Bo didn't do diddly

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Mar 23, 2005



By Cold, Hard Football Facts senior writer John Dudley

Not many athletes ascend to the elite level of being known by just one name. While self-dubbed performers like Bono, Pink and Sting litter the entertainment landscape, the sports world generally reserves rarified single-moniker status for those of singular accomplishment.

The short list in football, however, includes a gifted physical talent who underachieved on the field but benefited from one of the most relentless hype machines in history off the field. Born Vincent Jackson, this athlete became a two-sport "star" and a household name, partly due to a long-running ad campaign from Nike.

Of course you know "Bo." But do you know the Cold, Hard Football Facts about his NFL career? Probably not.

Mention Bo to casual, media-bludgeoned fans, and most of them depict a glorious football career that was tragically cut short by a hip injury. They remember his two spectacular touchdown runs of more than 90 yards, a career record which still stands (though was tied in 2004 by Green Bay's Ahman Green). They gleefully recall the 1987 Monday Night Football game when he steamrolled Seattle and turned Brian Bosworth into end-zone roadkill. These make for happy memories, like marshmallow Peeps and Easter bunnies.

But the Cold, Hard Football Facts are not quite as cuddly:

  • Jackson never rushed for 1,000 yards in a season.
  • Jackson never rushed for more than five touchdowns in a season, and he reached that plateau only once (1990).
  • Jackson never finished in the top 10 in a season in any major statistical category for running backs.
  • Jackson never played more than 11 games in a season.

Some would counter that playing professional baseball prevented Jackson (a .250 hitter in eight MLB seasons) from having a more impressive football résumé. But that's precisely the point. The argument is not whether Bo had the potential to be a great football player. He clearly possessed special abilities. But his NFL career is simply a story of what could have been. If your aunt was born with different equipment, she could have been your uncle. And if Bo had donned his football equipment more often, he could have been great. But he did not. And was not.

Jackson played just four seasons. Since the AFL and NFL shared their first common draft in 1967, Jackson has the dubious distinction of the shortest career of any top overall pick. Ironically, the two No. 1 selections with the longest careers during that time were drafted in the years immediately before and after Jackson ('86). Bruce Smith ('85) played his 19th and final season in 2003. Vinny Testaverde ('87) is planning to return for his 19th season later this year.

Jackson and Testaverde were both drafted by Tampa Bay. Testaverde has made twice as many Pro Bowls as Jackson (two to one). He ranks in the all-time top 10 in the four major categories for his position (sixth in attempts, completions and yards, and eighth in touchdown passes). Yet, outside of the Testaverde family and maybe some others whose last name ends in a vowel, how many people would make a case that he's a better football player than Bo?

Of course, those are apples and oranges. Let's compare Jackson to his peers: the six other running backs taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the 38 years since the common AFL-NFL draft began in 1967.

Here's how Bo's best year stacks up against the best years of these other No. 1 picks:
 
Player
Games
Attempts
Yards
Average
TDs
O.J. Simpson ('73)
14
332
2,003
6.0
12
Ricky Bell ('79)
16
283
1,263
4.5
7
Earl Campbell ('80)
15
373
1,934
5.2
13
Billy Sims ('81)
14
296
1,437
4.9
13
George Rogers ('81)
15
378
1,674
4.4
13
Bo Jackson ('89)
11
173
950
5.5
4
Ki-Jana Carter ('97)
15
128
464
3.6
7
 
When we look at career numbers, it's even worse for Bo:
 
Player
Games
Attempts
Yards
Average
TDs
Simpson ('69-'79)
135
2,404
11,236
4.7
61
Bell ('77-'82)
64
822
3,063
3.7
16
Campbell ('78-'85)
115
2,187
9,407
4.3
74
Sims ('80-'84)
60
1,131
5,106
4.5
42
Rogers ('81-'87)
91
1,692
7,176
4.2
54
Jackson ('87-'90)
38
515
2,782
5.4
16
Carter ('95-'04)
59
319
1,144
3.6
20
 
Jackson's potential can be seen in his sterling average per carry. But generally speaking his stats are closest to Bell's, who had the misfortune of being taken by the expansion Buccaneers right after their winless inaugural season. Bell struggled on a talent-deprived team that went 7-23 in his first two years before registering his one dominant season (1979), when he led Tampa Bay to the NFC championship game.

Simpson, Campbell, Sims and Rogers, meanwhile, each surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing mark at least three times and had multiple seasons of double-digit touchdowns.

Carter is an interesting case. He tore the ACL in his left knee before playing a meaningful NFL game. The preseason injury cost him his entire rookie campaign with Cincinnati. He never fully recovered. Jackson, on the other hand, didn't sustain his serious injury until a playoff game following his fourth year in the league. Still, Carter has scored more career touchdowns than Bo, and even made a token appearance with New Orleans this past season, his 10th on an NFL roster.

As the 2005 NFL draft approaches, it is interesting to note how Jackson's failure to meet the standards set by his predecessors may have impacted the way teams make the first pick.

In the 20 drafts from 1967 to 1986, five running backs were taken with the No. 1 pick. In the 18 drafts since, only one running back (Carter) was taken with the top pick. When you look at busts like Jackson and Carter, you can see why GMs might be a little gun-shy on draft day when it comes time to target ballcarriers.

Of course, Cold, Hard Football Facts are not always enough to satisfy the warped, misinformed and opinionated. Jackson toadies, for example, are quick to cite those two runs of more than 90 yards. But consider the quality of teams Jackson scored against:

  • The 1989 Bengals allowed a league-worst 4.49 yards per carry when Bo took one 92 yards for a score.
  • The 1987 Seahawks allowed a league-worst 4.66 yards per carry when Bo took one 91 yards for a score and lit them up for 221 rushing yards and two more touchdowns.

The Jackson sycophants also delight in recounting how Bo demolished Bosworth on the way to a score in that 1987 Seattle game. But they tend to forget that "the Boz" was a cardboard cutout masquerading as a linebacker. Note Bosworth's 24-game, four-sack "career." Larry Izzo, all 5 feet, 10 inches of him, is a more fearsome NFL linebacker than Bosworth ever was.

The truth is that memorable moments from Bo's playing days were all too infrequent and that a few highlight-reel runs simply do not equal NFL greatness. The truth is that Jackson flattened a pseudo-linebacker who couldn't tackle and had two long runs against defenses that ranked dead last in yards per rush. The truth is that nothing disrupts the open field of perception quite like a violent, rib-cracking helmet to the gut delivered by the Cold, Hard Football Facts.

The truth might be jarring to the unenlightened, but you can be sure of one thing: Bo knows.


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