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Checkdowns: Some Bo Jackson stats

The Bills get to know Bo.

Tonight ESPN aired You Don’t Know Bo, another excellent documentary in its 30 for 30 series. It’s often said that Bo Jackson’s greatness can’t be captured by statistics. While that’s undoubtedly true, there are still some ways to use Jackson’s numbers to give a glimpse into the type of player he was. A few years ago, Jason Lisk talked about Bo in this podcast and noted that Bo had the longest rush in the NFL in three of the four seasons he played. Jackson and O.J. Simpson remain the only two players to record the league’s longest rush in three different NFL seasons.

There are other ways to capture what Bo did in his brief career. Because he was busy being a baseball player, Bo missed the first third of the season each year. If we look at the data starting in week 7, from 1988 to 1990, Bo compares pretty favorably to the elite running backs of his day. Over that span he ranked third in rushing yards while averaging over five yards per carry:

Rank Player From To Tm G Att Yds Y/A TD
1 Eric Dickerson* 1988 1990 CLT 30 606 2536 4.18 19
2 Thurman Thomas* 1988 1990 BUF 30 519 2221 4.28 16
3 Bo Jackson 1988 1990 RAI 30 423 2143 5.07 11
4 James Brooks 1988 1990 CIN 30 383 2082 5.44 16
5 John Stephens 1988 1990 NWE 31 523 1989 3.80 10
6 Herschel Walker 1988 1990 TOT 30 494 1985 4.02 13
7 Barry Sanders* 1989 1990 DET 20 370 1968 5.32 19
8 Neal Anderson 1988 1990 CHI 29 455 1951 4.29 14
9 Roger Craig 1988 1990 SFO 27 445 1874 4.21 12
10 Earnest Byner 1988 1990 TOT 31 438 1697 3.87 14

Bo rushed for a 90-yard touchdown in a game… twice in his career. Ahman Green is the only other player in NFL history to accomplish that feat. But the former Raider was more than just two runs or some highlight films. In 1987, 1989, and 1990, Jackson averaged at least 5.5 yards per carry and rushed for at least 70 yards per game; the great Jim Brown and Dan Towler, another one of the game’s great power/speed backs, are the only two other players to ever have three such seasons (and no one has had four).

He only played in the NFL for four years, from the ages of 25 to 28. To level the playing field, let’s compare him to every other running back in league history, but only at those ages. Among players with at least 500 carries, Jackson averaged the most yards per carry:

Rank Player From To Tm G Att Yds Y/A TD Y/G
1 Bo Jackson 1987 1990 RAI 38 515 2782 5.40 16 73.2
2 DeAngelo Williams 2008 2011 CAR 51 731 3829 5.24 33 75.1
3 Jim Brown* 1961 1964 CLE 56 1106 5713 5.17 40 102.0
4 Joe Perry* 1952 1955 SFO 47 679 3493 5.14 28 74.3
5 Adrian Peterson 2010 2012 MIN 39 725 3714 5.12 32 95.2
6 O.J. Simpson* 1972 1975 BUF 56 1223 6196 5.07 37 110.6
7 Barry Sanders* 1993 1996 DET 59 1195 6051 5.06 32 102.6
8 Robert Smith 1997 2000 MIN 57 997 4989 5.00 21 87.5
9 Marshall Faulk* 1998 2001 TOT 60 1090 5441 4.99 43 90.7
10 Mercury Morris 1972 1975 MIA 46 614 3043 4.96 27 66.2

  • Norwegian Blue

    No doubt Bo’s one of the all-time greats, and it’s good of you to illustrate it in this way. But since the age-old debate has always been Bo Jackson vs. Herschel Walker, I’m curious to know what your analysis shows on that score. Obviously it’s a bit apples and oranges since Herschel spent time in the USFL, but maybe you could reverse-engineer his middle-age NFL numbers to imagine what he might have done with a full NFL career?

    • Chase Stuart

      An interesting question but one I never really gave much thought. Perhaps an interesting off-season project.

  • Norwegian Blue

    It has always been on my mind. Herschel was better than Bo as a college back, but took a detour in the USFL, and was considered a disappointment in the NFL because the Cowboys gave up so much to get him. And yet… he accumulated 12,383 yards from scrimmage over nine NFL seasons, and scored 78 TD’s over that same period of time. These stats alone merit HOF consideration, but it’s incredible to think that the totals do not include his first three seasons (7046 yards from scrimmage, 60 TD’s- all in the USFL), when he was in his prime. Let’s assume his numbers might have been 33% less in the NFL given the difference in competition- he still would have had 4,700 yards and 40 TD’s. That projects out to 17,083 yards and 128 TD’s over a 12-year NFL career, which would put him on par with Walter Payton, Marshall Faulk and Barry Sanders. Like Bo Jackson, he was better than anyone will ever know.

    • Richie

      Looks like Walker averaged 103 rushing yards per game in the USFL. (Did he miss any games in 1984? He only had 1300 that year, compared to 1800 and 2400 the other two years.) His best year in the NFL was 1988 when he averaged 94 yards per game. That was his age 26 season, his third in the NFL, plus three 18-game USFL seasons.

      I count five RB’s who averaged 100+ yards/game in the first 3 years of their careers: Dickerson, Campbell, Brown, Edgerrin James and Portis, and 8 more guys were at 94+. It’s probably not crazy to think that Walker could have averaged 90-100 yards/game during the first 3 years of his career if he had been in the NFL. So that would be another 4,000-5,000 career rushing yards.

      He did have 8,225 NFL rushing yards. Another 4-5,000 would have put him in the 12,000-13,000 range, and means that in 1992-1993 he would have been going head-to-head with Eric Dickerson to catch Tony Dorsett for #2 in career rushing yards.

  • Norwegian Blue

    One correction- he as considered a disappointment in the NFL because of how much the *Vikings* gave up to acquire him (from the Cowboys). I think the rest of my post is right. Thanks for taking the time to respond. And yes, maybe the issue only merits off-season consideration.

    • DB

      I remember Walker’s first game in the NFL, it was the opening MNF game in ’86 against the Giants. If I recall correctly he signed with the Cowboys like 3 days before the game and paid immediate dividends. I also recall an SI article circa ’88 that had a fairly convincing argument that Walker was more productive than Roger Craig. Walker wasn’t as productive with Vikes as he was with Cowboys, but that may have been more to do with the situation that he was put in and less about Walker himself.

      I think you could make an argument that Walker was the most valuable player in Cowboy’s history given the bounty of picks and talent they received in return from the Vikes. That trade laid the foundation for the subsequent 3 SB titles.

  • David

    Its sad how most of the greatest athletes always have a “what if” attached to them and it usually a mental problem. Even without Bo’s injury he still hurt his greatness by not picking one sport. Even though hes a “gamer” if he picked one sport and actually put training and practice to it the possibilities are endless. I guess no one ever gets the full package.

    • Richie

      Maybe part of the reason they are considered greatest athletes is because they never had a decline phase to give us a negative impression of them.

      Kind of like we never get to see Nirvana putting out crappy techno albums in their 40’s.

      • David

        Maybe to some extent, but even a guy who played till no one would take him anymore like Jerry Rice is still considered one of the best athletes or a guy like Darrel Green who played until he couldn’t anymore is still considered a great athlete. He still ran a 4.43 40 when he was 50 years old.

        There’s no doubt that MJ and Tiger were the best at their sports but they still have the “what if” attached to them.