Hall of Fame Debates: Frank Gore
Our Frank Gore discussion begins where few Pro Football Hall of Fame discussions should ever begin: on an all-time leaderboard.
Gore, currently a free agent who is likely to retire if the "right situation" (Chiefs, Buccaneers) doesn't soon arise, ranks third on the all-time rushing yards list. To save you from clicking over to Pro Football Reference, here is the all-time top 10 list. Note the year of retirement of each running back in the third column.
|NFL All-Time Rushing Yardage Leaders|
When we discussed Matt Ryan two weeks ago, I said that the all-time passing leaderboard is nearly useless for a Hall of Fame argument. That's because the top of the passing leaderboards is in constant flux. There are four quarterbacks among the top 10 in passing yards who were active in 2020, with a fifth (Aaron Rodgers) 235 yards away from cracking it, plus two others (the Brothers Manning) who retired in the last six years. The all-time passing boards are not lists of all-time greats, but lists of recent greats and very-goods.
The rushing board, on the other hand, features two active players and only one other running back who played within the last decade. What's more, there is no one remotely threatening the top 10. While passing rates have been increasing for decades, rushing rates and the productive lengths of running back careers have been in decline. Therefore, career rushing yardage remains a reliable gauge of excellence, or at least of uniqueness and long-term impact.
The top 14 eligible all-time rushers are all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The yardage leader among non-Hall of Famers, Fred Taylor, is: A) over 4,000 yards behind Gore and B) considered Hall of Fame-worthy himself by many folks who know what they are talking about. So at first glance, Frank Gore appears to be overwhelmingly qualified for enshrinement. But we should probably take a closer look.
Hall of Very Good for Very Long
The problem with including Gore among a group of all-time greats, as pointed out by skeptics whenever his candidacy is brought up either on Twitter or our comment threads, is that he was never truly great.
Not only has Gore never led the NFL in any major rushing statistic, but he only cracked the top five in rushing yards once, finishing third with 1,695 yards in 2006. That was the only year he ever finished in the top five in scrimmage yards too. He never reached the top five in rushing touchdowns or offensive touchdowns.
DVOA and DYAR won't help Gore's cause much. If someone building a Gore portfolio came to Football Outsiders for help (this occasionally happens), we'd be forced to admit that Gore only cracked the top 10 in rushing DVOA in 2012 and the top 10 in DYAR three times (seventh in 2006, fourth in 2012, 10th in 2014). We'll go into Gore's DYAR more in a moment, but he doesn't really qualify as "better than his raw numbers suggest" from an analytics perspective.
The two most similar players to Gore on the rushing leaderboard—long careers, few seasons of true excellence—are Curtis Martin and Jerome Bettis. Martin won a rushing title in 2004 and finished second and third in two other seasons. Bettis finished second in rushing once and third twice. We'll talk more about Bettis later, but both his peak seasons and Martin's are more impressive than Gore's peak seasons.
That said, it's easy to name two fairly recent recent inductees who are similar to Gore in Martin and Bettis, but impossible to list players similar to Gore who are NOT in the Hall of Fame unless you dig down to guys such as Taylor and Corey Dillon, who again finished their careers thousands of yards behind him. That alone is a pretty ringing endorsement of Gore's candidacy. But it's unlikely to convince a Gore skeptic.
Peak Value vs. Career Value vs. DYAR
Old-timey Bill James readers know that James began differentiating peak value from career value for baseball players back in the 1980s. The terms are self-explanatory, and it's obvious how they pertain to Gore: he has very high career value but very low (by Hall of Fame standards) peak value.
It's worth noting here that based solely on rushing and receiving DYAR, Gore barely nips Taylor and Dillon. Here are the figures for some guys who are relevant to our discussion:
|Frank Gore and Other Notable Running Backs|
|Name||Rushing DYAR||Receiving DYAR||Total DYAR|
Regular-season DYAR isn't designed to be a Hall of Fame prediction tool; among other shortcomings, it ignores playoff accomplishments and doesn't filter out the impact of a player's supporting cast. That said, the table above provides a useful map of the Hall of Fame borderline at running back. It rehabilitates Bettis, whom I think many fans risk writing off as merely a media darling with RINGZ. It places Marshawn Lynch, who certainly has some Hall of Fame supporters, a notch below the other borderline cases. Peterson's career DYAR looks surprisingly low, but of course he's a Hall of Famer because of his stratospheric peak.
All of that said, it's clear that the DYAR chart above can be used by both the defense to argue that Gore is in the same category as Bettis/Martin and by the prosecution to claim he ranks among Dillon and Taylor.
It's hard to say if any player has reached the Pro Football Hall of Fame exclusively on "career value." Longtime Rams guard Jackie Slater springs to mind as one possibility. So does Charlie Joiner, whose case was helped by a few mammoth seasons just after the 1978 rule changes, which planted him atop the all-time receiving yardage list for several years. Most of the long career/iffy peak enshrinees have a story attached to their careers, such George Blanda or Bettis. On the flip side, there are lots of players with long, fine careers who never reached the Hall of Fame: Jim Marshall, Mike Kenn, Clay Matthews Jr., and others.
Matthews is an interesting comp for Gore, as he was among the finalists for the 2021 class. As a member of a famous family who played on a memorable team (the Dawg Pound Browns) for some legendary coaches (Marty Schottenheimer, Bill Belichick), Matthews has the sort of "story" that should have given him a leg up on other candidates on last year's ballot, especially since voters knew he would be shipped off to the Seniors committee if he didn't get in. It still wasn't enough.
Gore could end up trapped in semifinalist/finalist limbo for years like Matthews as the voters shunt players with more glittery peaks in front of him. But there are good reasons to think that will not be the case.
Logjams and Storylines
Clay Matthews found himself trapped on recent Hall of Fame ballots with Sam Mills and Zach Thomas, two vaguely similar linebackers, plus a growing logjam of other qualified defenders. Based on my discussions with voters over the last few years, Thomas is slowly bubbling to the top of the ballot, while Mills stayed among finalists thanks to some assertive fan campaigning and a few diehard voters banging the table for him. Meanwhile, the committee spent each year trying to sort out a logjam of safeties which is finally clearing out. There was neither bandwidth nor room on the ballot for Matthews.
Gore will face no such issue. He and Adrian Peterson should retire at about the same time. Peterson will be waved through on the first ballot. Gore probably will not, but he will end up as the only running back on the ballot, perhaps for many, many years; Marshawn, LeSean McCoy and others are likely to max out as semifinalists.
Edgerrin James reached the Hall of Fame in 2020 after a brief tour of finalist purgatory. James was qualified but not overwhelmingly qualified. He breezed past Matthews and players who waited for years (John Lynch, various offensive linemen) because he didn't have to split the ballot with any other running backs. Gore could enter Canton through a similar EZ Pass, low-occupancy lane.
But even as the only running back on the ballot, Gore will need a stronger case than "lots o' career yards." Voters will be skeptical of why they should select Gore over the seven or eight longtime finalists who are sure to be on the ballot in any given year. That brings us back around to Jerome Bettis.
Bettis was a "storyline" Hall of Famer to some degree: the lovable wrecking ball, the kid who overcame severe asthma, the Steelers throwback who won a Super Bowl (simmer down, Seahawks fans) in his Detroit hometown. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is full of storyline guys who also happened to be excellent players, if not much better than a few contemporaries who failed to capture the national imagination quite as thoroughly. Some fans feel resentful toward storyline Hall of Famers, particularly if they don't like the story: Bengals fans are sick of having Steel Curtains waved in their face, Broncos fans of the 1970s don't want to hear any more Raiders biker stories, and so forth. Those feelings can calcify into something bitter, but there's a legitimate argument to be made that the Hall of Fame really should make a better effort to enshrine players from weaker teams.
If you subscribe to that argument, then Frank Gore is absolutely the Hall of Fame candidate for you.
Gore spent the first six years of his career on miserable 49ers teams. Think about it: the first six years of a running back's career are typically his entire productive career. Todd Gurley just completed his sixth season and he's ready to be put to pasture. If you like to argue about what would happen if Terry Bradshaw and Archie Manning switched places, well, hook Gore up with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning in the late 2000s, or put him behind the Seahawks, Chiefs, or Broncos offensive lines at the time. Even Taylor's Jaguars were typically much better teams than Gore's 49ers at their peaks, to say nothing of the teams that Martin and Bettis (once he reached the Steelers) played for. Both Gore's raw totals and DYAR/DVOA were both harmed by playing for an organization which was dysfunctional for years.
But Gore didn't languish and disappear. He persevered and helped the 49ers achieve greatness for a few seasons. He rushed for 110 yards and one touchdown in a close Super Bowl loss. Gore's achievements from 2011 to 2013 are easy to forget, because the 49ers' peak under Jim Harbaugh was brief and memories of Colin Kaepernick send our brains skittering off on sociopolitical tangents. But ignoring those 49ers would be as much of a mistake by the Hall of Fame as ignoring the mid-1970s Broncos has been.
The last six years of Gore's career can be dismissed as stat-padding, with the caveat that no other running back has ever been able to add 5,000 yards of "padding" after age 32. Also, Gore's Colts seasons would look different if Andrew Luck's career turned out differently. But hey, tell us more about how Gore was never "truly great" when he kept landing in bad situation after bad situation.
Yes, I am being overly argumentative; this series is called "Hall of Fame Debates," after all. Gore qualifies as a "storyline Hall of Famer" in his own way: the guy who tore his ACL twice in college but became a durable iron man, who helped turn a franchise around, who eventually spent years as such a respected elder statesman that not even a rabid gerbil like Adam Gase could hold a grudge against him.
That story, plus 16,000 rushing yards, should carry a lot of weight. It also undercuts any claim that Gore is just a good running back who hung around forever, because history tells us that it's nearly impossible for a running back to "hang around" in the NFL. (They aren't slugging first basemen who can DH for six years). Therefore, there was likely much more to Gore's peak than what we can see when applying the black ink or DYAR tests.
Would I vote for Gore? Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors don't really "vote" for anyone: they whittle a large group down to 15, then 10, then five. I wouldn't vote for Gore among a five that included, say, Drew Brees, Adrian Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald, and two LeRoy Butler-type forever-finalists. But I would look for room for him among my top five in a ballot that isn't overloaded with Mount Rushmore types. I am guessing selectors will feel the same way. There should be room in Canton for a player like Gore. Because frankly, there aren't really any other players quite like Gore.