Congrats to the newest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You can read my thoughts on the candidates here; while this class is not exactly the one I would have picked, Jerome Bettis, Tim Brown, Charles Haley, Junior Seau, Will Shields, and Mick Tingelhoff were all outstanding players. In addition, Bill Polian and Ron Wolf were the inaugural selections for the Contributors spots, so congratulations to them as well.
The Bettis candidacy is an interesting one. Many want to focus on his underwhelming 3.9 career yards per carry average. But as I have written many times, I am not keen on putting much weight on YPC as a statistic. Brian Burke has also written about how coaches don’t view running backs in terms of yards per carry, but rather by success rate (which correlates poorly with yards per carry). Danny Tuccitto calls yards per carry essentially “a bunkum stat.”
The counter to the argument that Bettis was just an average back is that he ranks 5th on the career rushing list. I’m not too swayed by that, either, as career [any statistic] is rarely the best way to grade players. One thing I’ve done in the past is calculate career rushing yards, but only excluding the first 50 rushing yards in each game.1 So if a running back goes for 80 rushing yards, 45, and 60 in three straight games, he is credited with 40 rushing yards over 50 (i.e., 30 + 0 + 10). This, I think, does a nice job of not giving too much credit to compilers.
For example, if a player sticks around and rushes for 600 yards in a season at age 33, well, he might well end up with just a few dozen yards over 50 yards per game. That means this statistic is much less sensitive to mediocre seasons, which I think is a very good thing. As it turns out, Bettis still fares very well in this metric; only Eric Dickerson passes him, a fact which I assume everyone can agree is appropriate.
Here’s how to read the table below. Note that for all purposes in this article, all rushing performances prior to 1960 have been excluded.2 Players like Jim Brown who qualify based on their post-1959 production are included in the table, but only their statistics since 1960 are shown. Here’s how to read the table: Bettis ranks 7th in this metric, and 6th otherwise in total rushing yards since 1960 with 13,662. Bettis had 5,816 rushing yards over 50, and that translates to 42.6% of his career total.3
|Rk||Player||Tot Rsh Rk||Tot Rush Yd||Yards Over 50||Perc|
In my mind, this means Bettis wasn’t much of a compiler. Who was? How about Marcus Allen, who has just 3,584 yards over 50 but 12,243 career rushing yards. Of course, in Allen’s case it may not have been his fault that he was given few carries during his prime years, but the point here isn’t that Allen was bad: just that his 12,243 yards is a bit misleading (of course, his 3,584 yards may be misleading as a measure of how talented he was, too).
Only three players who are not active had a number over 50% in that final column: Brown, Barry Sanders, and Terrell Davis.4 And if you include the playoffs, Davis looks even better, jumping up to #21 when I ran those numbers two years ago.
Bettis was somewhat of a compiler, of course: you have to go down to #12 to find a player who had a lower percentage of “yards over 50” to career yards. And that’s when you get to Tony Dorsett, who was definitely a compiler of sorts. And if you raise the bar from 50 yards to a higher number, Bettis begins to look much worse.5 He is certainly not one of the best running backs in NFL history, and he may even be in the bottom half of running backs in the Hall of Fame. But once you look past his YPC average, he remains one of the most productive running backs (if not necessarily most dominant) in NFL history, at least when it comes to pure rushing.
- I had actually forgot about that post before I finished this article, but searching my archive, I found it! There is at least one difference between that post and this post that you might find meaningful: there I included postseason games, while I excluded them here. [↩]
- This also applies to the “rank” information in the table. [↩]
- I’m not quite so sure how useful this last column is, but I figured I might as well include it. [↩]
- In case you’re curious, Gale Sayers rushed for 2,125 yards over 50, which was 43% of his 4,956 career rushing yards. [↩]
- Note: At the end of my original post, I changed the cut-offs to 75 and 99 yards, as well. [↩]