26 Jul 2012
by Mike Tanier
1. Marcus Allen
Allen belongs to a small subset of players like George Blanda and Jim Marshall: guys who had a brief peak, then hung around for so long that they eventually became folk heroes, their every accomplishment trumpeted by play-by-play guys. Doug Flutie is also in this camp, though he was not nearly as good as the others.
Allen had three very good years, then an outstanding one, plus an incredible 1983 playoff performance capped by one of the signature plays of NFL history. He then spent seven seasons battling injuries and Al Davis, slowly descending from featured back status to a committee situation, then to a bit role as Davis punished him for holding out during training camps and other alleged transgressions.
There appears to be a school of thought that pencils in 1,200 yard seasons for Allen in the 1991-92 Davis-as-Nero years and perhaps another 1,200-yards in 1988 and 1990, the Bo Jackson years. That is, Allen’s reputation was so great after his USC career and the 1982-86 seasons that he is given benefit of the doubt for things he never actually accomplished.
The problem is that Allen never had any of the hypothetical seasons he might have had if not for Bo and Al, and the seasons he did have were pretty unspectacular. Frankly, I think Davis would let Allen play even if Allen peed in the owner’s coffee if Allen were still playing at 1983-85 levels by 1988 and beyond. Allen had slipped to the point that he was a committee back. Davis knew it and wasn’t going to overpay for his services.
Allen is a Hall of Famer, but he is a lower-tier guy. I realize that this is a minority opinion, but I cannot understand why.
2. Mark Van Eeghen
Van Eeghen was the bruising fullback for the great John Madden Raiders teams of the mid-70s, and hung around to help beat the Eagles in Super Bowl XV. The Raiders offense of that era was wide open and daring for the times, but it was still a 1970s offense, and Van Eeghen churned out 324 carries in 1977, most of them between the tackles.
Van Eeghen is not quite a Hall of Famer, but he is underrated among players of the mid-1970s. The Raiders themselves are partly to blame for the fact that players like Van Eeghen and Cliff Branch are not better remembered. Their Sons of Anarchy image overwhelms the accomplishments of individual players, so when it comes time for NFL Films to look back at the 1970s Raiders, there are shots of guys on motorcycles and crazy costumes and defensive players talking about how brutal they were. The Steelers get to live on as individuals; the Raiders are stuck being Davis’ hooligans. Van Eeghen was a great running back for a few years, not a biker stereotype, so he doesn’t get a lot of screen time during the montage.
3. Marv Hubbard
Hubbard was Van Eeghen’s predecessor, a punishing fullback who averaged 4.8 yards per carry in the early 1970s, with the help of one of the three or four best offensive lines in history.
4. Clem Daniels
The all-time AFL rushing leader, Daniels is also the anti-Marcus Allen. Al Davis loved Daniels, built his first pro offense around Daniels, and even let the running back get involved in game planning. Daniels was a do-it-all size-speed marvel who could even pass a little, but he attended Prairie View in an era when NFL scouts didn’t pay much attention to black colleges, so he wound up kicking around the AFL. The usual early-AFL caveats apply, but Daniels was one of the three or four best players in that league in the early and mid-1960s, so there is little doubt he was pretty darn awesome.
5. Pete Banaszak
The Kevin Faulk of the old Raiders dynasty, Banaszak hung around as the second or third running back for the Raiders from 1966 to 1978. In 1975, he was the team’s designated short-yardage runner, scoring 16 touchdowns. In most seasons, however, he played special teams and filled in for guys like Hubbard, Clarence Davis, and van Eeghen. Banaszak is best known for scooping the ball forward on the Holy Roller play.
Davis was the halfback behind Hubbard and later Van Eeghen. He was good, but the Raiders running game of that era was built for the fullbacks, and Davis only carried more than 130 times in one season. (His receiving numbers were nothing special, either.) Napoleon Kaufman ranks fourth on the Raiders’ all-time rushing list, which seems shocking until you realize that guys like Davis, Daniels, Charlie Smith and Banaszak leeched carries off each other for so many years. Kaufman averaged 4.8 yards per carry in 1997, rushed for over 1,200 yards, and ended up with -38 DYAR. Success Rate can be a real killer.
Bo Jackson? Bo rushed for 2,782 career yards, 271 of them on his three best carries. That’s just about 10 percent of his career production on three plays. He was breathtaking to watch when healthy, which wasn’t often, but in addition to the durability issues he had no receiving value. He played just enough to convince us of how great he could have been, but not enough to be great.
The Raiders had a lot of running backs who were good for a year or two, like Tyrone Wheatley, or committee guys who were good for years, like Charlie Smith. But let’s give a shout out to poor Charlie Garner here. He could not make the insanely great 49ers list, and he did not do enough with the Eagles. He had three excellent all-purpose seasons with the Raiders, but this is yet another tough list. Garner gets an At Large Honorable Mention.
The 2004-09 Chargers are going to be one of those teams historians will have to re-excavate 30 years from now, our modern version of the Rams of the late 60s-early 70s or the Colts of the mid-1970s. The 2006 team will bubble up as a footnote in the Patriots saga, but the rest of the team will fight to not be forgotten. Tomlinson could even get the Cris Carter treatment for the Hall of Fame, because he lacks "the signature play" that some voters claim in dead seriousness that an inductee needs, and because "he didn’t win anything" is apparently a valid argument against any non-champion these days.
Those Chargers teams were very good and fascinatingly flawed. Their coaches present interesting conundrums. Who is Marty Schottenheimer except a slightly better Chuck Knox? Norv Turner is the strategic and spiritual son of Ted Marchibroda. Both gave Tomlinson the chance to thump and thump, and he answered the call as a primary weapon for teams that won 12, 13, and 14 games.
2. Paul Lowe
3. Keith Lincoln
The Chargers’ running back history is unspectacular after Tomlinson. There are a bunch of guys with one or two good seasons, and everything from the merger to Don Coryell’s arrival is a big void. Lowe and Lincoln were the 1-2 punch for Sid Gilman’s AFL Championship team, combining for 2,300 yards from scrimmage in 1963. Lincoln was also both the kick returner and the kicker in 1964, which reminds us how far back in time we were, in a league that was still playing catch-up. Between Gilman’s scheme and the competition level, it’s hard to tell how good Lowe and Lincoln were, but nobody else on this list strung enough good years together to challenge them.
4. Chuck Muncie
Muncie was brilliant in 1981 and strike-shortened 1982, but age and hard living took their toll after that. Coryell’s offense was insanely pass-oriented for his era, but one place where it was old-fashioned was near the goal line: inside the five-yard line, even the innovators still pounded the ball (and still do, to a lesser degree). Muncie scored 19 touchdowns in 1981, benefiting from the offense around him as much as his own talents: 13 of them were one-, two-, or three-yard plunges, usually as part of 42-31 or 31-17 games.
Two fun-to-watch bowling balls who each had one great season, then plugged along for a few years as a battering ram while Chris Berman made sound effects. Means got to be on the Super Bowl team that got pummeled by the Niners. Butts cranked out 1,200 yards for a bad 1990 team coached by Dan Henning, whose name came up on some of our other message boards last week. Henning was a great coach if you wanted a Joe Gibbs one-back power running game and absolutely, positively nothing else.
Ryan Mathews could make this list with a couple more seasons like 2011.
45 comments, Last at 01 Aug 2012, 7:59am by dryheat