I was lounging at home last week, sipping some Glenlivet, perusing several online news boards (my usual Friday evening ritual) when I read something that completely soured my new found buzz over the 49ers hire of Head Coach Jim Harbaugh: yet again, Roger Craig had been snubbed by the NFL Hall of Fame. In the accompanying coverage by NFL Network, Steve Mariucci said that Marshall Faulk (a first ballot finalist) revolutionized his position, and Michael Irvin added that Faulk was the first NFL runner to be a bona fide receiving threat. Ugh. As I am sure you can imagine, I was patently underwhelmed.
I could go into the particulars of my ensuing tantrum, but such candor would run the risk of turning this into a vaguely homeristic rant, plus I highly doubt that any of you care about how much scotch I put away that night, or that Craig's digital doppelganger ran roughshod over the Cincinnati Bengals in my re-enactment of Super Bowl XXIII (nothing says "I am ancient" like reliving the past with good booze and Tecmo Super Bowl).
Instead of dwelling on my disappointment, I decided to break down his career and answer the question myself: is Roger a worthy candidate for the Hall of Fame? In order answer the question effectively, it is imperative to analyze Roger's career and to answer the following questions:
• How do Roger's numbers stack up to the numbers of backs from his era currently enshrined in Canton?
• What, if anything, separates Roger from the other players of his era?
To measure Roger's career, I focused on his time in San Francisco, as those years (1983-1990) comprise the seasons in which he was truly relied upon as a key component of his team's offense (I excluded his season with the Raiders because he was platooned with Marcus Allen/Mike Bell, and I excluded his 2 seasons with the Vikings because he was nothing more than a reserve at that point in his career). I then compared these numbers to those of Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen, and John Riggins. So, is Roger Craig a viable Hall of Fame candidate? Read on and judge for yourself.
...And Now for the Numbers
It is almost universally accepted that no player should make it in to the Hall of Fame because of 1 or 2 great seasons. For any player to be considered worthy of the Hall, he should be among the top players at his position over the course of his career. That stated, the following figures should be considered when looking at how Roger compares to his NFL contemporaries:
• At the time of his retirement, he was the only player in NFL history to gain 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.
• Craig was used almost exclusively as a fullback for the first 5 seasons of his career, and is the only player in NFL history to go to the Pro Bowl as a fullback and as a halfback.
• Ranked among the top 10 rushers in the NFL 3 times ('87, '88, '89).
• Ranked in the top 7 in total receptions 4 times ('85, '86, '87, '88).
• Ranked among the top 10 in yards from scrimmage 5 times ('85, '86, '87, '88, '89).
• Ranked among the top 7 in all purpose yards 3 times ('85, '87, '88).
• Was an integral part of a team that appeared in 5 NFC Championship games from 1983 to 1990 ('83, '84, '88, '89, '90).
• Was an integral part of a team that won 3 Super Bowls ('84, '88, '89).
• Amassed 13,133 all purpose yards and 73 total TDs.
At first glance, these figures seem unimpressive when compared to Craig's contemporaries who are already in the Hall: Walter Payton (21,803 all purpose yards, 125 TDs), Barry Sanders (18,308 all purpose yards, 109 TDs), Marcus Allen (17,154 all purpose yards, 144 TDs), Eric Dickerson (15,396 all purpose yards, 96 TDs), and John Riggins (13,442 all purpose yards, 104 TDs). However, to elicit a fair comparison, the following facts must be taken into account: Roger was not a pure halfback, Roger was a far superior receiving threat than any of the aforementioned and Roger was not his team's primary offensive option (meaning that his contemporaries were responsible for a much larger percentage of their respective teams' total touches).
For an apples-to-apples comparison of the aforementioned group, consider the first 8 seasons for Craig compared to each of his contemporaries. Over the first 8 years of his NFL career, Roger Craig accounted for 32.85% of the total touches for his team. Now consider the total touch ratio for each of the others over the same period: Barry Sanders (49.41%), Eric Dickerson (48.42%), Walter Payton (45.53%), Marcus Allen (37.94%) and John Riggins (29.78%). With the exception of Riggins (the only one in this group besides Roger that was a fullback at the outset of his career), Craig amassed his numbers over a much smaller proportion of his teams' total touches...and he did it while splitting touches with some of the most prolific players in NFL history on an offense that never finished worse that 4th overall from 1983-1990.
Now consider average yards per touch over the same period. Sanders averaged 5.27 ypt, Allen averaged 5.04 ypt, Payton averaged 4.83 ypt, Dickerson averaged 4.80 ypt, and Riggins average 4.64 ypt. Craig's average: 5.24 ypt. As you can see, Craig is about on par with Barry Sanders, and much better than the rest...and every one of his peers listed is already in the Hall of Fame.
Putting the Numbers into Context
Part of what made Roger unique was the way he was used in Bill Walsh's innovative West Coast offense. Because he was such a gifted receiver, he was a perfect fit for the pass-first West Coast system...and because he was such a gifted blocker, he was also relied upon to act as a fullback for a significant portion his career. Here's the blow by blow for each of his years as a 49er:
• 1983: As a rookie fullback, Craig gained 1,152 yards from scrimmage and scored 12 TDs, accounting for 18% of the 49ers' total yards from scrimmage, and 27% of their total TDs...and he only started 13 games.
• 1984: Craig rang up 1,324 yards from scrimmage and scored 3 of the 49ers 5 TDs in Super Bowl XIX.
• 1985: Craig became the first player in NFL history to gain 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a single season and also led the NFL in total receptions, tallying 92.
• 1987: Splitting time between fullback and halfback, Craig rolled up 1307 total yards and 4 TDs.
• 1988: Craig had officially shifted to halfback, racked up 1,502 yards rushing, 534 yards receiving and 10 TDs, winning NFC MVP honors. Craig racks up 172 total yards Super Bowl XXIII.
• 1989: Craig compiled 1,527 yards from scrimmage and 7 TDs. He racked up 103 total yards and 1 TD in Super Bowl XXIV.
• 1990: Craig was hampered by a recurring hip pointer for much of the season, and amassed 640 yards from scrimmage and 1 TD.
When applying the numbers to what was actually happening with his team, it should be noted that from 1985 through 1990, Craig was splitting touches with Jerry Rice, the most productive receiver in NFL history. It should also be noted that through that period, Rice scored more points and gained more yards through the first 5 years of his career than any receiver in league history to that point.
The Bottom Line
So now that we've dug though all of the numbers and what they mean, what do we know? We know that Craig averaged more yards per touch over the first 8 years of his career than almost any of the great backs of his era. We know that Craig was a more effective receiver than any back before him and that he played in an offense that maximized his versatility. With all due respect to Coach Mariucci and Michael Irvin, Roger Craig was the first of his kind...the first real bona fide receiving threat out of the offensive backfield. Roger wasn't just a back that caught passes...he was a receiver that played in the backfield.
In and of itself, that would not be enough to make Craig a viable Hall of Fame candidate. But coupled with his productivity, the way he stacks up against the other great backs of his era, the fact that he spent the first 4 ½ seasons as a fullback, and the fact that the guy has a conference MVP award to go with 4 Pro Bowl appearances at 2 different positions, it is difficult to imagine why he hasn't been voted into the Hall already.
And now to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this article: Is Roger Craig a viable Hall of Fame candidate? You bet he is.
Now if you'll excuse me, I am off to raid the liquor cabinet and play some Tecmo Super Bowl.