Posted by Chase Stuart on December 21, 2009
Reminder: the deadline to enter the P-F-R College Bowl Pool contest is tomorrow.
This past summer I set out to determine which running backs were the most statistically dominant in NFL history. Terrell Davis ranked as the 13th most dominant RB in regular season history, and when combined his superior post-season stats, the 8th most dominant RB overall. The other nine RBs in the top ten all are in the Hall of Fame or will be five years after they retire. Davis is a semifinalist for the fourth straight season since first becoming eligible, but he has never advanced past this stage. Davis is perhaps the most interesting player to analyze in this year's class. There are no QBs eligible for induction, and quarterbacks are the only players for whom more individual statistics are recorded than running backs. There's only one other eligible RB and he's a slam dunk. Davis has the rings and the hardware, typically all you need at the glamour positions to make the Hall. Marcus Allen and Emmitt Smith are the only other running backs with both an MVP from the Associated Press and a Super Bowl MVP. Yet, most NFL fans don't think Davis should be inducted. Why?
The common answer is that Davis' career was too short. Four great seasons does not a Hall of Famer make, or something like that. But consider the heights Davis reached: I ranked his 1998 season as the single greatest season any running back has ever had; he broke his own single-season record for most rushing yards gained in a regular and postseason combined. He already had the record because his 1997 season also ranks among the best five ever by a RB; he's the only player to ever rush for 2300 yards (including playoffs) in a season, and he's done it twice. Davis didn't have four great seasons and nothing else; he had two of the greatest seasons in NFL history, another excellent season, a very good year and another solid season. It's not the greatest Hall of Fame profile I've ever seen, but it seems as though Davis is held to a higher standard than other running backs.
From 1996 to 1998, Davis ranked in the top three in rushing yards and rushing TDs every year; that gives him six top-three finishes in those categories for his career. Marcus Allen and Tony Dorsett? Five each. Franco Harris? Four. John Riggins? Three. Larry Csonka? Two. Those last three -- Harris, Riggins and Csonka -- all won Super Bowl MVPs, and I've got no doubt that they don't all end up in Canton without those performances. But if carrying teams to titles got those guys into the HOF, why won't it work for Davis?
Probably because those guys also strung together a bunch of mediocre seasons. When Csonka retired, he ranked 6th in career rushing yards and 7th in career rushing touchdowns, and everyone in the top ten in rushing through that season wound up in the Hall of Fame. When Harris retired, he was third in both rushing yards and rushing scores. When Riggo hung 'em up, he was 4th in career rushing yards and trailed only Jim Brown in rushing touchdowns. TD? He retired as just the 30th leading rusher in NFL history, and was only 28th in rushing touchdowns.
But Davis was so dominant during his prime that he accomplished more in four seasons than most runners do in their whole careers. Occasionally, P-F-R writers calculate a stat called "yards over 1,000 rush yards" to measure RB dominance; all seasons with fewer than 1,000 rushing yards are eliminated, and the first 1,000 yards of every other season are subtracted from the total. So a 1200 yard season is worth half as much as a 1400-yard season. In this metric, Davis ranks 14th all-time, and ahead of such compilers as Jerome Bettis, Jamal Lewis, Corey Dillon, Fred Taylor and Eddie George.
Davis is also one of just 11 running backs with three 1500+ rushing yards seasons. He won two AP offensive player of the year awards, in addition to his one MVP and one SB MVP. Consider the list of other players with multiple AP OPOY awards: Marshall Faulk (3), Earl Campbell (3), Barry Sanders and Jerry Rice. If not for Sanders' 2,000 yard season in '97, Davis almost certainly would have finished his career with three AP OPOY awards.
Davis' statistical dominance is beyond reproach. That leaves just two questions. One of them concerns his longevity, or lack thereof. The common comparison cited for Davis is Gale Sayers, who also had a brilliant career at the same position cut short by knee injuries. Sayers had a fantastic record as a returner to add to his record, although Davis has the incredible post-season to add to his; still, comparing anyone to Sayers is a tough case to make because of the Kansas Comet's uniquely brilliant style of play. I think Canton houses another, better comparison for Davis backers: Earl Campbell.
Like Davis, Campbell was a workhorse, move-the-chains type of back who had a short but fantastic career. Let's compare the two player's careers through four seasons:
|AP MVP awards||2||1|
|Playoff rush yards||420||1140|
|Super Bowl wins||0||2|
Now those look very close to me. And Campbell isn't exactly a fringe Hall of Famer. Davis wouldn't do much the rest of his career, with most of the next two seasons lost due to injuries; in '01, he rushed for 701 yards in 8 games. Campbell had a miserable season in his fifth year, the strike-shortened 1982 season (3.4 YPC, two touchdowns). In '83 he would have 1300 yards, 12 TDs and 4.0 YPC in 14 games and make one more Pro Bowl. He ended his career with two more nondescript seasons, with most of those games coming in New Orleans. To me, based on the stats and accomplishments, Davis is a Hall of Fame running back, even though he didn't pad his career totals with a bunch of nonimpressive seasons.
But before I said there were two reasons Davis isn't in the Hall of Fame. One is the lack of quantity despite incredible quality; I don't think that's reason enough to keep him out of Canton. The other is the question of how much credit Davis deserves for his numbers. Mike Shanahan, Alex Gibbs, and a whole bunch of talented offensive linemen deserve some of the credit. Did they make Davis' numbers more than your average HOF RB's numbers are made by his linemen?
It's hard to compare overall team success for the Broncos with and without Davis, as TD's last big season came in John Elway's final year; we can't look at Denver pre-TD, because Shanahan and Davis both came to Denver in 1995. In '96, '97 and '98, the Broncos ranked in the top five in the league in rushing attempts, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. But in '00, '02 and '03, on the legs of Mike Anderson and Clinton Portis, the Broncos ranked in the top six in each of those categories, as wel.
From '96 to '98, Denver was an incredibly dominant offensive team with John Elway and Terrell Davis. HOF T Gary Zimmerman was there from '95 to '97, too. Elway retired after '98 and Davis was hurt in '99, and the Broncos offense predictably regressed. Despite that, a relatively unknown rookie named Olandis Gary ranked third in the league in rushing yards per game that season. The next season the Broncos were back to elite form with Anderson, but in '01 Shanahan began his trick of driving fantasy owners crazy by constantly switching lead runners among Anderson, Davis and Gary. The results were not good. After that, Denver drafted Clinton Portis in 2002 and the Broncos running game returned to elite form. After Portis was traded following the '03 season, the Broncos ranked 4th in rushing yards with Reuben Droughns unexpectedly leading the team in rushing; the next year Denver ranked in the top four in rushing yards, YPC and touchdowns with Anderson and Tatum Bell leading the charge.
If we compare Davis' first four years in Denver to Gary's '99 season, Anderson's '00 season and both of Portis' years, the numbers are very close:
While the Broncos didn't have the same success with the other running backs, I think that's mostly attributable to no longer having Elway, losing several key defensive stars, and having some tough scheduling luck in the playoffs ('00 Ravens, '03 Colts). As good as Davis looked through four years relative to Earl Campbell, his case looks pretty similar to the other Broncos running backs, too. And while Clinton Portis is an elite talent, it's legitimate to question how many other running backs could have excelled in Denver's system during the Super Bowl years. Davis was a perfect fit for the Broncos running scheme, but his numbers almost certainly would have been worse anywhere else.
Of course, most HOF players are fortunate enough to play with talented teammates and coaches who put them in the best position to succeed. Back in the summer, I built on some of Doug's work and wrote an article called "What great running back was most helped by his offensive line? Part III." I approximated the quality of the average offensive line that the 100 or so greatest running backs played behind. Here's the list of just modern era Hall of Famers, likely Hall of Famers, and Davis. A higher number means the player ran behind better offensive lines during his peak seasons:
|Player||Avg. OL AV|
Davis ranks high up there, but not far ahead of other some non-slam dunk type guys. Of course, a good argument could be made that the Denver offensive line was much more about scheme than player talent. Individual Broncos linemen weren't making many Pro Bowls but the sum was much greater than the parts.
Davis has two black marks on an otherwise elite resume: a short career and questions that he was a "system back." Each person must answer these largely subjective questions in their own way; how much quantity do you need when you have such quality? How much did the zone blocking scheme make Davis? Because of these questions, Davis is a fascinating Hall of Fame candidate. It's beyond debate that for four years, Davis put up elite, upper tier Hall of Fame numbers. After that, the debate begins.
Chances he'll make the HOF in 2010? Poor.
Chances he'll ever make the HOF? Decent.