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2011 Hall of Fame Polls: Curtis Martin

Posted by Chase Stuart on February 4, 2011

I won't pretend to be objective here: Curtis Martin is my favorite player of all-time. To maintain credibility as a football writer, one must be objective. Still, I feel comfortable avoiding such responsibility this time as long as I announce it. I've sponsored his P-F-R page since we rolled out the sponsorship option several years ago, and have no plans of ending my sponsorship. The quote I use to sponsor him was uttered by Martin late in the 2005 season, when he finally had to shut it down for good:

But early last week, the pain prompted a visit to the coach's office.

''Herm said: 'Curtis, just for us to be having this conversation, it must be a very bad situation. There is no way you'd be sitting in Herman Edwards's office if this wasn't drastic,' '' Martin said Sunday afternoon. ''It was. Yesterday, I felt like there was probably no way we're going to be able to do it. We got up this morning and said no.

''If the Raiders had said, 'Curtis, we're not going to tackle you' and gave me the ball on the 1-yard line and let me run 99 yards, I don't even think I'd have been able to get it.''

In each off-season, Martin submits himself to savage workouts, to prepare his body for the inevitable punishment. Martin once played through a season with two severely sprained ankles. He played through another even though a ligament was tearing away from the bone in his buttocks. He played two consecutive seasons with torn knee ligaments that did not slow him.


I don't know if I've ever seen a tougher Jet, or a player who was more dedicated to his team than Martin. Even if it meant being the anti-Favre, by helping a younger player who many fans (and perhaps members of the organization) thought should steal Martin's job:

During their four years together on the Jets, Martin, an only child, treated [LaMont] Jordan as the younger brother he never had. He gently steered Jordan toward being a better football player and person, Jordan said.

"I remember situations where I was about to make the wrong decision, and I'd call Curt," he said.

"With Curt," he added, "it was never a thing like this young guy is trying to take my spot. He's a great guy. I'd take a bullet for him. That's the amount of respect I have for him."

Jordan chafed at being Martin's understudy, but he said he never resented Martin. "I really appreciate what Curt has done for me," he said.

As a fan, it's easy to admire and respect Martin because of his work ethic and his personality. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone with a bad word to say about Martin, who managed to somehow fly under the radar in the media capital of the world. But it's Martin's on-field production that alone must merit his induction. And I certainly believe, biased as I may be, that he's done enough to become a Hall of Famer.

I don't put much weight in career counting stats, so I won't use Martin's spot as the 4th-leading rusher in league history as reason for his induction. I think Jerome Bettis, 5th all-time, has a borderline case at best, much like John Riggins (HOFer, 4th place as of 1985) or Don Perkins (non-HOFer, 5th place as of 1971)).

There's no doubt what makes Martin unique: his durability. He played in 168 regular season games in his career. In his first 84 games, he rushed for 7,194 yards and 50 touchdowns. In his last 84 games, he rushed for 6,907 yards and 50 touchdowns. He accumulated an incredible workload but didn't wear down for over a decade. He's one of just 14 running backs with 7,500 rushing yards in his first six seasons. Then, from season seven to season eleven, he was one of five guys with 6,000 rushing yards.

He had four truly fantastic seasons, where he ranked in three in rushing yards and top five in yards from scrimmage -- 1995, 1999, 2001 and 2004. In between, from '96 to '98, he ranked in the top ten in both rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. In 1998 he helped lead the team to within a game of the Super Bowl. In 2000, playing for a Jets team that led the league in pass attempts, Martin's rushing totals were down but he still finished in the top 10 in yards from scrimmage. What about 2002 and 2003?

In 2002, Martin severely twisted his ankle in the opening game, then injured the other ankle in week seven.

Doctors told him he should have missed 7 to 10 weeks.

''My ankles were the size of your head,'' he said. ''It was the most pain I've been in. I had to dig deeper than I ever had to just to play.''

Still, Martin endured, and put together four 100-yard games in the second half of the season, guiding the Jets to the playoffs. In '03 he still rushed for over 1,300 yards, including a memorable performance against the Steelers. Playing in the snow in mid-December, neither team had much of an offense that day. The Jets won the game, 6-0, with Martin's 174 rushing yards on 30 carries being the only sign of offense from either team that day.

The Best: At least in one regard

There are 69 players in league history with 1500 carries. Martin has by far the lowest fumble rate of the group. Martin fumbled on just 0.82% of carries, with Priest Holmes (0.90%) being the only player within shouting distance.

Player Rsh Fum Rate
Curtis Martin 3518 29 0.82%
Priest Holmes 1780 16 0.90%
LaDainian Tomlinson 3099 30 0.97%
Warrick Dunn 2669 26 0.97%
Rodney Hampton 1824 18 0.99%
Rudi Johnson 1517 15 0.99%
Fred Taylor 2534 27 1.07%
Thomas Jones 2525 27 1.07%
Corey Dillon 2618 28 1.07%
Larry Csonka* 1891 21 1.11%
Steven Jackson 1878 21 1.12%
Clinton Portis 2230 26 1.17%
Jerome Bettis 3479 41 1.18%
Don Perkins 1500 18 1.20%
Terrell Davis 1655 20 1.21%
Willis McGahee 1541 19 1.23%
Charlie Garner 1537 19 1.24%
Marshall Faulk 2836 36 1.27%
Stephen Davis 1945 25 1.29%
Eddie George 2865 37 1.29%
Barry Sanders* 3062 41 1.34%
Emmitt Smith* 4409 61 1.38%
Antowain Smith 1784 25 1.40%
Shaun Alexander 2187 31 1.42%
Edgerrin James 3028 44 1.45%
Earnest Byner 2095 31 1.48%
Mark van Eeghen 1652 25 1.51%
Garrison Hearst 1831 28 1.53%
Jamal Lewis 2542 39 1.53%
Ricky Watters 2622 43 1.64%
Lydell Mitchell 1675 29 1.73%
Thurman Thomas* 2877 50 1.74%
Jim Taylor* 1941 34 1.75%
Ahman Green 2056 37 1.80%
Chris Warren 1791 33 1.84%
Terry Allen 2152 41 1.91%
Gerald Riggs 1989 38 1.91%
Floyd Little* 1641 32 1.95%
Earl Campbell* 2187 43 1.97%
John Riggins* 2916 58 1.99%
Mike Pruitt 1844 37 2.01%
Leroy Kelly* 1727 35 2.03%
Neal Anderson 1515 31 2.05%
Herschel Walker 1954 41 2.10%
Roger Craig 1991 42 2.11%
Marcus Allen* 3022 65 2.15%
Ricky Williams 2323 50 2.15%
Curt Warner 1698 37 2.18%
Ottis Anderson 2562 56 2.19%
Walter Payton* 3838 86 2.24%
Tiki Barber 2217 53 2.39%
Jim Brown* 2359 57 2.42%
Freeman McNeil 1798 45 2.50%
Ken Willard 1622 41 2.53%
O.J. Simpson* 2404 62 2.58%
Eric Dickerson* 2996 78 2.60%
Larry Brown 1530 40 2.61%
George Rogers 1692 45 2.66%
Lawrence McCutcheon 1521 41 2.70%
Wilbert Montgomery 1540 42 2.73%
James Wilder 1586 44 2.77%
James Brooks 1685 51 3.03%
Franco Harris* 2949 90 3.05%
John Henry Johnson* 1571 48 3.06%
Tony Dorsett* 2936 90 3.07%
Chuck Foreman 1556 52 3.34%
Bill Brown 1649 56 3.40%
Joe Perry* 1929 66 3.42%
Chuck Muncie 1561 57 3.65%

The Bad

Despite the above, my two most vivid memories of Martin are of Super Bowl dream-killing fumbles.

  • In the 1998 AFC Championship Game, the Jets led the Broncos 10-0 in the 3rd quarter before (from a Jets' fan's perspective) everything fell apart. But the lead could have been even greater: with 8 minutes to go in the first quarter, the Jets had already missed one field goal and were driving towards their first score. Keith Byars took a pass to the Denver 43 for a first down. But on the next play, Curtis Martin was hit hard by Alfred Williams, and the ball came loose. Tyrone Braxton recovered it, and the Broncos changed field position and avoided falling into a hole. For the Jets, it was the first of four lost fumbles on the day.
  • The 1998 Jets were led by Vinny Testaverde, who finally fulfilled his potential playing under a good coach and with talented teammates. As a first-year starter in New York, Testaverde went 12-1 in the regular season and ranked second in the league in ANY/A. The only thing that stood between the Jets and the Super Bowl was John Elway and the Broncos. Once Elway retired following the '98 season, New York stood as prohibitive favorites to represent the conference in the next Super Bowl. They stood as 5-1 odds to win the Super Bowl just before week one. Then, in the opening game against New England, lightning struck twice. In the second quarter, Martin ran 19 yards down to the Patriots' 18-yard line. On the next play, he went off left tackle, but was hit by RDE Willie McGinest. Martin recovered his own fumble, but the damage was already done. Testaverde, following the handoff, began drifting a couple of yards behind the play. When he saw the ball pop out, he lunged forward to recover the football. The quick change of direction led to a season-ending achilles year, and the Jets' Super Bowl dreams were dashed.

Curtis Martin fumbles, coming in consecutive games, would have been enough to drive just about any fanbase off a cliff. But Jets fans have always appreciated Martin, and never came calling for his head. He rewarded them with nearly a decade of great play.

The Case Against
So why shouldn't Martin be in the Hall of Fame? Let's run through the usual reasons proffered as to why a player might just miss out on induction:

  • He never won a Super Bowl: By far the biggest reason keeping borderline players out of the HOF is the lack of ultimate team success. But nowhere is such a requirement waived more frequently than at the running back position. Jim Brown was an obvious Hall of Famer long before he finally answered critics by winning a championship in his second to last season. Ditto Walter Payton in his third to last year. Barry Sanders and O.J. Simpson never won a Super Bowl and that didn't stop them from becoming first ballot entrants; the same goes for LaDainian Tomlinson (assuming he doesn't win one) five years after he retires. Martin appeared in a Super Bowl, but this would be a non-issue for him either way. It can help in certain cases, especially when the running back deliveries an MVP-type performance (think Larry Csonka, John Riggins and Marcus Allen), but it's far from a requirement like it is at the quarterback position. He may end up suffering the same fate as Thurman Thomas, and be forced to settle for being a second ballot inductee.
  • The Terrell Davis arguments: Perhaps the most valuable running back to be snubbed by the Hall, Davis seems unlikely to enter Canton anytime soon. There are two reasons for that: a short career and questions about how much of his production was due to his supporting staff (including coaching). I'm in the Pro-Davis camp, but neither of these arguments surface with Martin. Edgerrin James, minus some lackluster years later in his career, seems likely to miss out due to the Davis arguments.
  • The Ricky Watters/Roger Craig arguments: Watters and Craig were fantastic all-around players, but like Tiki Barber may soon find out, the Hall really likes running backs who are runners. Being an all-around talent is always a positive, but Watters (9th all-time in YFS upon retirement) and Craig (12th in YFS upon retirement have been judged more on their rushing prowess than all-around game. Martin was a capable receiver, and will get bonus points for his receiving ability relative to Jerome Bettis. But with Martin, there was never any question that his value first and foremost came as a runner.
  • The Compiler: When paired without any bling, the Compiler argument can be a death knell. And while Martin surely resides more on the "compiler" side of the continuum than the "single-season dominance" end, Martin led the league in rushing yards once, ranked second on two occasions and third on another.

The only blemish on Martin's resume? A yards-per-carry average that looks more pedestrian than exemplary. And there's no denying that Martin wasn't a big play back. But YPC is heavily influenced by big runs, which aren't as valuable as people like to think. Unlike with yards per attempt, yards per rush isn't nearly as successful as identifying the top players. Carries themselves are indicators of quality in a way that pass attempts never could be. A running back with a less-than-stellar YPC average may keep receiving carries because he's a dependable runner, unlikely to fumble, and good at gaining key yards. Of course, a running back with an unimpressive YPC average may just be a bad running back. How do you tell the difference?

If a running back keeps getting his number called, game after game, year after year, he's probably pretty good. Martin, Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton are the only three running backs to record 100 20-carry games. All three are the only with 150 games with fifteen carries or more. He's 7th all-time on the list of players with 25+ carry games. Of the top 12 on that list, all are (or will be) in the HOF or had their careers ruined by injuries and/or overuse (Eddie George, Edgerrin James). That Martin was able to sustain such abuse, game after game, year after year, should be viewed as a badge of honor, not a reason to call him a compiler. And as Doug hinted in two years ago, Martin's incredibly-low fumble rate may well be one of the reasons he didn't have as many big gains over the years. His focus on ball security may have kept his YPC down while improving his team's chances to win.

Martin's best statistical season came in 2004, when the Jets offense under Herm Edwards looked a lot like the Jets offense under Rex Ryan. Playing in a conservative offense and behind a dominant offensive line (Jason Fabini, Pete Kendall, Kevin Mawae, Brandon Moore and Kareem McKenzie formed perhaps the league's best line), Martin rushed for 1,697 yards. But for me, Martin's best season came in 1999, when he was in the prime of his career and playing before all the injuries set in (that he played through, of course).

After the fumble that for all intents and purposes, ended the Jets season in the second quarter, New York turned to Rick Mirer in week two. What's that? You forgot about Mirer's stint with the Jets? How could you. Mirer finished the season 38th out of the 40 passers with 175+ attempts in ANY/A. He was so awful that he was benched for Ray Lucas, an undrafted special teams ace out of Rutgers, who was injured in his first start. Two more starts went Mirer's way, before a healthy Lucas finished out the string.

The 1999 Jets weren't very good; they fell down 17-0 and 34-7 to the rival Giants in one game, and Martin ended that day with six carries for four yards. Against Jacksonville and Buffalo, Mirer completed fewer than half his passes, threw three interceptions, and averaged 4.3 yards per attempt while the Jets were held to three field goals.

Through it all, Martin persevered. He was the center of the offense: for the second of three times in his career, he accumulated 412 touches. He ranked second in the league in carries and rushing yards, and carried a one-dimensional offense to respectability. There was no championship in sight, and Martin wasn't the sort of player who could avoid hits by making defenders miss. He wouldn't run out of bounds to avoid hits, either. Rather it was play after play of Martin churning out yards, extending drives, and keeping the team respectable. It was the sort of yeoman's work that cause Ricky Williams to retire, ended the career of James Wilder, and zapped the last legs of Eddie George and Earl Campbell. Further, Martin did it despite not having the body of a Christian Okoye or Jerome Bettis, or even an Eddie George, Jamal Anderson or Jamal Lewis.

At 5'10, 210 pounds, Martin wasn't one of the fastest backs in the league, nor was he ever one of the biggest. But his incredible vision, determination and perseverance made him my favorite Jet of all-time. The relationship between Bill Parcells and Martin is well-documented. Parcells will never say anything but good words about Martin, who battled with him for two different franchises. Martin said that Parcells will present him if he gets inducted this year. Parcells didn't mince words when discussing Martin's candidacy this week: "Running back is a production position, and his production is indisputable. He should be going in on roller skates."

I hope the Hall of Fame voters agree.

This entry was posted on Friday, February 4th, 2011 at 11:35 am and is filed under Best/Worst Ever, Great Historical Players, History, HOF, Player articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.