RENTON – The Jacksonville Jaguars were playing the San Diego Chargers last season when the Jaguars found themselves on San Diego’s 1-yard line.
On the next play, quarterback David Garrard threw a play-action touchdown pass to tight end Marcedes Lewis.
Of more significance than the score, however, was the play fake to Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who pretended to take the handoff, then threw a crushing block on Chargers Pro Bowl linebacker Shawn Merriman, who at 6-feet-4, 272 pounds was upended so violently that the block was replayed over and over again on numerous highlight shows. (To watch the play on Youtube, go here.)
The play is of relevance to the Seattle Seahawks not because they face Merriman and the Chargers in a nationally televised preseason game on Monday night, but because the 5-foot-7, 210-pound Jones-Drew is very similar in stature and style to Seahawks rookie Justin Forsett, who has forced the Seahawks to take notice of him despite his diminutive size.
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Whenever Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren has been asked about Forsett during training camp, he immediately invokes his 5-8, 194-pound frame, as if Forsett possesses a rare form of leprosy that would prohibit him from making the Seahawks’ 53-man roster.
But Forsett and Jones-Drew are only the latest examples of a long line of smallish players who have managed to find success in the NFL, many for long periods of time.
From the mesmerizing elusiveness of Barry Sanders to the grace of Darrell Green to the flash of Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, Forsett can point to many pioneers who have paved the way for him.
“I told somebody one time, if they started a league called the Backyard League, where you threw a football into the backyard and you let guys choose up teams and make their own rules and play football, the first two guys I would choose on my team are Steve Tasker and Doug Flutie,” Seahawks special teams coach Bruce DeHaven said.
“They know how to play the game – probably because they are small they have been forced to figure out ways to be good. They don’t need somebody to tell them what to do; they would figure it out. They would be inventive, creative, and be two of the best players in that league. And I think Justin is a little like that. All his life he has been forced to overachieve and make things work because he is not as tall as everyone else.”
Seahawks general manager Tim Ruskell used a seventh-round pick on Forsett primarily because he had an extra selection and Forsett was high on their draft board.
Given they had signed Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett as free agents, already had Leonard Weaver and Maurice Morris under contract and had drafted Owen Schmitt in the fifth round, they didn’t really need Forsett – and didn’t have space for him. Everybody assumed he would be at best a practice squad player.
But like Jones-Drew – with whom Forsett has worked out in the summers for the past two seasons because they share a trainer in the Bay Area – Forsett was not afraid to seek out contact in training camp, often dumping bigger players the way Jones-Drew upended Merriman.
“Maurice is an explosive guy,” Forsett said. “If you stand up on him, I don’t care how big you are, he is going to knock you down. ‘Hit them in the mouth.’ That is his philosophy. That is something I picked up from him early on, letting them know that just because you are small or short doesn’t mean you can just run over me.”
Forsett had some electrifying runs in the team’s intrasquad scrimmage, including a 31-yard scamper on a draw play. He then had 58 yards on 13 carries against Minnesota, and would have tied Morris for most rushing yards had he not been thrown for a four-yard loss on his final run.
And then came the game last week against Chicago that in the minds of many cemented his place on the roster. He had 261 total yards, including 136 rushing in one half and 117 in kickoff and punt returns, a total that would have been even higher had a 43-yard punt return not been called back for holding.
Still, Holmgren would not relent. He refused to endorse Forsett, once again citing his size as a detriment.
But DeHaven, for one, says there is a difference between being small and being short.
“There are little guys out there who are 5-8, 165 or 170 pounds. Those guy generally don’t last too long,” DeHaven said. “They might light it up for a while, but they can’t take the physical beating. And then there are these guys who are 5-6, 5-7 and weigh 200 pounds. They are not little guys, they are just short guys. It’s a big difference. Justin, just like Jones-Drew, is a short guy.”
As a running back, that may actually be advantageous. Lofa Tatupu often complains about his inability to see San Francisco 49ers tailback Frank Gore, who is 5-9, when Gore ran for 212 yards against the Seahawks in 2006. Sanders, Joe Morris, Stump Mitchell and Warrick Dunn were similarly skilled at hiding behind their linemen.
“In a sense, you can’t see them,” offensive line coach Mike Solari said. “The thing about those men, they are so quick and yet they are explosive. They do a great job pressing the line of scrimmage and then they make some great cuts.”
Forsett has the same advantage on special teams. Like Tasker, Dave Meggett and Johnson, Forsett is able to hide behind his wedge on kickoffs and burst into a hole before would-be tacklers can find him.
But, Dehaven said, playing hide-and-seek is not Forsett’s only skill, the reason he is likely to be DeHaven’s return man if he makes the team.
“The things that he did (against Chicago) were the things that I have seen from him back in college,” DeHaven said. “It wasn’t like there was a big lane that opened and he ran through it. He made people miss tackles. He can break tackles. You see guys fall off him. He spins out of some things. He does a lot of good things.”
Holmgren may be reticent to anoint Forsett because it is too early in training camp. He said he wants to see more of the same from the rookie, not just one or two games.
But if Forsett is able to duplicate his prowess against San Diego and/or Oakland, perhaps he can change Holmgren’s impression of him from small to skilled.
“My size is always going to be there,” Forsett said. “I am not going to grow any taller. You just got to keep doing what you are doing. You can’t control what other people think of you. I just got to go out and be a strong, hard worker. People can see my passion and my love for the game – and that is all I ask for.”