In 1994, the Giants had a stud running back by the name of Rodney Hampton. Kenyon Rasheed was a part-time fullback, plus backup RBs Dave Meggett, Gary Downs and Keith Elias. Hampton had just completed his fourth straight 1,000-yard season and had scored 39 TDs so far. But, his contract year was approaching and the club wanted a younger version of the stud running back.
They then drafted Tyrone Wheatley with the 17th pick in the 1995 draft. Wheatley had just completed a stellar career with Michigan and was an All-Big Ten selection three straight seasons in a tough conference while gaining 4,187 yards with 53 TDs as a three-year starter. His first three seasons with the Giants he was utilized mainly as a kick returner as Hampton was still the lead horse in a predominately run offense.
The Giants had also added fullback Charles Way, a sixth-round choice, to the lineup to bolster the rushing attack. Wheatley became the starting RB in 1997, the same year the franchise selected Tiki Barber in the second-round. As the starter, Wheatley only handled the ball 152 times for 583 yards while the rookie Barber had 136 carries for 511 yards. The following season, the Giants brought in veteran Gary Brown from the Oilers to become their starting RB along with Way and Barber. Wheatley was branded a problem child by new head coach Jim Fassel, and the following year he signed with the Oakland Raiders where he quickly became a featured back with a combination of outside speed and inside power. Eventually, the Raiders played in Super Bowl XXXVII, but lost to the Buccaneers.
Wheatley had his best NFL seasons with the Raiders under head coach Jon Gruden and gained 1,046 yards in 2000 with 10 TDs. He retired in 2005 and coached track and football at his old high school in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. From there, he was hired as the running backs coach at Ohio Northern, Eastern Michigan and Syracuse. He was also hired for another pro football league called the All America Football League in 2008, but the league never saw the field. All the while, he spent two different stints in the NFL’s minority coaching internship with both the Bucs and later the Steelers.
With Syracuse, he joined Doug Marrone, then the head coach. After three seasons Marrone was hired as head coach of the Buffalo Bills and took Wheatley with him. After Marrone abruptly quit the Bills, he was hired with the Jaguars as the RB coach while Wheatley worked two seasons at his alma mater with the University of Michigan as their RB coach. When Marrone was elevated to head coach of the Jaguars, he called Wheatley in 2017 and offered him the RB coach position to which he remains employed today.
After being one quarter away from going to the Super Bowl last year, the Jaguars have struggled this season especially on offense. After a 24-21 Week 12 loss to the Buffalo Bills, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett was fired and QB Blake Bortles was announced he would be benched. The Jags have had numerous problems with keeping healthy running backs as starter Leonard Fournette has had a nagging hamstring injury. The team traded for Carlos Hyde and signed - then later released - Jamaal Charles. Plus, premier guard Andrew Norwell was placed on season-ending IR along with starting LT Cam Robinson. To solve this, Ereck Flowers, whom the Giants waived earlier this year, was claimed and is now the starting left tackle.
Big Blue View caught up with the former Giants’ running back to get some insight on his new team, what coaching in the NFL is like, and which former coach he would rather on his side in a bar brawl.
BBV: You were a three-time All-Big Ten selection while at Michigan and had won the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year once plus the Rose Bowl MVP, yet the highest you finished in the Heisman voting was 8th. Did you wonder why you were never considered a serious contender for the award despite a great college career?
WHEATLEY: Not really. I never really looked at awards as a barometer and never gave it much thought. As long as I did my job and we were winning, that is how I judged success.
BBV: When you were drafted by the Giants in the first-round of the 1995 NFL draft, the team already had Rodney Hampton as their featured running back. What were your thoughts when you realized you were going to a team that already had a mega-star at the RB position?
WHEATLEY: Truthful, I had no thoughts about whether to be the backup or compete for the starting spot. I just wanted to compete. I knew Rodney was a tremendous talent and was hoping he would show me how to be as successful as he had been.
BBV: Back in the 1970s-1980s NFL players had only one football card every season. You came into the league where there were a lot of football card companies, and then those companies put out a lot of sets each year which meant you could have as many as 20 football cards of yourself each year. About how many football cards of yours do you own, and how did you get them?
WHEATLEY: I have some somewhere. I got some from some fans that just they had extras and maybe some other people. It is flattering to be sure, but I would rather have a drawer full of rings than football cards.
BBV: You didn’t get much playing time as a running back your first few years, and then the Giants brought in Herschel Walker and Tiki Barber. Did you feel that you would spend your entire life in Blue as a kick returner?
WHEATLEY: No. But for me it was an adjustment being strictly a return man. Apparently my running style did not fit in with what the coaches had in mind, and neither of us were happy.
BBV: What do you like about coaching?
WHEATLEY: Being close to the game. You compete in different ways, but I am too competitive to not want to compete. I also enjoy seeing young players develop and see their new successes and realize I had a small part.
BBV: What type of player is Jaguars’ running back Leonard Fournette, and what former NFL running back does he remind you of?
WHEATLEY: I don’t look at guys as individuals. I look at them as individuals who possess a utility belt that is comprised of speed, power and good hands. Unfortunately, he has had some injury issues which are not his fault.
BBV: Last year the club was one quarter away from representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. What is it going to take to regain that elite status?
WHEATLEY: If players would just do their own job then that enables the offense to establish some sort of ball control. The defense will always hold their own. They are a group of tough individuals with a lot of talent.
BBV: Do you see yourself one day calling plays as an offensive coordinator?
WHEATLEY: Why don’t we just bypass that and if this thing with Shurmur doesn’t work out, the Giants can just call me and hire me as their next head coach. I have a good pulse for the game.
BBV: You have been to one Super Bowl and lost with the Raiders. What would victory be like as a coach versus winning one as a player?
WHEATLEY: Regardless of being a player or a coach it is all the same pinnacle you work your butt off for. Either is sweet when you win and bitter when you lose.
BBV: Were you surprised to see Jon Gruden get back into coaching?
WHEATLEY: My only surprise is how long it took for him to decide to get back into it. The league has changed in the 10 years he was gone. I am sure he will get that team back on top but it will take some time. I only wish he had gone to the NFC so the Jaguars won’t have to step on him.
BBV: Jacksonville has Tom Coughlin in the front office, Perry Fewell, Joe DeCamillis, Pat Flaherty, and yourself as coaches, plus Chris Snee as a scout. Are the Jaguars turning into New York Giants South?
WHEATLEY: Not really. But New York does put out good things regardless of where they end up.
BBV: Besides money, what do you see are the biggest differences in the NFL today since you were a player?
WHEATLEY: Today there seems to be a better job on scouting and understanding players. There is a numbers game and the important part is whether a player fits your system or not. You have to spend a lot of time and effort to find those particular players. With a former guy like Chris Snee who is now one of our scouts and has been in there and has won, those type of people will only help your organization.
BBV: What were the coaching differences between your former Giants’ head coaches Dan Reeves and Jim Fassel?
WHEATLEY: Dan had a lot of experience of getting teams into the playoffs including Super Bowls and had been a head coach for a very long time. Jim was just learning what it took to get to a championship barometer and was getting his chance at being a head coach in the NFL.
BBV: When you played you always had a fullback. Why don’t teams use this position any longer?
WHEATLEY: Sometimes it is just to get another guy from another position a roster spot. But teams have gotten away from the blocking-only guy. I was lucky with the Giants to have had Charles Way drafted the same year I entered the league. He would knock his grandma down.
BBV: Your best NFL seasons were the two years after you left the Giants. Was Oakland’s offensive scheme that different?
WHEATLEY: I fit into the Raiders system almost immediately. And they used me to my strengths and paid off with the entire team’s success. But I was just one part of the success. Our offensive line was a premium unit and made my job that much easier.
BBV: You never could get that hamstring to heal properly. There are some that say if that injury had never occurred you could have been one of the greatest NFL RBs of all time. Your thoughts?
WHEATLEY: That is for others to debate.
BBV: After the NFL you coached high school track and football. Do you feel that this experience showed you that you could enjoy coaching as a career?
WHEATLEY: I always wanted to coach, even while playing. I knew I wanted to coach. I really liked track and wanted to be a track coach and one day coach in the Olympics. I did go back and coach my high school track team and enjoyed every minute of that, but other opportunities came up and one thing led to another and then here I am back in the NFL in Jacksonville.
BBV: You were hired as an assistant coach for “Team Michigan” in the upstart All America Football League in 2008. Why did it never see a single game played?
WHEATLEY: It was a job I thought would get me into coaching pro football. I think they paid me something, but I really don’t remember how much. They talked some huge plans, but as those plans dragged on-and-on and didn’t look like they would ever actually begin a season, I got another job as the running backs coach at Ohio Northern University. From there I went to Eastern Michigan and once again was the running backs coach. Every opportunity I ever had has been a learning tool.
BBV: In 2010 you were hired as the RB coach with Syracuse University under Doug Marrone. You then followed Doug to Buffalo. What did Doug see in you at those two jobs that enabled him to continue to hire you to his Jaguars staff?
WHEATLEY: Consistency. He was the running backs coach in Jacksonville so when he got the head coaching job that position opened up. I had been with him in the past at two different places and he knew I would follow his system that I already knew.
BBV: How is Marrone different from Jon Gruden?
WHEATLEY: Gruden is more flash and flair whereas Doug is the typical offensive lineman mentality. He is not looking for the spotlight and Gruden is always aware of the TV camera.
BBV: You are one of the few to be able to coach at their college alma mater as you spent two seasons as RB coach back at Michigan. How was Tyrone Wheatley the boss different from Tyrone Wheatley the stud running back?
WHEATLEY: What a great question. I am the same person attached to drive to be the best. But now I get to be around young men and help develop their playing skills. I do seem to have been mellower this time around.
BBV: In a fight, who would you want on your side: your former Raiders’ head coach Jon Gruden or your former Michigan boss Jim Harbaugh?
WHEATLEY: Who wouldn’t want “Chuckie” on their side?
BBV: You have two sons who have played college football. As a parent, what do you tell your sons before they leave the house to go to a strange town and strike out on their own?
WHEATLEY: One thing about me being a coach is that we as a family moved when a new job was taken. So, my family has learned to adapt and be social in order to get to know new faces and is good for them to go off and learn to grow up and be responsible. They are young men and hopefully the ideals of being a responsible adult that we have tried to teach them will stay.
BBV: Is the NFL a pass-first league now?
WHEATLEY: I would say no. A lot of teams pass the ball whereas before it was a run-heavy league. But the run still is needed and every team knows this. Probably the biggest change is the featured running back position. It seems you don’t have that Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders mentality anymore where one guy runs 30 times in a game. Now, you may have a featured guy, but there is one or two more running backs who play quite a bit also and take away those carries.
BBV: What was your fondest memory of being a New York Football Giant?
WHEATLEY: Mainly the tradition. And playing with guys like Harry Carson, LT, and Joe Morris. The team had this incredible history of past teams and past players who you grew up knowing. The fan support was fantastic. They are the meaning of “fanatic” and loved their Giants. Fans would come up to me and talk about games they saw at the Polo Grounds and how they remember those old guys and all the championships the team has won.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association