Former Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson says the big back still has a place in the modern game.
Thursday is the 30th anniversary of the greatest trade in Bengals history when they shipped 245-pound running back Pete Johnson to the Chargers. In return they got disgruntled James Brooks, a Mighty Mite who responded with four Pro Bowls and became the signature of Sam Wyche's versatile no huddle and a harbinger of the 21st century running back as a 180-pound checkmate.
But with the drafting of LSU's Jeremy Hill in the second round earlier this month, the Bengals went back their big-back roots in a big way. At 233 pounds, Hill is the biggest back they've drafted above the sixth round since Johnson arrived in the 1977 second round out of Ohio State.
It also is a move against the trend of streamlined, wide-open offense. Ten years ago, three of the top ten NFL rushers weighed at least 230 pounds in Jamal Lewis, Fred Taylor, and Stephen Davis while four others (LaDainian Tomlinson, Deuce McAlister, Shaun Alexander, Ricky Williams) were at least 221 pounds.
Last season only one top ten rusher, 230-pound Green Bay rookie Eddie Lacy, was bigger than 221 pounds. But the Era of the Big Back is Not Dead.
So says Jim Anderson, running backs coach emeritus who had some of the best big backs of his time. Anderson coached the Bengals backs from Larry Kinnebrew (1984) to BenJarvus Green-Ellis (2012) before he retired as the longest-tenured position coach in the league. But he still keeps in touch well enough that Giovani Bernard always gives him a warm welcome even though that's the one he didn't get to coach.
"He's great, isn't he?" Anderson asked rhetorically. "He's not just a receiver now. He can really run it."
Anderson sees a lot of the 5-9, 180-pound James Brooks in the 5-9, 205-pound Bernard. Brooks could have gone to a Pro Bowl as a receiver he was so versatile. But Anderson also sees a big place for a big back like Hill.
"When it gets cold, the big guys make the difference, like Corey (Dillon) and Kinnebrew," Anderson said. "He's got to be more of a James Brooks type of guy (today), but you just have to get the right big guy. A guy that has to have that versatility to be an integral part of the passing game. It's a big plus. Just look at Ickey Woods and James."
When the Bengals went to the Super Bowl in 1988, the 230-pound Woods raced to a 1,000-yard rookie season with Brooks getting nearly 1,000 yards himself. It's a different game, but maybe not.
"You want that guy to be an athlete. Athleticism is the key." Anderson said. "He can't be just a straight line guy. He's a guy that has to make people miss and the way the game is today, he has to catch the ball."
This is why they like the 6-0, 233-pound Hill. The exact opposite of the reliable but straight-ahead-5-11-227-pound Cedric Benson, Hill has some sizzle in his feet. As offensive line coach Paul Alexander says, "He's not exclusively a hammer, he's got some skills."
Anderson says, "I know the people down here do their homework and they're excited about some of those things he does. I'm just like everyone else. I'm looking forward to him putting on the pads."
When it comes to his No. 1 all-time big back, Anderson, of course, goes with the 6-1, 225-pound Dillon, the club's all-time leading rusher who broke Walter Payton's single game rushing record in a 2000 Paul Brown Stadium game.
"Corey could do it all," said Anderson, who argues that Dillon was a good receiver, "you just had to give him the opportunity."
It's hard for Anderson to put Woods on a list "because he didn't play very long." Brooks is clearly Anderson's No. 2 all-around back behind Dillon, but he opts for the 6-2, 222-pound Harold Green as his No. 2 big back.
"Harold was really good and he was an ugly catch. He caught the ball, but it wasn't pretty all the time because he was a tall guy," Anderson said. "But when Harold left us he made a living as a third-down back, first in Atlanta when they went to the Super Bowl, and then in St. Louis."
Rudi Johnson's weight fluctuated between 228 and 218 during his whodey heyday, but he was good enough to be No. 3 on Anderson's big back list.
"All Rudi did was be productive," Anderson said. "Rudi was a big back; he just didn't have the height. He had the leg strength. A guy who has the leg strength and the balance is key. Corey and Harold had it, but they had more versatility. He was one dimensional. Rudi would have had a tough time today because he was one dimensional (because he mainly just a runner)."
Anderson had the 215-pound Garrison Hearst for just a season and he's not sure if he's big enough for the big back list, but he puts him at No. 4, anyway: "He was explosive and he loved football."
Alexander wonders if Johnson and even Dillon, two guys he admires as non-straight-line big runners, would be as good in today's perimeter game.
"A lot of it is the shotgun," Alexander said of the scarcity of big backs. "It's hard to be a big back who is stiff to make cuts out of the shotgun."
But the Bengals now have another big back. From 1997-2003, Dillon scored nine touchdowns of at least 30 yards. Since then, the Bengals have three by three different backs and Hill is coming in with six touchdowns of at least 50 yards in college.
Which is why Anderson doesn't hesitate when asked what he'd like to see from Hill.