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HOF 2010: Floyd Little

Posted by Chase Stuart on January 28, 2010

Previous HOF 2010 Bios: John Randle; Roger Craig; Russ Grimm; Steve Tasker; Aeneas Williams; Art Modell; Terrell Davis; Dermontti Dawson; Tim Brown/Cris Carter/Andre Reed; Chris Doleman, Kevin Greene and Charles Haley; Cortez Kennedy; Don Coryell; Ray Guy; Cliff Branch; Shannon Sharpe; Jerry Rice; Richard Dent; Emmitt Smith; Dick LeBeau; Rickey Jackson

Floyd Little and Dick LeBeau are the two Seniors nominees for induction into the Hall of Fame Class of 2010. Unlike the discussion surrounding other candidates, where a voter may want to downplay the career of a Cris Carter in the hopes of getting a Tim Brown inducted, the Seniors' selections do not invite much criticism. If the player is inducted, great; if not, no one else will take his place. The player is debated on an island, with voters simply choosing whether or not to increase the size of the HOF's membership. Unfortunately, I think human tendencies are likely to allow borderline candidates to get in, as there's little harm in allowing the player to be inducted; no all-time great will be forced to wait because of Floyd Little. Even if you think Little might be the 15th most deserving candidate among all players who have been retired for 25 years, you can't get the other 14 in by shooting down Little. As a result, I think there's a good chance Little get in. But will he deserve it?

Before moving on, a quick thanks to all the great comments we've received during this series. Little is the lone finalist remaining to profile, and we've had a blast profiling all of the candidates for this year's class. Thanks for being a part of this series.

Little has his legion of supporters, and their support for his HOF candidacy usually breaks down into two arguments. Let's address them before analyzing his case in the usual way.

Argument #1: Floyd Little, the 7th-leading rusher in NFL history

Broncos fans and other Little backers have cited the fact that he was the 7th-ranked rusher in league history when he retired, and the six guys ahead of him are all in the Hall of Fame. That statement is correct. The problem is that's not a compelling argument. For starters, #8 and #9 aren't in the HOF, either. More importantly, many players have (at some point in NFL history) ranked in the top 10 in career rushing yards and did not make the Hall of Fame. If you must add someone from the '60s and '70s who reached a high place on the career rushing yardage listDon Perkins, not Little, should be your guy.

The table below shows the highest rank each RB who is eligible but not yet in the HOF ever ranked at the conclusion of an NFL season; the year listed in the table below is the last season the player held that high rank. So Ottis Anderson made it as high as #8 on the all-time rushing list, and he held that spot as recently as the conclusion of the 1994 season; Rick Casares worked his way up to #4 on the then-all-time leading rusher list, and finished there as recently as the conclusion of the 1962 season.

Rank Year Player
8 1994 Ottis Anderson
10 1978 Lydell Mitchell
7 1975 Floyd Little
7 1973 Ken Willard
9 1973 Bill Brown
5 1971 Don Perkins
8 1970 Dick Bass
10 1966 Paul Lowe
10 1965 J.D. Smith
9 1964 Alex Webster
4 1962 Rick Casares
8 1961 Alan Ameche
6 1958 Tank Younger
7 1957 Dan Towler
8 1956 Eddie Price
8 1952 Pat Harder
8 1951 Elmer Angsman
10 1949 Bill Paschal
7 1946 Pug Manders
8 1943 Ray Nolting
9 1941 Bill Shepherd
2 1939 Ace Gutowsky
6 1939 Ernie Caddel
8 1938 Beattie Feathers
9 1938 Kink Richards
3 1935 Swede Hanson
2 1933 Jim Musick
4 1933 Glenn Presnell
9 1933 Dick Nesbitt
3 1932 Bob Campiglio
5 1932 Doug Wycoff
8 1932 Jack McBride
9 1932 Jack Grossman

In 1971, Perkins still ranked 5th all-time in career rushing yards; the top four on that list, along with #s 6 and 7, would end up in the HOF. This is not to argue that Perkins is a HOF snub (he may be), but rather that Little, like every other player, does not deserve induction solely because of where he ranked in career totals at one point in time. Rather, we need to take a more complete look at his career. Art Monk was the all-time leader in receptions after the 1994 season and was kept out of the Hall of Fame for years; Doug's podcast hero, Billy Howton, retired as the all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, breaking those records held by Don Hutson, and Howton still hasn't made it all the way to Canton. If Howton, Casares, Perkins and Tank Younger aren't in the HOF, then a fortiori Little can not be selected solely because he ended his career as the 7th-leading rusher in NFL history.

Argument #2: Little kept the Broncos in Denver.

Let's assume this argument to be true. The slightly partisan website LittleInTheHallofFame tells us how valuable he was to Denver:

He came to earn the nickname "The Franchise" for his devotion to the team and inspiring rushing ability that almost single-handedly allowed for the Broncos to sell enough tickets to be saved from relocation during a time of multiple losing seasons.

No one would ever question that Little deserves a spot in the Broncos Ring of Fame, and he was appropriately bestowed such an honor in the BRoF's inaugural class. But how much should that boost his HOF candidacy? Let's suppose that Wayne Weaver gets his way and Tim Tebow becomes a Jacksonville Jaguar. Tebow goes on to have a very good, long career with the Jags. Tebow's status as a Jaguar means Weaver can basically print money in the form of tickets and Tebow-related memoribilia. The Jaguars, on the cusp of moving somewhere, become yet another entity saved by Tim Tebow. Does this make Tebow a HOFer, even if he had a not-quite-HOF-worthy career? Does saving football in Jacksonville mean the NFL, in addition to Jacksonville, should honor him?

Let's think of it another way: should Tim Brown *not* be in the HOF since he could not save football in Los Angeles? In the prime of his career, the Raiders moved to Oakland. Should we knock Brown down a peg for not keeping pro football in the nation's #2 market? When Bruce Matthews' HOF case was being deliberated by the voters, how many of them stopped to ask: If Matthews wasn't good enough to keep pro football in Houston, should he really be immortalized in Canton? When Jerome Bettis's career is discussed, will we decide that his inability to keep the Rams in Los Angeles is the straw that breaks the back of his HOF candidacy?

These arguments should strike you as ridiculous. Granted, the plus on the ledge to "doing enough to keep a team in town" is more extreme than the negative is of "not doing enough to keep a team in town." But the NFL would have survived if the Broncos relocated. Denver fans are the ones that should be eternally grateful for Little. While it's an impressive accomplishment and makes for a great story, I'm not sure how much "saving the Broncos" really should boost Little's HOF case. I suggest instead that we analyze Little's career without the poetic distractions.

Little the player

So how good was Little? After Jim Brown recruited Ernie "The Express" Davis to play at Syracuse, Davis kept the tradition alive and recruited Little to don the orange. From '54 to '56, Brown wore #44 for the Orangemen. His career needs no explanation, as he's a member of both the college and pro football hall of fames. If you must read another Brown record, here goes: he set an NCAA single-game record of 43 points against Colgate in a 61-7 SU win in 1956. From '59 to '61, #44 was Davis' turn to wear; he led the Orangemen to a national championship in '59 and became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961. At the end of the movie "The Express," Davis' character is asked to help recruit a high school phenom running back. That man, Little, would wear Syracuse's #44 from '64 to '66. Little would become a three-time All-American selection for Syracuse, and was regarded as the greater returner in school history. He broke many of the records set by Brown and Davis, and let the nation in all-purpose yards in 1965 (199 APY/game). He would form a terrific backfield in Syracuse with another star runner, Larry Csonka.

In a 12-year span, Brown, Davis, Little and Csonka would become first round draft picks, along with FB Art Baker (between Brown and Davis) and HOF TE John Mackey. Another SU star from that time period, Jim Nance, would lead the AFL in rushing in 1966 and 1967. Csonka and Brown are in the Pro Football HOF; Davis' career never started, as he died of Leukemia before ever playing a down in the NFL. Little wasn't Brown, of course, but he was an elite talent stuck on bad teams in Denver for his entire career. In his nine seasons, the Broncos never won more than seven games.

As a rookie, Little played sparingly on offense, but on the putrid Broncos, 130 carries and a 2.9 YPC average were enough to lead the team in rushing yards. Little shined on special teams, however, and was an electric return man as a rookie. He led the league in yards per punt return, although he did so on just 16 punt returns (including a 72-yard touchdown). Little led the AFL in all-purpose yards, but that's more an indicator of quantity than quality. Little ranked 2nd in the league in kickoff returns and kickoff return yarage, and Noland Smith (who ranked 1st in both categories) had just one carry and one reception that season. Little was the only player in the league to both return kicks and play regularly on offense.

In 1968, Little again led the league in all-purpose yards, this time beating out Max Anderson, the only other full-time offensive player to return kicks. Little did not have a particularly good year on offense: he ranked 9th in the 10-team AFL in rushing yards, and was not in the top ten in either yards from scrimmage, rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns, or yards per carry. But he again played well as a returner, and was the centerpiece of the Broncos offense (he ranked 4th in the AFL in touches).

1969 was the year Little's career took off. He led the league in yards per carry and rushing yards per game, as he was taken off of special-teams and became a full-time running back. After rushing for 166 yards on 29 carries against the Bengals in October of '69, Little broke down two weeks later against the Chargers. While he would miss a month of the season, he was still named a first-team AFL All-Pro RB by the Associated Press.

In 1970, the first year of merged football, Little had another solid year; his YPC dropped to 4.3, but he ranked 4th in the league in rushing yards and 9th in the league in yards from scrimmage. In '71, he led the league in both rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. In '72, his numbers fell off a bit, but he still had a solid season. In 1973, he led the NFL in rushing scores but dipped below 4.0 YPC for the first time since 1968; he still set a career high in yards from scrimmage, ranking third in the NFL in that category that year.

And that was it. "The Franchise" hung around for two more seasons, but was done; he rushed for more yards in '73 than he did in '74 and '75 combined, and retired following the 1975 season. In 1974, the Broncos leading rusher wasn't Little for the first time since he came to Denver. Otis Armstrong relegated Little to the bench, and he managed to obliterate the single-season franchise records for all-purpose yards, yards from scrimmage, rushing yards and yards per carry. He also led the league in rushing yards, yards per carry and yards from scrimmage. It may be unfair to compare the situations, but we can't ignore the dominant season Armstrong had after stealing the job from Little. There's no doubt that Little was a great talent, but his career is unimpressive by Hall of Fame standards when it comes to both quality and quantity. He ranked in the top three in rushing yards just once; he ranked in the top three in yards from scrimmage only twice; he ranked in the top three in rushing/receiving touchdowns only two times.

While Little was a great returner for a couple of seasons, that doesn't add much ammunition to his HOF case. Little was a great talent stuck on bad teams, but the HOF rewards production, not ability. Consider how Little's career compares to the 13 HOF RBs who started their careers in 1960 or later, along with Broncos RB Terrell Davis and the other two RBs up for induction this year. The table below shows how many times each RB ranked in the top 1, 3, 5 and 10 in rushing yards, yards from scrimmage, and total touchdowns. I also came up with a kooky formula at the end there (10*first place finishes + 8*top three finishes + 5*top five finishes + 3*top ten finishes) to get an approximate idea of how dominant each running back was. I didn't want to come up with a formula, but I needed some metric by which to sort. Note: I'm including Little's seasons where he played in the 10-team AFL, which gives him a slight boost.

Running back 1st/RYD Top 3/RYD Top 5/RYD Top 10/RYD 1st/YFS Top 3/YFS Top 5/YFS Top 10/YFS 1st/TTD Top 3/TTD Top 5/TTD Top 10/TTD Score
Barry Sanders 4 7 10 10 2 7 8 10 2 3 4 5 401
Emmitt Smith 4 5 7 9 2 5 5 7 3 6 7 9 388
Walter Payton 1 7 9 11 2 7 9 11 1 3 4 7 373
Eric Dickerson 4 6 6 7 4 5 5 6 0 3 3 5 316
O.J. Simpson 4 5 5 6 3 4 6 6 1 1 2 2 267
Leroy Kelly 2 3 3 5 2 3 3 5 2 4 5 5 240
Thurman Thomas 0 4 4 6 4 5 5 6 0 0 3 4 220
Marcus Allen 1 1 2 4 2 2 3 5 2 4 5 6 201
Earl Campbell 3 3 4 5 1 1 3 4 1 3 3 4 195
Terrell Davis 1 3 3 4 0 3 3 3 1 3 3 3 167
Gale Sayers 2 4 5 5 1 2 3 3 0 1 1 2 161
Tony Dorsett 0 3 3 8 0 2 2 9 0 1 1 2 135
Floyd Little 1 1 3 5 1 2 2 4 0 2 2 3 131
Franco Harris 0 1 3 8 0 0 1 4 1 1 2 5 107
Roger Craig 0 1 1 2 1 2 3 5 0 1 1 2 94
John Riggins 0 0 1 4 0 0 0 1 1 2 3 4 73
Larry Csonka 0 1 4 4 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 3 57

The top nine on the list -- 8 of the 13 HOF RBs and Emmitt Smith -- blow Little out of the water. The 9th HOFer is Gale Sayers, and whatever side of the fence you fall on, I don't know anyone who thinks Little was a better RB or one who was more deserving of HOF status than Sayers. That leaves four HOF RBs that Little arguably outperformed in his career, and they're the four that I've consistently put in my bottom tier of HOF RBs. But let's compare them to Little:

  • Tony Dorsett: I won't argue about how elite Dorsett was; he was in many was a classic compiler. Dorsett never led the league in rushing yards, yards from scrimmage or touchdowns. Dorsett finished in the top five in rushing only three times. On the other side, he landed in the top ten in rushing a whopping eight times. He did not produce the big seasons the way other HOF RBs have, but (perhaps because he was a Heisman Trophy winner and played RB for America's team) he was a first-ballot HOFer. To his credit, when he retired, he clawed his way up to #2 (you think Emmitt held on for a long time, check out Dorsett's last few seasons) on the all-time rushing list. He also had a dominant run as a rookie, when he rushed for 222 yards and 4 TDs in three playoff games, culminating in a Super Bowl victory. Dorsett made the HOF because: 1) he had the sizable quantity that Little lacks, 2) he was a tremendously famous player on America's most famous team. I don't think it would have been a grave injustice if Dorsett never made it to Canton, and the bar for induction should not be "he was better than Dorsett" going forward. Still, I think most would be hard pressed to argue that Little had a more HOF-worthy career than Dorsett.
  • Larry Csonka: Csonka was a fullback, and he was part blocker, part rusher, for most of his career. Fullbacks have been held to slightly different standards than halfbacks (more on this below), and Csnoka is the prime example. Quality-wise, Csonka falls short. But he has two edges on Little, and he wears them on his hand. He won two Super Bowls, gaining over 100 yards in both games. For the perfect Dolphins, he had 39 carries for 180 yards combined in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl. The next season, he had a ridiculous 82 carries, 333 rushing yards and six rushing scores in three games, culminating in MVP honors of Super Bowl VIII. Fair or unfair, the HOF loves the bling, especially when it comes with a SB MVP.
  • Franco Harris: Another fullback, and more bling. Harris was the FB and main offensive weapon for many years in Pittsburgh. While his individual seasons look underwhelming, he was one of the consistent forces for a four-time Super Bowl champion. Like Dorsett, he climbed as high as #2 on the career rushing list. And while his regular season numbers aren't great, consider his production in the playoffs. He played in 17 playoff games in the '70s, and rushed 384 times for 1488 yards and 16 TDs; he also gained another 402 yards and had one receiving touchdown (have you heard?). He won a SB MVP trophy when he took over the game against the Vikings, rushing 34 times for 158 yards and a score in SB IX. Harris' numbers don't look great in my system, and I generally undervalue playoff production relative to most, but still: Franco Harris strikes almost everyone as a Hall of Famer. You gain 1890 yards and 17 TDs in 17 playoff games, and are a key member of four Super Bowl champs, and you're worthy of a bust.
  • John Riggins: Another fullback, Super Bowl MVP. Riggins arguably came closer to single-handedly winning a Super Bowl than any other player; his 1982 playoff run was one for the ages. Riggins was a late bloomer and had a loud, eccentric personality, things that probably left voters with fond memories of him. By the time he retired, Riggins trailed the immortal Brown by just two rushing touchdowns; he was only the second player to ever rush for 100 scores. When Riggins was inducted into the HOF in 1992, he was still the single-season leader in rushing touchdowns. He didn't have a bulletproof HOF case, but you can understand why the confluence of many factors -- all the touchdowns, the bling, the fact that he was a power back and one of the only RBs to ever successfully fight Father Time -- combined to make him a HOFer.

Little's score of 131 comes in far behind the average of the 13 modern era HOF RBs (211). He lacked the longevity of a Dorsett, and he wasn't a FB with a ring like Harris, Riggins or Csonka. His productivity was so far below that of the other nine (and ten soon, with Emmitt) HOF RBs to start their careers after 1960 that almost everyone would agree that he would be one of the worst players at his position in the HOF. To me, that's a pretty good reason not to induct the guy.

To be fair, Little can certainly use his poor teammates as an excuse: his offensive line ranked in the bottom 20% among my list of the offensive lines of the top 100 RBs over the past 60 years. A modern example might be Frank Gore (at least before the '09 season), where he looked like the only player on his offense that should start in the NFL. Still, it's hard to argue that Little would not be the worst pure halfback in the HOF since, well, ever, as Paul Hornung was more than a halfback. And there are countless other players who were more productive than Little. If Little is in the HOF, how the heck do you keep Priest Holmes or Lydell Mitchell or Tiki Barber out of it? This is my biggest complaint with the Seniors committee, since in practice, Little won't be compared to those players. Broncos fans may have Little to thank for more, but if there's one Denver RB who should be in the Hall of Fame, it's not Little. Putting aside the ineffective seasons Little had at the beginning and end of his career, and he had Terrell Davis' career length without the astronomical heights Davis reached.

When I looked at the most dominant RBs in NFL history, Little ranked just outside of the top 60. He simply did not produce near to the level that's been set for the average HOF halfback. It may be through no fault of his own (perhaps like Vinny Testaverde) but we can only grade players on what they actually did. There have been a few players -- Butkus, Selmon, Sayers, Simpson -- who have made the HOF on bad teams because their production was outstanding. This year, Aeneas Williams wasn't chosen as a finalistdespite playing for worse teams and achieving more honors. Unfortunately, Little's production falls short of outstanding. He was a very good running back, but for only five seasons, falling far short on quantity and quality. The quality of Dorsett's peak with the quantity of Earl Campbell's career is not one that deserves the highest honor pro football can bestow.

Chances Floyd Little will make the HOF in 2010? Solid.
Chances Floyd Little will ever make the HOF? Solid.