by Mike Tanier
Who will be the next Cris Carter?
I’m not asking who will be the next receiver to post back-to-back 122-catch seasons or score 65 touchdowns in six years. I want to know who the next player to be kept out of the Hall of Fame because his statistics are too good will be.
Bashing the Carter omission is last month’s topic. Hall of Fame voters passed him over once again because there are a backlog of other (far less) qualified candidates they are trying to sort though, and perhaps more importantly, because many of the voters are old-guard types who have a knee-jerk compulsion to argue into the face of overwhelming statistical evidence. Give these guys an insanely obvious statistic –- like back-to-back 122-catch seasons –- and they will give you an old anecdote about Elbert Dubenion packing a sprained ankle in muddy snow so he could catch a touchdown from Jack Kemp, then lean back and nod as if they have somehow trumped you.
The anti-stat gang stood in Art Monk’s way for seven years, and now they are standing in Carter’s way. Soon, they will face the problem that all qualified candidates, dating back for several decades, will have both a full and impressive statistical record. The "full" is as important as the "impressive," because we are coming upon an era in which even defenders who retired a decade ago have easy-to-find, accurate data for tackles, sacks, and even passes defensed, whereas up until 1982 we had nothing but interceptions and the unreliable sack and tackle information provided in team media guides. If someone wants to go back and argue that Jessie Tuggle belongs in the Hall of Fame, they no longer have to rely on poetic images of how running backs trembled at Tuggle’s approach or testimonials from defensive coordinators who called him the key to the Falcons defense. They can point to 21 career sacks and two 200-tackle seasons, note that his five Pro Bowl appearances do not line up with his best years, and so on.
You would think that such detailed information would be a boon to Hall of Fame voters, but in fact it handcuffs them from using poetry and anecdotes. A lot of these guys are addicted to poetry and anecdotes, which are great at filling the voids between facts with lots of inarguable nonsense. The voters have been getting their fix by reaching back and selecting Chris Hanburger and Rayfield Wright from the grand, glorious 1970s, when men were men and stats were nonexistent, for several years. That well is running a little dry, so the anti-stat guys are shifting gears and earning their contrarian cred in other ways: suddenly noticing the contributions of offensive linemen, becoming even more Super Bowl-biased, or just denying the obvious and hoping it is interpreted as wisdom.
In a few years, the Hall of Fame ballot will be teeming with Carter-types, and voters will have to perform a delicate juggling act in order to exclude as many worthy candidates as possible for the most specious reasons. Here is my top-five countdown of the most likely players to be Cartered out of the Hall of Fame far longer than they should be, based solely on their overwhelmingly obvious qualifications. This list does not include Randy Moss-types who have earned their backlash, just excellent players with minimal-to-nonexistent baggage who will have to apologize for their statistics if they hope to see their busts in Canton.
5. Ed Reed. First, Reed will be overshadowed by Ray Lewis, because both will retire at nearly the same time. Then, he will split the ticket with Charles Woodson, a more outspoken, interesting secondary player who happens to have a Super Bowl ring (though a less successful overall career). Finally, Reed will suffer from Paul Krause Disease. Readers who think I am being too hard on the anti-stat brigade need to look up Paul Krause, who is still the all-time NFL interception leader with 81 picks for two different teams. Krause made eight Pro Bowls for two different teams and was one of the stars of the Purple People Eater defense which reached the Super Bowl four times. He retired in 1979, and the Hall was kind enough to allow him entry 19 years later after spending nearly two decades brushing him off as a "cherry picker" who did nothing but compile easy interceptions. Reed will hear some of the same criticism.
4. Michael Strahan. Hall of Fame voters are still furrowing their brows and trying to figure out what to make of those pesky sack totals. Some are still pounding on the desk and screaming that Gino Marchetti didn’t need no gosh darned sack totals and would have recorded 53 sacks per year if he played nowadays, anyway. Others are struggling to put players like Chris Doleman in context. Recent inductions suggest that Strahan will coast in, but some voters are going to bring up the Brett Favre slide as if it is indicative of something, while others will simply become reactionary about the recent Doleman-John Randle inductions and start stumping for some 1970s player who was better than Strahan because players in the 1970s were better at everything than anybody. Strahan’s media presence could work against him the way Carter’s has, and playing in New York creates as much of a backlash as an advantage.
3. LaDainian Tomlinson. Two powerful forces are starting to work against Tomlinson. One is his late-career string of ho-hum seasons. The 2008-2011 seasons add ballast to his career totals but fuel to any argument that he was some kind of "stat compiler," and they push his truly great seasons back further into the memories of voters.
More damning for Tomlinson is that he spent his whole career on underachieving teams that had well-publicized clubhouse issues. The problems of the Chargers and Jets will be smeared into Tomlinson’s record by those who feel the reflexive need to argue away 1,800-yard, 28-touchdown seasons with the famous "yeah, but" rhetoric.
2. Wes Welker. The 2011 season solidified this guy’s Hall of Fame resume: with three reception titles, four 100-catch seasons, and two Super Bowl appearances, Welker now has accomplishments that blow away many Hall of Fame wide receivers. Unfortunately, he is also becoming very Carter like: 122-catch seasons, a big-time offense that kept falling short of a championship, a period in which he was overshadowed by Randy Moss. The "plucky white guy" thing could earn some backlash, and he could get lost in the shuffle as this generation of Patriots tries to jockey for spaces in the Hall of Fame line.
There have been 25 seasons of 110 or more catches in NFL history. Welker has four of them. There have been seven seasons of 120 or more catches. Welker and Carter have two each, with Marvin Harrison, Jerry Rice, and Herman Moore claiming the others. These seasons don’t grow on trees, and they don’t come about simply because teams throw lots and lots of short passes. But those are some of the arguments being lobbed across the table against Carter, and they may still be in fashion in 15 years when it comes time to discuss Welker.
This is also a good time to mention that the Hall’s anti-stat lunacy is most pronounced at wide receiver. Voters looked at the passing explosion of the late 1970s and just assumed the fetal position. Six wide receivers have been inducted since 2000: Jerry Rice, Art Monk, Michael Irvin, James Lofton, Lynn Swann, and John Stallworth. That’s one guy who has no business in Canton but who had a lot Super Bowl rings (Stallworth), another guy with very dubious accomplishments but lots of rings (Swann), a guy with exceptional accomplishments and lots of rings who had to wait for some strange reason (Monk), a guy with exceptional accomplishments and rings, so we all just forgot what an awful human he was for several years (Irvin), a guy who belongs on Mount Olympus but also had rings (Rice), and Lofton. The backlog of highly qualified candidates now includes Carter, Andre Reed, and Tim Brown, soon to be joined by Marvin Harrison, Isaac Bruce and the whole Moss gang of troublemakers. If the voters are meting out space for receivers at a six-per-decade clip and considering multiple Super Bowl rings an entry requirement, we will soon reach a near-perfect state for voters in which the only correlation between the all-time receiving lists and the Hall is Jerry Rice.
1. Tony Gonzalez. You can see this one coming, can’t you? Gonzo already has plenty of deniers, people who suddenly claim they would take an old-fashioned blocking tight end like Bob Tucker over Gonzo any day. (Forget that Tucker was more of a receiver: the important thing is that old guys were better). The more amazing Gonzo’s accomplishments, the more ridiculously important blocking becomes for tight ends, and the weaker Gonzo’s reputation as a blocker gets. Also, amnesia sets in, so everyone forgets that the same things were said about Kellen Winslow, and that Winslow played 30 years ago, so the phenomenon of the "pumped up wide receiver" is not exactly new. When Gonzo retires, there will be serious columns written actually debating and questioning his Hall of Fame merits, by people who really earn paychecks from major media outlets as supposed experts in professional sports. Not just Jason Whitlock, mind you, but people who expect to be taken seriously.
In seven years or so, we will all be scratching our heads wondering how Gonzo failed to reach the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. The only thing that will keep us from giving up on the whole concept of the Hall of Fame completely is that the voters will finally let Carter in that year.
(If I can add a note: At some point the Hall of Fame is going to have to do something to deal with the backlog of qualified candidates. I think the first step is to end the practice of guaranteeing one Senior Committee candidate a place in the HOF, which limits the voting on recent players and coaches to five per year. Toss the Senior Committee candidates in with everyone else and pick six. Or, perhaps they want to consider raising that to seven or eight players per year. That's not ridiculous considering that we now have 32 teams with 22 "starters" apiece. -- Aaron Schatz)
Running Back Top Fives
Last year’s Quarterback Top Five countdowns were a rousing success. They provoked a lot of nostalgia and some heated arguments, and they got us through the lockout by giving you something fun to read and me something easy to write.
There’s no lockout this year, but there are plenty of historical arguments left to enjoy. So Walkthrough will be counting down the Top Five Running Backs in all 32 franchise histories over the coming months. We will start by setting the tone with one interesting, controversial team: the Redskins.
All of the Top Fives are based on each player’s record with the franchise in question, so John Riggins does not get credit for his performance with the Jets until the Jets countdown, when his Redskins accomplishments will be ignored. The lists are compiled with the help of the Pro Football Reference database, but the opinions are subjectively my own. When projecting across eras, I guess, and readers are encouraged to discuss how far off the mark some of those guesses are.
You get the idea. Let’s get rolling.
1. John Riggins
In 1982, John Riggins had the worst season an NFL player has ever had that was perceived as being a great season.
Riggins led the NFL with 177 carries in that strike-shortened year, averaging just under 20 carries per game. He gained just 553 yards, averaging 3.1 yards per carry. He scored just three touchdowns. He caught just 10 passes for 50 yards, providing no value as a receiver, and in fact he left the field on passing downs.
Riggins ran behind one of the greatest offensive lines in history in 1982. The Hogs were already nicknamed The Hogs, and while none of them had made the Pro Bowl yet in 1982, Jeff Bostic, Russ Grimm, and Joe Jacoby would make it in 1983, and we all know Pro Bowl berths often come a year or two late. Despite playing behind an exceptional line and typically getting 20-28 carries per game, Riggins rushed for over 100 yards just once in the regular season and put together a string of 28-for-70, 20-for-52, and 31-for-87 rushing performances.
That last 31-for-87 rushing day came in a 15-14 win over the Giants; Mark Moseley kicked three field goals in that game. Moseley set an accuracy record in 1982, converting 20-of-21 field goal attempts. Moseley was a 34-year-old straight-ahead kicker whose deep leg was shot. Luckily, 15 of his 21 attempts in 1982 came from inside of 40 yards. In the Giants game, Moseley kicked field goals of 20, 31, and 42 yards. He missed the extra point after the Redskins lone touchdown in that game, a 25-yard run by change-up back Joe Washington.
Moseley kicked four field goals to provide all of the Redskins scoring in a 12-7 win against the Cardinals the week before the Giants game. Moseley’s kicks traveled 32, 30, 24, and 20 yards. Riggins carried 26 times for 89 yards.
I brought up Moseley’s short field goals to underline a point about Riggins’ short-yardage running. As a power runner, Riggins was supposed to be able to pick up tough yardage around the goal line. But his three touchdowns, and the large number of short field goals Moseley converted, indicate that Riggins was not doing anything special in the red zone in 1982. While most Football Outsiders research suggests that goal-line conversion statistics are so volatile that they are meaningless, common sense says that an experienced power runner, with a group of budding All-Pros blocking for him, should be able to score enough goal-line touchdowns to keep his team from needing weekly 20-yard field goals. Riggins could not.
So Riggins was, in 1982, a power runner with no breakaway ability (his longest run was 19 yards), no receiving skills, and questionable value in short-yardage situations. He was also just two years removed from a long holdout in an era when holding out was one notch below Satanism in the minds of most fans and sportswriters, and he was outspoken to the point of being obnoxious. (This was before he started getting blasted at political events and insulting Supreme Court justices, but he was on his way). Yet he was one of the most popular players in the league and was universally considered one the central cogs in the newly-created Redskins machine, a more important element to their success than Joe Theismann, the young Art Monk, or the defense.
I watched the broadcast of Super Bowl XVII to confirm my childhood memories of how Riggins was perceived. "How will the Dolphins stop Riggins?" was the storyline before the kickoff. Dick Enberg told some charming stories of Riggins’ holdout and his Super Bowl Week behavior (he refused to dress appropriately for media events, for example) after one of the running back’s many three-to-four yard plunges into the line. Dolphins running back Andra Franklin finished second in the NFL in rushing (Riggins was 15th, Tony Dorsett led the league), and Enberg compared the two big backs at one point, noting that Riggins had a "kinda average" regular season. That moment of faint praise aside, Riggins was clearly preordained the star of the telecast, with the Hogs a surprising second.
Riggins did not have a "kinda average" regular season. He had, frankly, a terrible regular season. It was not perceived as such for a variety of reasons.
First, Riggins was much better in the playoffs, rushing for 119, 185, 140, and 166 yards in the tournament-format playoffs that ended the 1982 season. The regular season was so short, and the playoffs were so unusual, that Riggins managed to gain more yards in the playoffs than the regular season, and neither public perception nor professional opinion had a lot of time to breathe. Football reappeared about a week before Thanksgiving, then sprinted full speed into the Super Bowl in 1982. By the time anyone caught their breath, the Redskins were suddenly great, and Riggins was plowing out 185-yard games.
Second, the Redskins were using a totally new offense, with Riggins as the single setback behind a tight end and H-back who were constantly in motion. Joe Washington, who served as Riggins’ change-up back, did not play much in 1982, so Riggins was the Redskins’ only regular ball carrier. In the early 1980s, it was very rare for a team to use one running back almost exclusively, and it was almost unheard of for a team to reach the Super Bowl without an excellent running back. There was a sense that Riggins just had to be doing something good, just as there was a sense that Rex Grossman had to be doing something right when the Bears reached the Super Bowl a few years ago.
Third, Riggins was a great quote, and sportswriters love slow-footed, aging white guys because they remind us of ourselves. The "Rigginomics" nickname provided a cute hook, and Riggins had been with the Jets long enough to have supporters in the New York media. He was an easy guy to spin the "tough, determined" storyline around, even though most tough-determined guys would not announce that the reason they returned to the NFL after a year of "retirement" was because they were bored and broke.
So Riggins earned some accolades in the postseason, bore the unusual burden of being the NFL’s first "ace" back, and caught some breaks from writers and fans who thought he was a hoot. He also rarely fumbled, which had value, and he was almost impossible to drop for a loss, though it is hard to imagine many defenders getting into the backfield against the Hogs. The fact that he left the field in favor of Washington or Clarence Harmon in passing situations prevented him from padding his statistics with draw plays; the third-and-long draw was a very common strategy back then, and many speed backs racked up high per-carry averages by gaining eight yards on third-and-15. Riggins was gaining his 3.1 yards per carry by literally running about ten feet every time he touched the ball, so he was at least consistent.
Still, watch Super Bowl XVII, and you will see the Hogs drive the Killer B’s back four yards at the snap, with Riggins gaining four yards. You will see him get the ball on second-and-4, then again on third-and-1 for a one-yard gain. You will see him stopped on a third-down conversion in the first quarter that leads to a short Moseley field goal. You will also see him break the game open with a long touchdown on a fourth-down conversion, of course, and you will see some things that surprise you, like a 15-yard scamper on a screen pass. But Riggins had accumulated just 49 (on 15 carries) before halftime, and it’s hard not to think that Franklin would have had 70 yards given the same blocking, or that Dorsett would already have two touchdowns. You are watching Brandon Jacobs, not an all-time great. And Super Bowl XVII was Riggins’ career-defining game.
Riggins was better in 1983, though again the perception was well out of whack with reality. His yards-per-attempt climbed to 3.6, and he started churning out 25-carry games every week, helping the Redskins chew clock in their easy victories. At the same time, his receiving value achieved absolute zero (he didn’t catch a pass after Week 8), and his 24 touchdowns were the residue of a great offense and a fetish for using him as the goal-line back. Riggins had ten touchdowns each of one or two yards. The Joe Gibbs offense blossomed in 1983, and Riggins is best thought of as the "dirty jobs" guy who finished drives and sat on 31-10 leads. Instead, those 24 touchdowns turned him into something of a living legend.
In 1984, Riggins again led the league in touchdowns but did not make the Pro Bowl; Eric Dickerson, Walter Payton, James Wilder and Wendell Tyler represented the NFC instead. The presence of Wilder and Tyler suggests that the world had caught on to the fact that anyone with two functioning knees could probably average 3.8 yards per carry behind the Hogs. The Redskins would soon put George Rodgers, then Earnest Byner in the backfield behind the Hogs. Both of them would have seasons which were more productive on a per-play basis than Riggins had in his glory seasons.
Okay, that was all very negative. So why is Riggins at the top of this list? First, there are his 1978 and 1979 pre-holdout seasons. Playing as a pure fullback in a two-back backfield, Riggins was very good in those years, rushing for over 1,000 yards each year and catching a total of 59 passes. These were Riggins’ best seasons with the Redskins (he also had some good ones with the Jets), but they are forgotten because the late-1970s Jack Pardee Redskins were nothing special.
Second, the 1983 season was a legitimate Pro Bowl season, if not the greatest achievement in NFL history, and 1984 was pretty good. The 1982 regular season was, as noted above, lipstick on a hippo, but Riggins’ performance in an unusual postseason needs to be considered. Riggins had two different Redskins careers, one as an unheralded fullback on a weak team, another as an over-heralded cult hero on an outstanding team. Put them together, and he beats the No. 2 player on this list by a hair.
Riggins reached the Hall of Fame in his second year of eligibility, and no one blinked at his acceptance. He certainly met the "fame" criteria; he was one of the two or three most well-known players in the NFL from 1982 to 1985. The Super Bowl touchdown and the 24-touchdown season were bulwarked by 11,000 rushing yards, many of them accumulated before he became a household name. He was one of a generation of players whose careers came together at the start of the 16-game season era and the offensive Big Bang of 1978. His best seasons came at exactly the time when it became hard to gauge what a great series of seasons was going to look like, and he retired with numbers that appeared historic but are now the province of Corey Dillon-types.
Riggins belongs in a category with players like John Stallworth: good players on outstanding teams in unique circumstances. If he were on my roster, I would find some role for him. But if he were gaining less than four yards per carry while the Hogs blocked and Monk streaked down the sideline, there is no way he would be my starter.
2. Larry Brown
Brown was one of the best running backs in the NFL from 1971 through 1973. He was a 195-pound halfback who could run inside or outside and was very effective as a receiver, typically catching over 30 passes and averaging more than 10 yards per catch in his best seasons. Brown had over 300 touches in 1972 and 1973, and the workload did him in: By 1974 he was down to 2.6 yards per carry, though he still contributed as a receiver. He was toast by age 29.
The Larry Brown of the early 70s was a far superior player to John Riggins of the early 1980s; again, Riggins ranks higher because of his longer productive career with the Redskins, and because of some outstanding postseason performances. As we work through these lists, career lengths will be graded on a curve, because knee surgery was like a nine-year-old cutting a flank steak until the 1980s, and the salary differential between running back and insurance salesman was shockingly slim until about the same time. It is important to note in this case that Brown and Riggins were near contemporaries; when Brown was having an MVP season in 1972, Riggo was rushing for 944 yards for the Jets. (They were teammates in 1976.) Under the circumstances, Riggins’ longevity should count for something.
3. Cliff Battles
The predominant offense of the 1930s was the single wing. We could go on for a few thousand words about the single wing, and I would make a bunch of errors and oversimplifications in the process. It’s easier to think of the scheme as a Wildcat that you are forced to use for every snap. There was a tailback, something akin to Tim Tebow circa Week 12, and a fullback, who we would really think of as a running back. There was also a blocking back or "quarterback," who was more like our modern H-back, and a wingback who was kind of like Hines Ward: he could catch passes, but being a nasty blocker on sweeps was also a big part of his job, and he took handoffs on reverse-type plays. The terminology alone can give you a headache because roles are precisely juggled from where they are now, and many sources "correct" the labels by calling the single wing tailback a "quarterback" and so on.
Cliff Battles was a single-wing tailback early in his career, meaning he lined up as a modern shotgun quarterback, though single-wing centers often snapped to other players, including the fullback, "quarterback," or motioning wingback. (Feel free to scream.) Anyway, Battles finished second in the NFL by rushing for 737 yards in 1933. Teammate Jim Musick finished first with 809 yards. The pair also completed 16-of-57 passes for 216 yards, zero touchdowns, and 17 interceptions, proving that Rex Grossman and John Beck really weren’t the worst passing tandem in Redskins history. At any rate, Battles was also among the NFL’s leading receivers with 11 catches. The Redskins were a pretty good 5-5-2 team, and Battles was one of the two guys who supplied all of their offense.
A few years later, Ray Flaherty took over as the Redskins coach, and Sammy Baugh took over at tailback, with Battles moving to fullback. Flaherty was an early-NFL innovator who is often credited with inventing the screen pass. He also used more "double wing" formations, so his Redskins looked a little more like a modern shotgun team than a Wildcat team. Baugh, of course, became the first modern quarterback, but when he was a rookie, the Redskins offense still funneled through Battles, who had a whopping 216 carries and led the league in rushing in 1937.
Battles then asked for a raise; depending on the source, he asked for as little as $250 dollars more (Baugh’s version) or expected to make $10,000 (George Marshall’s story). Marshall, who was a classic owner from the "wonderful old days" (stingy, short-sighted, resentful, racist) refused to pay, and essentially blackballed Battles, who knocked around as a coach, served in the Marines, and eventually entered the private sector.
Battles is a Hall of Famer, and the first of the ancient era players that we will encounter on our adventure. There will be more. When we ranked quarterbacks, it was hard to venture back before 1950 for all but a handful of players, but we will come face-to-face with Bronko Nagurski, Tuffy Leemans, and others in the weeks to come. We have a fighting chance of comparing 1930s rushing statistics to 1975 statistics and modern numbers, something that is impossible at every other position on the field. That said, Battles played for the Boston Braves against the Staten Island Stapletons, so we don’t want to get too carried away. Battles appears to have been a Larry Brown of his era, a versatile speed back who was considered one of the best players in the NFL for a few seasons. Putting him next to Brown feels right.
Like Riggins, Portis was outspoken and eccentric to a point where it might have been detrimental to the team, but because his shtick was rather funny and his on-field effort was excellent, he got a lot of benefit of the doubt. Washington writers have a high tomfoolery threshold; it must come from being close to the capital.
Our metrics were usually kind to Portis, who lost his big-play ability soon after arrival in Washington but became a dependable grinder who could contribute in the passing game and was one of the best pass protectors of his era. Portis suffered through the Second Coming of Gibbs and the brief Jim Zorn disaster, and became one of the symbols of the perpetual suffering that Dan Snyder has caused. Portis and Snyder were also notoriously close, and it is not clear just how much influence Portis had in his role as unofficial assistant GM. He had to deal with any damage he caused off the field once he stepped on the field, so Portis deserves more benefit of the doubt than, say, Vinny Cerrato deserves.
By the early 1990s, the Gibbs offense had evolved into a three-wideout attack. The Riggins-type rusher, now played by Gerald Riggs, was clearly the No. 2 back, used in power situations. The No. 1 back had become an all-purpose featured back who could run inside and out, as well as catch passes. Earnest Byner filled that role for five seasons, including 1991, when the Redskins had one of the best offenses in the NFL.
Byner narrowly edges Stephen Davis for this list. Davis was a hard working thumper for the late-era Norv Turner teams. As Turner running backs often are, Davis was very productive, and the teams he played for had not yet flown off to planet Danny Boy. When Marty Schottenheimer arrived, he decided to get three or four years worth of carries out of Davis in one season. Then Steve Spurrier set about to prove that the NFL was just like Gainesville and marginalized Davis so he could see more of the Shane Matthews-to-Chris Doering pass combination, entrenching the cycle of guru worship and disappointment that now defines Redskins football.
Davis may well deserve to rank above Byner; it’s a close call, and I admit I am just favoring a player whom I liked when he played for the Browns and who once killed the Eagles in a playoff game.
Terry Allen also deserves honorable mention; he had a pair of very productive seasons under Turner, scoring 21 touchdowns in 1996. The 1996 Redskins completely Norved in the second half of the season, going 2-6 to finish the year and losing a bunch of 21-10 type games, but Allen tooted along and ended with 347 carries. Allen was very good, but it is hard not to react at those events from 15 years ago with the shock that it is still going on, both for the Redskins and for Turner-coached teams.
Joe Washington, as mentioned several times earlier, was the dynamic change-up to Riggins. George Rodgers was a college football superstar who arrived from the Saints after a few productive seasons, some injuries, and a bout with drugs. I will not go so far as to say that either or both were better than Riggins at any one time. I can only suggest that a long look at their stats and accomplishments, compared to Riggins’, are enough to make anyone question just how much credit was misapplied during the early Gibbs tenure.
Next time: we will start working through the rest of the NFC East, and try to keep it under 1,500 words per player!