by Scott Kacsmar
No skill position has more representatives in the Pro Football Hall of Fame than running back. While the NFL was a run-dominated game for decades, the total of 29 backs has been padded by a few of Canton’s more questionable inductions.
Sports Illustrated’s Dr. Z once called Detroit’s Doak Walker the most undeserving member of the Hall of Fame. That’s a great choice, just as Paul Hornung or Floyd Little would be. John Riggins, selected on his second ballot, is the only Hall of Famer to start his career after 1950 and not be recognized as a Pro Bowler or All-Pro at least twice.
While it seems like voters will put any running back in, there’s a trio of backs who may still be waiting after shoo-in LaDainian Tomlinson appears on his first ballot in 2017:
- Roger Craig -– 15 years of eligibility, five-time semifinalist (2009-13) and one-time finalist (2010).
- Terrell Davis –- seven years of eligibility and seven-time semifinalist (2007-13).
- Jerome Bettis -– three years of eligibility and three-time finalist (2011-13).
The knocks against these players can be a bit harsh. Bettis was a "compiler" who could not catch the ball. Craig benefited from the innovation of Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense and generational talents like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. Davis was a product of Alex Gibbs’ zone-blocking scheme in Denver.
Voting history suggests they will all get in eventually, but that does not mean we cannot question why they have been waiting. Davis was inarguably the most dominant of these players, being named a First-Team All-Pro as many times (three) as Craig (one) and Bettis (two) combined, but he’s the only one of the three yet to crack the finalists. Craig and Bettis are the only modern finalists at running back to not get in.
With criticism ranging from a lack of longevity to too much stat-padding, let’s see if we can find a happy medium in sizing these three up for Canton.
Terrell Davis’ Career: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of
Terrell Davis’ career followed the type of Hollywood screenplay that the media usually eats up.
Davis starred as "The Little Back Who Could" in his rags-to-riches story. Just a sixth-round pick (196th overall) in 1995, he made a name for himself as a rookie in the preseason with a crushing tackle on special teams. The only running backs drafted in the sixth round or later to rush for more yards than Davis (7,607) are Earnest Byner (8,261) and Terry Allen (8,614).
Davis quickly helped the Broncos to the top of the AFC and soon the NFL in an era when the NFC ruled the league. He became the focal point of an offense with aging legendary quarterback John Elway, who owes much credit to Davis for capturing those elusive Super Bowl rings.
Davis was dominant in the regular season, winning league MVP in 1998 when he rushed for 2,008 yards. Picture Denver rookie Montee Ball coming in and deservingly taking the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands and winning MVP in 2017 as Manning enjoys his swansong in leisure. That’s about what Davis accomplished in Denver with Elway.
Finally, if the postseason and "precious rings" are as damn important as some want us to believe, then those people should be building a shrine for Davis as one of the NFL’s greatest postseason players. He was consistently great, with seven straight 100-yard rushing games (a playoff record), including a Super Bowl MVP performance against Green Bay. He rushed for 157 yards and three scores (that includes a game-winner) that night while battling a migraine headache. There’s your signature game requirement. In eight playoff games Davis rushed for 1,140 yards, scored 12 touchdowns, and averaged 5.59 yards per carry (another playoff record) to help Denver repeat as Super Bowl champions.
But there is one problem with this script: it did not include a happy ending. Davis tore his ACL and MCL four games into the 1999 season attempting a tackle on an interception. He only made five starts in 2000 due to a stress reaction in his lower leg. Davis had arthroscopic surgery on both knees in 2001, but still played half the season. With his knees failing him, Davis walked away from the game while he still could.
Our protagonist never made his heroic return for the third act. Instead, Denver drafted his replacement, Clinton Portis, in 2002. A historic start by Portis, with consecutive 1,500-yard seasons, quickly made fans forget about Davis and focus their concerns on finding the next Elway.
The following table looks at Davis’ career stats, along with where he ranked in Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics. "SR" is indeed Success Rate and "YFS" is yards from scrimmage.
|Terrell Davis' Career Stats|
While Davis’ backups, Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson, put up very respectable numbers, they never sustained success or matched Davis’ efficiency. Anderson’s 14.2% DVOA in 2000 was lower than any of Davis’ first four seasons. Gary’s 4.6% DVOA in 1999 only ranked 12th that season.
Davis essentially played at an elite level for four years before playing in just 17 games in his final three seasons combined. While his performance nosedived, it is commendable that he still rushed for most of his 701 yards in 2001 after having surgery on both knees. His metrics that year would be better had he found the end zone a few times instead of putting up a bagel.
Is this really that different from Gale Sayers, who played seven seasons and only 68 games? He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. His career was practically five seasons, unless you want to count 1970-71 when he played four games, touched the ball 37 times, gained 84 yards, and fumbled once.
Sayers also never played in a postseason game. Factor in what Davis did in his eight playoff games, and he essentially had 4.5 seasons of elite play along with the gutsy half-season effort in 2001.
Yes, Sayers was more explosive and scored eight return touchdowns on just 118 opportunities, but this is not about who was the better back. It is about understanding why a career ending early due to injury matters for Davis while it never did for Sayers. Denver did have Elway, but it was drenched in mediocrity before Davis helped rejuvenate the running game. That success should count for something. We know it usually does in the eyes of voters, because without four Super Bowl rings, Pittsburgh wide receivers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann are never elected to the Hall of Fame.
Denver running back Floyd Little is in the Hall of Fame as well, making it as a senior candidate in 2010. When you look at his career in comparison, it would be a slap in the face if it takes a senior vote to get Davis in. Davis did much more in fewer games, and like Sayers, Little was on bad teams (awful at times) and never played in the postseason. He even averaged less than three yards per carry twice in his nine seasons.
Part of Little’s case was presented by the Denver Post’s Jeff Legwold, who noted that Little was first-contacted roughly 30 percent of the time behind the line of scrimmage on about 1,200 runs. That’s only amazing when used completely free of context. If we had something to compare that to, it might matter. What is it with Denver players having stats counted a special way only for them and no one else?
For Davis, we do not have to twist things to showcase his achievements.
A running back has rushed for at least 1,750 yards 26 times. Davis has done it twice. He and Emmitt Smith are the only players to win a Super Bowl the season they did. Davis is one of five running backs to win a rushing title, MVP, and Super Bowl. The other four (Jim Taylor, Walter Payton, Marcus Allen and Emmitt Smith) are in Canton. Only Davis and Smith achieved all of those feats in the same season. Davis has the only 2,000-yard rushing season that led to a playoff win. Most of the time, teams with a poor passing game have an imbalanced offense, which is a fine recipe for getting exposed in the postseason.
Including the playoffs, Davis holds the NFL single-season record with 2,476 rushing yards in 1998. Second place on that list is ... Terrell Davis, with 2,331 yards in 1997. When looking at yards from scrimmage, Davis again holds the record with 2,762 yards in 1998.
|NFL's Single-Season Rushing Leaders (Including Playoffs)|
|1||Terrell Davis||26||1998||DEN||19||470||2,476||5.27||24||Won SB|
|2||Terrell Davis||25||1997||DEN||19||481||2,331||4.85||23||Won SB|
|3||Eric Dickerson||24||1984||LARM||17||402||2,212||5.50||15||Lost NFC-DIV|
|4||Adrian Peterson||27||2012||MIN||17||370||2,196||5.94||12||Lost NFC-WC|
|5||Jamal Anderson||26||1998||ATL||19||480||2,122||4.42||16||Lost SB|
|6||Barry Sanders||29||1997||DET||17||353||2,118||6.00||11||Lost NFC-WC|
|7||Shaun Alexander||28||2005||SEA||19||430||2,116||4.92||29||Lost SB|
|8||Ahman Green||26||2003||GB||18||403||2,105||5.22||17||Lost NFC-DIV|
|9||Jamal Lewis||24||2003||BAL||17||401||2,101||5.24||14||Lost AFC-WC|
|10||Emmitt Smith||26||1995||DAL||19||451||2,071||4.59||31||Won SB|
|11||Emmitt Smith||23||1992||DAL||19||444||2,049||4.61||21||Won SB|
|12||Earl Campbell||25||1980||HOIL||16||400||2,025||5.06||14||Lost AFC-WC|
|13||Chris Johnson||23||2009||TEN||16||358||2,006||5.60||14||No Playoffs|
|14||O.J. Simpson||26||1973||BUF||14||332||2,003||6.03||12||No Playoffs|
No running back has ever meant more to a Super Bowl-winning team than Davis, and he proved that twice. It may just be an unfortunate coincidence, but after 951 carries in 38 games in 1997-98, it’s no surprise Davis ended up with chronic knee problems. Denver literally broke this bronco on a ride to the promised land.
Terrell Davis vs. Roger Craig: Longevity Is a Losing Argument
What’s interesting about the running back position is how most people continue to focus on rushing yards and ignore the contributions made in the passing game and as a blocker. Backs like Bettis and Earl Campbell provided little-to-no help as receivers while even today’s studs like Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster just had very poor receiving seasons in 2012. Davis was not a particularly good receiver.
The lack of receiving attention could be what has held back Roger Craig in the voting process. His total of 8,189 rushing yards does not stand out, especially given the fact he played 165 games. However, he caught 566 passes for 4,911 yards and 17 touchdowns, making him one of the most prolific receiving backs and giving him 13,100 yards from scrimmage.
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Yet if you’re not named Marshall Faulk, who Craig really helped pave the way for, most Hall of Fame voters just are not that interested in running back receiving numbers. It also would stand to work against Craig that he mostly compiled these numbers in Bill Walsh’s innovative West Coast offense, which showed the league it was okay to throw short to the back and let him make plays.
In 1985, Craig produced the first season in NFL history with over 1,000 yards rushing and over 1,000 yards receiving. He was targeted a team-high 118 times in the passing game. Three years later he was a first-team All-Pro and the Offensive Player of the Year, once again going over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. That season Craig (111) was targeted just 10 times fewer than Jerry Rice (121). Yet after Rice emerged as the best receiver in football and Joe Montana continued his ascension, Craig never could do better than the third wheel in the mighty San Francisco machine.
Craig did help the 49ers win three Super Bowls, yet a big part of his legacy is the fumble in the 1990 NFC Championship against the Giants that stopped a 49ers’ three-peat. New York went on to drive for the game-winning field goal. Despite his unorthodox high-knee style of running, that fumble is really his signature play, which is a shame. Craig had some bad luck with fumbles in his career and was already having a rough season, but that was his final play for the team.
After leaving San Francisco, Craig was a part-time player with the Raiders (1991) and Vikings (1992-93) to end his career. We have advanced stats only for those years as of this writing:
|Roger Craig's Career Stats (1983-90 49ers, 1991 Raiders, 1992-93 Vikings)|
Some would say Craig exhibited longevity with 11 seasons and 165 games played. Yet, did Craig really help himself after winning his third ring in 1989? In his last four years (1990-93), Craig averaged 40.6 yards from scrimmage per game, 3.51 yards per carry, scored eight touchdowns, and fumbled seven times.
That sounds like subpar play being masqueraded as longevity. Had Craig called it a career after 1989, here’s how his seven seasons would stack up to Davis’ seven-year career:
|Roger Craig vs. Terrell Davis: First 7 Seasons|
In 32 fewer games, Davis had better rushing numbers across the board. Craig still holds a considerable receiving advantage, but both players scored 65 touchdowns. Adding in the playoffs would give Davis a bigger boost even though Craig’s receiving advantage would grow. Craig had 63 receptions for 606 yards in the playoffs, but only rushed for 841 yards in 18 games and scored nine total touchdowns to Davis’ 12. Craig averaged 4.04 yards per carry, which is equal to Davis’ worst playoff game.
Given the tendency to focus on rushing yards, few would argue against Davis as the superior back at this point. If Craig had more longevity, then that must be praise for what he did in 1990-93. As we have already seen, that was not a stretch worthy of praise, let alone Canton.
We need to quantify longevity beyond just playing. Assuming the goal remains to play well and help your team, Craig was not much help beyond seven years.
Terrell Davis vs Jerome Bettis: Bus Ride Through the Peaks and Valleys
Jerome Bettis was one of the most relied upon running backs in NFL history. He seems to have an advantage over Davis and Craig in the eyes of the Hall of Fame voters; he’s been a finalist in all three years of eligibility, making it to the top 10 selections last year before missing on the final cut. The feeling is that Bettis’ induction is inevitable, so we will not spend much time advocating his case. Instead, let’s look at his career with all of its peaks and valleys:
|Jerome Bettis' Career Stats (1993-95 Rams, 1996-05 Steelers)|
Despite playing 13 seasons, Bettis’ career DYAR (1,721) is actually lower than that of Davis (1,829). Imagine that. As you can see, he had three bad seasons that bring the numbers down. He also did not rack up a lot of touchdowns, though part of that had to do with poor quarterback play in Pittsburgh. When Bettis played with Ben Roethlisberger for two (not even full) years, he scored 22 touchdowns.
The attack on Bettis’ numbers is usually reserved for his 3.93 yards per carry. It must be remembered he did play with the body of a fullback –- in later years more of an offensive lineman -– so getting the long runs to boost the average was always a problem. He also played with asthma his whole career, which seems like a noteworthy feat. The low average never seemed to be a problem for John Riggins or Curtis Martin when it came time for Canton.
Bettis started off in elite fashion, winning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year with the Los Angeles Rams in 1993 and finishing in the top three in our advanced metrics. Then things went south in a hurry. Bettis had one of the worst 1,000-yard seasons in NFL history in 1994 when he averaged just 3.21 yards per carry. Eddie George, eat your heart out. Bettis ranked next to last in DYAR and then ranked dead last in Success Rate in 1995 despite his reduced role on the pass-happy Rams.
Fortunately for Bettis, Pittsburgh’s Bam Morris loved weed, opening the door to fill the void in coach Bill Cowher’s smash-mouth attack. A draft-day trade to Pittsburgh in 1996 -- on April 20th no less -- changed everything. Bettis was the perfect fit as he returned to the level of his rookie season, leading the league in DYAR in 1996 and earning four MVP votes in the 1996-97 seasons. The next two seasons were tough for Bettis as Pittsburgh fell behind and could not rely on the run as much. He had a resurgence in 2000 and hit on some bigger runs in 2001 before an injury shortened his regular season.
Injuries would continue to slow and reduce Bettis’ role. The 2003 season, played behind a pathetic offensive line, again put Bettis near the bottom of the league in advanced metrics. Duce Staley was the projected starter in 2004, which allowed Bettis to post inconceivable stat lines like "five carries for one yard and three touchdowns." An injury to Staley paved the way for Bettis’ last ride as a full-time back in Roethlisberger’s historic rookie season. "The Bus" managed six more 100-yard rushing games, but the Steelers came up short again at home in the AFC Championship against New England.
With players urging him to return for one more go, Bettis -– did you know he was born in Detroit? –- played behind the young Willie Parker in 2005 and mostly was used as a short-yardage specialist. He scored nine touchdowns and was fairly efficient at getting the tough yards the Steelers needed. He even provided a signature play with a demolition of Chicago’s Brian Urlacher on his way to the end zone in his final 100-yard performance.
However, things could have ended in epically bad fashion had Roethlisberger not made the tackle on Nick Harper in Indianapolis in the Divisional playoffs. Bettis fumbled away the goal-line carry that could have ended the Steelers’ season had Harper, who was stabbed by his wife the night before, gone down the sideline. Instead, kicker Mike Vanderjagt did what Mike Vanderjagt does and Bettis could relax and go on to retire after a win in Super Bowl XL.
Without Roethlisberger’s tackle, Bettis would have had an all-time blunder in the clutch. His career would have been a deluxe version of Earnest Byner's. Hell, at least Byner won a ring with the Redskins in 1991. For Bettis, there would be no ring, no going out on top, and the lasting memory would always be this play. So he should be eternally grateful to Roethlisberger. Craig is vilified for his playoff fumble, while Bettis usually avoided big ones, but he did lose three in the playoffs in his final two seasons (2004-05). Davis lost one fumble in his career in a game Denver lost.
The trump card for Bettis is his volume. He rushed for 13,662 yards, which ranks sixth in NFL history. Given the state of veteran running backs, Bettis will rank sixth for several years to come. A 30-year-old Steven Jackson sits 3,527 yards away. We will learn soon how voters feel about Edgerrin James, but every eligible 12,000-yard rusher is in Canton but Bettis.
Despite debuting two years later and missing most of the 1999 season, Davis made the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team over Bettis. The same Hall of Fame voters decide these teams. This means the voters gave Davis the edge over Bettis for what happened from 1993-99. There is no denying Bettis wins considerably for 2000-05, but was that really a great enough stretch to make him a three-time finalist and to never vote Davis into the top 15?
Bettis’ reputation as a compiler really is not fair. He did have a few bad seasons, but usually he played well when on a team that was competing. At the end of his career, he was productive as a specialist. He just did not have the volume of elite seasons as his peers, including Davis.
Ideally, most people would agree greatness is what deserves to be rewarded for the Hall of Fame. That does not mean one play or game, in the cases of Timmy Smith, David Tyree and a slew of others, or a one-year wonder like Ickey Woods. But a streak of elite performance that few ever achieve as done by players like Davis, Sterling Sharpe and Kurt Warner should be recognized.
All three running backs profiled here won at least one Super Bowl and made noteworthy achievements as individuals. It is hard to ignore that Davis’ individual achievements stand out the most.
Hanging around for a few more years as a lesser player to pad the stats should not make someone more eligible for the Hall of Fame, but perhaps unbeknownst to the voters, that is what happens in some cases. We have to focus on a player’s peak. Few in history can match the four-year run Davis had to start his career before injuries ended it prematurely.
If Davis does not enter Canton by 2020, I will personally steal Floyd Little’s bust and swap it with one of Davis made out of Play-Doh. Okay, that’s probably not going to happen, but only due to a lack of artistic ability and dreading the awkward visit to the type of store that sells Play-Doh. There will always be Hall of Fame inconsistencies, but let’s limit the injustices.
Terrell Davis did just about everything a running back could, except it only took him four years. He should be rewarded, not penalized, for that.