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Today’s guest post comes from Adam Harstad, a co-writer of mine at Footballguys.com. You can follow Adam on twitter at @AdamHarstad.


On Saturday, the Hall of Fame selection committee will meet, lock themselves in a room, and debate the relative merits of the 15 modern-era finalists for induction. After an intense discussion, the results will be announced nationally as the final event in the festivities leading up to Sunday’s Super Bowl.

While the list of 15 finalists includes several names who have been waiting longer than they should for their call, the one that stands out the most to me is Terrell Davis, who has been a semi-finalist more than anyone else in this year’s class, reaching the top 25 ten times in his ten years of eligibility.

Hopefully the Hall of Fame committee can manage to make room for him in what could easily be a stacked class. Whatever they do this Saturday, however, will not change one simple fact: Terrell Davis should have long ago been elected to the Hall of Fame.

The Case for Terrell Davis

The positive case for Terrell Davis is already widely known, but I suspect many underestimate just how strong it really is.

Terrell Davis, in his first four seasons in the NFL, was named to three pro bowls, was a three-time first-team AP All Pro, won two AP Offensive Player of the Year awards, and was named MVP by the Associated Press.1 Davis was also a seven-time AP Offensive Player of the Week, including four times in 1998 alone; with the caveat that it appears the AP has only been issuing that award since 1990, Davis’ total is bettered by only three Hall of Famers (Barry Sanders with 11, Emmitt Smith with 10, and Marshall Faulk with 8).

His “trophy case” compares favorably to any other running back. Since the merger, (and discounting fullbacks or players who received honors for their work as a returner), Davis is one of 11 running backs to earn three first-team AP All Pro honors; the other ten are Barry Sanders (6); Eric Dickerson, Walter Payton, and O.J. Simpson (5); Adrian Peterson and Emmitt Smith (4); Earl Campbell, Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, and LaDainian Tomlinson (3). With the exception of Holmes and, (perhaps to some), Earl Campbell, that’s essentially a “who’s who” of modern “inner circle” Hall of Fame running backs. Again with the exception of Holmes, each of those backs was either elected to the Hall of Fame on their first ballot of eligibility, or else are not yet eligible but are widely expected to earn first-ballot status when they are.

Davis joins Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Marshall Faulk, Barry Sanders, Jerry Rice, and Earl Campbell as the only repeat winners of the AP’s Offensive Player of the Year honors, (and if not for a 2,000 yard season by Sanders in 1997, Davis might have joined Campbell and Faulk as the only players with three consecutive).

These are some impressive accolades, and Davis’ production on the field was worthy of them. One method I like to use to compare production is an adaptation of baseball’s “black ink test” and “grey ink test”. The idea is to count how many times a player led the league or ranked in the top ten in certain key statistics. This test in a single stroke can level the playing field between players who were very good for a long time, (thus having many different chances to add a little bit of black ink / grey ink), and those who were exceptional for a short time, (thus accumulating a lot of black ink / grey ink at once).

There have been fifteen post-merger2 Hall of Fame running backs. Here is how Davis compares to those backs in top-3, top-5, and top-10 finishes in what I believe are the six key statistical categories for running backs: carries, rushing yards, yards per attempt, rushing touchdowns, yards from scrimmage, and total touchdowns.

  Rsh  RYd  YPC  RTD  YFS  TTD  Tot 
t3t5t10t3t5t10t3t5t10t3t5t10t3t5t10t3t5t10t3t5t10
Sanders3510710105694687810345293952
Payton691169111154477911347273652
Smith5695791265910557679273650
Dickerson567667225457556335252737
Dorsett248338124223229113111435
Martin458447001236148114121734
Thomas456446224024556034152130
Allen113124002569235456131729
Harris14713513433401412571629
Faulk002035334345456236121828
Simpson566556333223466122202426
Campbell456345112345134334152026
Bettis33733513411413300291325
Riggins23601400133500123471021
Csonka00214413613501100331121
Davis333334134333333333161820

Unsurprisingly, Davis ranks last in career top-10 finishes. He finishes right at the median for career top-5 finishes, though, (tying Faulk for 8th with 18 each), and ranks 6th in the sample in career top-3 finishes, despite accumulating all sixteen of them in a three-season span. Davis might be light on grey ink, but he sails through the black ink test with flying colors.3

The grey ink and black ink test are simplistic, but they do a phenomenal job of matching our intuitions; they clearly highlight Sanders, Payton, and Smith as a class unto themselves at the top, they clearly highlight Csonka, Riggins, and Bettis as a class unto themselves at the bottom, and they clearly illustrate the divide between the players in the middle who were very good for a long time (Dorsett, Harris, Martin), and players who were exceptional for a short time (Davis, Campbell, Simpson).4

Perhaps most interestingly, we can look at the players who fared the worst on the “grey ink”, (Davis’ weakness), to see what factors allowed them to overcome their liability and earn enshrinement.

The 10th, 11th, and 12th ranked Hall of Famers in “grey ink” are Marshall Faulk, O.J. Simpson, and Earl Campbell. All three made it into the Hall of Fame based on nearly unmatched dominance at their peak; the three combined for seven AP Offensive Player of the Year awards and each was named league MVP once by the Associated Press, (with Faulk collecting MVP awards from non-AP organizations in two years, and Campbell doing it three times).5

The 13th, 14th, and 15th ranked Hall of Famers in “grey ink” are Jerome Bettis, John Riggins, and Larry Csonka. All three made it into the Hall of Fame in large part based on their postseason narratives; Riggins and Csonka both had one of the best postseasons of all time, becoming two of just four players with 300 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns in a single postseason.6 In 2009, Chase calculated that they had the 1st and 7th most valuable individual postseasons of any running back, respectively. Jerome Bettis was born in Michigan.

As the black ink and awards case demonstrate, Davis clearly belongs alongside that first group of backs in terms of peak performance. And while Riggins and Csonka were excellent postseason backs, (and Jerome Bettis was born in Michigan), Terrell Davis was arguably the best postseason back of all time; he owns two of the top five postseasons, and by Chase’s calculation, trailed only Emmitt Smith in career postseason value. Smith accumulated 891 points of value in 17 career games. Davis accumulated 865 points in just 8 games.

In fact, how good was Terrell Davis in the postseason? Better than you think, even accounting for the knowledge that Terrell Davis was better than you think in the postseason. In his eight career playoff games, Davis rushed 204 times for 1140 yards and 12 touchdowns, (at 5.6 yards per carry), adding 19 receptions for 131 yards through the air.7 Pro-rated over a 16-game season, that 2280 rushing yards and 2542 yards from scrimmage would both break the existing NFL records, the former by a full 175 yards. And remember, these numbers came against postseason competition, the best the NFL had to offer.

If that sounds like a huge 8-game total, it is. It’s more than O.J. Simpson ran for in any 8-game stretch during his 2,000 yard season in 1973. But lets put it into better context. Pro Football Reference has game logs going back to 1960. If we remove overlapping stretches,8 there have been 18 times where a back has topped 1,100 rushing yards in 8 games.9 And, if you were to include touchdowns and rushing yards in such a stretch, Davis’ accomplishments would look even better.10

Here’s the complete data for all 18 stretches, plus Terrell Davis’ postseason career. I’ve also added a column showing how many games above .500 each back’s opponents were during their stretch.11

NameYearCarriesYardsYPCTDsBegins (Game #)Ends (Game #)Games above .500
Adrian Peterson201219713226.71891627
Eric Dickerson198421112495.921010178
Earl Campbell198023712455.258613-7
Larry Johnson200523912445.211491614
Walter Payton197722312215.4810613-24
Jim Brown196316311947.33918-9
Barry Sanders199419011836.23331020
Barry Sanders199717211606.7489163
Chris Johnson200919411585.9796136
LaDainian Tomlinson200618511536.2321715-8
O.J. Simpson197519611525.8882922
Terrell Davis199820211505.691418-4
Terrell DavisPlayoffs20411405.591259
O.J. Simpson197319411355.8567144
O.J. Simpson197619011275.9367148
Eric Dickerson198320311155.491341114
Clinton Portis200320611125.4117144
Fred Taylor200020111025.489714-6
Tiki Barber200520511005.3749168

Terrell Davis’ 8 playoff games register as one of the greatest 8-game stretches from any running back in NFL history, (or at least since 1960), even without the additional context about the quality of the opposition or the fact that every single game was a “win or go home” contest.

If you prefer the data in per-game form, Davis’ 142.5 career rushing yards per game in the postseason laps the field; with a five-game minimum, John Riggins (110.7 yards per game) is the only player within 33% of Davis’ total. Of the 75 running backs with at least 100 career rushes in the postseason, Davis’ 5.59 yards per carry is likewise head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field; Marcus Allen, (5.04 yards per carry), is the only other player over 5.0 for his career.

In Terrell Davis’ “worst” playoff game, he still rushed for 91 yards. In NFL history, there have been 144 backs who appeared in at least 4 games and rushed for at least 200 yards; of those 144 backs, only four, (Arian Foster, John Riggins, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith), averaged more yards than Davis had in his least productive game. There have been 188 backs with at least 4 playoff games and at least 200 yards from scrimmage; similarly, only four, (Arian Foster, Marcus Allen, Eric Dickerson, John Riggins), have an average better than Davis’ lowest total, (115 yards).

If we prefer not to divide up those playoff games and treat them as a separate “season” unto themselves, but rather to add them on to his existing seasons, Terrell Davis’ 1997 and 1998 become easily two of the greatest years by any running back in history. The only back with more rushing yards in a single season, (regular and postseason combined), than Terrell Davis’ 2331 in 1997 was… Terrell Davis, with 2476 in 1998. According to Chase’s methodology from 2009, Terrell Davis’ 1998 and 1997 were the 1st and 5th most valuable running back seasons in history.

And Chase’s system was hardly the only advanced statistical system to love Terrell Davis. Before the 2013 season, Football Outsiders looked back at their data, (which dated back to 1991). They found that despite his abbreviated career, Davis ranked 3rd in career rushing value, just a tenth of a percent behind LaDainian Tomlinson for second. Davis’ 1998 season the best they had measured and his 1997 season tied for second, (despite Football Outsiders not including any postseason production for either).

Terrell Davis at his best was clearly one of the greatest running backs to ever play football.12 Despite his shortened career, he packed so much production into such a short time that his regular-season resume is still Hall of Fame caliber. Advanced stats went nuts for him. He supplemented all of this with two Super Bowls and a track record as the greatest postseason running back, (and potentially the greatest postseason performer at any position— Lynn Swann has nothing on him), in NFL history.

So why isn’t Terrell Davis in the Hall of Fame yet? While the case in his favor is exceptional, the case against him is strong, as well.

The Case Against Terrell Davis

Part 1: Longevity

Due to an injury-abbreviated career, Terrell Davis ranks 55th in career rushing yards, behind names such as Chris Warren, James Brooks, and Garrison Hearst. Even the much-maligned Larry Csonka finished his career with nearly 500 more rushing yards than Terrell Davis. How can a player who doesn’t even rank in the top 50 at his own position be a Hall of Famer?

The problem with this argument? Longevity, by itself, means nothing. Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe rank 9th and 10th in career passing yards, yet neither will ever even be a finalist for the Hall of Fame. Playing for a long time isn’t enough; a player must be adding substantial value during that time.

Allow me to demonstrate with a comparison. While I hate when people argue for one player to make the Hall of Fame by comparing him to one of the worst players at his position who has already been elected, I think a comparison between Terrell Davis and Jerome Bettis, member of the class of 2015, can be illustrative.

Bettis was a Hall of Fame finalist four times from 2011 to 2014, while Davis was cut at the semifinalist stage each time. Both backs were finalists in 2015, but Bettis was inducted over Davis. The Hall of Fame voters pretty clearly expressed a preference for Bettis in each year he was eligible, so a comparison seems fair.13

Bettis made the Hall of Fame in large part because of his remarkable longevity.14 When Bettis retired in 2005, he ranked 5th in NFL history in career rushing yards. By the time he was eligible for the Hall of Fame, he still ranked 6th, (having been passed by LaDainian Tomlinson, who retired with 22 more rushing yards).

How much more need Davis have done to match Bettis’ remarkable longevity? Let’s investigate. During his peak, (1995 to 1998), Terrell Davis played 61 games, amassed 1343 carries, gained 6413 yards and 56 touchdowns, and added 152 receptions for 1181 yards and 5 more scores. In addition, as mentioned, he added 204/1140/12 rushing and 19/131/0 receiving in the postseason. While we could discuss whether the postseason performance was more valuable than the regular season performance, that’s not important— at a bare minimum, hopefully we can agree that it was equally valuable and deserves to be counted.

Combining those totals, Davis’ “peak production” spanned 69 games and consisted of 1547/7553/68 rushing and 171/1312/5 receiving. We can subtract those totals from the career production of Jerome Bettis, (including his own postseason games), then divide by the additional number of games Bettis played, and that will tell us exactly what Davis would have had to average, and for how long, to precisely match Bettis’ career totals.

Doing this, we find that Davis would have needed to play roughly 8.5 more seasons, and during those 8.5 seasons he would need to average roughly 249 carries for 792 yards, (3.2 yards per carry), catch an additional 4 passes for 23 additional yards, and score roughly 3.5 touchdowns.

Imagine Davis had given us an extra 8-9 years like this. Would this make him more of a Hall of Famer? Certainly not. Those are the definition of “replacement level” seasons; we’re far more concerned with how much value a player provides above and beyond that.

Bettis is, admittedly, an extreme example, (though as I said, I believe he is a fair one, given how he and Davis directly competed for a spot and the committee explicitly preferred him). Few backs have had as many “filler” seasons as Bettis, who was below 1,000 yards from scrimmage in five different years, accumulating 3758 total yards during that span. Had I chosen Curtis Martin as the point of comparison, Davis would have needed 1400 yards for about 7 more years. Had I chosen Thurman Thomas, Davis would have needed 1200 yards for about 8 more years.

Without the rushing yardage from those five filler seasons, Bettis falls from 6th to 28th in career rushing yards. He falls from 22nd to 90th in yards from scrimmage. Does he make the Hall of Fame without them? I think not.

Theoretically, we never want to punish a player for not having filler seasons. In practice, using career totals always does. Davis gained 983 rushing yards at 4.0 yards per carry in the 13 games he played after his knee injury. Had he added another three seasons at that pace, he would have been over 10,000 career rushing yards.

But would another three seasons of his post-injury play really have made him more deserving of enshrinement? We must be very careful of what exactly we hope to reward when we discuss “longevity”.

Part 2: Replaceability.

Much has been made of the success of running backs in Denver after Terrell Davis went down. In 1999, Olandis Gary had 1159 rushing yards in 12 games. In 2000, Mike Anderson topped 1600 yards from scrimmage in just 13 games. Clinton Portis rushed for 1500 yards in each of his first two seasons, and then in 2004 Rueben Droughns rushed for 1200 yards in the final 12 games after winning the starting job. The 2005 Broncos very nearly got 1000 yards rushing from both Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell.

The argument is that the success of all of these different backs prove that it was the system, and not any individual talent, that resulted in Terrell Davis’ incredible production.

But how successful were these backs, really? Not nearly as successful as Terrell Davis. From 1999 to 2010, Denver’s running backs combined for just one pro bowl appearance, (by Clinton Portis). From Davis’ injury in 1999 to Peyton Manning’s arrival in 2012— a span of 13 years— all Denver running backs combined, (including Portis), won four Offensive Player of the Week awards; that’s as many as Davis had in 1998 alone.

The ten seasons from 1995 to 2004 represent four years with Davis as the primary back, two years with Portis as the primary back, and four years with a hodgepodge of players. Of those ten years, the top four seasons in total rushing yards are 2003, (with Portis)… then 1998, 1997, and 1996, in that order.

In six of those seasons, Denver as a team averaged more than 4.5 yards per carry. They were 2002 and 2003, (with Portis), plus 1995, 1996, 1997, and 1998, (with Davis). The traditional statistics suggest that the Davis and Portis offenses were clearly better than the others at running the ball.

Advanced statistics tell the same story. Per Football Outsiders, here’s Denver’s year-by-year rushing DVOA rating, (a statistic to measure how much more effective a certain player or unit is relative to league average), as well as where that value ranked among the rest of the league:

1995 – 13.5% (2nd)

1996 – 13.1% (7th)

1997 – 24.0% (1st)

1998 – 31.4% (1st)

1999 – 7.4% (10th)

2000 – 12.8% (6th)

2001 – 2.0% (13th)

2002 – 22.3% (3rd)

2003 – 9.0% (8th)

2004 – 4.0% (13th)

Denver topped 13% DVOA rushing in each of Davis’ four healthy seasons. They only topped it once in the six subsequent years, with Clinton Portis, (who was also pretty good). Denver ranked in the top 5 in rushing efficiency four times, and three of them were with Davis, (the other with Portis). Denver’s average rushing DVOA before Davis’ injury was 20.5%, and its average rushing DVOA after was 9.6%.

More evidence that Terrell Davis was a lot better than Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson comes from the 2001 season, when a shadow-of-his-former-self Terrell Davis in his final eight games of his career kept both on the bench. In the eight games Davis played that season, he rushed 167 times for 701 yards, (4.2 yards per carry). In the eight games he missed, Anderson rushed 141 times for 537 yards, a 3.8 yards per carry clip (in the games Davis played, Anderson received just 34 carries).15

Brian Burke, (formerly of Advanced Football Analytics, now of ESPN), created an “Estimated Points Added”, (or EPA), model of production that measures how much each individual play contributes to a team’s bottom line. Unfortunately, Burke’s statistics don’t go back to before 1999, so we can never know how valuable Davis was by that method. It’s fairly safe to say that the Broncos would have ranked rather high, though.

In the 6 years after Davis’ injury, Denver ranked 12th, 9th, 18th, 4th, 2nd, and 9th in rushing EPA. Outside of the two exceptional Clinton Portis years, Denver typically settled in the “above average” range for rushing production. Which means Davis’ Hall of Fame candidacy is being dinged because (A) three years after his injury Denver drafted a genuinely great running back, and (B) Denver got good but unspectacular production from Davis’ immediate replacements.

This is such a loaded argument, though. The year after Jim Brown retired, Cleveland sent not one but two running backs to the Pro Bowl; one of Brown’s replacements, Leroy Kelly, would make three straight first-team AP All Pro teams, make the All-Decade squad, and eventually make the Hall of Fame.

Joe Montana’s direct replacement, Steve Young, would likewise make three straight first-team AP All Pro squads, win two league MVPs, and make the Hall of Fame. Steve Young’s direct replacement, Jeff Garcia, would earn a trip to three straight pro bowls after Young retired. In fact, in his first full year as a starter, Garcia would pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 400 yards, becoming just the second player in history to reach both marks behind… Steve Young.

It could be argued that Montana was himself a successor of Ken Anderson, who many consider the best player not currently in the Hall of Fame. Marshall Faulk had two direct successors in his career, (Edgerrin James and Steven Jackson), and both of them accumulated 15,000 career yards from scrimmage. St. Louis finished in the top 5 in passing yards in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006 as they moved on from Kurt Warner to Marc Bulger. Two years after Barry Sanders retired, James Stewart had 1400 yards from scrimmage with Detroit.

How many times was Jeff Garcia mentioned when Steve Young was brought to the floor for debate? I’m not on the Hall of Fame committee, so I don’t know. But I’d venture it was probably as many times as he deserved to be mentioned: zero. Steve Young’s Hall of Fame case depended on the merits of Steve Young’s play and nothing more.

Similarly, Terrell Davis’ candidacy should rest on how good Terrell Davis himself was, and the answer is “exceptionally good”. His peak was incandescent, including two of the greatest seasons in NFL history by any measure. His trophy case is stuffed full and his profile is positively littered with black ink, finishing in the top half of modern Hall of Famers at the position. He was perhaps the greatest postseason performer in NFL history and he retired with two rings and a Super Bowl MVP for one of the most iconic big-game performances the league has seen, a 160-yard, three-touchdown affair, (including the game-winner), where Davis missed literally the entire second quarter to a migraine. Davis did more in his four seasons before injury robbed him of his ability than most backs do in an entire, full career.16

The Hall of Fame has made exceptions for brilliant players with short careers in the past. Gale Sayers, Paul Hornung, Kellen Winslow Sr., Dwight Stephenson, Earl Campbell, Lynn Swann, Floyd Little, and Dick Butkus all had much shorter careers than their peers. At the time of his enshrinement, (on the first ballot, no less), Roger Staubach ranked 31st in career passing yards, behind names like Steve Bartkowski, Jim Plunkett, and Charley Johnson.

I am not saying that the Hall of Fame should make another such exception for Terrell Davis now. They should have already done so a decade ago.17 But at least it’s not too late to correct their oversight.

  1. The majority of this article will be AP-centric, simply because that is widely accepted as the “most legitimate” or “most important” postseason honor; for those of you who feel that the other awards are just as legitimate, (and I count myself among your number), note that Davis fared well across the board; all five naming institutions listed him as a first-team All Pro in 1996, all four institutions named him a first-team All Pro in 1997 and 1998, and the Pro Football Writers of America likewise gave Davis their MVP award in 1998, (though the Bert Bell Player of the Year award went to Randall Cunningham, his third). The UPI also named Davis second-team All Conference in 1995. Incidentally, Davis also finished 3rd in MVP voting in 1996, behind eventual winner Brett Favre and teammate John Elway. []
  2. Simpson was drafted in 1969, but obviously the majority of his career came after the merger. Two other Hall of Fame running backs played part of their career after 1970, but are excluded here. Leroy Kelly accumulated more than half of his career production prior to the merger, while Floyd Little entered the Hall of Fame via the seniors’ process, which makes him a poor point of comparison. []
  3. An interesting, (but harder-to-quickly-calculate), alternative to the “black ink test” is a “yards above X” model. Doug Drinen in 2006, for instance, calculated how many yards above the 10th-leading rusher every running back since 1970 accumulated. Davis finished 7th. In yards from scrimmage, Davis finished 10th. In the summer of 2015, Chase did the same thing but used a lower threshold of “worst starter.” Obviously Davis fared worse here, but still respectable, ranking 31st in rushing yards (largely on the strength of two top-30 seasons) and 33rd in yards from scrimmage. Davis also ranks 28th in career VBD, which uses RB24 as the baseline. []
  4. Looking at the individual categories also is a neat way to see a player’s relative strengths. Emmitt Smith was a touchdown machine, Barry Sanders lapped the field in yards per carry, Walter Payton was a yards from scrimmage monster. Perhaps most interesting to me is Larry Csonka; he played in a smaller league, but his six seasons in the top 10 in yards per carry trails only Barry Sanders’ nine, an outcome I certainly was not expecting. []
  5. Of note: Davis, Simpson, and Campbell are three of the five running backs to average 110+ rushing yards per game over a three-year stretch. []
  6. The other two are Davis himself and Hall of Famer Franco Harris. Emmitt Smith also once had 298 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns in the postseason. []
  7. He also contributed a 2-point conversion. []
  8. For example: in 2012, Adrian Peterson topped 1,100 rushing yards in every 8-game stretch from game 5 to game 17, six such stretches in total. I have removed all but his most prolific stretch, the 1322 rushing yards from week 9 to week 16. []
  9. While we’re on the subject, if you don’t remove overlapping stretches, Terrell Davis’ 11 stretches with 1,000 yards in eight consecutive games is tied with Barry Sanders for second behind only Eric Dickerson’s 12. That’s not counting Davis’ 8 playoff games as a stretch. []
  10. If you’ll permit a bit of endpoint cherrypicking, there have only been four stretches since 1960 where a back topped 1100 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in eight games. Those stretches belong to Ladainian Tomlinson in 2006, Larry Johnson in 2005, Eric Dickerson in 1983, and… Terrell Davis himself, with 1150 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns in the first eight weeks of 1998. []
  11. “Games above .500” includes the regular season record of all teams each back faced in his respective 8-game run, outside of those eight games. For example: the eight teams Adrian Peterson faced to end the 2012 season had a combined record 25 games above .500 in the regular season, but that includes the fact that they went 3-5 against the Vikings during Peterson’s big stretch. Removing those 8 games from the sample improves the teams Peterson faced to 27 games above .500. On the other end of the spectrum, the teams O.J. Simpson faced to end 1976 were 16 games above .500 for the year, but Simpson’s Bills amazingly went 0-8 despite O.J.’s 1127 rushing yards; subtracting those games from the sample drops the combined record of Simpson’s opponents to 8 games above .500. Note that all numbers include regular-season records only, except for Terrell Davis’ playoff numbers, which include opponents’ postseason wins and losses as well. []
  12. He also rushed for at least 50 yards in a game in 87% of his career games, the best rate since at least 1960. And Davis also rushed for 75+ or 100+ yards at record or near-record rates, too. []
  13. Chase also mentioned both Bettis and Davis in the context of the HOF here. []
  14. He made it in small part due to being born in a city where they very occasionally play significant football games. []
  15. Gary couldn’t get on the field over either; he finished the season with 57 carries for 228 yards. []
  16. The Broncos also went 49-7 when Davis had 20 carries, and that’s an incredible winning percentage even when you consider that every running back has a good record when they get 20+ carries. []
  17. For those curious, Davis ranked as the 16th best running back in the Football Perspective Wisdom of Crowds experiment. []
  • sacramento gold miners

    Good article, and I have come around to supporting Davis for the HOF. Not an inner circle guy, but the postseason greatness is just enough to make up for a very short career. Gale Sayers was different in how he was a far more versatile back, and played in an offense with a lousy QB and receivers.

    Also different than Davis was Jerome Bettis, so when we start talking about longevity, it’s fair to talk about the huge edge in value Bettis enjoyed over his career. Davis was finished after his age 26 season, and Bettis would amass more yards than other HOF backs if we just picked up his great career at age 27. In fact, just shy of Floyd Little, and more than Steve Van Buren, among others. Bettis was instrumental in winning games for playoff teams, while Davis was announcing. And in NFL history, only four other backs have more career 100 yard games. HOF voters correctly voted Bettis in because of his outstanding production at a rare size. We may never see a back of his size and performance in the NFL again.

    Bettis did have injury issues late in his career, and was phased out of his role with the Rams earlier, which held down his numbers.
    Let’s not forget Bettis was dominant over the last half of the 2004 season, rushing for 100 or more yards in six of his last eight games for a 15-1 team. And in his final season, in a backup role, Bettis lifted the Steelers past Chicago in a key regular season win. In terms of yards from scrimmage, we should also remember Bettis was larger and much slower than John Riggins. Pass receiving just wasn’t going to a strength, it’s like talking about scrambling yards with Dan Marino. Bettis’ strength was punishing defenses, and his production played a huge role in winning games, which is the primary objective in football.

    • Richie

      We’re supposed to give extra credit for a player’s size?

      In that case, Harold Carmichael and Doug Flutie should be enshrined!

      • sacramento gold miners

        Harold Carmichael’s height was a bigger advantage for him as a receiver as compared with a 250 pound plus RB without NFL speed. What Bettis did at a unique size is unequaled. Earl Campbell and John Riggins were lighter and much faster. Doug Flutie was a great QB, if we count his CFL achievements.

        • Every time you bring up Jerome Bettis’ size, I’m going to counter with Warrick Dunn. Every time.

          • sacramento gold miners

            Warrick Dunn is close to Canton, but not quite at the same level as a Bettis. Never played on a World Champion, and Bettis crushes him in career 100 yard games, 61-30. Dunn was very effective, but wasn’t the physical dominant back, like Jerome. Career totals also fall a little short, other RBs are in that 10,000 range. While Dunn used his speed, and elusiveness as a good receiver, I don’t know how big of a disadvantage it was to be 5’8 instead of 5’9 or 5’10. During his career, Dunn was able to duck in low and avoid the big hit. I would argue Bettis had a larger disadvantage of having a much bigger target for defenders, and took far more punishment. I also don’t recall Dunn closing out games and grinding out those tough first downs when everyone knew he would be carrying the ball.

            • Richie

              You’re going to give Jerome Bettis “world champion” credit for his 368 rushing yard season in 2005?

              • sacramento gold miners

                Sure, Bettis delivered in the biggest regular season win that season over Chicago. And that’s the mark of a HOF player, delivering even in the downside of a career.

                • Richie

                  A week 14 game against a non-conference opponent was their biggest win? His first carry of the game came midway through the 2nd quarter, and the Steelers already had a 90% win probability (according to PFR).

                  What about the 3 losses before that, where he ran a total of 16 times for 22 yards?

                  Bettis had a fine career. But his Super Bowl ring was just a token. A win in 96, 97 or 2000 would be an accomplishment more deserving for his HOF case.

                  • sacramento gold miners

                    Yes, the playoffs were on the line, and percentages don’t win football games. Bettis carved up the Bears on that snowy day, and that win helped get the Steelers into the playoffs. Other HOF backs limped into retirement over their final two years, and Bettis went out on a different note. Obviously his skills were declining in 2005, but he still provided more value than other backs who had long since retired.

          • sacramento gold miners

            Forgot to mention another important advantage Bettis has over Dunn, is the fact the former was often the focal point of the offense, while the latter was rarely in that role. Dunn split time in Tampa for a while, then later, complemented Michael Vick in Atlanta. Vick was also a strong running threat. and great player early on. By contrast, Bettis didn’t play for a great QB until 2004.

            The HOF is for players who were feared, and Dunn was rarely in that category. A good QB comp is Stabler vs. Anderson, The Snake was feared much more than Anderson ever was.Ken Anderson was a poor comeback QB, and was the type of QB who would throw a third down completion for nine yards when the situation required ten.

            • The thing about Warrick Dunn is that he was the size of DeSean Jackson. Imagine a guy rushing for 10,000 yards and topping 15,000 yards from scrimmage when he’s built like DeSean Jackson. DeSean Jackson is a very small player. He does not weigh very much for a wide receiver, and Warrick Dunn was a running back. A running back who topped 15,000 yards from scrimmage. Running backs are usually bigger than wide receivers, but Warrick Dunn was smaller. This is very unique, and a strong reason why he should be in the Hall of Fame.

              • sacramento gold miners

                Dunn had a tremendous career, and has great character. But I think it’s more impressive for Bettis to excel at 20 pounds heavier than Earl Campbell and John Riggins than Dunn, who was nine pounds lighter than Tony Dorsett. Big backs don’t age well, yet Bettis was a force long after backs like Campbell and Csonka had already retired. I was hoping Dunn would continue playing, it would have likely improved his resume. I also feel Dunn is affected the same way Edgerrin James is affected, having missed a SB winning season by their former team.

  • Johhny Ohrl

    I would not suport TD. Or if I should, then Schlereth, Nalen, Habib, TJones, DNeil, HSwayne & Lepsis MUST get into the HOF too (soon then, basically the whole DEN offensive teams of the 90s/early 00s are in ;-)…
    In reality may only one of them will actually get in, joining the lone Gary Zimmermann from that great OL (btw, the OL coach must in too ofc, even though he used dirty tricks).
    All those named OL men had approx twice as many starts as TD, and their blocking helped Anderson, Gary, Portis, Droughns, the Bells, etc of this world to the same (or even better) efficiency stats.
    It´s a tricky thing to evaluate RB performance, extracting their achievements from team performance and the talent around them. Timmy Smith, John Settle and a tousand others say hello.
    And we shall not over-value RB importance for championships too. They are nothing without support. Payton, Bo Jackson, Sanders, Sayers, Martin, Tomlinson, Peterson, Dickerson, say hello too. Those were/are extraordinary all-time athlets. But only one SB title between them (which only came with a strong passing support, and a monster D). Actually (AFAIR) ESmith was the first ever rushing leader to win a SB (ofc we know why: OL, Aikman, Irvin, Harper, Novacek… and ofc a great D also says hello)…
    So no, no way should TD get into the HOF. I mean there´s only 5 slots (?) per year available, and common he his 55th (and in circa two years drops to 60th) in all time rushing yards… Shall the other 54 in front of him get into too?

  • Johhny Ohrl

    Just made a quick& dirty stats comparison, to check if my feeling was right (that it was Elway and the OL making TD great).
    So here are some numbers:

    (others means all rushers that were not leading DEN that year. In 2005 it was basically commitee by Anderson and Tatum Bell)

    95-TD 4.7, others 4.3, Y/P 6.5
    96-TD 4.5, others 4.6, Y/P 6.0
    97-TD 4.7, others 4.2, Y/P 6.4
    98-TD 5.1, others 3.5, Y/P 7.0

    (averages; TD-4.75, others 4.15, Y/P 6.5)

    99-Gary 4.2, others 3.7, Y/P 5.8
    00-Anderson 5.0, others 3.8, Y/P 7.1
    01-Anderson 3.9, others 3.9, Y/P 5.3
    02-Portis 5.5*, others 4.1, Y/P 6.4
    03-Portis 5.5*, others 4.1, Y/P 5.9
    04-Droughns 4.5, others 4.2, Y/P 7.5
    05-Anderson/TB 4.7, others 4.6, Y/P 6.6
    06-TB 4.4, others 4.4, Y/P 5.8

    (averages; RB leaders 4.7, others 4.1, Y/P 6.3)

    (* now one could argue that it was actually Portis that was the standout of the RBs running behind that great OL. But then again, look at his dramtic drop-off once he left DEN. Same happened to EJames when heading for ARZ, among others who suffered dramatic drops; or improved a lot once joing a OL in sync)

    What we see here is that the years the pass efficiency was good, the run efficiency was too (now one could argue that the running made the passing. Well, just have a look at Portis to get the answer 😉

    TD does not stand out from the other yearly rushing leaders of DEN in context with pass efficiency (as expected in my last post).
    TD was indeed a product of the system as the HOF voters correctly assumed. Thus TD does not belong into the HOF, especially him having only four seasons as rushing leader.
    Injuries shortened careers of other good players too. But that doesn´t mean they belong into the HOF. That is no argument…

    Finally: What actually surprises me, is that Elway was not clear-cut better than his successors… just as a side-note

  • Very good and convincing article. My only quibble is that I don’t like that the emphasis is on rushing stats instead of rushing/receiving stats. Is there a good reason to value a running backs rushing yardage and touchdowns more than his receiving yardage and touchdowns — production is production, no?

    By the way, I think a good comp for “Hypothetical Davis” (TD if he played another five years or so as a mediocre starter) is OJ Simpson. Also, at my horse-and-pony blog (currently in hiatus), I ranked TD as the 15th best running back of the Super Bowl era, which seems about right if you don’t consider postseason. His great playoffs stats would probably push him up near top-10 range — definitely worthy of a strong gold jacket consideration.

    • There’s two reasons for the emphasis on rushing yards. First, the Hall of Fame itself has pretty clearly placed an emphasis on rushing in its own decisions, (see Bettis, Jerome and Barber, Tiki). Second, rushing statistics are a lot easier to query and collate on PFR than “receiving statistics by RBs”. And including the receiving numbers in the 8-game stretch research would have doubled the work required. The post was already pretty long, so I cut corners from time to time. And I do always wonder how much of RB receiving is skill-based and how much is scheme-based.

      I prefer Yards from Scrimmage to raw rushing yards, for sure. I also really like the Simpson comp, with the caveat that Simpson’s peak was 5 years instead of 4 for Davis, (4.5 counting postseason). But yeah, he really did very little of significance outside of 1972-1976, which is really noticeable in his black ink vs. grey ink, (which is a more extreme split even than Earl Campbell’s).

  • Corey

    1) Players on teams at the forefront of tactical innovations are always tricky to evaluate. There is a definite first-mover advantage with tactics (look at how bewildered the league was in 2012 by the zone-read vs. now). How much of those players’ value results from their ability and how much from the innovative tactical scheme? Davis’ Broncos with Gibbs as OL coach were definitely innovative; zone-blocking had been around in one from or another for a while but AFAIK they were the first team to use ZBS in its modern form as a complete system, with the smaller linemen running the outsize zone/stretch as their base play designed to get lateral defensive movement to create cut-blocking angles that would allow for RB cutbacks against the pursuit. How much of the decline in Denver’s run-game productivity that you document is due to weaker RBs, and how much due to the league adjusting to the Denver scheme and figuring out the personnel/scheme/techniques to slow it down? (Btw, I’m not completely sure on the ZBS scheme history, and if my story here is wrong I’d love to read a counter).

    2) I know you say you hate the “compare to worst guy in the hall at his position” argument, but that’s how large parts of this post read. Bettis was an extreme compiler who is almost certainly the weakest post-merger RB and probably shouldn’t have been elected; he got in not so much because of his longevity but because he was a charismatic, unique player (n terms of physique) with a cool nickname who played most of his career for a flagship team that won a lot and had a lot of friends in the media. If he’d been “moody” and played his career in Seattle or Jacksonville, he wouldn’t have sniffed the HoF. I’m willing to grant that Davis had a more valuable career than Bettis, but that doesn’t mean Davis should be a straightforward HoF choice.

    The comparisons to Martin and Thomas are more revealing, I think, as both are solid HoFers without being in the inner-circle/GOAT level (e.g. Brown, Simpson, Payton, Smith, Sanders, etc.). You write, “Had I chosen Curtis Martin as the point of comparison, Davis would have needed 1400 yards for about 7 more years. Had I chosen Thurman Thomas, Davis would have needed 1200 yards for about 8 more years.” 1400 yards/7 years or 1200/8 is hardly “filler”!

    3) The best HoF comp for Davis is Earl Campbell, also a super-high peak guy who had most of his value in three great years. The best non-HoF comp is probably Priest Holmes, also a brilliant player struck down by injuries, but whom nobody seems to be in any rush to induct. Davis had slightly better rushing numbers, but Holmes was a better receiver The difference with Holmes seems to be mainly that Davis played for better teams that won championships. Davis had great post-season production, but he also played on teams with good defenses that allowed him to play a lot of playoff games during his peak. Holmes played with terrible defenses; he only got to play in one playoff game during his peak, in which he put up 24/176/2 but the Chiefs lost 38-31 (this was the famous 2003 game against the Colts in which neither team punted). Davis’ case isn’t actually all that much different from Roger Craig (Craig’s peak was slightly lower, but he had 5ish peak seasons rather than 3).

    I continue to think Davis is borderline. The problem with borderline guys is that there are only 5 slots each year, and it’s hard to justify a slot for a borderline guy when there are slam dunks at other positions — this year it’s very hard to make a case for Davis over Favre, Owens, Harrison, Pace, or Faneca, and that’s before considering the coaches or other strong but less slam-dunky cases like Jacoby or Atwater or Warner.

    • sacramento gold miners

      If Jerome Bettis was a compiler, then so was O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson, and Emmitt Smith. Bettis had injury issues in 2002 and 2003, but regained his starters role in 2004. Does a compiler lead a 15-1 team in rushing with six 100 yard plus games out of his last eight? How many HOF backs ever rushed for 149 yards against a conference champion in their next to last season? It’s frustrating to see this narrative, because it just isn’t true.

      While Davis was a better postseason back, and had the hardware, it’s debatable whether he actually had a more valuable career than Bettis, hence Jerome’s induction into Canton. Davis was washed up after his age 26, while Bettis was passing hall of fame backs enroute to fifth all time in career 100 yard games. During this time, Davis was useless as a player, and Denver could have really used his services.

      • Corey

        “Does a compiler lead a 15-1 team in rushing with six 100 yard plus games out of his last eight?”

        Yes. Racking up attempts and yards without outstanding efficiency on a very good team playing with the lead a lot is a classic compiler profile. Bettis was 11th in rushing DYAR and 12th in DVOA in 2004, and he had zero receiving value. He was a little better than his 3.8 Y/A makes him look, because he had a decent success rate and got a lot of short yardage/goal line usage (13 TDs). He wasn’t terrible or replacement level, but it was hardly an elite/HoF-level season.

        And you’re cherry-picking stats badly here. If you want to note that he had six 100+ yard games in his last eight, we should also note that he had 52 carries for 129 yards in the first 8 games of the season COMBINED.

        “How many HOF backs ever rushed for 149 yards against a conference champion in their next to last season?”

        Performance in one cherry-picked game has zero relevance to an assessment of career value. Even then, the “conference champion” bit is misleading; Philly was 17th in run defense DVOA in 2004.

        • sacramento gold miners

          Bettis was more effective than other HOF backs toward the end of his career, and a key part of a 15-1 team, so that’s the opposite of someone hanging on. 61 career 100 yard games is one of the highest in NFL history.

    • Richie

      Yeah, I think we should be comparing HOF candidates to the MEDIAN HOFer, not the MINIMUM HOFer. There are 15 post-merger RB’s in the Hall of Fame. Thurman Thomas, Franco Harris and Curtis Martin rank in the middle based on AV. Dorsett, Faulk and Marcus Allen rank in the middle based on rushing yards. That sounds about right to me as a baseline for future inductees.

      At their peaks, I would probably pick Davis above all but Marshall Faulk.

      • Corey

        I agree that I would take peak Davis over all those players’ peaks except Faulk (although 1985-Allen was great too). But for Davis, the issue isn’t whether he was better at his peak, it’s whether he was so much better at his peak that it makes up for his lack of career value. I don’t think his peak advantage is so big to make that conclusion obvious.

        • Richie

          Agreed.

          My opinion Davis changes depending on when you ask me.

          I’m very torn. The argument that the difference between Davis making the HOF and not making the HOF is him tacking on 5 replacement-level seasons resonates with me. I mean, this is basically the same for Marcus Allen. From 82-85, Allen was about the same as 95-98 Terrell Davis. Allen then played for 12(!) more mediocre seasons, which made him a HOF shoo-in.

          Thomas Jones had one good season and basically 11 mediocre seasons. Nobody is thinking about putting him in the HOF.

          • Same here. I am going to work on some RB stuff this offseason, but my hunch is Davis falls in the borderline case. The same will likely be true for say, Tiki, Edge, Shaun Alexander, and maybe Ricky Watters and Roger Craig.

            Edge is an interesting comparison. In his best 4 years, he had 6316/48 on the ground, and then 2000/10 through the air. In TD’s best 4 years, he had 6413/56 on the ground, and 1181/5 through the air. Those are very similar numbers, although TD averaged 4.78 YPC and James 4.36.

            But Edge had 5,930 rushing yards and 32 TDs on a 3.76 YPC average in the other seasons of his career, which includes four years of 989+ rushing yards. And he had another 1364 through the air. Take out TD’s best 4, and he’s at 1,194 rushing yards and 4 TDs.

            So you have to balance James’ big production edge outside of the first 4 years with TD’s edge in YPC and his edge in playoff production. To me, the best way for TD supporters to go is to lean heavy on playoff production, because the more weight you place there, the easier it is to support him. Without that, he’s almost certainly not in a tier above other non-HOF RBs.

            Of course, nobody knows how to way playoff production, so here we are. But I agree with Adam’s approach — placing TD in the Csonka/Franco/Riggins bucket makes a lot of sense.

            • I don’t think Edge’s best four years are really as comparable to TD’s best four years as you are making it seem just based on the raw totals. Edge made four pro bowls, one first-team AP All Pro, two second-team AP All Pros, and one Offensive Rookie of the Year in his four big years. Davis made three pro bowls, three first-team AP All Pros, two AP Offensive Player of the Years, and a league MVP. I’m not saying Davis boat-raced him, but his best four are pretty self-evidently better than Edge’s best four, in my opinion.

              In the FO retrospective piece, they said Edge’s career DYAR was 2071 vs. 1892 for Davis. Using a weighted sum, Edge had 1912 vs. Davis’ 1773. Over their best six years, Edge averaged 343, while Davis averaged 313– which is especially impressive when you remember that Davis’ 5th and 6th best seasons consisted of 8 and 5 games.

              That’s a small edge to Edge for his entire career, (179 total DYAR, just a hair under a 10% advantage), but I’m willing to bet adding playoff numbers- without even weighting them or anything- would mostly or even completely wipe out the gap. And if the two are tied in total statistical value added, Davis still gets the edge because of the two SB rings, the SB MVP, the records, and the narrative.

              (One other thing to keep in mind: I believe Football Outsiders has actually said that 1998 was the toughest rushing environment of the DVOA era, overall, which makes Davis’ season even more impressive in context.)

              • sacramento gold miners

                Neither Edge or Davis made it this year, and we can guess the short career of TD will have to be debated next year. James does have three problems which will have to be overcome for his possible induction:

                First, he went out with a whimper, ending with the Seahawks, at least Davis was a Bronco until the end. Franco Harris also played out the string in Seattle, but was a HOF lock before that. Second, the Indy Colts won their first SB without him, and James was a non-factor in SB43 with Arizona. Third, I don’t know if he did enough to escape Manning’s shadow. Just two 100 yard rushing games in 13 playoff games, and those Colts teams could have used more of his help.

            • sacramento gold miners

              The Colts winning the SB the year after James moved on hurts his case. Barber retired too early, and Watters was know as a selfish player. Roger Craig aged quickly, and has the problem of the fumble in the 1990 NFC title game.

          • Corey

            Allen is a weird case with an extremely odd career arc, because 1) his career was so strangely affected by his ongoing feud with Al Davis, 2) he had to split time with Bo Jackson for several years, and 3) he lasted forever as an extremely effective limited use goal line/short yardage back, with 11 TDs on just 124 carries in his final season at age 37, and a big part of his HoF case was the TDs. He was hardly replacement level in KC — he was top 10 in DYAR/DVOA every year in KC, and in 95/96/97 (his age 35-37 seasons) he ranked 5/5/1 in DVOA, 6/4/6 in DYAR, and 3/4/1 in success rate. His later Raider years were mostly dreadful though. How many RBs are there that are more productive at ages 33-37 than 29-32? The only other RB I can think of that peaked that late was John Riggins, who had his two best years at ages 34-35, but Riggins was hardly bad from ages 29-32. It was a very strange career.

    • Richie

      I think Priest Holmes lacks support because he only played in one playoff game. Though he crushed that game with 176 rushing and 2 TD’s. (He did play 4 games for the 2000 Super Bowl Ravens, but was a backup.)

    • I know you say you hate the “compare to worst guy in the hall at his position” argument, but that’s how large parts of this post read. Bettis was an extreme compiler who is almost certainly the weakest post-merger RB and probably shouldn’t have been elected; he got in not so much because of his longevity but because he was a charismatic, unique player (n terms of physique) with a cool nickname who played most of his career for a flagship team that won a lot and had a lot of friends in the media. If he’d been “moody” and played his career in Seattle or Jacksonville, he wouldn’t have sniffed the HoF. I’m willing to grant that Davis had a more valuable career than Bettis, but that doesn’t mean Davis should be a straightforward HoF choice.

      I realize that that comparison ate up a lot of column inches, so it might seem like I was placing undue importance on it. I was mostly just trying to illustrate the concept of “compiling” vs. “longevity”, and Bettis makes a fantastic foil for that. Plus, like I said, the fact that they were directly competing for five years and Bettis advanced further in each year makes the comparison a bit more justified than a Marvin Harrison supporter bringing up Charlie Joiner or Lynn Swann, IMO. (A Harrison supporter would be perfectly justified in bringing up Andre Reed, since Reed made the Hall at Harrison’s expense in 2014.)

      To expand the comparison to all 15 modern Hall of Famers:
      I think Davis is self-evidently ahead of Bettis, Riggins, and Csonka, for the reasons I already outlined in the piece. (I’d also put him ahead of Floyd Little pretty handily, but the Seniors process is a different beast.)

      I think Davis is self-evidently miles behind Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Marshall Faulk, and Eric Dickerson. There’s no point even discussing that comparison; I doubt the biggest Davis homer in the world would try to put him in that group.

      That leaves Thomas, Campbell, Simpson, Martin, Allen, Harris, and Dorsett as the “mid-tier” Hall of Famers. Campbell is the most natural comp for Davis given the whole “three huge years, one very good year, then a hot mess” thing. I think Campbell’s three good years were a hair better than Davis’, but Davis’ postseason dominance and two rings at least leave him even with Campbell, and I’d say even a hair ahead.

      Simpson is a comparison someone else made, and it’s an interesting one. Simpson had five All-Pro seasons, and in his other six years he averaged 750 yards from scrimmage. Obviously five dominant years is much better than 3 dominant years. Simpson’s peak was probably higher than Davis’ peak, even. But if you add in 1995, and count the playoffs as a separate season, I could see saying Davis had 4.5 great years to 5 for Simpson. I think Simpson is ahead, but I’m open to the suggestion that it’s somewhat close.

      Curtis Martin, Franco Harris, and Tony Dorsett are really going to be a philosophical one. At his peak, Davis was clearly head and shoulders above these three. But Harris / Dorsett topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage nine times each, and Martin did it ten times. I think Davis is on par with these guys- behind them in grey ink, ahead of them in black ink. Philosophically, I prefer incandescent guys like Davis and Campbell, especially if the falloff was injury-related. But I get others will have different preferences.

      Thomas to me deserves to be ahead of Davis. He’s sort of like a rich man’s Curtis Martin to me- similar, (if slightly less) longevity, but he also won a league MVP, and he had some really strong postseason success to boot. Leading the league in yards from scrimmage in four straight seasons is kind of insane, really.

      Marcus Allen is such a weird one. There’s longevity, there’s compiling, there’s a huge peak. There’s the feud with Al Davis. He was another phenomenal postseason RB. There’s really not anything else like him. I think he’s above the other “longevity” guys, but mostly because I don’t hold Al Davis’ bizarre feud against him.

      So putting a total ranking of all 15 modern-era RBs by their Hall-of-Fame-worthiness, I’d rank them:
      Walter Payton
      Emmitt Smith
      Barry Sanders
      Marshall Faulk
      Eric Dickerson
      O.J. Simpson
      Thurman Thomas
      Marcus Allen
      Terrell Davis
      Earl Campbell
      Curtis Martin
      Franco Harris
      Tony Dorsett
      John Riggins
      Jerome Bettis
      Larry Csonka

      That would put Davis right at the median of modern Hall of Fame RBs.

      • Corey

        I don’t think there’s a good argument for Davis over Simpson. Simpson’s prime was both more dominant and longer, and Simpson generally had bad teammates, while Davis had the advantage of playing on very good teams. In 1973, Buffalo went 9-5 despite their QBs combining for to put up a 96/213/997/4/14, with 31 sacks for 239 yards. Yes, they averaged only 54 net passing yards per game! Not exactly Elway/McCaffrey/Smith/Sharpe with that Denver line.

        • Yes, I agree. In case I wasn’t clear, I think Simpson is clearly ahead of Davis, it’s just a question of how far ahead.

          • Corey

            Looking up the Simpson numbers, which are so out of whack with modern offenses, made me wonder if there’s a way to do era adjustments. In theory, it should be harder to run in more difficult passing eras, because defenses can focus more on stopping the run. I don’t think 2000 yards in 1998 is equivalent to 2000 yards in 1973 (even before accounting for the 14 vs 16 game season issue), because 1998 defenses had to devote many more resources (in overall scheme, personnel choices, practice time, and per play responsibilities) to defending the pass than 1973 defenses did, which should make rushing easier. OTOH, decreased passing efficiency, while increasing degree of difficulty for runners, should also increase opportunities, since teams will choose to run more often since the opportunity cost (giving up a chance to pass) is lower. But I don’t know how to account for these factors.

        • Will Durham

          Simpson was arguably the best all-time halfback, along with Payton. While he did have better numbers than Davis, I don’t believe that he’d have been as great in playoff games. We know only that Davis was great against the best teams. Simpson’s teams DID have a good line, good QB and wasn’t playing great teams in their conference, BTW.

      • I think the big question when comparing Martin and Davis is would you rather have a HOF running back for 168 games, or a non-HOF running back for 78 games?

      • MaskedNinja

        TD played with John Elway (Hall of Famer), Jerome Bettis played with 11 different quarterbacks and only one will most likely get to the HOF (Big Ben). If you substrate the last four years (Bettis was not a full time starter, he averaged 4.03 yard per carry). You take John Elway out – TD’s production drops way off. Then after TD retired you had Olandis Gary (over 1,000 yds), Mike Anderson (over 1,000 yds), Clinton Portis (over 1,000 yds). People who crap on Bettis do not know what he did in his prime (in his twenties).

    • Adam

      I found it rather startling that Davis would need seven more 1,400 seasons just to match Curtis Martin, and can’t believe this fact was alleged to be favorable to Davis.

      I think Priest Holmes gets downgraded for the same reason as Davis – he ran behind the best OL in the league, and his replacement (Larry Johnson) did almost as well.

  • Richie

    One counterpoint to Davis’ leading yard/carry in the playoffs is that Davis only played to age 29. Marcus Allen had 138(!) playoff carries after turning 30, but only ran for 4.3 ypc. Through age 29, Allen was averaging 5.86ypc in the playoffs. (Davis is still 2nd amongst all under-30 RB’s.

    • Very good and fair point, though even acknowledging that I’d still say Davis is probably the best postseason RB, even with “just” the second-best ypc. 😉

    • Will Durham

      One can’t focus entirely on ypc, as the teams were different. I’d never consider Allen the same type of playoff performer or yardage machine that Davis was. Davis was one of the best playoff rushers in history, Allen was not.

  • sunrise089

    Davis ranks 804th (!!!) in AV. He was a great player for a short period of time, who deserves to enjoy his rings and his well-deserved place among great Broncos. He isn’t close to being a HOFer. He had two great seasons, two very good ones, and three seasons which likely were a net negative for his team. His best seasons corresponded to a very high usage rate, and so his efficiency numbers aren’t impressive. 74 active players have a higher AV, including such HOF locks as Matt Schaub and Chris Johnson (one of five active RBs ahead of Davis). Marvin Harrison, mentioned above, is literally TWICE the player Davis is in terms of yards, AV, and touchdowns, despite never leading the league in targets. I concur with others above in saying that when much of your case is based around “he was better than Bettis and good in the postseason” that’s damning with faint praise. I did find the FO value-added ranking interesting, but it also speaks to just how over-appreciated and over-enshrined RBs are already, and I see no reason to add another HOF RB and make the problem even worse.

    Incidentally Sandy Koufax, with a similarly cut-short career, is 222nd in baseball WAR despite the much longer history of that game.

    • Johhny Ohrl

      “…over-appreciated and over-enshrined RBs are…”
      I like that. So true. I´d add over-MVPed & ROYed.

    • Davis has exactly the same AV as Earl Campbell. He has five fewer than Floyd Little and ten fewer than Larry Csonka.

      Davis earned 8 AV in 13 games after his injury. Had he added three more seasons like that, he would have finished tied with Hall of Famers Leroy Kelly and Jerome Bettis, and one point behind Adrian Peterson to this point. (Also: tied with Frank Gore. Just for context.) AV, like all volume stats, rewards compilers. Three more meaningless seasons at the end of his career shouldn’t have improved his Hall of Fame chances, but it would have been plenty to put him in the company of plenty of Hall of Famers.

      When Roger Staubach was enshrined, he had less career AV than John Brodie, Roman Gabriel, and Jim Hart. When Kellen Winslow, Sr. was enshrined, he trailed John David Crow and Carroll Dale in career AV. A high AV is a good indicator of Hall of Fame quality, but a low AV does not, and has not ever, disqualified a candidate.

      His “efficiency numbers” are ludicrously impressive, provided by “efficiency numbers” you mean something other than yards per carry.

      I don’t know where you got the idea that Marvin Harrison never led the league in targets. According to PFR, his 2002 season didn’t just lead the league, it was the 3rd-highest target total of any season since 1992, (trailing Herman Moore 1995 and Rob Moore 1998).

      Harrison also led the league in targets in 1999 and finished 2nd in 2000. Incidentally, I agree that Harrison is a more deserving Hall of Famer than Davis, my point was simply that Davis has been waiting for much longer.

      My case isn’t “he was better than Jerome Bettis and good in the postseason”. My case is “he was as good as Earl Campbell, Marshall Faulk, and O.J. Simpson at his peak and the greatest postseason player at any position in history”, which is a rather more compelling case, in my opinion.

      • Corey

        Davis only played 8 post-season games. Davis was great in those games, but “greatest postseason player at any position in history” is a bit much. E.g. I’d take Jerry Rice’s 29 post-season games or Joe Montana’s 23 post-season games over Davis’ 8.

        • I was making a distinction between “best postseason player” and “best postseason career”. Obviously Rice added more total value than anyone, and Chase’s numbers had Smith just edging Davis in total postseason value by an RB, but on a per-game basis, it’s going to be hard to top Davis.

          • sunrise089

            I no longer know what the claim is here then. If we don’t mean actual post-season contributions then Peyton Manning is the greatest postseason player of all time in as much that he’s the greatest player of all time and played in a post-season game. Jerry Rice is the greatest post-season player if we mean total position-adjusted contributions. If we mean pure raw talent…maybe Calvin Johnson?

            Are you really claiming greatest post-season player means performance-per-game but over more than 1-2 games but not total value over all games?!

            • I don’t get what’s hard to understand about this. Terrell Davis’ 8 postseason games ranks favorably compared to the greatest 8-game stretches by any running back in history. In the postseason, Terrell Davis produced like Adrian Peterson over the last half of 2012, or O.J. Simpson during 1975, or Earl Campbell at his MVP best. Name me another player who sustained that level of postseason production over more than 2 or 3 games.

              Rice has a great argument. After that, the list gets awfully thin.

              • sunrise089

                It’s hard, at least for me, to understand because above you say “the most dominant postseason player of all time” and “the greatest postseason player at any position in history,” while immediately above you say “ranks favorably compared to the greatest 8-game stretches by any running back in history.”

                The newer claim seems much less aggressive than the earlier ones.

                • I’m using the latter claim to support the former claim.

                  Terrell Davis’ 8-game postseason play compares favorably to the best any RB has ever played at any time in NFL history. Imagine the best any RB has ever played over 8 games– whether it’s Adrian Peterson closing out 2012, or O.J. Simpson lapping the league in ’75, or whatever. That was an average game for Terrell Davis in the postseason.

                  When your average game is on par with the highest level anyone at your position has ever played, you’re on the shortlist for “most dominant postseason players”.

                  I mean, as mentioned, his postseason pace would have broken the single-season rushing yardage record by 175 yards. That’s… pretty dominant. No?

                  ETA: “In NFL history” here is shortcut for “since 1960”, since that’s as far back as I had game log data for.

      • sunrise089

        First, I was completely wrong about Harrison’s targets. I worried I was mistaken, but checked two places at Pro Football Reference. Clearly I should have checked better 🙂

        Campbell, Little, and Csonka should not be in the HOF. If you’re just trying to convince me that Davis is as good as some lousy HOF entrants then consider me convinced. I hope you’re then ready to admit about two dozen punters…

        You’re conveniently summing Davis’s post-injury seasons, and that distorts the issue. If Davis compiled 8 AV per season for 4 seasons I’d view him more favorably. He didn’t, he compiled 8 AV over 3 seasons, taking up 3x the roster spots and costing a lot more salary than he’d have done in a single season. I feel you keep claiming Davis could have trivially compiled “meaningless” seasons to pad his stats, but when you actually spell out the production and AV on a per-year basis it’s plain that his post-injury seasons were laughably insufficient to compile stats toward a median HOF player, as opposed to those of a borderline inductee.

        When Winslow was inducted he was a top-3 career TE, and his peak seasons compare favorably to Davis’s. Staubach’s AV isn’t in the same league as Davis’s.

        I think your summary is on point, I just remain very skeptical that should make a HOF player. His PEAK may have been comparable to those players, but peak output is only a piece of a player’s contributions. And his total output is in fact similar to Betis and not those other RBs. Likewise postseason success counts, but taken together it adds about a season of value, giving Davis now 5 seasons of value rather than 4. ‘Greatest postseason player regardless of position’ is just silly.

        Look, I imagine you saw Davis play and were impressed. You feel he deserves to get in, and so you’re setting a bar that he can clear. That’s fine, it’s just super large-hall, and others will disagree about what the hall looks like. And make no mistake, if the Hall standard is Davis/Bettis than about 100 linemen deserve admission to. Or, you’re just arguing that RBs arbitrarily should be held to a vastly lower standard than other positions. That view is certainly popular, and would be right at home on First Take, but I don’t think it’s surprising that comments here don’t view Davis as anything like the slam dunk you see him as.

        • Doug Drinen was known to say that any Hall of Fame discussion must distinguish between “is” and “ought”. I do not think Davis *is* a slam dunk. But I think he ought to be. His case is as compelling as Earl Campbell’s, and Campbell was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’s clearly better than Bettis, Riggins, Csonka, and Little. Davis vs. Dorsett, Harris, Allen, Martin is a philosophical disagreement– how much do you value longevity and how much do you value peak?– but Davis trumps them all in black ink, so if that’s an important criteria for you, he fares phenomenally.

          I think Davis is at or near the median for modern Hall of Fame running backs. If you want to talk about whether the Hall is too generous to RBs, that’s one thing. (For what it’s worth, I agree.) But by the standards that the Hall has implicitly put forth already, I think Davis deserves to be in.

          ETA: the “greatest postseason player” thing is most definitely not silly. The Hall places a lot of weight on rings and postseason success. A *lot*. Again, we can argue whether they should or not, but Riggins and Csonka and Lynn Swann and plenty of others never sniff the hall without some big postseason games. Eli Manning will get Hall of Fame consideration based almost entirely on a pair of SB rings. And if the postseason is important, then the fact that Terrell Davis is the most dominant postseason player of all time is incredibly relevant.

          • sunrise089

            Well, I am a sucker for Doug, so I’m inclined to agree 🙂

            I view ‘is’ vs ‘ought’ differently though. I agree Davis IS up to at least the HOF baseline, and at some level is being irrational held back due to longevity concerns IF said voters are OK with Bettis and Csonka. But I think the Hall OUGHT to not admit Davis in order to at least begin getting the pace of RB admission under control.

            Bill James argued in his baseball HOF book that the minimum standard for admission is hopelessly wrong due to past errors, and if we’re going to have a discussion about choices going forward we have to implicitly agree to set at least some conceptual higher standard. And in fact the baseball hall seems to have done just that in recent years. That gives me hope for football too 🙂

            PS – I think Davis is below the median, but not incredibly so. I do think he’s incredibly inferior to Martin though, I don’t even see the argument there.

            • I’m in favor of Hall of Fame expansion and the reduction of standards in many cases right now, (though certainly not at RB, where I agree they’re already too lax). League expansion means it’s so much tougher to get into the Hall of Fame today than it was forty years ago.

              Davis vs. Martin is really just a question of how much you weight peak and postseason. Davis trumps Martin in postseason honors despite his much shorter career, (3x PB, 3x 1AP, 2x OPoY, 1x MVP vs. 5x PB, 1x 1AP, 1x ORoY). Davis trumps Martin in “black ink” by 33%. Davis has two SB rings and the SB MVP. Davis has the obscene postseason stats. If those things matter a lot to you, you’ll prefer Davis. If they don’t, you’ll prefer Martin. I think the two are about a wash, personally.

        • sacramento gold miners

          Earl Campbell was better than Larry Csonka, but both are HOF worthy. It’s really valuable to have seen these players in action, and Csonka was a key part of the Miami dynasty of the early 70s. He was truly great, even though the back end of the career wasn’t special. If we have a tiny HOF, we’re really missing out on many great players which helped tell the history of the NFL. Campbell wore down, but was Jim Brown-like, helping carry a Houston team to the brink of a SB.

    • I don’t think AV is a useful tool in this regard. Frankly, it’s much more misleading than anything, although I think you know that.

      • sunrise089

        I’m not arguing the 1 point of AV means a player is “1 better” than someone else. But we’re talking about an enormous gap here.

        Ballpark though Chase, what rank would you assign Davis in NFL history? There are 295 HOFers, would you take Davis’s career within the top 300 if you were building an imaginary team?

  • I do like using something like rushing yards over 50: http://www.footballperspective.com/career-rushing-yards-over-50-yards-in-each-game/

    That helps TD’s case vis-a-vis compilers, as he ranks 21st here (and 15th if you make it over 75 yards, and 9th if you make it over 100 yards). But there were also so many good RBs right after TD — Jamal Lewis, Corey Dillon, Fred Taylor, not to mention Tiki, Alexander, and James (all of whom I think have realistic HOF shots) — that it really is close. His dominance was impressive, but I think he’s more missing some good years rather than junk years. Two more years of 1100 yards would have helped a lot more than 5 more years of 500 yards.

  • Johhny Ohrl

    While I was at it I did the same kind of stats (as I did for TD earlier) for another “4-year-RB>then injured”.
    If TD should be HOF, then this RB should be stratosphere-and-beyond-all-universe-HOF, and then some more.
    1st-yr: 6.8 Y/R, the starter (and in the HOF): 3.8 Y/R, team Y/P 6.0 (Ratio 0.88)
    2nd-yr: 4.3 Y/R, the HOFer 3.7, team Y/P 5.7 (R 1.33)
    3rd-yr: 5.5 Y/R, the HOFer 4.2, team Y/P 6.4 (R 1.16)
    4th-yr: 5.6 Y/R, the HOFer 3.8, team Y/P 7.4 (R 1.32)
    And this numbers came from a guy calling it “a hobby”, having not had any training camps, even was listed as FB the first two years.
    That guy was one of a kind. The single most fascinating performance (and there were many) was “climbing” full-speed, by defying physics, a stadium-wall while catching a ball.
    TD doesn´t come close. Not in fame, not in extraordinary athleticism, not in performance above the others/replacements…

  • Will Durham

    He should’ve been in a long time ago, because of his dominant performances in the biggest games, his impact on his team’s fortunes and because lesser RBs have already been let in. Martin, Little are like many comparable good backs NOT in the HOF who happened to get in. My criterion’s a lot simpler…there should be greatness somewhere on the timeline, preferably including postseason numbers. Consistent good not great regular season numbers aren’t compelling. If Martin’s in, Steven Jackson should be in.

    • sacramento gold miners

      Steven Jackson had an excellent career, but Curtis Martin was better for a longer period of time. With Jackson, just three Pro Bowls, and while it sounds impressive to be the Rams career rushing leader, both Dickerson and Faulk were partial Rams. He’s close, but where were the signature moments to separate him from the rest? Had the misfortune to play with mediocre teams for most of his career, so there’s probably a degree of unfairness about it. He kind of fits the classic profile of a terrific player who needed to sustain his level a little bit longer. At his peak, very impressive with the size/speed combination, but I’d go with Edgerrin James over Jackson, and James has a better resume.

      In terms of Larry Csonka, I’m not sure we should penalize him for the offensive line. Great backs usually have talented lines, Jim Taylor, and O.J. Simpson come to mind. I think his ypc had much to do with natural talent and raw power.

  • Richie

    As I mentioned before, I’m pretty torn about whether I think Davis is a HOFer or not.

    However, if my choice is between Davis and Dungy for HOF, I pick Davis. I don’t understand why Dungy made the HOF. Is it just because he’s a nice guy? When I think of HOF coaches, I think of guys who either won a lot of championships, or had important innovations.

    I guess Dungy had the Tampa-2, but isn’t that really something that came from Chuck Noll’s Steelers? And if Tampa 2 is such an innovation, why didn’t it work well for the Colts?

    Dungy just doesn’t feel like a HOF coach to me. I think he was a very good coach. But even when he was coaching, I just don’t remember a lot of “he’s one of the best coaches in the league” talk. Maybe I have forgotten?

    Help me understand why Dungy is in the HOF.

    • sacramento gold miners

      Tony Dungy is kind of like Blanton Collier in the sense he had a strong record and a World Title. Of course, Bud Grant won an NFL crown, but no super bowls. Marv Levy was inducted as we know, and he was unsuccessful in KC before the Buffalo era. The voters were impressed with Dungy’s turnaround job in Tampa, and some felt Jon Gruden basically won the SB with Dungy’s players. Dungy also improved the Colts, and during their SB run, overcame the suicide of one of his sons. John Madden would be a good comparison, since both went into TV.

  • mrh

    I was a Baltimore Colts fan back in the day and I hated the Dolphins. I particularly hated the Csonka. But I think this discussion has really slighted Csonka by comparing him to running backs who were basically the only player carrying the ball when they were on the field.

    Csonka was a fullback when that position actually carried the ball but shared carries with halfbacks. To give an example, Csonka carried the ball on about 40% of the times the Dolphins handed the ball to a running back during his peak years of 70-74 while Davis carried the ball about 77% of the time in his four year peak when the Broncos handed off. Comparing Csonka to halfbacks like Davis, Faulk, Bettis, etc. is like comparing a TE to a WR. The FB/HB run the ball and the WR/TE catch the ball but the FB/TE have different roles than the HB/TE. Or it’s like comparing a modern day TE who splits out to a 60/70s era in-line TE. Their stats are going to look different. I don’t think lumping Csonka in the “modern day” or “post-merger” category of “running backs” is a good comparison.

    Whether or not Csonka was a deserving HoF choice requires comparing him to the fullbacks of his era. Clearly he was not as good as Jim Brown, another FB. I think he was a notch below Franco Harris too. Probably he was better than his contemporary Marv Hubbard, a very good FB. There is probably a good study in there of FBs from the 60s/70s before the I-formation began taking the FB out of the role of ball-carrier and into solely the blocking/pass-catching roles.