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Curtis Martin and Terrell Davis

Posted by Doug on November 6, 2006

Curtis Martin announced last week that he is done for this season, and quite possibly for his career. About a week prior to that, the list of newly-eligible Hall of Fame candidates was released. These two events have a lot of people talking about Martin's career and, since Terrell Davis is a new eligible, about Davis' career as well.

I wrote awhile back that Hall of Fame debates don't interest me much, and they still don't. But general discussion of the merits of certain players' careers does interest me. So, while I won't spend much time worrying about whether both, neither, one, or the other should or will end up in Canton, I am interested in the general debate about the relative merits of Martin's long solid career versus Davis' short, brilliant one.

In this post about Jimmy Smith, I invented a quick-and-easy stat called Yards Over 1000 to measure a player's career value. We compute it by counting career yards, but that catch is that the only yards that count are the yards you get over and above 1000 in a season. A 600-yard season, a 100-yard season, and a 999-yard season all count the same: zero. The idea is that you get credit only for doing something above and beyond the ordinary, and anything less than a thousand yards is somewhat pedestrian (at least if we're trying to sort out the all-time greats, as we usually are when these sorts of discussions arise).

One problem with this is that a thousand 2005 yards are much different from a thousand 1976 yards --- especially receiving. We can correct both this by switching from Yards Over 1000 to Yards Over #10. Instead of counting yards over 1000, we'll count yards over the #10 rusher (or receiver, or passer, or whatever) of the given season. In 1996 for instance, the #10 rusher, Anthony Johnson, notched 1120 yards. Curtis Martin had 1152, so he gets credited with 32 Yards Over #10. Terrell Davis' 1538 rushing yards count for 418 Yards Over #10. Anyone under 1120 gets a zero.

Why make #10 the baseline? No good reason. Fifteen or 12 or 8 would be reasonable choices too, depending on what you think "above and beyond the ordinary" means.

Here are the top rushers in Yards Over #10. The list includes all players who debuted in 1970 or later. Before I post it, let me clearly state that this is NOT My Running Back Rankings. It doesn't take into account blocking, receiving, or even rushing touchdowns. And it doesn't take into account the offensive lines, quarterbacks, and coaching staffs these guys played with and for. It's just a simple way to try to measure rushing (yardage) outstandingness. The goal is not to create a definitive set of rankings. It's to create a list that makes us think a little bit. Here it is:

Player YardsOver#10
Barry Sanders 4723
Walter Payton 4461
Eric Dickerson 4074
Emmitt Smith 3307
Earl Campbell 2419
Thurman Thomas 1864
Terrell Davis 1846
Tony Dorsett 1696
Curtis Martin 1563
Gerald Riggs 1478
Edgerrin James 1327
Ottis Anderson 1323
Jerome Bettis 1314
Shaun Alexander 1280
Tiki Barber 1133
Curt Warner 1114
LaDainian Tomlinson 1093
Franco Harris 1038
William Andrews 999
Eddie George 903
Joe Morris 903
Lawrence McCutcheon 890
George Rogers 853
Wilbert Montgomery 851
Chris Warren 820
Clinton Portis 776
Marshall Faulk 765
Marcus Allen 756
Jamal Lewis 756
Billy Sims 750
Priest Holmes 701
Ahman Green 692
Lydell Mitchell 690
Corey Dillon 656

First, note that the list generally matches up with what most people believe a list of top rushers ought to look like. Next, it's worth remarking that Earl Campbell's short brilliant career ranks high, but so does Tony Dorsett's long solid career. There doesn't seem to be much of a bias toward one type of career over another. Of course, the relative merits of each type of career is subjective, so bias would be in the eye of the beholder anyway. What I'm saying is that I think this system does a decent job of balancing greatness and longevity. Truly great seasons are rewarded appropriately. Longevity is also rewarded appropriately, but compiling useless numbers is not.

Now, as far as Martin and Davis are concerned, they were both great and, as far as I'm concerned, roughly equally great. Looking at Scrimmage Yards Over #10 (instead of Rushing Yards) puts a little distance between Davis and Martin:

Player YardsOver#10
Walter Payton 4554
Barry Sanders 4234
Eric Dickerson 3219
Marshall Faulk 3147
Thurman Thomas 2979
Emmitt Smith 2923
LaDainian Tomlinson 2003
Tiki Barber 1958
Edgerrin James 1922
Terrell Davis 1805
Lydell Mitchell 1771
William Andrews 1745
Marcus Allen 1597
Priest Holmes 1580
Tony Dorsett 1536
Roger Craig 1527
Ottis Anderson 1512
Chuck Foreman 1465
Herschel Walker 1363
Curtis Martin 1294
Ricky Watters 1247
Earl Campbell 1105
Ahman Green 1010
Lawrence McCutcheon 1009
Billy Sims 1003

On the other hand, looking at Scrimmage Yards Over #15 (instead of #10) puts Curtis in the lead:

Player YardsOver#15
Walter Payton 6162
Barry Sanders 5221
Eric Dickerson 3883
Marshall Faulk 3870
Emmitt Smith 3709
Thurman Thomas 3611
Tony Dorsett 2760
LaDainian Tomlinson 2731
Tiki Barber 2621
Lydell Mitchell 2456
Edgerrin James 2435
William Andrews 2400
Ottis Anderson 2252
Curtis Martin 2179
Marcus Allen 2145
Roger Craig 2104
Chuck Foreman 2098
Terrell Davis 2056
Ricky Watters 2007
Priest Holmes 1989
Earl Campbell 1885
Herschel Walker 1780
Lawrence McCutcheon 1698
Billy Sims 1545
Wilbert Montgomery 1444
Ahman Green 1428
Shaun Alexander 1423
Franco Harris 1297
Eddie George 1236
Gerald Riggs 1166
Otis Armstrong 1165
Ricky Williams 1118
James Wilder 1093
Curt Warner 1079
Jerome Bettis 1077