Backfields in motion

Maisel E-Mails

Originally Published: March 16, 2005
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

On the one hand, it is heartening to see how many football fans can be roused out of their late-winter slumber by the innocent hyperbole of one coach.

On the other hand, holy moley.

Carnell Williams
Cadillac Williams was the cornerstone of Auburn's great backfield in 2004.

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville's offhand comment that the Tigers had to replace the greatest backfield in the last 50 years touched a nerve. You responded with more than 700 e-mails in the first two days the story was posted, and the total continues to climb toward 900.

I haven't gotten this much e-mail on one subject, outside of pharmaceutical suggestions for my love life. And all of them forwarded to me by my wife. Hmmmm ...

Without turning too Clintonesque on you, part of the problem with what Tuberville said depends on what the meaning of greatest backfield is. Judging by your suggestions, the criteria could be performance in college, draft position, performance in the NFL and any or all of the above.

For instance, several readers brought up the 1996 Texas backfield that included Ricky Williams, Priest Holmes and — here's the one easy to forget — quarterback James Brown. It takes a combination of college and pro criteria to nominate this group, because Holmes was barely heard from as a Longhorn.

Few of you reached farther back than the Nebraska backfields of the early 1980s (Turner Gill/Mike Rozier/Roger Craig or Tom Rathman), which was a disappointment to those of us old enough to remember Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell at Penn State a decade earlier.

Some of you reached all the way back to Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis of Army, with impassioned defenses of how good they might be in the modern game. True, but they didn't play in the last 50 years.

I would like to tell you that I read all 800-plus e-mails. I would like to tell you that I actually read Don Quixote in my senior year of high school. Instead, I discovered Masterplots in the public library. So it is with the e-mails. I'm still reading them, but I've read enough that I figured out whose tilting which windmills.

(As always, some of the best e-mails couldn't be posted, because you forgot to include your name and home city.)

My thoughts? I lean more toward college production than pro, even though Tuberville's projection of where his guys would be drafted plays into his analysis. My top backfield is the 1979 USC group, which included two Heisman Trophy winners, Charles White and Marcus Allen.

The Trojans went 11-0-1 that year, being tied by Stanford, a game that I believe I covered for the Stanford Daily, although I may have been sitting in the stands, no doubt trying to finish Don Quixote between plays.

And here we go:


What about Leinart, Bush and White?

Matt Leinart
Many readers think Matt Leinart quarterbacks the greatest backfield.

Auburn's backfield was not even the best in college football last year, let alone the last 50 years.

David H. Boren
Beverly Hills

That's easy:

Matt Leinart QB
Reggie Bush RB
Lendale White RB

Take your pick: 2003 (they shut the Auburn Tigers out that year) or 2004...

Mathias Braendli
Switzerland

Given his name, I assume that's not the Switzerland otherwise known as Oklahoma.


Tommy Tuberville continues to amaze me. He is the anti-Holtz. Every team Holtz played was of National Championship caliber and Tuberville sees everything Auburn as the Best. At least he wised up and will play a real nonconference schedule in 2005, by adding Fresno State. Oh, wait a minute that was USC. Auburn scheduled another Division 1AA team. Haven't they learned?

To the issue at hand. Williams, Brown and Campbell the best backfield in 50 years???? They weren't even the best backfield in 2004. How about Leinart (Heisman Trophy winner) Bush (All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist) and White (punishing running back). As for the last 50 years, how about the 1979 USC Backfield. Paul McDonald, at QB, was an All-American. Charles White, at tailback, was the Heisman Trophy winner. Marcus Allen, at fullback, was a future Heisman Trophy winner.

Two Heisman running backs and an All-American at Quarterback! If the nod goes to USC, I can see Auburn fans crying again. Actually, they would be nice considering I saw them cry personally in 2002 and 2003!

Mike Guglielmo
Camarillo, Calif.


Tuberville is as shameless as Mack Brown with his promotion of "the greatest backfield in fifty years". Need I remind the world that the exact same backfield had a home game against the USC Trojans [in 2003] and none had even a decent game. Campbell threw for 121 yards, a pick, and was sacked for -25 yards. Williams and Brown had a combined total of 68 yards coughing it up twice

Zack Jerome
Los Angeles

Makes the same point, but manages to sideswipe another coach who doesn't have a dog in this fight. I can respect that. And now for the Defenders of Tuberville:


You've really got to stop giving that self-absorbed, self-righteous windbag the mouthpiece he so desperately craves. I'm an SEC guy, but I'd take USC's backfield last year over Auburn's any day of the week and twice on Saturday.

Rob Claxton
Atlanta

Gotcha! Now for the Defenders of Tuberville:


I am in complete agreement with Tuberville's statement. I know that's a huge statement and I know Tuberville has made some crazy-sounding claims, like claiming to the Board of Trustees in 2001 that a national title was around the corner. But in that claim he was right. Auburn deserved to be champs this year. That's a whole other argument that's been beat into the ground.

I agree with the statement,"Who was better?" If you look back over the past 50 years, you can think of some great running back duos. Bo [Jackson] and Brent Fullwood. The only backfield I think is a close second could be the Dorsey-Davenport-Portis backfield at Miami. Portis was a great back, Davenport was too, even having McGahee waiting in the wings and with a great leader like Ken Dorsey.

But, and that's a huge but, as good as the running backs were at Miami, Ronnie Brown or Carnell Williams would have probably won the Heisman if either had been the featured back and not shared the load. Even sharing carries they were close to 1000 yards each. Brown is more than a bruiser. A 235-pound back who turns in 4.3 40-yard dashes is amazing. He can burn you with speed, bust you in the mouth or beat you catching the ball downfield (remember the wheel route for 40 yards at Tennessee). Williams is the most elusive back I have seen in years. He is so fast and could still bang around with the big boys.

Then we have the quarterbacks. I am not going to try and argue that Campbell was better than Dorsey but he's right up there with him. Dorsey was a good leader but so was the war-tested Campbell, who went through four coordinators. This kid gutted it out when the whole state of Alabama had him as the scapegoat for Auburn's failures. He stuck in there when any other QB would've quit.

You can believe what you want but this time the "Riverboat Gambler" was right.

Steven Castello
Fairbanks

After I read Tuberville's quote, I thought to myself, 'Now there's an inflated statement'. But then I tried to think of another quarterback-fullback-tailback combination. I can't think of another group that was better than this trinity. Courageous words by Tuberville, but I believe he is right!

Blake Jordan
Hurst, Texas

First of all, there is no way LenDale White is going to be drafted in the top five picks. I think that is the point Tuberville was making: to have two stud running backs on the same team, at the same time, and both get drafted in the top five or eight picks of the same draft. Plus, Campbell will be the third QB taken, probably late first round or early second.

The bottom line is this: USC's backfield has that potential to make an argument against Tuberville's statement. But you can't make that argument until they all get drafted. Then the comparisons can start.

William Younce
Colorado Springs

Here's a sampling of which one was really the greatest backfield of the last 50 years:


I think there's at least one better backfield: Notre Dame 1992.

QB: Rick Mirer. Didn't work out in the pros, but at least as good as Campbell in college (and Campbell probably won't be a great pro either).
RB1: Jerome Bettis. Great in college, even better in the pros.
RB2: Reggie Brooks. Averaged 8.1 yards a carry in 1992. Neither Williams nor Brown was anywhere close. Had a great rookie year in the pros, although didn't do too much after that.

Mike Collins
Arlington, Va.

I would offer Ohio State in 1974: Two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin, who was at the time also the record-setter for most yardage in a career in the NCAA until Tony Dorsett broke his record. Pete Johnson was the long-time Big Ten scoring leader, and Cornelius Greene was one of the winningest quarterbacks in Big Ten history.

Adam Schulz
Cincinnati

Coach Tuberville was close in his assessment that Auburn's trio last year of Williams, Brown, and Campbell as the greatest backfield in the past 50 years. The only other backfield that is comparable was the trio of James Brooks, Joe Cribbs, and William Andrews in the late 70's-early 80's, coincidentally enough, also an Auburn team. The win-loss totals during that time weren't that great (could have really used a coach on the Plains then), but talent-wise, nothing else compares!

G. Newton
Naples, Italy

I have to think that the 1983 Nebraska team featuring three Heisman candidates was better, two of them in the offensive backfield. How could you go wrong with Turner Gill, Mike Rozier and Tom Rathman all the while having the ability to throw the ball to Irving Fryar?

Justin Felker
Spokane

How about the Pony Express? Eric Dickerson, Craig James, and Lance McIlhenny were awfully hard to beat for the 1982 SMU Mustangs.

Chris Jones
Memphis

The best Backfield in the last 50 years belonged to the 1994 Penn State team. I realize that due to injuries things have never worked out for Ki-Jana Carter in the NFL, but he was taken number one overall in the draft that year. Kerry Collins was taken in the top five of the draft, and often overlooked are the two fullbacks who shared playing time on that team. Brian Milne and Jon Whitman were both starters in the NFL. Mike Archie, who backed up Carter, played several years in the NFL, and a lot of people won't remember this guy, but Stephen Pitts, who was stuck behind Carter and Archie his whole career, had several great games the year after Carter left including a 150-plus-yard game against a Michigan team that was ranked number one against the run.

Kerry Shawley
Centre Hall, Pa.

While the 2004 Auburn backfield is certainly one of the most talented backfields of the new millenium (Portis-McGahee-Dorsey was better), to say they are the best of the last 50 years is absolute lunacy.

My initial thoughts, being a Notre Dame fan, were of the vaunted "Killer B" backfield composed of Bettis, Brooks, Burris, and Mirer. However, the next group that popped into my head is my choice as the best of the last half-century: the Oklahoma State Cowboys of the late 1980s. This backfield featured Mike Gundy at quarterback, OSU's all-time leading passer with close to 8,000 career yards. Thurman Thomas fit the bill (no pun intended) at starting tailback, one of the leading rushers in Big Eight history. Oh yeah, and his understudy, Barry Sanders, happens to be the most electrifying athlete I've ever seen in any sport.

When Sanders was a freshman at OSU, Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer noticed the then-unheard-of scatback in film sessions the week before the two teams met. Thomas was questionable to play with a hamstring injury, and the OU coaching staff was hoping he wouldn't be able to go. Upon seeing the film on Sanders, Switzer walked down the hall and told his defensive staff, "Guys, you'd better hope Thurman Thomas plays. We have enough trouble with Thurman, but you'll never touch this kid Barry Sanders." That Saturday, Sanders took the opening kickoff back for a touchdown. And thus the legend of Barry was born.

J.J. Saur

I included J.J.'s e-mail even though there isn't a city attached, because I accidentally deleted the town while editing it, and I had already deleted his e-mail.

Finally, here's some other nominees from the readers:

1997 Tennessee: Peyton Manning, Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry
1986 Florida: Kerwin Bell, Neal Anderson, Lorenzo Hampton
1993 Florida State: Charlie Ward, Warrick Dunn, William Floyd
2004 California: Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Arrington, Marshawn Lynch

And there are others, that I will continue to read. Thanks to all of you who took the time to act on your impulse to tell off Tuberville.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com