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Fans new to pro football may not notice while watching games on television or from a stadium seat, but National Football League players are above-average in height. Our readers have asked a couple of questions about this: Why are NFL players tall, and, Have they always been?
National Football League players are tall, or at least taller than they were in the past, due to the advantages of height for certain positions that were discovered through the years as competition to win became more fierce.
Extreme competition among teams to win is the main reason NFL players are tall; coaches believe taller players help teams be successful.
In reality, most players in all major North American sports are tall, compared with national averages. The NFL’s average height is 6-feet 2-inches tall, or the same as in Major League Baseball, and in line with the 6-feet 1-inch range for players of most major team sports.
In the National Basketball Association, the average player is 6-feet 6-inches tall, but this significant height can be expected in a game where the focus of the entire game, a hoop, is 10 feet off the ground.
In the National Hockey League, the “ball” the game is focused on, the puck, is always on or close to ground level (on the ice). Still, the average NHL player is 6-feet 1-inch tall. Figure that one out.
For the NFL, the advantages of height are both proven and supposed. It was not always the case, as in the old days of football brute strength and power reigned supreme. Plus, in the really old days, most players had to play both offense and defense.
But as the NFL grew in popularity and therefore began generating millions of dollars in revenues, coaches began looking for ways to get an edge on the competition. The benefits of taller players, particularly at the position of quarterback, were among the first discoveries.
Height Advantages for Football Positions
What keen coaches learned was that height helps greatly in 2 aspects of the game: seeing action around the field; and the ability to reach higher into the air for the football.
The sight advantage is discussed most for the quarterback position, although in recent years being taller has been noted as a good thing for positions like wide receiver and linebacker.
The reason is that the line of scrimmage in football gets very crowded with big, and often tall, bodies ~ which means a whole bunch of thick helmets right around the line of vision.
For a quarterback to throw to an open receiver, he first must see that player and determine that he can easily catch a ball compared with the opponent covering him.
If a quarterback’s vision is often blocked by the linemen in front of him, his ability to complete passes diminishes. He just misses opportunities he simply does not see.
Linemen in the NFL are huge and seem to be getting bigger every year. Many weigh much more than 300 lbs., and their height rarely is shorter than 6-feet 2-inches. For that reason, most coaches prefer quarterbacks to be as tall as possible, or at least 6-feet 3-inches in height.
Want proof? Peyton Manning is 6-feet 5-inches tall. Tom Brady is 6-feet 4-inches tall, as is retired Dan Marino. John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Terry Bradshaw are 6-feet 3-inches tall, and Joe Montana, 6-feet 2-inches tall. All are considered among the best quarterbacks ever in NFL history.
Fran Tarkenton was considered a smaller, scrambling-type of quarterback during his career, in which he was elected to the hall of fame for both professional and college football. His height? Hardly short, at 6-feet even.
In more recent years, it was discovered that linebackers also can have an advantage by being tall. They can better see over the heads of linemen wrestling with each other at scrimmage, to more easily determine what is happening with the ball handlers behind them.
Defensive linemen, including linebackers, have to decide first if the play is a run, or pass version. The sooner they can determine that, the quicker they can react to the action. Height can help defensive lineman see what the offense is up to early on in plays, helping them avoid ball-hiding or -faking tricks.
While there is no 10-foot-high goal in football, successful players often are the ones who can snatch the ball out of the air at the furthest point from the ground as possible.
For this reason, around the late 1970s, coaches realized that super-tall receivers (like the 6-foot 8-inch Harold Carmichael of the Philadelphia Eagles of the 1970s and early 1980s) could be a real threat regardless of how fast they could run.
Randy Moss is considered among the best wide receivers ever, and he was not super-fast in terms of running speed. But at 6-feet 4-inches tall, he was fast enough.
With a batch of tall receivers on his team, a quarterback can have more confidence throwing the ball purposely high, or lobbing it, because of his confidence that his players will out-jump shorter defenders.
Tight ends, too, can be helped much by height. Among the most memorable catches ever was by tight end Dwight Clark to win the 1981 NFC championship for the San Francisco 49ers, over the Dallas Cowboys. Photographs of the catch are epic, showing Clark stop the ball in mid-air with just his fingertips.
Clark is 6-feet, 4-inches tall. Back then, it was rare to find a defensive back taller than 6 feet, because they were required to possess above-average speed, and height in general is not associated with lightning foot speed.
Fans should take into consideration that the average male in the United States is just taller today than when the NFL began a century ago, in 1922. Then, the average American male stood 5-feet 7-inches. Today that average is a full 3 inches taller.
So it stands to reason that NFL players are taller, because athletes in all sports are taller as the human species evolves over the years.
However, the question of why players in the NFL should be tall is asked quite often, because from a distance it does not appear to be a game where height offers an advantage ~ like it is so easily seen in basketball with all the jumps for rebounds.
In football, they have to jump for the ball also. And the ability to see is paramount for the success of any team sport athlete, especially players who must throw footballs very accurately or pay the price.