Friday, April 1, 2011

The HoG25: The Best 25 Running Backs of the Past 25 Years

Here we go with selection 11/12 in the now-infamous HoG25. It started over 20 months ago, when we held a borderline-ridiculous, two-part, fantasy-sports-style draft. The idea was to come up with 12 categories -- six sports-related, six not -- draft 25 people/things from each category, rank them, and write about them. It was an idea that was not all that fleshed out, one that was intended to reinvigorate the contributors of this blog, one that would be finished by Thanksgiving 2009. April Fool's, what?

We are, nevertheless, going to finally finish this project, which, may one day stand on its own two legs, but for now, we can only admit that the muscles used in creating it have gotten a touch flabby, as it's no longer the brisk spring of 2007. We no longer crank out a half-dozen posts a week, we no longer receive 35,000 viewers a month, and we no longer generate thousands of pennies per fiscal year. There are, as it were, the proverbial mouths -- the spouses, the pets, the children -- to feed, the mortgages to stay ahead of, and the -- if I may speak for all three of us -- mundane jobs that require daily attendance, considerable chunks of focus, attention, and effort.

That said, the list that follows is far from complete. If you're so inclined, have a look at the write-ups included, peep the links for the stats in those that are not.

25. Deuce McAllister

Deuce had that look, even in college. That “my thighs are, quite literally, the size of your chest” look. That “if I hit the hole with even a modicum of build-up, I am going to put a cleat mark on your face” look. That “yeah, yeah, so big backs like me get hurt a lot, what the fuck is your problem?” look. Deeeuuccee had the looooooooook (sung to the tune of that song. You know. Not going to look it up, but the folks who did it were Swedish. No, not Abba. The other Swedish ones…no, not Ace of Base either. You know what? Never mind.)

It was that last look that cursed Deuce -- he only spent one full season healthy in the League, and that single healthy season saw him rush for more than 1,600 yards, catch 69 passes and account for more than 100 on the ground every game. He was the focal point of the resurgence of the Saints, who’d fallen back on their familiar hard times after the heady, defense-heavy Dome Patrol ‘80s, and with then QB Aaron Brooks’ only occasional bouts of competence, was pretty much the team’s entire offense. Which is probably why that was his only truly healthy campaign.

But man, when he was, he was a load. He played at around 230 pounds but had the light feet of a much smaller back. His career totals are pretty decent for an 8-year career, considering how much he was hurt: more than 6,000 yards and 50 TDs, almost all of which came during a five-year span. Deuce is definitely one of the best pure running backs in recent memory. If he’d played on grass, for a team that could achieve some semblance of balance, I’d wager he’d be a lot higher up on this list.

24. Corey Dillon

Old No. 7:
Corey Dillon

23. Warrick Dunn

Old No. 7:
Warrick Dunn

22. Ricky Watters

Five-time Pro Bowler Ricky Watters might’ve been a stretch in this little selection, but hey –- any Golden Domer is an all-time great in my book. Once Mr. Watters finished his South Bend schoolin’, he was selected in the second round of the 1991 NFL draft by San Francisco. His career was but 10 years, but we all know now that that’s about average for the modern-day back.

He logged over 10,000 yards in his time between the professional hash marks, and in half of his seasons, he crested the 1200-yard mark. It’s no surprise that his best season –- the 1996 campaign in which the Philadelphia Eagles beat him like a rented mule -– included career highs across the board: 1411 yards, 13 trips to the end zone, and 353 rushing attempts.

If memory serves, Mr. Watters was not graced with the largest of hands, and his 43 career fumbles attest to that. It’s actually not that bad, though, if you consider that that averages to a mere four-plus per season, and factor in that he’s 17th all-time in career rushing attempts. He’s also 20th in career yards, which warrants him a spot on the list, as does the fact that he won a NCAA national championship as a wide receiver, and a Super Bowl ring with the 49ers and Coach George Seifert.

Watters continues to be left outside Canton, Ohio’s doorstep, allegedly due to his hot-headedness, and occasional off-field antics. If you had a vote, would you put Ricky in? For Who? For What?

21. Tiki Barber

Old No. 7:
Tiki Barber

20. Roger Craig

Roger Craig

19. Adrian Peterson

Old No. 7:
Adrian Peterson

18. Clinton Portis

Old No. 7:
Clinton Portis

17. Jamal Lewis

Jamal Lewis

16. Fred Taylor

Fred Taylor

15. (two-way tie)

Edgerrin James

Edgerrin James

Walter Payton

Putting together a feature like the HoG25 is tricky, to say the least. We have a specific window from which we’re drawing, we’re taking specific categories, inserting a particular population into the categories, ranking the members of said population, and then defending the whole thing in some hybrid of seriousness, comic relief. In attempting to compose such a complex picture, many pitfalls come into place, some greater than others.

For example, I can select a person as part of a population, and maybe, via statistics, awards, popularity, or some combination of all three, I attempt to defend my selection. Whether or not a defense is successful is left to be determined. Perhaps the trickiest pitfall of all, however, is the one associated with the aforementioned window of time. We came across it in baseball, and probably, to some degree, in each of our already published categories. What happens if person X, or thing Y was universally accepted as fantastic up until 1986, or 1987, and then tapered off?

Is it responsible to omit that person or thing because they didn’t commit a certain chunk of time to the window? Is the window greater than the person or thing itself? Would it be more or less responsible to flex the window so as to include whatever person or thing you’re targeting? I posit that Walter Payton epitomizes this whole conundrum, and he does so because, at one point in time, football was no bigger than Walter Payton himself. He had the talent and the productivity any fan, owner, coach, and teammate would want playing for their team, and he had the personality to go along with it.

It would be foolish to suppose that some of the shenanigans in which our current football players engage were not happening before the explosion of access to the league via ever-expanding media (both traditional and social). But the fact remains that, in my humble opinion, if you put Walter Payton on a 1984 NFL team, or on a 2010 NFL team, Walter Payton will still be Walter Payton. And quite frankly, I don’t know that I’ll ever have the opportunity to write about Walter Payton again, so that’s why I drafted him, and that’s why I defend drafting him, even if I did so with my third pick of the round.

Payton attended Jackson State University, and was drafted in the first round by the Chicago Bears in 1975. He had a better-than-decent rookie season (679 rushing yards, seven touchdowns), doubled those numbers as a sophomore, and maintained that level of production, with little variance, until his final season (1987) in the league. Payton had some massive seasons in the mid-late ‘70s, but he also came on strong again in the mid-late ‘80s. Perhaps that was due to his team being superior. Perhaps it was due to Payton himself, his “Never Die Easy” mantra.

But if you’re hung up on staying focused on the window, we can do that: From 1984-1987, Payton totaled 6551 all-purpose yards, and scored 38 touchdowns. He did so via 1172 rushing attempts, and 164 catches. For my money, that’s pretty impressive considering that he turned 30 three months prior to the start of the ’84 season. Sweetness is still at the number-two slot in career rushing attempts (3838), yards (16,726), and is number four in career rushing touchdowns with 110. I’m aware that a good chunk of that happened pre-window, but I wanted to make it known that a healthy chunk happened inside of it, too. Walter Payton was elected to nine Pro Bowls (including ’84, ’85, and ’86), and was inducted into the pro football hall of fame in 1993.

13. Priest Holmes

It would be utterly ridiculous for me not to get at least one homer pick in on this group. Nobody needs any more Charlie Sheen references, but I really could’ve picked any of two and-a-half men that carried the football for the Kansas City Chiefs within our window here. And I don’t have a complex about it: I was humble enough to wait until the 16th round to select Priest, unlike Sir Cecil, who went – shockingly – with Terrell Davis in round two.

Priest went to Texas for his post-high-school education, but I forgave him for that exactly 10 years ago, when he put on the handsomest helmet in NFL history. There are many, many reasons why I admire the hell out of the always-incognito Holmes, but I think the big three are as follows:

1) At Texas, he was in the shadows of Ricky Williams.
2) Leaving Texas, he went undrafted.
3) Upon being signed as a free agent by Baltimore, he was in the shadows of Jamal Lewis, and it was only after he left defending-champion Ravens did he get his career truly started.

Once he did, he quickly put together an impressive four-season stretch in Kansas City, compiling 5482 yards, 70 touchdowns, and a staggering 7645 all-purpose yards between 2001-2004. Priest was the epitome of quiet, elusive away from the football field, except for when he was playing chess with Joe Posnanski, or spearheading a Priest Holmes Foundation project.

Since his retirement, his family still makes their home in San Antonio, but Priest still comes around for the occasional appearance at KC metro elementary schools, always with the message of “Stay in school,” and always with a smile. If I had to guess, I’d say that Ricky Watters and Eddie George will one day experience Hall of Fame enshrinement, while Priest Holmes will not. But in my mind, the three-time Pro Bowler is one of the best I’ve seen, for a brief span, when it comes to a solid ground game.

12. Eddie George

When I think of Eddie George, I think of all those mid-to-late ‘90s Chiefs teams that tried like hell to have success with the stupid Running Back by Committee approach. God, I used to think. Can’t we get a guy? A primary, bad-freaking-ass, rock-toting guy? A guy that will be on the roster for many seasons? A guy like Eddie George, maybe?

I’ve never had much to think of, or say about, the Houston Oilers or the Tennessee Titans. They’re mostly unimportant in my book, but you have to give them credit for somehow managing to keep successful guys around for chunks of time. Guys like Warren Moon, Jeff Fisher, and, yes –- guys like Eddie George.

I’ve also never had much opinion about Ohio State University, save for the fact that I think they have two really dumb traditions: the tacky Buckeye leaves on the helmet, and the uber-annoying Monday Night Football introductions. THE Ohio State University, however, is in fact where Mr. George matriculated, nabbed himself a Heisman trophy, and, upon commencement from that institution, the Oilers made a first-rounder out of the tailback.

He went on to log nine NFL seasons, and I’m pretty sure some crumbly knees prevented him from adding to 10, 441 yards, 68 touchdowns, and nearly 2900 carries. I’ll point out his monster 2000 season, where he crested the 400-carry mark, compiled 1500 yards (1962 from scrimmage), and 14 TDs. Since retiring after the 2004 season, Mr. George has made quite the little metrosexual career for himself, hanging with Jason Sehorn and Tim Brown on some football show, as well as appearances on MTV, a couple of reality shows, and in an –- ouch –- Steven Seagal movie. But, hey -– he’s an Obama supporter, and a four-time Pro Bowler. Win, win.

11. (two-way tie)

Jerome Bettis

I’ll bet that you were unaware that Jerome Bettis hails from Detroit, Michigan. You weren’t? Well, I’m not sure how you knew, you avid researcher. What I bet you really didn’t know was that Bettis attended the University of Notre Dame, and in 1993, was a first-round pick of the Los Angeles Rams.

What? You knew those things, too?

Alright. Fine. Last one: Jerome Bettis replaced Bam (of the weed-slinging, national-car-theft-ring fame) Morris as the primary Pittsburgh Steeler tailback in the 1996 season, having already amassed 3000 rushing yards in two varieties of Ram jerseys. He also appeared on “The Office,” was once considered one of the best bowlers in the National Football League, and is a partial owner of three minor-league baseball teams. Oh, wait: That was me that didn’t know any of that.

Interesting stuff, when compared with 13, 662 career rushing yards, 94 total touchdowns over 13 seasons, and a most-impressive number-five slot on the all-time ground-yards list. Ahead of Bettis are: Curtis Martin, Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, and lucid articulator Emmitt Smith. What amazes me most about Bettis’ career is that, outside of Pittsburgh, and outside of fantasy-football circles, I imagine that the first half of Bettis’ career statistics were not major blips on the casual football fan’s radar screen.

That is, when the Steelers got consistently good at the end of Bill Cowher’s, beginning of Mike Tomlin’s careers, Bettis just sort of walked into a household-name status. Everyone knew who the Bus was, and exactly why he had the name he did. But how many folks knew that Bettis had amassed nearly 8500 career rushing yards heading into the 2000 NFL season?

Fine. Maybe everyone did. I was unaware. Jerome Bettis was a beast for the duration of his career, and if you add his numbers, post-season success, and six Pro Bowls together, I believe the sum you will reach has Canton scribbled somewhere in the result.

Ricky Williams

Old No. 7:
Ricky Williams

There's the first chunk. We'll meet you in a dark alley in a few hours for the rest. Be there. Alone.