"It's difficult to tell whether the lack of white tailbacks is a result of nature or nurture. Are white athletes pursuing or being pushed into other positions because they're intimidated by the racial dynamics? Or is there something to the controversial theory that this is the merely the unraveling of genetic trends? The answer is maybe … and maybe." - Jemele Hill
Once upon a time, the National Football League had white running backs. Once upon a time, Jemele Hill was a writer for ESPN's Page 2 and not hosting a SportsCenter program that has fans divided.
I'll let you guess which one we're talking about today.
But in all seriousness, where has the white running back gone? Where has the white FULLBACK gone? Two positions that have historically had a fair amount of white players - fullbacks much more than running backs in the past 30 or so years, though - now are a sight when a pale-skinned player lines up there.
Today, we'll be looking at some white running backs since 2000 - some of which were primarily fullbacks, but either entered the league as running backs or were forced into action there - and analyzing the best and the worst. Some names will be familiar, while others will force you to boot up older Madden games and say, "wait, these guys were real?"
Let us begin on the trail to find the next Great White Hope...
15 Best: Zach Zenner
Is it too early to put a running back that has only ran for 394 yards and four touchdowns on 105 attempts in 20 games on this list? Given that he's one of the few true running backs on this list, we're still doing it. Turning 26 in September, Zenner turned heads this past season when he took over the Detroit Lions' starting running back job in the season's closing weeks, rushing for 224 yards and three touchdowns on 51 attempts - that's a 4.39 yards per rush average - in the Lions' final five games.
Whether or not Zenner will continue to improve and, perhaps, restore some respect to the white running back remains to be seen, but he's doing it an offense that is slowly realizing they need to run the ball. Let's just hope he avoids the injury plague that hits every Lions running back...
14 Worst: Travis Jervey
Nicknamed 'Flash' in what has to be some sort of irony, Jervery is one of the few players on this list to debut in the 1990s and the only one who barely makes the 2000s mark, having retired after the 2003 season. A Pro Bowler in 1997, Jervery was important on special teams and was an efficient blocker for several different teams, but failed to really ever get it going as a running back.
When pressed into the Packers' starting running back role in 1998, Jervery ran for 325 yards and a touchdown in 83 attempts across eight games and five starts; it's decent, but nothing special. After that, Jervery would only have 20 more attempts in his career. Oh, and he had a pet lion. That's almost enough to put a 'best' next to his name, but not enough.
13 Best: Nick Goings
Some are torn on if Nick Goings was a good running back when he was a running back, but I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt here because he was a guy who moved the chains. A career average of 3.7 yards per carry isn't pretty, true, but let's not pretend those Carolina Panthers offenses were particulary dangerous in the mid 2000s; those were defensive teams that would knock you to the turf play after play, Jake Delhomme would find Steve Smith for a short pass that the future Hall of Famer would turn into a touchdown, and the Panthers would win 10-7.
In his main season as Panthers running back in 2004, Goings ran for 821 yards and six scores on 217 attempts. Not bad! Good enough to give him the full-time role? No, but that and his chain-moving work are enough for some positivity.
12 Worst: Cory Schlesinger
That glare is Cory's way of telling us, "hey man, knock it off." When it came to catching the ball out of the backfield, Cory Schlesinger was an extremely reliable option for the Lions from 1995-2006, grabbing 197 balls for 1,445 yards and nine touchdowns; that includes a 60 catch, 466 yard season in 2001. Not bad! When it came to running the ball, though, Schlesinger didn't do much, rushing for only 473 yards on 167 career attempts.
Later in his career, the Lions realized he was best in extreme short yardage situations, but why keep feeding him the ball when you knew he wasn't going to do much? Oh Lions, keep Lioning. Can we blame Matt Millen for this? That one is up to you, folks.
11 Best: Kyle Juszczyk
Some will say that putting Juszczyk on this list is way too soon, given that he only has seven career rushing attempts, but we're including him on here right now with the caveat that the San Francisco 49ers are likely to experiment using him in more rushing situations. Based on what we've seen so far and that many of his 97 career receptions were in the flats, we'll give Juszczyk the benefit of the doubt. We can be nice, sometimes!
It will be interesting, though, to see if Juszczyk really does more chances to run the ball with the 49ers. Carlos Hyde is a decent option, but will the 49ers encourage trying to give a fullback a solid amount of snaps? In a season that will be painful to watch, that could be an interesting reason to check out Niners games.
10 Worst: Jacob Hester
And while we'll try to remain optimistic the 49ers will play around with Juszczyk as a running back, former Chargers h-back Jacob Hester is a fair reminder of why that may not work. An excellent rusher with the LSU Tigers, Hester was drafted in the third round of the 2008 Draft to be a fullback and, potentially, LaDanian Tomlinson's replacement in the backfield. Hester actually averaged five yards a carry on 19 attempts in his rookie year, but didn't do much of anything after.
Sure, he had that one great game with the Broncos in 2012, but Hester is a great example of finding out what happened. Did the Chargers try to do too much, or was Hester simply a running back whose skills couldn't translate to the NFL? What do you think?
9 Best: John Kuhn
For a second, I was going to call John Kuhn 'Old Man John Kuhn' before remembering he's only turning 35 in September. For a fullback, that makes him a spring chicken! On paper, Kuhn's rushing numbers probably don't look that impress - 3.0 yards per rush on 216 career carries - but he makes it on here for one real reason: his love of hurdling.
Now at first glance, hurdling may not sound so important, but John Kuhn is - and remains - the master at it. Look at him get into the end zone here against the Vikings! How did he do everything in this video that comes after the South Park reference? There's certain things in this world you can teach, but hurdling like Kuhn isn't one of them.
8 Worst: Rex Burkhead
Is it unfair to put Rex Burkhead as one of the worst choices on this list when he had a decent 2016 season with the Bengals? Maybe, but I'm just not impressed with him right now and think he has a ways to go. When I watch Burkhead run, I don't see the grace and excellence really needed from someone of his size (5-10, 214 pounds) but I do think that can change in the near-future.
I also think Burkhead still has a lot to prove to show that one strong game in a meaningless season finale against the Baltimore Ravens (27 rushes for 119 yards and two touchdowns) is a sign of things to come. But, Burkhead going to New England - which is probably the best place for him right now - should help his case when we update this list in a year or two.
7 Best: Brad Hoover
Brad Hoover's numbers aren't too special at first glance, but like other fullbacks on this list, he really excelled at moving the chains and pushing through when the Panthers needed him most. Originally, Hoover began his tenure with the Panthers primarily as a running back, rushing for 290 yards and a touchdown on 89 yards in his rookie season in 2000.
It wasn't until 2002 that the Panthers really began using him as a full-time fullback and while he never averaged more than 3.6 yards per rush after that 2002 season, Hoover was still fun to watch. Had Hoover played a few years earlier, the Panthers may have used him more as a true running back, but we still liked what we saw when he was a regular tailback.
6 Worst: Toby Gerhart
Everything considered, I think Toby Gerhart gets a bad reputation from people - and not because the Vikings used a second-round pick on a player that nearly won the Heisman when they still had Adrian Peterson. In Gerhart's Vikings career, he was a solid complement to the future Hall of Famer, rushing for 1,305 yards and five touchdowns on 276 attempts. Not bad!
Now, I will admit that there is a fair case to be made about Gerhart being a disappointment with the Vikings. Part of that may be because the team went through a weird rebuilding state that prematurely ended when Peterson ran for 2,000 yards, but I'm not sure. What I am sure about however, is that once Gerhart signed that big contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he more or less cemented his spot on our list.
5 Best: Peyton Hillis
If there's a face for white running backs, Mike Alstott is probably the guy. But, in terms of white running backs who are purely running backs, Peyton Hillis takes that crown with ease. We all know his story by now - a third-round pick of the Denver Broncos in 2008 that joined the Cleveland Browns in the Brady Quinn trade, went on to rush for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns with the Browns in 2010, and then was named to the cover of Madden NFL 12.
After that, injuries, a contract dispute, and the Madden Curse took their toll and Hillis was nothing more than a second-string option for the New York Giants by 2013. That's the Madden Curse for you, folks. Watch Tom Brady obliterate that this year, by the way.
4 Worst: Chase Reynolds
I'm sure that Chase Reynolds is genuinely a good guy, but when you join an undrafted team as a running back in 2011 and don't get your first carry until 2016 - with that same team - then something is probably wrong. Reynolds has primarily worked on special teams in his career with the St. Louis and Los Angeles Rams - and with him being a free agent right now, would likely resume that role wherever he lands - but to only get one carry in six years?
But wait, you say, special teams aces don't always need to get the ball on offense. That's true, but at least someone like Matthew Slater WILL get the opportunity to do something on offense. With that said, I think we can all agree that Reynolds will be the New York Jets' starting running back come October.
3 Best: Danny Woodhead
Peyton Hillis is certainly the most popular post-Alstott white running back because of the Madden Curse and him being called a potential savior for the Cleveland Browns, but don't hate on Danny Woodcock - oh, is that joke too old? Danny Woodhead, we meant. An undrafted rookie in 2008 from Chardon State, Woodhead has rushed for 2,182 yards in nine seasons with the New York Jets, New England Patriots, and San Diego Chargers.
A reliable fantasy football option in many ears, it'll be interesting to see how Woodhead fares with his new team, the Baltimore Ravens, as he returns from a torn ACL that cost him nearly the entire 2016 season. At 32 years of age, two or three more strong seasons may make him the best modern white running back of all-time.
2 Worst: Brian Leonard
When Brian Leonard was at Rutgers, he was pretty fun to watch and even was a borderline first-round pick entering the 2007 NFL Draft; and while Leonard did last eight seasons in the NFL, even making it to the postseason with the Cincinnati Bengals a few times, his running totals weren't quite the best. In short bursts, Leonard was a fine running back - he did average 5.6 yards on 26 attempts in the 2010-11 seasons with the Bengals - but he was just such a disappointment that not putting him at the top would be wrong.
When Leonard played in college, he looked like the next biggest thing and landing with the St. Louis Rams seemed perfect - people thought a 1-2 punch of him and Steven Jackson was terrifying - but it never came to be.
1 Best: Mike Alstott
Some football fans will remember Alstott for his days with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Others will remember him for helping the Bucs win a Super Bowl in the 2002 season. For everyone, though...well, we'll let EA Sports take it from here.
“Many hardcore Madden fans consider Alstott 'the most powerful running back of all-time.' While many Madden NFL players ignore FB, Alstott could truck over any defender, leaving many defenses powerless to stop him. ... Alstott was considered The "Human Truck Stick" and a titanium wrecking ball charging out of the backfield. Defenders that stood in his path often became one with the field. ... This offensive strategy caused many broken controllers and friendships.”
Awesome white running back? Check. Dominant force in Madden? Check. Congrats, Mike Alstott, you won this list!
Which of these was your favorite white running back? Make sure to let us know in the comment section below!