Jerome Bettis is a polarizing Hall of Fame candidate. I’m on the fence with the Bus; I don’t think he’s as deserving as Steelers fans think, but he’s a more deserving candidate than those who mostly remember end-of-career-Bus remember. One thing I’ve heard from time to time about Bus is that he was the greatest “big” back of all time. That’s undoubtedly true, assuming you set the weight1 high enough. Bettis had an official playing weight of 252 pounds, and no running near that weight can match his resume. Cookie Gilchrist, Pete Johnson, Marion Butts, Christian Okoye, Natrone Means, and Mike Alstott had short bursts of success, but they can’t match Bettis’ longevity. Players like Jamal Lewis, Michael Turner, Larry Csonka, Eddie George, Jim Brown, Franco Harris, John Riggins, and Earl Campbell carried the “big back” label, but all were 10-25 pounds lighter than the Bus.
I looked at every running back in history, and calculated his number of rushing yards over 500 in each season (to avoid giving undue weight to compilers). After adjusting for season length, I then calculated career grades in this statistic. In the graph below, the Y-Axis shows this career rushing grade, while the X-axis displays weights. Bettis is represented on the far right with the code “BettJe00.”
Tony Dorsett isn’t thought of as a historic outlier, but he was extremely light for a running back who had sustained success. But perhaps the more interesting comparison is Warrick Dunn. And, as you might suspect, Dunn finished his career with more yards from scrimmage than Bettis (both are just inside the top 20 in the career YFS rankings).
In fact, take a look at the same graph, but featuring the top 40 running backs in yards from scrimmage over 700:
To those who suggest Bettis is a Hall of Famer because he was uniquely successful as a big back, what do they think about Dunn’s candidacy? Was he not just as uniquely success as a small back? And while Dunn may not have won a Super Bowl, the two backs posted nearly identical weighted winning percentages. Dunn is in elite territory when it comes to running back success with two different franchises. And like Bettis, he even has a Walter Payton Man of the Year award on his mantle. Dunn didn’t play for the Steelers, so I know you have to downgrade him for that, but I think his HOF case is a lot stronger than some folks realize (he’s tied for third in most seasons with 1,000 yards from scrimmage behind a pair of you know whos).
This isn’t a knock on the Bus or a grass roots movement for Dunn’s candidacy. But if people want to boost Bettis’ resume because of his size, that should be done consistently.
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