Get shorty

rideheight
As the NFL Scouting Combine gets underway this week, many eyes will be turning to standout Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.  Many of those eyes will not see anyone at first, and will peer left, then right, then squint forcefully, and will only notice Manziel after dropping their chins and their gazes downward toward the Indianapolis turf.  He is, after all, a “short” quarterback, or so the media would have us believe.  Out of all the variables used to judge quarterbacks, height is the only one that cannot be controlled or managed.  What effect does it really have on a quarterback’s success?

Manziel, himself 6’0” flat, told reporters earlier this week that he feels that 5’10” Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has “kicked the door wide open” for quarterbacks to make a living by avoiding oncoming pressure and making plays outside the pocket, which suggests that being “short” should now be less of a factor.  The media did what they always do and made a big thing of these statements, focusing on the shortness issue.  It is true that Wilson himself famously was not drafted until the third round of the NFL Draft due at least in part to concerns about his size, despite his stellar college career at Wisconsin.  It is also true that NFL general managers and sportswriters have long ridiculed certain quarterbacks for their lack of size.  How much of the denunciation of the “short quarterback” has been legitimate?  How much of an anomaly has Russell Wilson really been?

The average height of American males has risen from 5’8” in 1950 to 5’9 ½” today.  The silly part of the “short quarterback” debate is the fact that virtually every quarterback who has ever taken a snap in the NFL is actually above average in terms of height, even the “short” ones like Manziel and Wilson.  The average height of NFL quarterbacks has risen steadily from about 6’1” (back in the pre-1950 early years of the NFL) all the way to approximately 6’3 ½” since Y2K.  The 2013 Super Bowl pitted 6’5” Colin Kaepernick against 6’6” Joe Flacco.  Opposite Wilson in this year’s Super Bowl was 6’5” Peyton Manning and his 6’8”backup, Brock Osweiler.  In other words, a “short quarterback” really just means a quarterback who is outside the very top couple of percentage points in male height.  The idea, I suppose, is that a taller quarterback might have an easier time surveying the field and throwing over a blocking offensive lineman like 6’8” Sebastian Vollmer or pass rusher like 6’7” Julius Peppers.  This makes some degree of sense, as both offensive and defensive linemen tend to be among the taller NFL players:

2013heightgraph

    Credit: Craig M. Booth http://www.craigmbooth.com/height-and-weight-of-every-active-football-player/

By the trends cited earlier, NFL quarterbacks have increased in height at a faster rate than the population at large.  This means that  teams have been purposely scouting, drafting, and fielding more tall quarterbacks as time has progressed.  Well, why?  A couple possible reasons were mentioned above, but have the players around the QBs gotten bigger over time?  Data on the height of players entering the league each year since 1970 show that tight ends, offensive guards, and offensive tackles who have come into the league have grown an inch or two on average over that time period, which is significant.  Interestingly, however, centers have been quite consistent.  Wide receivers have remained about the same as well.  Running backs have gotten shorter, which equates with casual observations.1  Linebackers have remained steady with perhaps a slight drop off.  Significantly, defensive tackles have actually shrunk from a high water mark of 6’4”-6’5” in the 70s down to an average of around 6’3” in recent years (while defensive ends have remained about the same).  This is not a phenomenon that is regularly talked about, at least in my corner of the world.

These trends are supported by outlier examples as well, which prove that the league featured many giants well before the 2000s.  Hall of Fame linebacker Ted Hendricks of the Colts and Raiders in the 70s was 6’7”.  Freakish wide receiver Harold Carmichael, who played for the Eagles from the early 70s to the mid-80s, was 6’8”.  Ed “Too Tall” Jones, a defensive end for the “Doomsday Defense” Cowboys in the 70s and 80s (and modern GEICO spokesman), was 6’9.”2    Tight end Morris Stroud, #88 for the Chiefs in the early 70s, was 6’10”.

It appears that offensive guards and tackles are the only players relevant to a quarterback’s height that have actually increased in average size over the past few NFL decades.  On the other hand, the folks who are actually trying to swat the ball down have generally stayed consistent or dwindled a bit in height.3  This perhaps suggests that the recent obsession with tall quarterbacks might be, at least in part, a socially-created trend rather than one of necessity due to circumstantial changes.

Regardless of the height of the players around them, have “short” quarterbacks really been less successful historically than their loftier peers?  Historical NFL height data on players of all eras (and career lengths) are not particularly accessible or reliable, but we can at least peek at the few dozen quarterbacks who have been the most successful of all, which is of course the ideal result for any team selecting a quarterback in the Draft.  There are 31 total quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame (including 23 “modern era” players).  Since Manziel is in the spotlight these days, we’ll use his 6’0” height as the threshold for “short” quarterbacks.  The breakdown among Hall of Famers is as follows:

5’11” or below

3 quarterbacks

6’0”

8 quarterbacks

6’1”

7 quarterbacks

6’2”

5 quarterbacks

6’3”

6 quarterbacks

6’4”

2 quarterbacks

6’5”

0 quarterbacks

6’6” or above

0 quarterbacks

The set of 31 quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame is at least somewhat skewed toward the shorter end of the spectrum, given that QB heights have increased over time and the Hall of Fame does not yet include the several active or recently retired players who will be inducted once eligible.  Let’s take a leap of faith and assume that the following quarterbacks end up in the Hall of Fame eventually:  Brett Favre (6’2″), Peyton Manning (6’5”), Tom Brady (6’4”), Drew Brees (6’0”), Aaron Rodgers (6’2”), Eli Manning (6’4”), and Ben Roethlisberger (6’5”).4  If you want to take an Evel Knievel jump of faith, we can throw in Russell Wilson (5’10”) based on his accomplishments and trajectory, but we’ll leave him out for now.  The additions bring us here:

5’11” or below

3 quarterbacks

6’0”

9 quarterbacks

6’1”

7 quarterbacks

6’2”

7 quarterbacks

6’3”

6 quarterbacks

6’4”

4 quarterbacks

6’5”

2 quarterbacks

6’6” or above

0 quarterbacks

Yes, a robust 12 of the 38 quarterbacks in our Hall of Fame are “short.”  The set of short quarterbacks includes some dusty old timers, to be sure, but it also has such luminaries as Fran Tarkenton, Y.A. Tittle, Lenny Dawson, Sid Luckman, and Sonny Jurgensen.  More strikingly, only TWO quarterbacks over 6’3” are in the Hall of Fame at present now.  Brady and Peyton are sure to join them in the coming years, possibly alongside Roethlisberger, Eli , or others, but even so, QBs who are below average or average in height have dominated the Hall of Fame for its entire history.

While the “short” group benefits from having several players from before the recent push for taller QBs, it also suffocates from having an incredibly small pool to begin with, especially in the last few decades.  It is probably fair to surmise that nowadays, many “short” quarterbacks across the country are being weeded out by the system at various way points along the pre-professional track.  Many shorter athletes might not choose quarterbacking (or even football to begin with) for the same reason.  Despite there being such a small pool of short QBs (which we can deduce from the average QB height stats), the shorties have produced the Hall of Famers mentioned above as well as several other highly successful pro QBs.  Examples of 6’0″ or shorter talents include athletically prodigious sociopath Michael Vick, Heisman winner Doug Flutie, two time college champion and Pro Bowler Pat Haden, Falcons Pro Bowler Bob Berry, 1983 NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion Joe Theismann, Pro Bowler and Redskins Ring of Fame inductee Billy Kilmer (who was also a backup to shorties Tarkenton and Theismann), and of course Russell Wilson.  The best example of all might be 5’7” Eddie LeBaron, who made four Pro Bowls with Washington and was also inducted into the Redskins Ring of Fame.  I am not aware of a comprehensive database of all quarterbacks sortable by height which would allow for a more complete analysis, but data on all quarterbacks who have compiled 1,000+ pass attempts5 suggests that 6’0″ and shorter quarterbacks fare very well proportionately.

What is the takeaway from all this?  Well, there seems to be a sentiment among teams and the media that we have seen only a few short quarterbacks succeed, and therefore it is rare for them to do so, and therefore teams should tread carefully when thinking about drafting one.  One problem with that sentiment is that quite a few have been successful, especially in relation to the size of the pool from which they came.  There is a psychological phenomenon called the “list length effect” which holds that the mind’s ability to recall items from a longer list is worse than from a shorter list.  Maybe the list of average- and large-sized quarterbacks is so long that people forget just how many crappy ones there have been, and they fade quietly into obscurity.

Even though many positions have not grown taller over time, we already saw that offensive linemen have, which cannot be ignored, and defenders get more athletic and swat-happy every year.  These factors support seeking out a giraffe-like signal caller, but if that is the best strategy, why have a proportionately higher percentage of stellar careers belonged to short QBs?  It seems to me that quarterbacks become successful because of their accuracy, ability to read a defense, arm strength, blocking, play calling, mindset, coaching, and many other factors that may or may not include body shape and size.  Short quarterbacks who are athletic might be more elusive than larger fellows.  This has certainly been true for Wilson and others.  Short quarterbacks who are told for years that they won’t make it in the big leagues might also have an added chip on their shoulder.  They’ve already gone against the grain of recent trends and shown that they are special, so why shouldn’t that continue in the NFL?

And yet, not a single QB under 6’0” has been drafted in the first two rounds since 1953,6 and 6’0” quarterbacks continue to be panned by the media.  Surely there is much more to be said on this issue, and this post only scratches the surface of the data out there, but I can’t help but conclude that maybe quarterback height should just be less of an issue altogether.  If any height-related speculation is warranted, maybe it should focus not on whether the next “short” quarterback will be a bust but rather who might be the FIRST great “tall” quarterback.7  Maybe teams should pay more attention to analyzing Manziel’s footwork and field vision rather than fretting about how much shorter his inseam is than that of Teddy Bridgewater or Blake Bortles.  After all, they say that the bigger you are, the harder you fall.8

Footnotes:

  1. Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Darren Sproles, Frank Gore…all 5’9″ or shorter.  The list of diminutive running backs goes on and on.
  2. But was he too tall?!?
  3. This admittedly does not account for any changes in athleticism, vertical leap, or pass defending strategies over time.
  4. Notable exclusions: Kurt Warner, Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair, Phil Rivers, Daunte Culpepper, Joe Flacco, and Ryan Leaf.
  5. This is not a very high bar.  Tim Couch had over 1,700 pass attempts in his career.
  6. In 1953, 5’10” Ted Marchibroda went to the Steelers with the fifth pick.
  7. Joe Flacco is the current leader in the clubhouse.
  8. There is still a large crater wherever 6’6” 270lb JaMarcus Russell landed.
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One thought on “Get shorty

  1. Totally agree–too much focus on height, since the media need some kind of story. I for one am surprised; I was sure that instead of talking about his height the media would revert to the ticking-time-bomb story that they concocted about Johnny Football – the focus on his temper and alleged poor judgment, etc. Love the JaMarcus Russell reference.

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