 15 to 10 yards, all of which favored the passing game. Starting with Mitchell, a different running back led the NFL in receptions from 1974 to 1979.

The effectiveness of the impact player became more pronounced in 1978 when the NFL made additional rules changes to open up the passing game still more. Defensive backs were limited to one hit (and that within five yards of the line), and pass blockers were allowed to open their hands. Permitted only that early bump, secondaries began to set up in deep zones, which had seams and soft underbellies. The challenge for offensive strategists was simple: Find backs who could 1) get open and 2) catch the ball.

Still other factors have contributed to the emergence of impact players as a dominant force in the NFL. Denver Coach Dan Reeves points to the elaborate weight programs colleges now require of all players, not just linemen. Slight no longer precludes might. John Mackovic, Kansas City's new coach, feels the trend to small backs is simply a matter of numbers. "The game's more specialized now," says Mackovic. (The Chiefs' Joe Delaney, the fastest impact player in the league, tragically drowned this summer.) "It used to be that you'd have only 30 players. Now there are 45 and you've got special players on both offense and defense. You're using a player who ordinarily wouldn't have made the roster 20, even 10, years ago."

Willhite, the Broncos' No. 1 draft choice last season, had no trouble making the team, but Reeves was not entirely satisfied with his performance. For one thing, tacklers drew too accurate a bead on Willhite. "You get a good shot at Gerald because he's always going upfield," says Reeves. "He's a north-south runner. He doesn't spend a lot of time wasting moves on people." The Denver staff is working to eliminate the forward lean in Willhite's running style; by leaning, Willhite can't bend naturally at the waist and knees and make quick cuts. The only move he has been known for is a characteristic backflip in the end zone after a touchdown.

Willhite will improve, Reeves feels, because he is greener than an average second-year man in the NFL. Willhite didn't play high school football—when the coach at Cordova High in Rancho Cordova, Calif., a Sacramento suburb, told Willhite that he was too small. He wrestled instead, going 24-0 at 95 pounds—and performed in only nine games in his rookie pro season because of the strike. "Gerald catches the ball with his hands, so he's a bigger target than he appears to be," says Reeves. "He jumps well, too. If he caught with his body, his size would be a detriment."

That size—5'10" and 200 pounds-was an even slighter 5'6", 130, when in 1978 Willhite enrolled at American River College in Sacramento. But he continued to sprout and was soon stout enough to earn a scholarship to San Jose State, where he became only the second player in NCAA history to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 50 passes in a season. He did it twice, in 1980 and '81.

Nelson was the first, and he did it three times (1977, '78 and '81) during his career at Stanford. It was precisely for that versatility that the Vikings drafted him No. 1 in 1982. The major flaw in Minnesota's three-wide-receiver, long-yardage offense had been the grand entrance of the third pass catcher. "The defense would see that and send in a nickel back," says Viking Offensive Coordinator Jerry Burns. But Nelson can be left in under any circumstances, thus concealing the Vikes' intent. He's a rare impact player who's actually less valuable coming off the bench.

Nelson got off on the wrong foot with the Vikings. He first asked them not to draft him. Then, after they did, Nelson, who grew up in Los Angeles and majored in urban development, complained that Minnesota didn't have any discos. But as Twin Cities deejays playfully dedicated country songs to him, he became an instant hit. He is the only Viking rookie running back ever to "begin his career as a starter.

When San Diego drafted Brooks out of Auburn in 1981, Coach Don Coryell figured the kid they called Bye-Bye could be an F-14 jet in Air Coryell, doing extra duty as yet another Charger receiver. But Brooks's hands—he bob-bled two straight kickoffs in San Diego's playoff game with Pittsburgh last winter—haven't impressed the Chargers nearly as much as his durability. He has been grounded for only one practice in two seasons. "He's tough as a boot," says Coryell.

Yet, at 183 pounds, the 5'9½" Brooks is light, even for an impact player. He weighed just 50 pounds at the age of seven, when his mother let him play on his first recreation-league team in-Warner Robins, Ga. "There wasn't anything to him, but even then he was star of the team," says Eura Lee Brooks. "Other boys, they called him Short Neck when he was little. Poor little ol' thing. Even now he doesn't have a neck. His head just kind of sits down in those pads." No more than 12 feet of space separated one house from another in Brooks's neighborhood, but that never stopped him or his friends. "It really hurt when you got run up against a house or a clothesline," Brooks remembers. "House didn't give an inch."

As a sophomore at Auburn Brooks was third in the nation in rushing, when he broke his foot in the fourth game, against Miami. With Brooks sidelined for the season, his road roommate—one Joe Cribbs—rumbled for 1,205 yards. In San Diego Brooks has been sharing time with an impact player of a larger sort, Chuck Muncie, who's nearly six inches taller and 35 pounds heavier.

As main man in the Buffalo backfield, Cribbs is an ex-Tiger of a different stripe. Auburn's run-oriented veer attack would hardly seem to be the proving ground for impact players, but Cribbs has helped define the term because of his superior pass-catching ability. In 1981 he averaged 15.1 yards on 40 receptions, phenomenal for a back, often by putting juke moves on linebackers after catching short passes. "He has a wiggle in his wobble," says Chuck Knox, his former Buffalo coach, who's now in Seattle.

The Bills chose Cribbs on the second round of the 1980 draft with a pick acquired from the 49ers in the O.J. Simpson trade. Still unsure about Cribbs's hands, they brought him to a minicamp to find out if he could catch. Knox was so encouraged by what he saw that he promptly retooled the Bills' offense to suit Cribbs. That year Cribbs not only was the Bills' second-leading receiver (52 catches for 415 yards), but he also amassed the fifth-largest first-year rushing total ever in the NFL (1,185 yards) and earned a starting Pro Bowl spot.

Cribbs missed the two-game, pre-strike NFL season in 1982 because of a contract squabble, but once play resumed in November he had the league's best rushing average per game (90.4). His yards per catch fell off from 15.1 to 7.6, but blame that on Knox's conservative approach, something new Coach Kay Stephenson has hinted he'll do away with. Stephenson will have only one year to make use of Cribbs's diversified talents, however; in July, Cribbs put an end to his contract dispute with the Bills by signing to play with the USFL's Birmingham Stallions in 1984.

Unlike Cribbs, Miami's Vigorito is strictly a bit player, appearing in long-yardage situations in the slot or in the back-field alongside Tony Nathan. "Because we call him a halfback everybody thinks he's a running back," says Carl Taseff, an assistant coach for the Dolphins. "But he's just like another wide receiver. It'd be silly to have a guy like [5'10", 228-pound Fullback] Andra Franklin in there on third and eight. If he couldn't come out of the back-field and catch the ball, the other team would say to heck with him." Says Vigorito, "I feel like a 12th starter, but I enjoy it. This is my way to establish a long career in the NFL"

Playing halfback at Virginia, Vigorito led the Cavs in receiving his final two seasons and picked up a yen for chewing tobacco. Miami chose him on the fifth round in 1981, then courted him like a No. 1 pick because of the wooings of the Montreal Alouettes. His dad, Ralph, played briefly with the New York Titans, the AFL forerunner of the Jets, and Tom grew up a Joe Namath fan. "I guess I was taken by [Namath's] charisma and confidence," he says. "He was a guy I wanted to be like." But Vigorito was not a cocky Dolphin rookie. After his second pro game, a nationally televised one against Pittsburgh in which he returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown, he told the press, "How can I run from them when I want to run up and get their autographs?"

"Tom has the fastest white feet in the NFL," says Dolphin Guard Bob Kuechenberg. Vigorito also bench-presses 385 pounds, making him the strongest Miami halfback since Mercury Morris. In fact, he's playing the role Morris pioneered in the early 1970s when he spelled Jim Kiick or Larry Csonka in passing situations. "Football is just going the way of the world," Vigorito says. "Everything nowadays is specialized. You can't go to a doctor now unless you go to one for the specific part of your body that's hurting you."

The Redskins' Washington has been seeing a lot of the knee doctor. "We don't think of him as a role player," says Coach Joe Gibbs. "If he's healthy we want him in the game all the time." But Washington, 29, has not been immune to injury; he had surgery on both knees in February, and that could cramp his running style. That style, he says, is based on quickness and the ability to stop and go and change directions. "I don't run over people unless maybe there's a small official in the way who doesn't see me coming," says Washington.

Normally you can hear Washington coming because a steady, low-pitched hum always seems to be emanating from his mouth. "He's just idling," someone once said after espying him seated for a meal. The humming can be traced to his upbringing in Port Arthur, Texas. He'd ride to clinics with his father, a high school football coach, all the while mimicking stock-car announcers and the buzz of the cars' engines. Later, when he played at Oklahoma, Washington painted his shoes silver. Customized-in-chrome cleats are still his trademark.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Redskins' 1982 Super Bowl victory was that they won without Washington, around whom the team had built its offense. He gained 1,474 yards running and catching in '81 but sat out the early part of last season with a damaged left knee. When he injured the right knee upon his return after the strike, John Riggins took to the role of the Skins' single setback like a Hog to slop. But the Redskins aren't going to run over everybody the way they did in the playoffs. Given Joe's versatility, Washington needs Washington.

While Washington is the all-time leading rusher for Oklahoma, Harper isn't the alltime leading rusher even for Kutztown State. But Kutztown, which sits in eastern Pennsylvania not far from Moselem Springs and New Jerusalem, is something of a holy place to Harper. One of his classmates there was Walt Michaels Jr., the son of the former Jets coach. When Harper finished his career at the Division II school, earning honorable mention Little All-America honors, Walt Jr. persuaded Walt Sr. to give Harper a shot as a free agent. Harper made good. In 1977, his first season, the 5'8", 177-pound Harper worked as a runner, receiver, and punt and kick-off returner—and led the AFC in combined yardage (1,867 yards). He led the entire league the following season with 2,157. So much for scouting computers. "Actually, I'm five feet seven and three-quarters," he says. "But don't tell anyone. It's funny. Other guys get beat up, but I've managed to miss only a few games. My size must help. There's less area to hit."

Harper is happy with his new contract, signed after a season of discontent. "I fired my first agent because he was incompetent," says Harper, who's from a family of real estate agents and passed the broker's exam himself over the summer. "His name was Bruce Harper."

Harper may have signed at just the right time. The 49ers' Walsh is one coach who thinks the impact player will soon be on his way out, another casualty of the ongoing arms race between offense and defense. "We've gone to an extreme using three-and four-receiver offenses," Walsh says. "It stereotypes what you can do." Look for a return to two full-time setbacks'. If one of them can run from scrimmage 20 times, catch passes, return kicks and stay out of a hospital bed, the NFL may have to scrap "impact player" and go back to "superstar."

PHOTOWashington's Washington, 5'10", 179 pounds, is slippery in his silver shoes. He led the Skins in rushing and receiving in '81 but was hurt much of '82. TWO PHOTOSDenver's Willhite (above) may run only north-south, but he catches passes north, south, east or west. Vigorito (right) has what a Dolphin teammate calls the NFL's "fastest white feet." TWO PHOTOSThe USFL collared Buffalo's Cribbs (left) for the '84 season with the offer of a warmer climate. Nelson (above) has helped to make Minnesota's third-down offense much less predictable. TWO PHOTOSHarper (above) says his small stature helps him avoid getting beat up: "There's less area to hit." San Diego's Brooks (right) weighs only 183 pounds, but his coach says he's "tough as a boot." PHOTOWashington gives the Redskins what he often needs: a pick-me-up.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)