You can almost feel it in the air. A running back scampers through a swell of hopeless, dazed defenders and jumps over the pile into the end zone. An ear-shattering train horn rumbles three resounding times, a crazed tree dances, and an even more crazed student section erupts. A downtrodden defense sulks off the field, heads hanging low and bodies in dire need of an ice bath. That, my friends, is intellectual brutality.
Stanford's hard-nosed brand of running the football has blessed Stanford fans with an exceedingly high amount of tangible evidence in recent years, from Rose Bowls to Pac-12 Championships to outstanding individual seasons. Evidently, it hasn't been all that tangible for Heisman voters, but that's for another day.
Over the years, Stanford's smashmouth style of play has paved the way for running backs to carry the load. Both Toby Gerhart and Christian McCaffrey have found overwhelming success in Stanford's offensive system. But who was the better running back in their Heisman
winning runner-up seasons, McCaffrey (2015) or Gerhart (2009), considering their respective systems?
Given the parameters I've established, that we're looking for the better running back, so out goes all-purpose considerations. I feel that the general consensus among Stanford fans is that Gerhart's 2009 season is untouchable, something other backs can only dream of matching, but I don't think the answer is that simple.
First, let's point out the obvious: Gerhart and McCaffrey were two very different types of backs. Toby Gerhart fit the stereotypical Stanford power back mold, a massive frame running directly into (or through!) tacklers, churning his legs and fighting through tackles for extra yards. He was an imposing, intimidating force of nature, destined to plow you over and crush your soul.
On the other hand, McCaffrey looks more like a crazed rabbit than a tank, bouncing around to evade tacklers, making them fall to the ground without even touching them. McCaffrey is more of a speed back than Gerhart was, using grace and finesse instead of sheer brute force to impose his will on Pac-12 defenses. This isn't to say McCaffrey is weak -- rather the contrary. His wiry 6'1", 201-pound, frame packs even more punch per pound than Gerhart's.
Given their respective identities as running backs, who utilized their style more effectively in their system? As I stated earlier, I feel that most believe Gerhart has earned this distinction. As the first running back to break through at the beginning of Stanford's ascent to college football royalty, Gerhart earned a sort of cult hero status. He was the face of the program, a vaunted, invincible god. No tackler or could stop him -- so how could anyone be better than Gerhart?
Statistically, Gerhart actually fell behind McCaffrey in every major category, except for touchdowns, a factor out of McCaffrey's control (Reymound Wright got goal-line carries). McCaffrey holds the edge in yards (2019 vs. 1871, although in one more game) and yards per carry (6.0 vs. 5.5). Per carry, McCaffrey was more efficient, likely because he was the more versatile, hybrid back. No, not because of his all-purpose yards.
He is far superior to Gerhart in open space, showing much more explosiveness and agility. But where I think he sneakily stands out is his patience in running between the tackles -- he always waits for his blocks to develop, whereas Gerhart had a tendency to quickly blow through defenders because, well, he could. He can run inside and out, while Gerhart was more specialized for the interior run. Neither was necessarily better at the inside run, just different, but McCaffrey clearly takes the cake outside.
Some might argue that Gerhart was superior because he fit Stanford's traditional offensive system better -- he didn't need to be explosive to wear out opposing defenses. But since we're considering each back's effectiveness in the system they played in, it's hard to argue that point -- they played in different systems.
McCaffrey was so exceptional that he forced head coach David Shaw out of his comfort zone -- Gerhart-style running plays -- into a faster-paced, "streamlined" offense. McCaffrey's talent was so immense that he forced Shaw to alter the playbook, even though he could handle the inside runs neary as well as Gerhart could. In his system, McCaffrey was nearly a perfect back - similar to what Gerhart was for his system, but more productive.
So why do we glorify Gerhart's season above all? Nostalgia lends itself well to the perception of greatness. We're unable of comprehending how great something like McCaffrey is in the moment because present greatness is too tangible to be revered like the gods of the past. Time creates greatness because it contextualizes those actions and accomplishments,
This isn't to say Gerhart wasn't great -- he obviously was -- just slightly less great than McCaffrey was last season. Never before have I witnessed a running back silence a crowd, take over a game, and demoralize a defense like McCaffrey did in the Rose Bowl. Never before has a player generated so much buzz on the Farm. Never before has there been a running back like Christian McCaffrey.