NFL Hall debate needs some context

By Jeff Linville -

The NFL playoffs are still going on, but behind the scenes, the NFL Hall of Fame committee is working on narrowing down its nominees to its Class of 2017.

The obvious pick? This is the first year for LaDainian Tomlinson, one of the greatest running backs in history. He started his career with eight straight 1,000-yard seasons. He ranks fifth all-time in rushing yards and is second only to Emmitt Smith in rushing TDs. He is third in total TDs behind Smith and Jerry Rice.

And he did all of this playing in a pass-happy era. He played with Drew Brees and then Philip Rivers. In four years paired with Rivers, the QB passed for an average of 3,700 yards a season. Brees (and backup Doug Flutie) averaged around 3,400 yards passing. This is a far cry from the days of Terry Bradshaw and Bob Griese completing 10-12 passes a game.

• If you look at the top 15 rushers in career yards, 12 of them are in the Hall already. Frank Gore (number 8) is still active, and Tomlinson is a sure bet. That leaves one name unaccounted for.

Number 12 on the list is Edgerrin James, who played most of his career with Peyton Manning. While that sounds like a plus, you have to remember that Manning was passing for 4,000 yards a season with Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, etc. The running game was not always a point of emphasis.

Still, James has 12,246 yards for his career. In my childhood back in the mid-80s, that would have been good enough for second all-time, behind Jim Brown’s 12,312. James has more yards than Marcus Allen, Franco Harris, Thurman Thomas, John Riggins and many other Hall members. He made the playoffs over and over.

People were quick to point out that Marshall Faulk won an MVP award with the Rams after leaving Indy, but James posted four seasons of 1,500 yards and three more with at least 1,150 yards.

A durable runner, James is seventh in career carries. He also found the end zone 91 times, which is 26th in history.

So why doesn’t he get more praise? Some critics say anybody could run with Peyton scaring the safeties deep. Same could be said of Tom Brady, but name me a perennial 1,000-yard rusher for the Patriots.

• And what if your team wants to buck the trend and refuse to be a pass-happy offense? If Isaac Bruce is being penalized for playing with the Greatest Show on Turf, shouldn’t a WR on a running team get a bonus?

When Hines Ward entered the league, the Steelers’ QB was the enigmatic Kordell Stewart. While exciting at times, Stewart averaged a pathetic 118 yards a game over eight seasons. And don’t forget that Ben Roethlisberger had a few years in the “game manager” mode before having a breakout year in 2009 – when Hines was 33 years old and no longer the top receiver on the team.

Despite being better known for his run blocking than his route running, Ward finished with six 1,000-yard seasons. He is 14th in career receptions, 23rd in yards, 15th in receiving TDs.

In 16 playoff starts (another full season) Ward had 88 catches for 1,181 yards and 10 TDs.

• For my final example, let’s use a WR who played in same pass-happy era as Harrison, Bruce, Holt and Terrell Owens, but was at the mercy of some truly horrid quarterbacks.

Carolina’s own Muhsin Muhammad had a career that is quite remarkable – once you consider who was attempting to get him the ball.

He started with Kerry Collins, a game manager who suffered a broken jaw and was done in Charlotte. Then the Panthers lucked into three good seasons with journeyman Steve Beuerlein. In those seasons Muhammad averaged 89 catches, 1,129 yards and seven TDs.

Then came Chris Weinke, Rodney Peete and Randy Fasani and two lost seasons.

2003 was the year the Panthers almost won a Super Bowl, but that was with Stephen Davis rushing for 1,444 yards and Steve Smith going for 1,110 yards. “Moose” only had 837 yards.

In 2004 Smith was hurt, so Jake Delhomme went to Muhammad repeatedly, getting a career high of 1,400 yards and 16 TDs.

Chicago came calling with a big contract. He left for the money, but was cursed with three seasons of Eric Kramer, Kyle Orton and Brian Griese. He came back to Carolina at age 35 and posted a respectable 923-yard season. In Moose’s final year in 2009, Delhomme was still shaken by his terrible playoff performance against Arizona and was bad all year. Moose had only 581 yards receiving.

Collins, Weinke, Peete, Kramer, Orton, Griese, Beuerlein and Delhomme. Not exactly Drew Brees passing for 5,000 yards four times.

Despite all that, Moose is 25th in career receptions (ahead of Hall of Famers Steve Largent, Michael Irvin, James Lofton, Charlie Joiner). He is 30th in career yardage.

Consider this: what would it have been worth to play with a great QB for most of his career? With Steve Young or Troy Aikman would he have caught one-third more balls? Twice as many TD catches?

Let’s be conservative and say 15 percent more production. That would give Moose 990 catches, right behind Ward in 15th place and ahead of Randy Moss, Andre Reed, Derrick Mason, Art Monk and Torry Holt.

That’s pretty good company.

By Jeff Linville

Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.

Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.

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