Friday, October 9, 2020

Doak Walker for the Hall of Fame!

 By Jeffrey J. Miller

Re-making the case for Doak Walker 

Walker versus the LA Rams

The recent passing of Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers inspired an outpouring of remembrances and accolades, with the Kansas Comets’ story and greatest moments flashing on nearly every NFL league and fansite on the internet.  Sayers was rightfully hailed as one of the best running backs to ever play the game.  The statistics clearly bear this fact out, but a review of his countless highlights, many of which can be described as breathtaking, leaves the viewer with no doubt that Sayers’ name belongs in the pantheon of runners that includes Brown, Sanders, Payton, and the other all-time greats. 

Not surprisingly, Number 40’s passing reignited the debate over whether Sayers, whose career spanned a mere seven seasons (of which maybe five could be considered complete) and only 68 games truly belongs in the Canton’s hallowed halls.  The doubts are not likely to emanate from serious historians of the game but usually come to light when some neophyte tries to make a point about Sayers’ short career without putting the man’s complete body of work into context or having seen him live or on film.  I am fortunate enough to say I have seen him both live and on film and will attest to his greatness.

Of course, the Sayers debate inevitably moves the next target squarely to the back of one of my personal favorites, Detroit Lions halfback Doak Walker, who made the hall of Fame in 1987 despite playing one game less than Sayers.  It is hard to defend Walker’s enshrinement when one looks simply at his short career (67 games, six seasons) with no 1,000-yard seasons, and never leading the league in rushing.  Yet, every time this debate resumes, I find myself going back to Lions’ game films and old episodes of Time For Football and my opinion that Walker belongs becomes more firmly reinforced. 

So I thought I’d take this opportunity to restate Walker’s case for the Hall of Fame, using some obvious arguments as well as shining some light on accomplishments of which his doubters (which include the legendary Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman, a football writer for whom I have unbounded respect) have either overlooked or simply ignored.

Doak Walker's 1951 Card

OK, the obvious…Walker came to the Lions in 1950 after three All-America seasons at Southern Methodist University, including a Heisman Trophy season in 1948.  The Dallas, Texas native was the Lions’ main left halfback from 1950 through 1955.  During those six seasons, the Lions appeared in three NFL championship games, winning two.  Walker was voted to five pro bowls and earned four All-Pro selections.  He was named NFL Rookie-of-the-Year in 1950 after finishing fourth in all-purpose yards (1,262) and leading the league in scoring with 128 points (in a 12-game season!).  Walker doubled as the team’s kicker and led the NFL in extra-points-made twice and overall scoring twice.  Walker was also returned punts and kickoffs and played defense when needed.  At the time of his retirement after the 1955 season, Walker ranked third in NFL history with 534 regular-season points.  Only Green Bay’s Don Hutson (825) and Los Angeles’ Bob Waterfield (573) had more points than Walker.

Doak Walker's 1955 Card

Now let’s look a little deeper into the Doaker’s numbers.  Yes, he did not play many games in his career, but he certainly made the most of his time.  In a close examination of his stats, there are some astounding things that pop out.  There have been many fine pass-catching running backs over the years, but for this man’s money, Walker was the best at it.  It could be argued that Walker pioneered the use of the running back as passing weapon.  Since 1950, Walker’s rookie season, no one has posted a better career yards-per-catch average than Doak (16.7).   In fact, only one player, Clem Daniels, comes close (16.3).  After Daniels, the next man, Ray Mathews, comes in nearly one full yard off Walker’s pace.  The top 40 is listed below (This list is not purported to be inclusive but rather illustrative) …    

 Career Average-Yards-Per-Catch by Running Backs

Doak Walker —16.7

Clem Daniels—16.3

Ray Mathews— 15.8

Ollie Matson—14.8

Timmy Brown —14.5

Frank Gifford—13.8

Keith Lincoln—13.6

Larry Garron—13.5

Tom Tracy—13.0

Hugh McElhenny —12.3

Abner Haynes—12.3

Preston Pearson —12.2

Wray Carlton—12.1

Leroy Kelly—12.0

Elijah Pitts—12.0

Gale Sayers —11.7

Tom Matte—11.5

Paul Hornung—11.4

Floyd Little—11.2

Calvin Hill —10.6

OJ Simpson—10.6

Larry Brown —10.4

Terry Metcalf —10.0

Joe Cribbs — 9.8

Jim Brown—9.5

Thurman Thomas—9.4

Dickie Post—9.4

Walter Payton—9.2

Ricky Waters—9.1

Neil Anderson—9.1

Lawrence McCutcheon —  9.1

Chuck Foreman—9.0

Marshall Faulk —9.0

Tony Dorsett—8.9

Roger Craig— 8.7

Christian McCaffrey —8.4

Barry Sanders —8.3

Frank Gore —8.3

Larry Centers —8.2

Adrian Peterson —8.2

Joe Perry—7.8

When charting the best Yards-Per-Catch seasons by running backs since 1950, Walker, though not coming in first, dominates the list with two of the top five best seasons and placing five in the top 30 (more than any other back)!   The top 50 are listed below …    

 Best Average-Yards-Per-Catch Seasons by Running Backs (Minimum 20 Catches)

Ray Renfro—23.9

Clem Daniels—22.8

Ollie Matson—22.6

Doak Walker— 19.5

Doak Walker—19.1

Kyle Rote—19.0

Dub Jones—19.0

Keith Lincoln—18.9

Paul Hornung—18.7

Frank Gifford—18.3

Ray Mathews—18.1

Ollie Matson—18.0

Elijah Pitts—17.7

Doak Walker— 17.6

Gale Sayers—17.5

Larry Garron—16.9

Doak Walker—16.7

Tom Tracy—16.7

Clem Daniels—16.6

Ray Mathews—16.5

Wray Carlton—16.4

Abner Haynes16.4

Timmy Brown— 16.3

Clem Daniels—16.3

Billy Sims— 16.1

Larry Garron—16.1

Hugh McElhenny—15.8

Clem Daniels—15.8

Dub Jones—15.5

Charley Taylor—15.4

Doak Walker— 15.3

OJ Simpson—15.2

Joe Cribbs—15.1

Ray Mathews—14.9

Larry Brown—14.8

Tony Dorsett—14.2

Calvin Hill—14.2

Leroy Kelly14.1

Bobby Mitchell—13.6

Barry Sanders—13.3

Tom Matte—13.3

Floyd Little—13.1

Terry Metcalf— 12.4

Marshall Faulk—12.0

Thurman Thomas—11.6

Walter Payton —11.5

Neal Anderson—11.5

Jim Brown—1.2

Chuck Foreman—11.1

Another astonishing statistic shows that Walker was the most efficient pure running back out of the backfield in league history, scoring a touchdown once every seven times he caught a pass (7.2, to be exact).  The next closest man is Clem Daniels at 8.5, nearly a catch and a half off Walker’s pace.           

Average-Catches-Per-Touchdown by Running Backs (20 or more receiving TDs)

Doak Walker                     7.2          (152 Rec/21 TDs)

Clem Daniels                      8.5          (203 Rec/24 TDs)

Dub Jones                           8.6          (171 Rec/20 TDs)

Timmy Brown                    9.0          (235 Rec/26 TDs)

Ollie Matson                      9.7          (222 Rec/23 TDs)

Frank Gifford                     9.9          (257 Rec/26 TDs)

Calvin Hill                         11.8        (271 Rec/23 TDs)

Larry Brown                      11.9        (238 Rec/20 TDs)

Jim Brown                          13.1        (262 Rec/20 TDs)

Abner Haynes                    14.4        (287 Rec/20 TDs)

Neal Anderson                  15.1        (302 Rec/20 TDs)

Chuck Foreman                 15.2        (350 Rec/23 TDs)

Thurman Thomas              20.5        (472 Rec/23 TDs)

Marshall Faulk                   21.3        (767 Rec/36 TDs)

Larry Centers                     29.5        (827 Rec/28 TDs)

So, there it is.  Short of showing a bunch of scratchy old films from the venerated vaults of Mount Laurel, I believe the case for Doak Walker’s enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is undeniable, regardless of the length of his career.

Doak Walker appeared on the cover of
Sports Illustrated, October 3, 1955

PS – After this little exercise, I think it might be time for the HOF voters to re-examine the case for Clem Daniels!

Thanks to my good friends Coach TJ Troup and John Turney for passing along some very useful stats and insight as I prepared this piece! 


  1. Great argument ...

    I always believed Walker and Hornung were overrated despite being great players for their teams ...

    Without their points scored from kicking, not that either were more than average, would they be in the HOF ?

    Hornung was a failed QB, who could get into the endzone, while Walker was a versatile threat, who wasnt asked to carry the ball alot having less than 250 yards rushing in three of his six seasons, with just 12 running TDs.

    Did Walker and Hornung carry photogenic looks and white male idolatry into the hearts of HOF voters, who knew the true brutality of the sport ?

    Or was their versatility in helping their teams win championships the deciding factor ?

    Everyone loves a winner, yet Timmy Brown, Roger Craig, and OJ Anderson, guys on multiple champions, though Brown was on a SB loser, still cant get in the HOF, and no one knows what Abner Haynes would have accomplished had he not been traded from Kansas City.

    Clem Daniels, John David Crow, Cookie Gilchrist and Bob Brown were versatile backs for the sixties as well that dont get enough attention.

    There is no doubt in my mind, that if Billy Sims or William Andrews had played on a championship team during their short careers, they might have gotten more HOF consideration as well.

  2. I don't believe Walker's kicking should be discounted. Those stats are relevant in that it shows versatility. He excelled in more than one or two aspects of the game (ex. Lou Groza or George Blanda). I won't address the race issue, but it seems to me that players like Hornung and Walker were elected by people who actually saw them play. Those voters must have seem something in them that impressed. I would also argue that being on a championship team, while not an absolute necessity, certainly adds to a player's cache. And in Walker's case, he was definitely a difference maker. The Lions were a very talented team, but Walker's contribution to those title teams in undeniable.

  3. I wasnt trying to make it seem like a race issue because its not, I just felt that the popularity of the two performers, especially in the press and popular culture, gave them more leeway in terms of accomplishments than other players, whether black or white. An example of what I am implying is the 1956 Heisman trophy race in college football. Did Hornung with six rushing TDs, three passing TDs but 13 interceptions deserve the Heisman over Jim Brown and his nearly 1000 yards and 14 TDs ? Just trying to add some debatable perspective. Yes, Walker and Hornung were versatile but its obvious their popularity, along with their contributions to their great teams helped them get elected to the HOF.

    Thats fine with me, because I like both players, especially as running backs but Jim Benton and Ken Kavanaugh had great seasons as receivers, helping their great teams as well but dont get the same consideration, as well as other great players like Ray Renfro for Cleveland, though Kyle Rote of the Giants also had the popularity of a Walker or Hornung without getting elected.

  4. I see the argument that a player's exposure in media can enhance his chances and stature (think Sam Huff or Joe Namath, both deserving enshrinees but somewhat overrated), but look at how long it took Alex Karras to get in. And it took Walker more than thirty years too!
    I think any serious student of the game will acknowledge that there are a few players in the HOF who shouldn't be several who aren't in that should be. Benton's name comes up frequently in discussions between historians, as does Del Shofner and Billy Wilson.
    What hurts Cookie Gilchrist, besides his short peak window (four years) is that he played in the AFL when it was still considered to be not on par with the senior league. Too bad, too, because he might have really been one of the greats had his career gone differently. Clem Daniels, on the other hand, might be more worthy of a reexamination. Just doing the research for this piece was very revealing about Daniels' overall career.

  5. Though the Raiders rode a good running game into SB II, you wonder what impact Clem Daniels could have had in that game had he been healthy ?

    Thats probably why Abner Haynes and Art Powell cant get any HOF traction, due to the early years of the AFL, but it didnt stop Speedie, Motley or Lavelli from the AAFC, though they excelled in joining the NFL and Speedie just now got enshrined.

    I hope Timmy Brown is reassessed as well. He was exciting and versatile like Sayers but did fumble alot. At least playing on two NFL Champions should help his cause.