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Thoughts on Jerome Bettis and Running Back Size

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.”

Bettis size

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:

Dunn size

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.

  1. Try the veal. []

{ 25 comments… add one }

  • Ty August 9, 2014, 12:44 am

    Unfortunately for Warrick Dunn, it wasn’t just that he didn’t play for the Steelers (or any historical or big market team), but he played for the Bucs, when they were widely considered to be a laughingstock (although they began their run of excellence in his rookie year).

    It’s too bad that politics plays a huge role in who gets elected and who doesn’t, not that I think Warrick Dunn is a hall of famer (I don’t).

  • sn0mm1s August 9, 2014, 1:19 am

    I don’t think either are HOFers. I think I could make a better case for Barber and Edge.

  • Justin August 9, 2014, 3:04 am

    My argument for Bettis is that in addition to being an above average all around back, he was a fantastic closer. He was one of the main reasons Bill Cowher only lost one game when his team led by 14 or more. Late in games they could just hand the ball to Bettis, trust him to get them 3 or 4 yards a carry, and grind the clock to nothing. A lost art in the modern NFL.

    • Chase Stuart August 9, 2014, 11:31 am

      I have the Steelers from ’96-’05 as 59-1-1 when leading by 14+ points.

      I also have the Rams from ’93 to ’95 as just 9-2 when leading by 14+ points. That includes this game where Bettis had 22 carries for 65 yards (http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/199410090gnb.htm) and this game where he went 19/85 (http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/199310140atl.htm).

      The Bucs under Dunn were 23-0 when leading by 14+ points (this covers 1997 to 2001). In 2008, when he rejoined the team, the Bucs went 4-0 when leading by 14+ points.

      In Atlanta, Dunn’s Falcons went 30-3 when leading by 14+ points. That includes this game where Kurt Kittner was the QB, and Dunn rushed 23 times for 162 yards (http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/200311160nor.htm). The other two were with Doug Johnson.

      In total, I’ve got Bettis’ teams at 68-3-1 when leading by 14 points (this includes all games with Bettis’ teams, even ones he missed; he was not there for either of the Steelers non-wins, a loss to Cincinnati in 2001 and the tie game against, ironically, Dunn’s Falcons). I’ve got Dunn’s teams at 57-3 when leading by 14 points. I don’t see much of a difference here, especially since a couple of Dunn’s games were not games where the team failed to hold a fourth quarter lead.

    • Dave August 9, 2014, 10:57 pm

      How often do teams lose when leading by 14 or more…not often….especially not with a defense like the steelers.

  • Matt August 9, 2014, 5:47 am

    Dunn also has a higher career weighted AV according to pro football reference. It would be interesting to see an analysis using DYAR from Football Outsiders or EPA and other fancy stats from Advanced NFL Stats to really compare Bettis and Dunn.

  • Bryan Frye August 9, 2014, 8:55 am

    Did you adjust for era before or after finding the 500 yard threshold? The first time I did years over 1000 each season, I adjusted afterwards and made Jim Brown look worse than he was; had to do the whole thing over again.

    Speaking of Brown, he wasn’t nearly as large as Bettis, but he was huge for his era. Have you thought about era adjusting for weight as well?

    I agree with sn0mm1s above; I would rather see Edge or even Barber in the Hall. Heck, if you present the numbers in the right way, you could make a case for Priest Holmes over Bettis.

  • Shattenjager August 9, 2014, 5:33 pm

    I still don’t understand the argument that he deserves extra credit for being “the greatest ‘big’ back of all time.” I think his proponents want us just to assume from his size that he was more consistent than other backs, could handle a larger workload, and was better in short yardage instead of actually providing evidence for those ideas. However, since they don’t actually explicitly make those claims, we can’t even refute them without the supporters crying straw man. It’s like a homeopath claiming that his/her products “promote good health” so that they don’t have to prove anything and can dance away every time a study says the products don’t work.

    Haven’t players also gotten bigger over time? Is Bettis at “252” actually less of an outlier than Csonka at 237 a quarter century earlier?

    • Chase Stuart August 9, 2014, 5:56 pm

      Injecting logic into a debate with Steelers fans about the Hall of Fame? I wish you well.

      • Shattenjager August 9, 2014, 7:46 pm

        I did also compare them to homeopaths, so clearly I do not think highly of their ability to be amenable to such things as “logic,” “reason,” and “evidence.” However, point taken.

        • Chase Stuart August 11, 2014, 11:35 am

          I am saddened that only one person (via email) gave me props for my anti-Steelers line in the OP.

          • Shattenjager August 11, 2014, 12:05 pm

            It was awesome. I wanted to leave it as a hidden gem. :)

            • Shattenjager August 11, 2014, 12:42 pm

              Does anyone else find that smiley to be rather angry-looking? It looks like a vaudeville villain smiling about his most recent murder or something.

              • Chase Stuart August 11, 2014, 12:47 pm

                I think it’s Hyde.

    • Kibbles August 9, 2014, 6:48 pm

      In fairness, I think for some people the Hall of Fame is essentially a narrative honor. Some might say that Kurt Warner is more deserving of the Hall of Fame because he went from bag boy to Superbowl MVP than he would have been if he’d gone from a 3rd-round journeyman to Super Bowl MVP. Some would argue that the fact that Rod Smith is the greatest undrafted receiver in history (well, since the draft was instituted at least- sorry Don Hutson!) is an asset to his candidacy, which would be somehow weakened had he been selected in the 6th round. I personally believe that the Hall of Fame should be an honor bestowed based on accomplishment and merit rather than the quality of the narrative, but I recognize that my personal Hall of Fame might not be someone else’s personal Hall of Fame. And it’s hard to argue that narrative wasn’t at the very least a consideration when Joe Namath and Lynn Swann and Art Monk were discussed for the Hall. Or when Jim Tyrer’s name stopped coming up in Hall of Fame discussions.

      In that respect, the fact that Jerome Bettis was somehow different and distinct from his peers would, indeed, qualify as an asset to his candidacy. It’s not a belief I subscribe to- had Bettis’ career played out exactly the same but Jerome been 20 pounds lighter, he would have been just as (un)deserving of enshrinement. But like I said, my own personal Hall of Fame might not be someone else’s.

      • Chase Stuart August 11, 2014, 11:34 am

        Good stuff.

    • Richie August 12, 2014, 2:04 pm

      David Wells for the basaeball HOF. He was the best fat pitcher ever.

      • Chase Stuart August 13, 2014, 12:05 am

        :confetti:

  • Brad O. August 10, 2014, 7:08 pm

    Part of my frustration with the idea that Jerome Bettis might be a legitimate HOF candidate is his weakness relative to deserving players that have gotten far less support in the voting, like Terrell Davis, Tiki Barber, and Ricky Watters.

    Bettis’ candidacy is based entirely upon Chris Berman highlights and statistical laziness. Bettis rushed for a ton of yards, which is the only number most people look at for the PFHOF. But he had a poor average, he was useless as a receiver, and he didn’t score many touchdowns when he was a starter. Bettis, in a 13-year career, led his own team in touchdowns only four times. Among the top 15 rushers of all time, he is the only one to average below 4.0 yards per attempt, the only one with fewer than 2,000 receiving yards, and ranks 11th of the 15 in TDs.

    Bettis had three great seasons: 1993, 1996, and 1997. He rushed for 1,000 yards five other times. In 1994, he averaged 3.2 yds/att and scored 3 TDs. From 1998-2000, he averaged under 3.8 yds/att every year, averaged under 100 receiving yards and 5.7 TDs. He bounced back a little in ’01, with 4.76 yds/att, but only 4 TDs and 48 rec yds. He actually began the next season as a backup to Amos Zereoue. Those are not great seasons.

    Chase, I’m surprised you’re even on the fence about Bettis. He gained 1,500 yards from scrimmage three times, and scored double-digit TDs twice. He’s a compiler with very few impact seasons. I would also dispute the greatest big back; Cookie Gilchrist’s NFL stats are not exceptional, but he was a legend. In 1997, with Bettis on the cover of SI, Dr. Z ranked Gilchrist between Earl Campbell and Larry Csonka.

    • Chase Stuart August 11, 2014, 11:33 am

      I don’t view Bettis as a compiler. For example, in this metric of rushing yards over 500, he still came in #8 all time. He was not a YPC guy or a receiving back, but I’m not as bothered by that as some people. He’s 5th — Fifth!! — in 100-yard rushing games. So I think the “compiler” label that many affix to him is unfair. Personally, I would not vote for Bettis, but I do think the anti-Bettis folks are over the top in their anti-Bettis arguments. He’s borderline, but some make him out to be a bum. Davis, Barber, Watters, Holmes, Alexander, James, Dillon, Taylor all have good arguments, too. I’m not sure where I’d rank Bettis in that group, although probably in the bottom half. But being just shy of a HOFer doesn’t make him out to be some average joe who just stayed healthy for over a decade.

      • sn0mm1s August 11, 2014, 10:34 pm

        He wasn’t a YPC back, or a receiving back, or really even a TD back (considering his size I would expect more than 2 seasons of double digit TDs). He never led the league in any major statistical category and, while he played, I would take these peers (especially at their peaks) over him:
        Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk, Terrell Davis, Priest Holmes, Ahman Green, Tiki Barber, Edgerrin James, LaDainian Tomlinson, Curtis Martin, Shaun Alexander, Clinton Portis, Thurman Thomas, and Corey Dillon

        To be a HOFer I expect some level of both longevity and dominance – Bettis has the longevity but I never considered him amongst the top tier of RBs while he played. He was always a notch below the top.

  • Brad O. August 11, 2014, 10:25 pm

    Bettis wasn’t a bum. But all the stats you cited focus on a single statistic. Focusing on rushing yards is like arguing a player for Cooperstown based on his batting average. It doesn’t tell the whole story. Run the same numbers with yards from scrimmage, or rushing yards over 2.0/att.

    Bettis had five 1,000-yard seasons when he was basically average. In his last four seasons, Bettis rushed for 700 yards a year, with a 3.5 average. That’s a replacement level player. Without those final years, his rushing total is under 11,000 and he’s not a HOF candidate. Bettis was a good player, but he was a compiler. He had three really good seasons. I don’t think you’ll disagree with that number: three. And they weren’t Earl Campbell seasons. He had three good seasons, and 10 other years when rushed for a combined 9,137 yards without being much better than average. Compared to replacement level, he’s the weakest of the players you mentioned.

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