HOF backs pool might shrink thanks to trends
Plenty of potential Hall Of Fame running backs are playing today. But offensive tendencies and market trends for older ball carriers might affect statistics and candidacies, John Clayton writes.
LaDainian Tomlinson, Scouts Inc.'s top-rated running back in the NFL, is on pace for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Among the game's current crop of running backs, he tops my list of candidates for Canton coronation.The San Diego Chargers star has the numbers and the dominance of a Hall of Fame back. It's hard for a modern-day running back to garner enough Hall of Fame support without 12,000 rushing yards on his résumé. Tomlinson has 10,650 yards in eight seasons and is in the prime of his career. He's still only 28 years old, and a 1,350-yard season in 2008 could all but lock up his candidacy. He'll probably rush for 15,000 yards in his career. I believe Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings and Steven Jackson of the St. Louis Rams would be the next possible candidates to have Hall of Fame careers. Peterson has the look of a Hall of Fame runner. He dominated as a rookie and often seemed faster than anyone else on the field. He rushed for 1,341 yards on only 238 carries. Plus, he's only 23 and has at least eight more seasons to get to 12,000 or 13,000 yards. Jackson's chances also can't be dismissed because he's 24. In four seasons, he has rushed for 4,249 yards, but for him to reach the Hall of Fame, his numbers have to pick up the next three years. He'll have to get back to that 1,500-yard-per-season level because the prime of any great back is between the ages of 24 and 28. His bid isn't as strong, but it's still early. Fred Taylor's 10,715 career rushing yards put him on the radar, but the Jacksonville Jaguars standout's lone trip to the Pro Bowl means he really needs to make the most of his remaining seasons. He might need back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons to put his bid over the top.
Edgerrin James needs to squeeze out two more good seasons. The Arizona Cardinals star has 11,607 career yards rushing. But here's a warning to all backs for the next several years. The implementation of two-back systems leaguewide will make it a stretch for any featured back to have enough yards and carries to merit Hall of Fame consideration in the future. Peterson is no exception. The days of the 25-carry-per-game back are temporarily on hold. If this trend continues, Hall of Fame voters might have to re-examine what statistics determine running back candidacy -- or simply cast votes for players at other positions. Peterson clearly will be the case study to determine how the trendy two-back system affects the numbers of featured running backs. He shares the backfield with Chester Taylor, a runner with 1,200-yard-per-season credentials. Because teams believe so much in needing two backs to get through a 16-game schedule, it will be rare for any one back to reach 25 carries a game on a regular basis. The numbers bear this out, and the trend came into focus last season. From 2001 to 2006, the top 10 ball carriers averaged 335.2 attempts a season. Last year, the typical top-10 runner averaged only 304.8, a staggering 30.4 drop-off in attempts. Offenses are spreading the wealth, but it's coming at the expense of the featured back. More teams are using three-, four- and five-receiver passing attacks, which increases the number of short passes at the expense of carries. Plus, the two-back system affects the featured back's workload. For example, last season the Washington Redskins relied upon Clinton Portis but also deployed Ladell Betts. Portis was the league's workhorse with 325 carries. That's the 20-carry-a-game model.
Coaches have to understand the breaking point of a back. Historically, runners who carry 370 or more times in a season tend to break down the following years. They tend to lose a yard off their yard-per-attempt average the next season. Many end up with injuries that plague them for the next two seasons.The problem facing runners nowadays is getting enough carries to get to 12,000 or more career rushing yards. Odds are against them in many ways in the two-back era. Hall of Fame voters are pretty good about recognizing the numbers put up by backs. Eight of the top 12 all-time rushing leaders are already in the Hall of Fame, and Emmitt Smith should make it on the first ballot. Other recent retirees in the top 12 such as Curtis Martin, Jerome Bettis and Marshall Faulk also have decent chances for enshrinement. For those players to get to those numbers, though, two things had to happen. First, most of the Hall of Fame backs had seasons with 370 carries. Even if they didn't, they had to play at least 11 years. Both necessities will be hard to achieve if the two-back trend continues. If backs top off at 325 carries, they would need Barry Sanders-like averages to get to 12,000. Backs will have difficulty rushing for 1,500 yards per season if they carry only 325 times, unless they average 4.6 yards per attempt. Sanders averaged 5.0 yards a carry during his career. Odds are stacking up against the modern-day runners to put up Hall of Fame numbers. At 325 or fewer carries a season, it will be hard for any back to get the 2,900 or more carries most of the Hall of Fame backs have. We're already setting the trend with some of the backs either out of the league or in their twilight years. Corey Dillon retired with 2,618 carries. Shaun Alexander will get a job this season, but his days of 300 or more carries a campaign are probably over. He's 30 and has 2,176 carries. Tiki Barber retired with 2,217 carries and 10,449 yards, leaving him shy of Hall of Fame numbers. To earn 2,900 carries during a career, a back would need nine years of averaging 322 carries, and even that will be difficult. In the current economic structure, backs taken in the upper half of the first round don't have much of a chance. Those players sign six-year deals, which puts them at age 28 or 29 when they seek a new contract. Teams don't like giving new contracts to 28-year-old or 29-year-old backs because most backs show serious decline after those ages. Those backs tend to go to new teams and average 4.0 yards or less a carry and are out of the league by the age of 30 or 31. Gone are the days of 10- to 12-year veteran running backs; they more likely face eight- or nine-year careers. My prediction is that most of the top workhorse backs will have more 1,900- or 2,000-carry careers in the two-back era, falling far short of the numbers typically needed to make the Hall of Fame. There could be one ray of hope, though. If the league does expand to a 17- or 18-game regular season, the numbers probably will increase. That's a labor issue. The reality for the backs of today is that they have to share, which could leave them a long way away from Canton, Ohio.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
BEST RUNNING BACKS
In Part 1 of a two-part report, Scouts Inc. ranks the NFL's top 64 running backs. In Part 2, ESPN.com ranks the top 10 RBs of all time. In the first two presentations of this occasional series, ESPN.com ranked the all-time best QBs in February and the all-time best wide receivers in March.
HOT READ PART 2: All-time best RBs• DISCUSS
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• Zoom Gallery: From Brown to Dickerson
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HOT READ PART 1: Today's best RBs• DISCUSS
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• Hashmarks: Debating the list
• Football Today podcast: Peterson No. 2?
• Watch: NFL Live on who got the shaft
• SportsNation: Rank your top 20
• Zoom Gallery top 10: LT to Lynch
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