Among the 23 NFL players who have rushed for more than 10,000 career yards, there's nobody quite like Warrick Dunn.
On average, these 23 players stand 6 feet even and weigh 214.5 pounds. Only five of the 23 -- Walter Payton, Thurman Thomas, Tiki Barber, Tony Dorsett and Dunn -- weighed 200 pounds or less when they suited up. Dorsett's listed playing weight was 192 pounds at 5-11. Until Dunn gained his 10,000th rushing yard on Thanksgiving Day against the Colts, Dorsett was the lightest running back ever to hit the 10,000-yard milestone.
At 5-9, Atlanta Falcons star Dunn weighs in at 180 pounds. His entry into the 10,000-yard club is a singularly impressive feat at a position where players far larger often fade out after a few years. Dorsett's rookie year was 1977, which put him in an era when 220-pound linebackers and 275-pound defensive tackles were commonplace. Dunn's first season was 20 years later, so he faces defenders who are bigger, stronger and faster and are playing in more complicated schemes. LaDainian Tomlinson (5-10, 221) and Fred Taylor (6-1, 226) each gained their 10,000th career rushing yards in November, but they are built to pound the rock in the modern game.
Despite his "water bug" stature, Dunn has been amazingly durable. He has missed only 10 games in his 11 NFL seasons. He's been part of many productive backfields, especially the 2004-06 Falcons, who led the NFL in rushing yards all three seasons. Dunn's career is winding down at age 32, but it has been an amazing one.
Dunn's New Orleans Saints counterpart is Reggie Bush, another relatively small, versatile, high-octane back. Because of a partially torn ligament in his left knee last week, Bush reportedly is expected to miss the Saints-Falcons "Monday Night Football" clash (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) in Atlanta.
But this still could be a beneficial outing for second-year Bush, who can watch and learn how a veteran back of similar stature succeeds and endures.
Although he's a bit larger than Dunn at 6-0 and 203 pounds, Bush is still a small back. Like Dunn, he's not a threat to burst through tacklers at the line of scrimmage. He needs help to support his talents.
After an encouraging rookie year, Bush has followed his Saints into the rabbit hole. A 2006 season that saw New Orleans go all the way to the NFC Championship Game has been followed by inconsistency. Against Tampa Bay in Week 13, Bush's botched handoff on an inexplicable late-game reverse helped set up the Buccaneers' game-winning touchdown drive. The play call wasn't Bush's fault, but execution has been an issue all season. So far this season, Bush has seven fumbles and 10 dropped passes (according to Stats Inc.).
When Bush is on the Georgia Dome sideline Monday, watching Dunn, what can he and coach Sean Payton learn about building an offense around a back who didn't come out of central casting?
1. Thunder and lightning
One of the most important hallmarks of Dunn's success is that he always has split carries with a bigger back. He never has run more than 286 times, or on more than 53 percent of his team's carries, in a single season. In Tampa Bay, it was fullback Mike Alstott; in Atlanta, it has been T.J. Duckett and later Jerious Norwood, with a side of Michael Vick, as the erstwhile quarterback basically was a third running back throwing passes.
Because of this division of labor, fatigue has never been a problem for Dunn despite his size. Alternating two complementary backs allows Dunn to do what he's good at and avoid situations that will get him in trouble.
In his rookie season, Bush had Deuce McAllister to share the workload, and McAllister led the Saints in rushing yards. But McAllister suffered his second season-ending knee injury in three years in late September this season, and the balance has been upset ever since. The Saints rank 29th in rushing attempts with 292. Bush has 157 of those.
That's bad news for a back who isn't built to hit the hole or pass block. It's not necessary to have an Alstott-style bruiser -- Norwood is 5-11 and 204 pounds -- but the Saints should be looking at potential feature backs in the 2008 draft if they wish to improve the prospects of the one they already have. Perhaps they should select Central Florida's Kevin Smith or Rutgers' Ray Rice with their second-round pick?
2. Pass and run
even players in NFL history have totaled at least 10,000 career rushing and 3,800 receiving yards -- Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk, Ricky Watters, Barber, Payton, Thomas and Dunn. Note that four of those names are on the list of five backs weighing 200 pounds or less.
Moral: If you want your smaller backs to last long enough to run for 10,000 yards, get them out in the flat and away from the behemoths in the middle once in a while. Dunn averaged 42.6 receptions per year through his first 10 seasons, and he's on pace for 43 this year.
In this regard, Bush is ahead of the game. In 2006, he finished 10th overall in receptions with 88. Only St. Louis' Steven Jackson had more among running backs. Bush has 73 catches in 2007, eighth overall. However, his 5.7 yards per catch average, down considerably from 8.4 in 2006, seems to indicate that defenses know what's coming and are adjusting. And about those drops
One of the primary aspects of the Falcons' great span as a rushing team from 2004 through 2006 was legendary offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. Gibbs implemented his version of zone blocking as a coach and consultant, and the Falcons finished sixth, seventh and 13th in Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards statistic (which takes running back carries and assigns responsibility to offensive lines based on specific percentages) in those years.
The Saints' line has given up the fewest quarterback sacks in the NFL with 11 -- that's despite the team's league-high 479 passing attempts. Credit Drew Brees' quick release more than anything else.
Run blocking is a different story. New Orleans ranks 21st in adjusted line yards through 12 games in 2007. They're 29th in 10-plus yard ranking, which separates long runs away from the line and gives more credit to the backs. It's not just the fact that Bush can't do it all -- it's also that the guys up front aren't facilitating what he can do.
There is a path and a paradigm to follow, and if Bush is to become an all-time running back, the Saints will have to provide the right system so he can live up to his incredible potential.
They can begin by watching Dunn.
Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of Pro Football Prospectus 2007 and 2008. Doug Farrar writes for Football Outsiders and will cover the NFC South for Pro Football Prospectus 2008.