Sunday, August 6, 2017

Running Backs With Short Careers: With Terrell Davis in the HOF is There Hope?

By John Turney
Credit:  Alain Moreau 
Now that the Terrell Davis should he/should he not be in the Hall of Fame is over, perhaps it is a good time to look ahead at some other running backs that had short careers due to injury (as was the case with Terrell Davis).

We have included a few Hall of Famers for some comparison, they are not necessarily "lower tier" Hall of Famers, just players who had shorter careers than some of the running backs who were healthier and could compile lots of yards.

All graphics courtesy of Pro Football Reference

 Priest Holmes had three Offensive Player of the Year-type seasons from 2001 through 2003. He was on his way to a fourth in 2004 but missed half the season due to an injury. He was never the same after that. His per 16-game averages for 2001-04 are as follows: 343 carries for 1624 yards (a 4.7 average) and 21 rushing touchdowns. His receiving totals per 16 games are 67 catches for 641 yards and 2 TDs (9.6 average). That's a per 16-game average of 2265 yards from scrimmage and 23 touchdowns from scrimmage. Not bad production.

He didn't have the post-season production that Davis did so the question is how do his three best compare to Davis's?
Davis was likely voted over the top due to his post-season success. He was extremely effective and was a major factor in the Broncos being home two Lombardi Trophies to Denver. His rookie season was excellent but it was his All-Pro seasons of 1996-98 that defined his career.
Larry Brown, according to Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman, ran too hard for his body. Zim said the same thing about Wilbert Montgomery who could also be featured in this post. Brown was the AP and NEA MVP in 1972. He could have had more yards that season but George Allen rested him the final two weeks of the season. It was a wise move as Allen relied on Brown and had him carry the ball 55 times in two playoff games. It got the Redskins to the Super Bowl but Brown and the Redskins ran into the No Name defense of the soon-to-be 17-0 Dolphins.

Brown was also an All-Pro in 1970 and a Second-team All-Pro in 1971 after being a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 1969. So his "peak", if you will, is 4-5 years, depending on how one looks at 1973. Brown scored 14 total touchdowns in 1973 but his rushing average was 3.2 and the literature of the day was suggesting he was on the downside of his career already. Allen must have seen it as well as he brought in Duane Thomas in 1974 and then John Riggins in 1975 to be his ball carriers. Riggins worked out, Thomas? Not so much.
Chuck Foreman didn't get injured he, like Brown, just seemed to run out of gas. He was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1973 and then the Sporting News NFC Offensive Player of the Year in 1974 and his best season was neither of those two. In 1975 he scored 22 touchdowns and led the NFL in receptions with 73. Nine of his 22 touchdowns came off the arm of Fran Tarkenton and are still tied for the NFL record for touchdown catches by a running back in a single season.

Foreman was All-Pro again in 1976 and was also the UPI NFC Offensive Player of the Year making 1976 essentially his third straight season of OPOY quality. Foreman, along with Lydell Mitchell expanded the passing game in the NFL, though Ted Marchibroda may have pioneered using backs in this way in 1966, in the mid-1970s it was taken to a new level. Incidentally, Marchibroda was Mitchell's coach in Baltimore and Jerry Burns was the master-mind for Foreman's Vikings.

Regardless, from 1974-76 no one in the NFL scored more touchdowns than Foreman and they went to the Super Bowl three times in his first four seasons and from having seen them play quite a lot, there is no way they go to those games without Foreman. He was an impact player.
In 1986 William Andrews came back from a devastating knee injury and was simply not effective. He last was on an NFL field in the preseason of 1984 and even though he had the heart the body just would follow. Prior to the injury, he was a very dynamic running back. He was a tough, hard runner and was very effective as a receiver in an era when not all backs were effective in the passing game.

He was an All-Pro in 1983 and was on various Second-teams in 1980, 1981 and 1982. His per-16 game averages from 1980 through 1982 were 287 carries for 1333 yards, a 4.6-yard average, and seven touchdowns. He also (on a per-16 game basis) averaged 65 receptions for 646 yards (9.9 average) and three touchdown receptions. The per 16-game average is handy here due to the 1981 players strike.

His peak of four years or so matches up very well with all of these players on the outside looking in the Hall of fame and also fares well against some of the players in the Hall of Fame.
Like Priest Holmes, Billy Sims was on his way to a great season when a knee injury felled him in 1984. His yards per carry was up, he was on pace for perhaps 1400 yards and 60 catches. And then it was over. Sims was All-Pro in 1981 and in 1980 he wasn't but with players like Walter Payton and Earl Campbell in the league, it was hard to make All-Pro with just the two running back slots. Sims didn't play on great teams like Terrell Davis but his per-game stats measure with the best—

Campbell was another running back who just got worn out. From 1978though 1980 he was as good a back as the game had seen then, poof, from 1981 through the end of his career he was a good-to-average running back. He was a three-time MVP (1979 he was consensus, 1978 and 1980 he was the NEA MVP).  But, really, he had three great years and three decent years and two that were forgettable. But, the peak was so great he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Leroy Kelly was a four-time All-Pro (1966-68 and 1971) and was a Second-team All-Pro in 1969. The 1969 and 1971 post-season honors are a result of no dominant backs in those seasons. Really, as is the pattern in this post, Kelly's greatness was his peak seasons of 1966-68. Those three seasons he averaged just under 1200 yards rushing, 14 rushing touchdowns, and 5.2 yards a carry, clearly the stuff of Hall of Famers. However, in the four following seasons (1969-72), he averaged 787 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 3.7 yards a carry. hardly the stuff of Hall of Famers.
 Like Leroy Kelly, the "other number 44", Floyd Little is someone with a short peak and some years that were, shall we say, "less than productive".

Little was All-Pro in 1969 and 1971 and won a rushing title in 1971. He played behind a line that had three players make one Pro Bowl (actually AFL All-Star game)—Larry Kaminski (1967), George Goeddeke (1969) and Mike Current (also 1969). So, Little got little help.

Still, Little led the NFL in rushing touchdowns from 1971-73 and was tied with Larry Brown in total touchdowns from 1971-73. But, once again, really we are discussing a three-year peak or four-five at best.
Gale Sayers is the gold standard for the short-career Hall of Famer. Many students of the game; researchers and writers have long referred to the "Gale Sayers Exception" when discussing any player whose career lacked longevity due to injury. Dwight Stephenson was one such player. Though he played just eight seasons he was a five-time First-team All-Pro and a five-time Pro Bowler and a five-time NFLPA AFC Offensive Lineman of the Year.

He was so far ahead of other centers that his short career didn't matter to the voters, though he was not a first-ballot HOFer. He had a wait a short time until the "Gale Sayers Exception" kicked in.


  1. Agree that Leroy Kelley and Floyd should never have made it into the HOF. TD had way too short a career to be considered and yet he made it? That being said Chuck Foreman had better career than most mentioned.
    Look at how many times he touched the ball for the first six yrs(311 avg) I disagree with the Campbell opinion, he had 5 great years, including 1300yds w' 4.0 avg and 12TD in his last full yr in Houston. The team was in a free fall

    1. Just a matter of opinion but a Pro Bowl year, IMO, is not "great". It's very good, but where I agree is I should have given it more credit than "decent". Should have said "good". So, 3 great and 2 good is what I think

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