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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.