In the Falcons’ Week Two victory over the Broncos, running back Michael Turner — who weighs 247 pounds and runs the 40-yard-dash in 4.49 seconds and can build up quite a bit of momentum — failed on consecutive plays to advance the single yard his team needed for a touchdown. On first-and-goal from the one, Denver stopped Turner for no gain on a dive play over left guard. On second down, Turner was again stuffed on the left side. On third down, Atlanta seemed to have called the same play — but this time Turner tried jumping over the defensive line instead of barreling through it. It worked: six points.
Might things not have been easier for Atlanta if they’d tried jumping on first down — and given the ball not to the stout Turner, but a spring-legged high jumper, a "vertical back" who’s trained to get his body as high in the air as possible?
Offenses definitely have room for improvement on short-yardage plays. Data provided by Advanced NFL Stats show running backs last season successfully converted on third- and fourth-and-one only 61.8 percent of the time. Turner was actually pretty good at it, succeeding on 11 of 16 attempts in those situations last season. But even notoriously bruising runners often fail: Brandon Jacobs was 5 of 12. A better system, one that achieved, say, an 85% conversion rate, would be worth an extra point per game for a team’s offense, estimates Chase Stuart of Pro-Football-Reference.com and FootballPerspective.com — a not-insignificant two touchdowns per season.
It's clearly possible to jump over a pile of players who are set up to defend a plunge into the line; that's why backs like Turner use the leap as a change of pace. The question is whether a high jumper could get up far enough that a defender who knew what was coming couldn't stop him. It seems plausible. NFL defensive linemen top out in the six-and-a-half foot range and need to crouch slightly to stand their ground against blockers. The crowns of their helmets are likely no more than six feet off the ground. World-class high jumpers regularly clear seven-and-a-half foot bars; the record is a little over eight feet.
So it seems plausible. Moreover, it's been done before. The Godfather of vertical backs is Robb Riddick, a running back and former college high jumper who the Buffalo Bills drafted in the ninth round in 1981. Riddick didn’t make much impact until his final season in 1988. That year, he split carries with a rookie Thurman Thomas. Thomas took the bulk of the carries. But the Bills harnessed Riddick’s jumping talent and frequently gave him the ball at the goal line. He scored a career-high 12 touchdowns that season, 10 of them from the opposition’s one-yard line (and two from the 2-yard line). Riddick simply jumped over the pile. Watch him in action 24 seasons ago (skip to the 7:40 mark).
Riddick jumped headfirst, but greater height could be achieved with different technique. Of course, athletes using the optimal Fosbury Flop method take a 10-step approach on a curving path that brings them from running directly at the high jump bar to running parallel to it before leaping — impractical for a football game. But Joe Klim, a University of Pennsylvania assistant track and field coach who specializes in jumping events, guessed a good high jumper could still achieve roughly 95 percent of his normal capability using a shorter four-step Fosbury approach, taking only the four strides that make up the curved portion of the J. “A pretty good athlete who can jump about seven feet could probably go six-foot-eight on a four-step approach,” Klim said.
Meanwhile, Columbia University professor of movement sciences Carol Ewing Garber pointed us to an more straight-on, old-fashioned high-jump technique, the front straddle, that would translate more easily.
There’s ample space for a running back to use a modified front-straddle approach from 7-8 yards in the backfield. And, actually, players using either the Fosbury or front-straddle techniques could split out and stand off the line (positioned out wide like a receiver but back at the depth of a running back), begin running parallel to the line of scrimmage before the snap, and turn into their approach once the play began.
There are a few potential difficulties aside from the modified run-up. High jumpers wear a different type of spikes than football players, and a football’s field’s turf has more give to it than a track surface. Klim dismissed the notion that these changes would significantly reduce leaping ability, though he did believe shoulder pads could be a small hindrance even aside from their weight, restricting the arm movement that helps a body generate more force. (Imagine jumping onto a box with hands at your side, rather than swinging them backwards and then up.) Although football’s constraints would prevent a vertical back from reaching his maximum height, both Klim and Dr. Garber agreed that an athlete with hops could still achieve a substantial jump on the football field using either a straddle approach or a modified Fosbury Flop run-up.
Aside from being a leaper, a vertical back would have to be strong enough to take the occasional hit and comfortable enough playing football to take a handoff without having his timing disrupted. Here are some candidates already in the NFL — the current players who've recorded the highest vertical jumps at the NFL Combine since 2005.
There are some proven high jumpers in the league that didn't make the list above but clearly have vertical back potential: Patriots receiver Brandon Lloyd, for example, was a two-time Missouri state high jump titlist who cleared 7’ 2” in high school. Meanwhile, there are a few high jumpers by trade who seem like they'd be sturdy enough to fit the bill if an NFL team came calling. Here are the heaviest five competitors from the London Olympics high jump event:
The best candidate, though. is Vikings wideout Jerome Simpson. He set the Coastal Carolina record with a 6’ 8.75” high jump and boasts a 37.5” vertical...and he's already done this in the NFL.
"He loved jumping,” Simpson’s Coastal Carolina head coach Dave Bennett told me. “I’d tell him to stay on the ground and he’d say, ‘Coach, you know I’m a jumper.’ He can jump like a gazelle.”
There's no way to know if the vertical back would work without simply trying it in a real NFL game, of course. And defenses would figure out ways to counterattack — perhaps bringing in their own "vertical safety" to meet a leaper in mid-air, like the final showdown of a superhero movie. But no innovation is retaliation-proof, and NFL teams have certainly tried crazier things than high jumping for a touchdown. If the Jets can start a blind man at quarterback, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier shouldn't lose his job for letting Jerome Simpson take a crack at leaping into the end zone from the one-yard line.
Says Simpson's college coach: “Bring him in motion, let him run through there and dive over the top every once in a while? I know he would be excited to hear it.”