Legends of DVOA: James Brooks and Ickey Woods
James Brooks and Ickey Woods were two of the biggest names on Sam Wyche's 1980s Cincinnati Bengals. They're also the subjects of our first installment of Legends of DVOA, a six-part series looking back on some non-superstars of yesteryear who finished among the league leaders in DVOA or DYAR multiple times.
Brooks played in two of the most innovative and influential offensive systems of the 1980s. He was a major factor in one the greatest games in NFL history and took part in the most thrilling Super Bowl of the 1980s. He led the NFL in rushing DVOA twice and finished second once, making him perhaps the NFL's most effective running back, on a per-touch basis, in the late 1980s. Yet Brooks spent his whole career getting overshadowed by his teammates, including a one-year wonder with a fun nickname and an unforgettable end zone dance.
This is a story of cocaine, lopsided trades, illiteracy, the birth of modern NFL offense, and a running back who was born about 20 years too early.
The Tiniest Fullback
Brooks was a standout running back in Auburn's triple-option offense in the late 1970s. Despite sharing the backfield with fullback and future Falcons standout William Andrews in his first two seasons, and with future Bills star Joe Cribbs in his first three seasons, Brooks still rushed for 3,524 yards at Auburn. He left the program as the Tigers' all-time leading rusher. (Bo Jackson and Cadillac Williams later passed him).
The San Diego Chargers, coached by Don Coryell and coming off a season in which they went 11-5 and led the NFL in multiple offensive categories, selected Brooks with the 24th overall pick in the 1981 draft. Coryell was in the process of redefining football offense in a variety of ways in the early 1980s: more early-down passing, more timing-based passing, more creative pre-snap motion, more single-back formations, and so on. His offense was also stacked with Hall of Famers in Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow, and Charlie Joiner, as well as many second-tier stars.
Four games into the 1980 season, the year before Brooks was drafted, the Chargers had traded a second-round pick to New Orleans for recent 1,000-yard rusher Chuck Muncie. With Muncie getting the bulk of the carries, Brooks led the NFL in all-purpose yards as a kick returner and what we would now call a change-up back in 1981 and 1982. But he was trapped in a "not enough footballs" situation in the Chargers offense.
Muncie had a significant substance abuse problem which hastened his departure from the Saints but didn't become public knowledge until after the 1982 season. The Chargers drafted two other running backs besides Brooks in 1981, so it's very likely that they were worried about what they were seeing from Muncie on a day-to-day basis after the trade. But Muncie continued to play at a high level. So Coryell came up with a novel way to get both backs on the field: he lined the 227-pound Muncie up as a tailback in the I-formation with the 180-pound Brooks as his fullback.
Wait … what?
"I didn't want them to put me at fullback," Brooks would later say. "San Diego wanted me to block instead of letting me go one-on-one with linebackers in passing situations."
Brooks did, in fact, have a reputation as an excellent blocker. And fullbacks had not yet evolved into lead-blocking glorified guards yet: there were lots of plays in Coryell's playbook (he invented the I-formation, after all) to get the ball to the fullback on quick hitters, flare passes, and so forth. Still, the undersized, speedy Brooks sometimes found himself slamming into burly linebackers on iso plays. He didn't like it one bit.
The fullback experiment did not seem to help either back. Brooks finished 35th in rushing DVOA and 37th in DYAR in 1983, the first season for which we have advanced metrics. (His receiving stats were also below average). Muncie finished 25th in DVOA and 18th in DYAR. Fouts was hurt for six games in 1983, which could not have helped anyone statistically.
In the spring of 1984, the Chargers traded an unhappy Brooks to the Cincinnati Bengals for another disgruntled running back: 252-pound bruiser Pete Johnson. This was a Bill O'Brien-caliber trade. Johnson was 30 years old and better suited to 1970s football than the Air Coryell system. More troublingly, Johnson was coming off a cocaine suspension, and may have gained weight on purpose (quite a feat while using cocaine) to force his way out of Cincinnati. Pairing him with Muncie would turn out to be as bad an idea as it sounds.
The Brooks trade hastened what was already becoming a steep decline for the Coryell/Fouts Chargers (as detailed recently here). Brooks, on the other hand, had just signed on with another offensive mastermind. And he was about to become Sam Wyche's most dangerous weapon.
The No-Huddle Revolution
Sam Wyche was a Bill Walsh disciple, and his early Bengals offenses did not look much different than those of other early West Coast Offense imitators in 1984 and 1985. Brooks wasn't doing anything unique, either: he split carries with Larry Kinnebrew and fullback Charles Alexander, often assuming the modern "third-down back" role when Wyche needed a quicker player in the backfield.
But per John Breech's excellent 2009 Bleacher Report feature on the no-huddle, Wyche began having an offensive epiphany sometime in 1984. "We're going to go back here and [huddle] for 20 seconds and let them get all of their best rushers and best cover people in? And [then] we're going to line up and do exactly what they thought we'd do—throw the ball."
Wyche decided to stop letting opponents substitute defenders based on down-and-distance situations. He began tinkering with new types of huddles—the basketball-style sideline huddle, the short 'n' sweet "sugar huddle"—as well as methods of communicating plays which did not require a huddle at all. The tactics were so novel that other coaches complained and the NFL kept enacting new rules to try to outlaw them. All the stuff we saw when Chip Kelly's Eagles were successful, including players suddenly "cramping up" on the turf so the defense could make substitutions, took place in the mid-1980s as Wyche ramped up the offensive tempo each year.
Let's flash back to mid-1980s football for a moment. Most teams stayed in their base 3-4 or 4-3 defense on most downs. The nickel defense was for third-and-long, the "dime" was for Hail Mary situations, and the fifth and sixth defensive backs weren't slot specialists or Honey Badgers, just quick (and often tiny) backup cornerbacks. Catching the defense with the wrong personnel provided a huge tactical advantage, especially for a team with a multidimensional running back: many of the lumbering linebackers of the day couldn't cover someone as fast as Brooks, while the typical nickel defender couldn't tackle someone so rugged. Factor in an outstanding Bengals offensive line (Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz, standout right guard Max Montoya) and an offense laden with other stars (Boomer Esiason, wide receivers Eddie Brown and aging Cris Collinsworth) and the stage was set for a Brooks breakout.
Brooks led the NFL in rushing DVOA and finished third in DYAR in 1986, the first season the Bengals were using the no-huddle semi-regularly. He also finished fourth in receiving DVOA among running backs. He averaged 5.3 yards per rush and 12.7 yards per reception that season, finishing the year with 1,773 scrimmage yards.
The 1987 replacement games brought a halt to the no-huddle experiment. It also nearly brought a halt to Wyche's career as the Bengals finished 4-11. Wyche was given one more chance in 1988, and everything clicked. Powered by a refined version of the no-huddle offense, the Bengals would reach the Super Bowl. Brooks would lead the NFL in rushing DVOA for a second time.
Brooks, however, would be utterly upstaged by that year's DVOA runner-up and DYAR leader, a second-round rookie named Elbert.
Elbert L. "Ickey" Woods led the nation in rushing with 1,658 yards for UNLV in 1987. The Bengals drafted him in the second round in 1988 to replace Kinnebrew in their two-back offense. Woods began the season as a little-used backup but rushed 13 times for 62 yards and two one-yard touchdowns against the Browns in Week 4. He added another short touchdown the following week.
Woods then flew his mother in to watch the Bengals host the Jets in Week 6. Per one version of events (there are several variations), he promised to unveil a new end zone dance for his mom if he scored a touchdown, even though she warned against it. Sure enough, Woods performed the first "Ickey Shuffle" after a 5-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Fans loved the shuffle. Naturally, the NFL reacted to what looked like a toddler dancing to "Teddy Bear Picnic" as if it would cause the downfall of Western Civilization. Before long, the Ickey Shuffle was banned from the end zone and relegated to a spot behind the Bengals bench. But the shuffle, coupled with an explosive offense and a 6-0 start to the 1988 season, made the Bengals the talk of the NFL. As teens in the Philly area, my pals and I would run the "no-huddle" in three-on-three touch football, racing to the line shouting "Delta!" or "Red Alert" after a completion. And chonk lads like yours truly were obligated to attempt some version of the Ickey Shuffle after any touchdown.
The Ickey Shuffle later became the stuff of Geico commercials, and Woods was destined to become a one-year wonder, so it's important to note that he was no novelty act. As mentioned, he led the NFL in DYAR and finished second in DVOA, averaging 5.3 yards per rush. Woods often lined up as a single setback or tailback while Brooks joined him in split backfields, lined up wide or in the slot (more of an H-back position for running backs of the time) or, yes, at fullback. Brooks and Woods created mismatch opportunities galore, especially against defenses that were confused and weary from coping with Wyche's tempo changes and banged up by Munoz and company.
By the playoffs, Woods was getting the bulk of the carries, with Brooks back in a change-up role. Brooks rushed just six times and caught two passes in Super Bowl XXIII, while Woods rushed 20 times. The Bill Walsh/Joe Montana/Jerry Rice 49ers found themselves locked in a defensive duel with the explosive Bengals in an era when Super Bowls were famously lopsided. Montana led an epic fourth-quarter comeback drive that ended with a John Taylor touchdown with 34 seconds to play. (I am obligated by Internet Maritime Law to reference the John Candy story here). It was the closest the Bengals would ever come to a championship in their nearly six-decade history.
Post Ickey Facto
Brooks was not finished yet, though the Bengals were. Woods suffered an ACL tear early in the 1989 season, and Brooks went on to the best raw statistical season of his career: 1,239 rushing yards, 306 receiving yards, nine total touchdowns, 5.6 yards per carry. Brooks finished second to Washington's Earnest Byner in DVOA that year, with Bo Jackson third and Barry Sanders fifth. Brooks finished second in DYAR to Neal Anderson of the Bears, well ahead of Sanders, Jackson, Thurman Thomas, Eric Dickerson, and others. Unfortunately, the Bengals ran hot-and-cold in 1989, thumping weaklings but losing too many close games to solid opponents before finishing 8-8. Better teams were catching on and catching up with Wyche's no-huddle wrinkles, and the Bengals defense was nothing special.
Brooks rushed for 1,004 yards and finished 10th in DVOA at age 32 in 1990. The Bengals rebounded to go 9-7 and reach the playoffs. It was the last hurrah before a 3-13 collapse in 1991. Brooks rushed for just 571 yards and averaged a mere 3.8 yards per carry that year.
Wyche was fired after the 1991 season and quickly hired by the Buccaneers. Brooks moved on to the Browns and then Wyche's Bucs in the 1992 season, but the now-34-year-old was toast. He quietly retired after 12 NFL seasons.
Neither Chuck Muncie nor Pete Johnson lasted long in San Diego after Brooks' departure. The Miami Dolphins were desperate at running back after the offseason death of David Overstreet in an auto accident and an early-season injury to Andra Franklin. The Dolphins first traded for Muncie, who failed a drug test and received a suspension which ended his NFL career, and then for Johnson, who scored nine touchdowns as a short-yardage bowling ball for the historic 1984 Dolphins before retiring.
Johnson was indicted on cocaine-related charges a few years later but found not guilty. Muncie was homeless by 1989, but turned his life around after a cocaine-related arrest and formed his own nonprofit philanthropic organization. He died of a heart attack at age 60 in 2013.
Woods was never the same after his 1989 injury. He played two more seasons for the Bengals. He later became involved with women's football and indoor football leagues, runs a youth foundation, and reprises the Ickey Shuffle whenever an advertiser or television writer needs a jolt of 1980s nostalgia.
Both Coryell and Wyche were destined to be overshadowed by their lieutenants and imitators. Longtime Coryell assistant Joe Gibbs would perfect his mentor's tactics and lead Washington to three Super Bowls. After loud complaints about Wyche's no-huddle offense during the 1988 season, Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy would adopt the parts he liked into his K-Gun offense and win four AFC championships. Much of what we watch each Saturday and Sunday started with Coryell and Wyche.
Brooks was arrested for owing $110,000 in back child support in 1999. At his trial, he revealed that he was functionally illiterate and was never expected to attend class at Auburn. The university was slapped with NCAA sanctions not long after Brooks' graduation. This article from a higher education journal details how Brooks' illiteracy was a not-so-closely guarded secret from high school through Auburn and into his NFL career.
(An aside: as a longtime high school teacher, I saw a few functionally illiterate individuals slip through the cracks between good intentions and institutional indifference, not all of whom were great athletes. I fear we are about to see a mini-epidemic of such problems after what amounts to two school years of "virtual learning.")
Soon after news of Brooks' illiteracy broke; Auburn offered to pay for his education. A second time, technically.
Brooks' peak came at a time when NFL offense was evolving from two-backfield offenses to a more modern configuration, where a featured back and his "change-of-pace" partner split snaps and carries, sometimes with a fullback serving almost strictly as a lead blocker. Had his career started in the late 1980s, Brooks would likely have been used the way Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas were used. In modern football, he'd be Alvin Kamara or Christian McCaffrey. In the 1980s, even the most creative coaches in the league asked him to lead block for Muncie and share carries with league-average bruisers such as Kinnebrew.
Brooks' run of outstanding DVOA performances speaks to his excellence, as well as to the excellence of Munoz, Boomer Esiason, and others, and to Wyche's creativity. It also represents an inflection point in strategic history. Had Brooks (and Woods) not been as effective as they were, Wyche's no-huddle offense might never have caught on. As a result, today's NFL games might be slower-paced, and far less interesting.