FBO: The rise of the mighty mites

"Get outta my way." Getty Images

Each Monday, Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders scours over tape from that weekend's games and evaluates the performance of skill-position players. For a full archive of Quick Reads, please click here. For a better understanding of the FBO metrics used to arrive at these conclusions, please click here.

Jerome Harrison, take a bow. For one week, you managed to overshadow every other NFL player -- even a future Hall of Fame quarterback who threw for 500 yards.

How can a generally-anonymous halfback run for 286 yards and three touchdowns? This couldn't happen with single-game records in sports. No spot starter strikes out 18 guys in a game; reserve shooting guards don't go off for 83 points.

The answer? Jerome Harrison shouldn't be generally-anonymous; the fact that he was one until Sunday owes much more to the myopia that envelops football organizations than the weaknesses in his game.

A fifth-round pick out of Washington State in the 2006 NFL Draft, Harrison was selected by the Browns as a potential change-of-pace back to then-starter Reuben Droughns, who would be replaced in 2007 by the similar stylings of Jamal Lewis.

With Lewis came offensive linemen Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach, and while the former Ravens star accrued what baseball fans might call "counting numbers" by carrying the ball over and over again, it's hard to find a back that's done more with less than Harrison. His 57 carries over those two years yielded 388 rushing yards, nearly 6.8 yards per carry. While one big run can adulterate those numbers, FO's advanced DVOA ratings of 40.4% in 2007 and 52.7% in 2008 show that he was producing on a per-carry basis. Lewis ran the ball far more frequently, but Harrison was so effective on his 57 touches that he had 160 DYAR, more than half of the 284 DYAR Lewis had over 630 touches. His fantastic numbers in limited time earned him the sixth spot on Football Outsiders' Top 25 Prospects lists for both 2008 and 2009.

The easy knock on a player like Harrison is that he's too small (5-foot-9, 205 pounds) to carry the full-time workload for an NFL team, and that teams need a back like Lewis to carry the heavy load while Harrison serves as a change of pace. That logic doesn't hold up to the light of day; fellow 5-foot-9 backs include Warrick Dunn (180 pounds), Frank Gore (215), Priest Holmes (213), Steve Slaton (197), and yes, even Emmitt Smith (210). Instead of giving Harrison a chance to play his way out of a job, the Romeo Crennel-era Browns chose to hand the ball off to the plodding Lewis for his ability to "push the pile". Lewis was so successful at doing so that the Browns ranked 15th and then 27th in power situations (runs with two yards or less to go on third or fourth down and/or within two yards of the end zone), and he had all of two carries for 30 yards or more during his Browns' career.

Even the arrival of new head coach Eric Mangini didn't offer Harrison a chance to pick up consistent playing time. With Lewis injured in September -- probably because he wasn't big enough to carry the load -- Harrison came in and ran for 173 yards on 43 carries against the Ravens and the Bengals, while chipping in with ten catches for 64 yards. Lewis returned a week later, consigning Harrison to the bench once more. He ran for 117 yards, but it took him 31 carries and came against one of the league's worst run defenses, the Bills. Cleveland scored six points.

When Lewis went on IR after Week 12, Harrison got another chance, this time against the Chargers. He only ran for 35 yards on 10 carries, but caught seven passes for 62 yards, scoring twice. A week later, he got a total of nine touches against the Steelers, while rookie Chris Jennings got 20 carries. That led into Sunday.

The announcers gushed in Week 15 about Harrison's rare combination of speed and size, how he still looked fresh in the fourth quarter after 30 carries. Some of that is context, of course; Harrison was playing the Kansas City Chiefs. Then again, 15 other running backs start games against the Chiefs each year, and they don't run for 286 yards.

Harrison's the same back he always was, just given an opportunity to carry the ball more than ever before with the right matchup in front of him. Even if he doesn't end up being a full-time back at this level because of his pass blocking or because there's something about his size that doesn't affect those other starting-caliber halfbacks, it's pretty clear he deserved something better than one touch for every 11 that Jamal Lewis got over 2007-08. He deserved a bigger share of the pie and wasn't given any because of his size.

It's not strictly a running back thing, either -- one of the league's top quarterbacks (Drew Brees) and most active wideouts (Wes Welker) are far smaller than the prototypical player at their position. Bad organizations, like the Browns, find what's wrong with their players and use that as a reason to avoid giving them an opportunity. Good organizations look for a player's strengths and find a way to use them effectively. Based on what Harrison did against the Chiefs on Sunday, it's hard to make any argument against placing the Browns in the former category.