Hall of Fame Running Backs: Who is Worthy of Gold Jacket?

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 05, 2012

The National Football League recently announced it's 27 semi-finalists for the 2013 Hall of Fame class. The list will be pared down to 15 finalists in January and the selection committee will announce the newest members on Super Bowl weekend. 

Worth noting this year is there are zero skill-position players among the six first-time nominees. They are Larry Allen, OL; Morten Andersen, K; John Lynch, FS; Jonathan Ogden, T;Warren Sapp, DT; Michael Strahan, DE.

Quarterbacks are missing altogether from the 2013 ballot, with none of the 21 players on the list having played "the most important position in all of sport". The truth is that there aren't really any Hall-eligible quarterbacks this year who really deserve induction, although Ron Jaworski and Phil Simms (legends in their own minds) would probably disagree.

There are just six primarily skill position players on this year's ballot; three running backs (Roger Craig, Terrell Davis, Jerome Bettis) and three wide receivers (Tim Brown, Cris Carter, Andre Reed).

The five non-player semi-finalists are former coaches Don Coryell and Bill Parcells, former owners Eddie Debartalo, Jr. and Art Modell, and former NFL contributor George Young.

Here are the rest of the 2013 Semi-Finalists:

Steve Atwater, S
Kevin Greene, LB/DE
Charles Haley, LB/DE
Joe Jacoby, T
Albert Lewis, CB
John Lynch, FS
Karl Mecklenburg, LB
Will Shields, G
Steve Tasker, ST/WR
Aeneas Williams, CB/S

There will no doubt be new Hall of Fame members from the" down-and-dirty" football positions once again this year with all of the lineman, defensive backs, and even a kicker comprising the majority of the field. As usual, however, most of the debate that clogs the airwaves and fills columns will still center around the skilled guys.

What Defines a Modern Era Hall of Fame Running Back?

Focusing on the running backs, Terrell Davis is a semi-finalist for the seventh consecutive year and he's joined by running backs Roger Craig and Jerome Bettis. Craig was a finalist in 2010 and Bettis has made it to the final round the past two years.

We're going to breakdown the twelve modern running backs that are already in Canton (career began after 1970 merger) along with Davis, Bettis, and Craig to see who, if any, of this year's running back crop deserves to get a gold jacket.

First, let's take a look at the twelve modern era running backs that are already enshrined to see what it takes to become immortal:

Modern Era Hall of Fame Running Back Career Statistics

NameYears PlayedGames PlayedRush YdsRY/ARush TDTotal YdsTotal TDTotal Yds/Game
John Riggins1971-198517511,3523.8910413,44211676.8
Franco Harris1972-198417312,1204.119114,40710083.3
Walter Payton1975-198719016,7264.3611021,264125111.9
Tony Dorsett1977-198817312,7394.347716,2939094.2
Earl Campbell1978-19851159,4074.307410,2137488.8
Marcus Allen1982-199722212,2434.0512317,65414479.5
Eric Dickerson1983-199314613,2594.439015,39696105.5
Thurman Thomas1988-200018212,0744.206516,5328890.8
Barry Sanders1989-199815315,2694.999918,190109118.9
Emmitt Smith1990-200422618,3554.1616421,57917595.5
Marshall Faulk1994-200517612,2794.3310019,154136108.8
Curtis Martin1995-200516814,1014.019017,430100103.8
  • The dozen Hall of Famers have an average of 175 games played, 13,327 career Rushing Yards, and 99 career Rushing Touchdowns. All twelve have at least 10,000 yards from scrimmage and 74 combined touchdowns.
  • Five of the twelve averaged more than 100 combined yards per game and only two (John Riggins, Marcus Allen) averaged less than 80 yards per game.
  • Exactly half of the running backs averaged more than 4.3 RY/A for their careers and only Riggins averaged less than 4.0.

Here are the same statistics for the three semi-finalist running backs:

NameYears PlayedGames PlayedRush YdsRY/ARush TDTotal YdsTotal TDTotal Yds/Game
Roger Craig1983-19931658,1894.115613,1007379.4
Jerome Bettis1993-200519213,6623.939115,1119478.7
Terrell Davis1995-2001787,6074.60608,88765113.9
  • Terrell Davis falls well short in the career marks having played 37 less games than Earl Campbell, but his 4.6 RY/A and 113.9 Total Yds per Game rank higher than every HOF'er except for Barry Sanders. However, Davis would be the only "modern era" running back in the Hall of Fame with less than 10,000 yards from scrimmage.
  •  Jerome Bettis would join nine of the current HOF'ers with over 15,000 Total Yards but he and Craig both averaged less than 80 Total Yards per game, well below the benchmark. Bettis would also join John Riggins as the only running backs that had a career average under 4.0.
  •  Roger Craig would join Marshall Faulk and Marcus Allen as the only HOF running backs with 500+ Receptions and 4,000 Receiving Yards.


Now let's take a deeper look, this time at accolades and milestones, which must be part of the equation when deeming someone Hall of Fame Worthy:

NameSeasons Played
League MVP
1st Team All-Pro
Pro Bowls
1,500 Yd Rush
2,000 Total Yds
15+ Total TDSuper Bowl WinsSuper Bowl MVP
John Riggins1401100111
Franco Harris1301900041
Walter Payton1315944210
Tony Dorsett1201410010
Earl Campbell813520100
Marcus Allen1612611211
Eric Dickerson1105644200
Thurman Thomas1315202000
Barry Sanders10161052200
Emmitt Smith1514832531
Marshall Faulk1213704210
Curtis Martin1101520200

  • Seven of the twelve Hall of Famers were League MVPs, four were Super Bowl MVPs. Only Emmitt Smith did both.
  • All twelve were First Team All-Pro at least once with seven of them doing it three or more times.
  • Only John Riggins and Thurman Thomas were not selected to at least three Pro Bowls.
  • Six of the twelve had multiple seasons exceeding 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Only Eric Dickerson (1984) and Barry Sanders (1997) had 2,000 yard rushing seasons.
  • Seven of the twelve won a Super Bowl with Franco Harris (4) and Emmitt Smith (3) the only ones with multiple rings.


 Now for the prospective bustees:


NameSeasons Played
League MVP
1st Team All-Pro
Pro Bowls1,500 Yd Rush
2,000 Total Yds
15+ Total TD
Super Bowl WinsSuper Bowl MVP
Roger Craig1101412130
Jerome Bettis1302610010
Terrell Davis713332321
  • Terrell Davis won a League MVP and was the just the fourth player in league history to have a 2,000 yard rushing season in 1998 (Jamal Lewis & Chris Johnson have done it since). He was also a First Team All-Pro three times in addition to being a two-time Super Bowl Champion and Super Bowl XXXII MVP.
  • Jerome Bettis made six Pro Bowls but had just one season where he topped 1,500 rushing yards and never scored 15 touchdowns in a season.
  • Roger Craig won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers and had two seasons with over 2,000 yards from scrimmage but was a First Team All-Pro just once.


More Important: Longevity or Productivity?

All three semi-finalist running backs have compelling arguments for and against induction based on the criteria above. Terrell Davis lacked durability and longevity and benefited from Alex Gibbs' revolutionary "zone blocking" scheme that made superstars out of guys like Mike Anderson and Olandis Gary. 

Jerome Bettis was a "Three yards and a cloud of dust" back, and Roger Craig was a dual threat but never dominated the league and many would say was a product of Bill Walsh's then-groundbreaking West Coast Offense.

Let's take it one step further.

We took a look at all 15 running backs most productive three seasons, or "High Three" as we'll refer to them. Here's how the prospective candidates stack up:

"High 3" Running Back Seasons, Sorted by Total Yards Per Game

NameHigh 3 Years
Games PlayedRush YdsRY/ARush TDTotal Yds (Ru+Rec)
Total TDTotal Yds/Game
Marshall Faulk
Eric Dickerson
Walter Payton
Terrell Davis
Barry Sanders
Emmitt Smith
Thurman Thomas
Marcus Allen
Roger Craig
Curtis Martin
Earl Campbell
Tony Dorsett

Jerome Bettis

Franco Harris1975,'77,'79433,5944.34324,1613496.8
John Riggins1979,'83-'84453,7393.89473,9745088.3


  • Terrell Davis joins Marshall Faulk, Eric Dickerson, and Walter Payton as the only backs to average at least 130 Total Yards Per Game in their best three year span.
  • Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk are the only backs with at least 200 Receptions and 2,000 Receiving Yards in their high three.
  • Davis joins Faulk, Emmitt Smith, and John Riggins as the only backs to average more than one touchdown per game in thier high three.
  • Davis' 4.79 RY/A is surpassed only by Barry Sanders (5.64), Faulk (5.38), Dickerson (4.89) and Earl Campbell (4.87)
  • Jerome Bettis is eighth on this list in Rushing yards (4,525), RY/A (4.58) and 13th in Total Yards (5,001) and Yards Per Game (106.4) for his high three.

By this criteria it is hard to deny that Davis has a strong case for enshrinement. Between 1996-1998 he was the most dominant skill position player in the NFL while his Denver Broncos compiled a 39-9 (.813) regular season record and back-to-back Super Bowl Titles (XXXII & XXXIII).


Post-Season: Does it Carry Same Weight for Running Backs as it does for Quarterbacks?

Football players, especially quarterbacks, have long been judged on their post-season performance and ability to lead their teams to championships. Terry Bradshaw's numbers pale in comparison to guys like Ken Anderson, but Bradshaw's four Super Bowl titles made him a no-brainer Hall of Famer.

Its hard to argue that a running back is more important to overall team success than a quarterback, but mos,t if not al,l of the 15 running backs we're evaluating were the focal point of their offenses for much of their careers.

Let's take a look at the playoff numbers of all 15 backs to see if the scales tip in favor or against our perspective enshrinees.

Career Playoff Statistics, Sorted by Total Yards Per Game

NamePlayoff GamesRush YdsRY/ARush TDsTotal YdsTotal TDsTotal Yds/ GameTDs/Game
Terrell Davis
Marcus Allen161,3475.04111,87713117.30.81
Eric Dickerson77244.8938154116.40.57
John Riggins99963.97121,04112115.71.33
Emmitt Smith171,5864.54191,92821113.41.24
Curtis Martin107954.3781,1008110.00.80
Franco Harris191,5563.89162,06017108.40.89
Tony Dorsett171,3834.5891,78610105.10.59
Thurman Thomas211,4424.25162,11421100.71.00
Marshall Faulk126023.6561,121893.40.67
Walter Payton96323.512810290.00.22
Barry Sanders63864.241497182.80.17
Roger Craig188414.0471,447980.40.50
Earl Campbell64203.114465477.50.67
Jerome Bettis146743.399731952.20.64
  • Terrell Davis tops the list along with Marcus Allen as the only two backs to average more than 5.0 RY/A in their post-season careers.  Davis' 5.59 RY/A is nearly a full yard higher than his career regular season average and his 158.9 Total Yards Per Game exceeds his regular season average by 45 Yds/Game.
  • Davis' 1.5 Touchdowns per game also tops the list. Only John Riggins (1.33), Emmitt Smith (1.24) and Thurman Thomas (1.0) averaged a touchdown or better per playoff game.
  • Roger Craig's post-season Total Yards/Game (80.4) and Touchdowns/Game (0.50) nearly mirror his regular season averages of 79.4 and 0.44. 
  • Jerome Bettis averaged 26.5 less Total Yards Per Game in the playoffs than he did in the regular season but scored slightly more often in the post-season (0.64 TDs/Game to 0.49 TDs/Game in regular season).


Who Should Get a Gold Jacket?

I don't currently have a seat on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection board, but after looking at the complete picture the above data provides, it is clear that the next running back to don a gold jacket should be Terrell Davis.

Davis' career was cut short thanks to a blown-out knee he suffered when making a tackle after a Brian Griese interception just four games into his first season post-Elway. He attempted two comebacks but only played in 13 more games after 1999.

The biggest knock on Davis is his the longevity of his career, but taking a look at how dominant he was over his best three years shows he was truly an elite running back during an era that had more than a few of them. Not having 10,000 career yards and less than 100 career games leaves Davis with a far smaller body of work than any of his contemporaries.

Offsetting the low career numbers are Davis' extraordinary post-season statistics, where he blows away every current and prospective member on our list when it comes to game averages and scoring. Once again, the only member of our "modern era" running back panel besides Davis to win a regular season MVP and Super Bowl MVP is Emmitt Smith.

As for Roger Craig and Jerome Bettis, both probably belong in the Hall of Honorable Mentions but aren't quite Canton material. Bettis was always a fan favorite and will likely make it because of the Hall of Fame's love for Pittsburgh Steelers, but his numbers don't really warrant it.

Craig was a pass catching running back pioneer, but was very much a product of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense and had the benefit of lining up behind Joe Montana for the meat of his career. His numbers don't compare favorably to Marcus Allen or Marshall Faulk, both similar to Craig in ability.

The bottom line is Terrell Davis deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, Roger Craig and Jerome Bettis do not. At least not this year.





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