The Case for Craig

Jan 15, 2011 at 2:59 PM

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.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Happs
    The fumble does indirectly play a role in Craig not making it into the hall of fame. I would think if we Threepeat, and with Roger Craig being the main running back on the only team that ever won three Superbowls in a row, that he would be a lock to make it. He hurt his chances with that fumble. Not because voter say "the fumble cost him his place in the hall." But rather because voters do not say "Wow, the running back with great stats that was the main running back for the only team that has won three superbowls in a row." On a side note, regardless of the successful fake punt, if Craig doesn't fumble, I believe we win that game.
    Jan 31, 2011 at 10:26 AM
  • charles
    Jan 19, 2011 at 7:53 AM
    I've read all the threads and at one point Craig did look like a shoe in until that dreadful carry. In response to the threads if you look at the film and look at the play call which was an inside trap on 1 st and 10 and the clock was winding down at 2:45 all he had to do was fall down but he tried to run high and the ball slipped again slipped right into LT's hands and it was not dislodged out of his left arm and he didn't secure the ball through the hole with two arms as he should have. However I do think Craig is a great running back and did reinvent the position for guys like Marshall Faulk to succeed. Roger is definitely a HALL OF FAMER IN MY BOOK but i can't forgive him for the lost to Jeff Hostler....Only if Joe didn't get hurt and the play call wasn't conservative by guess who Mike Holgrem, we'd have 6 rings.
    Jan 18, 2011 at 5:51 PM
  • smitty149
    I agree it is so hard to compare a talented player from a great team when you do what you are suppose to do and don't get noticed!
    Jan 17, 2011 at 2:48 PM
    Jan 17, 2011 at 12:50 PM
    Response: Right there with ya, Charlie.
  • Jeff Kaplan
    Craig gets WAY too much flak for "The Fumble," for two reasons. First, it wasn't his fault. If he'd been carrying it loosely and it'd been punched out, THAT would've been his fault. But he was holding it tight, and Erik Howard split a double-team and drove his helmet straight into it. Too many fans assume that all turnovers are mistakes, but plenty are forced, and THAT one was forced, by a great play. Second, as Joseph pointed out below, Montana would've missed the Super Bowl, so Young would've made his first-ever playoff start. We all saw how rough Young's first playoff start, in '92, turned out to be--how much pressure he obviously felt--and that was after two years of starting. Just imagine if he'd made his first playoff start in that Super Bowl two years earlier. After having barely played all year, he'd have gone out there with no running game to speak of--we gained more rushing yards in '81--and with the "threepeat" pressure squarely on his neck. My point is, a lot of fans assume that "The Fumble" cost us the threepeat. I say we'd have lost that game, and then who knows what would've happened to Young's career? So keep on beating this drum, AJ. Craig should be IN.
    Jan 16, 2011 at 9:29 PM
    Response: Thanks Jeff. Outstanding observation. I've tried to get folks to look at the 1990 NFC Championship objectively...but unfortunately, Craig has become an easy scapegoat. I've often wondered how we would have fared against the Bills that year...especially with Dexter Carter in the backfield and Young under center. Personally, I think it would have been closer than most Niner fans would care to admit (though I don't know if we'd have lost it). In any case, I'll beat this drum and shout it from the rooftops until Craig gets his due. Here's hoping that the Hall's voters come around. Thanks again for reading, amigo.
  • Joseph
    Wow I nvr heard that about Turner. Makes me cringe all ovr again. There is no game in NFL history that makes me wince more than that game. I was 14, and my superficial life at the time revolved around the 49ers. I think tears streamed down my face when the fg went through the uprights. Some niner fans name a playoff loss against the bucs as the end of that dynasty, but for me, it was always this game regardless of the fact we won another sb years later. That was the beginning of the end. I dont think Joe would ever take another snap (incidentally, I dont think Joe would have been able to play against the Bills in the SB, could Steve have taken us across the finish line?). But didnt Craig fumble a play or two before that too? I could swear he coughed it up a few plays earlier too, which made me wonder for years if he had 'purposely' done it. Yes, years of maturity has cooled me off this conspiracy theory. That fumble lft it up for years if we really were the greatest of all time. A 3peat sb would have permanently sealed the deal for all time to the wonderers of othr dynasties. Btr than the 70s steelers, or NE?? Plse, they nvr 3peated. 80s 49ers. Wo question, greatest of all time.
    Jan 16, 2011 at 3:03 PM
    Response: Thanks for reading, Joe. I remember that game like it was yesterday. Craig was banged up almost all year, and I though for sure we had it wrapped up when we were running down the clock. All I remember about the aftermath was feeling like the world had ended. I remember telling my Dad, "This must have been how all those shmucks in Texas felt back in 1981". In any case, thanks again for the read, and go Niners.
  • The_Real_Randy
    I was under the impression that Craig got really close last year but the voters didn't even give him a chance this time around. I didn't even need to look at any of your stats (though I do appreciate you posting them) to kow that Roger should have been in the Hall a long time ago and that the voters are practically pissing on Bill Walsh's grave by not letting him in. He completely revolutionized the position. To put Faulk in before him is like putting Metallica in the Rock n Roll HOF before Judas Priest (which, sadly, also happened). The threat he posed out of the backfield is a big part of why Rice and Taylor were able to get open. And his '88 campaign is easily one of the five greatest seasons ever had by a RB. People knew how important he was to us when we were winning championships but his name has faded from the conversation and people today look at his rushing numbers and say "Meh", conveniently forgetting that he was a FB for his first few years and a damn good one. I think he will get in one day though, but it will be in a down year without many big names coming up for eligibility.
    Jan 16, 2011 at 6:14 AM
    Response: Thanks for reading, Randy. I agree wholeheartedly. BTW...I like the reference to Metallica and Judas Priest and the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame...that was very appropriate!
  • Islander
    I'll tell you simply is that Roger Craig will ne'er be forgiven for fumbling the ball into Lawrence Taylors hand during our championship game vs the giants when we lost going for our 3peat. That's why he is not in the hall of fame!
    Jan 15, 2011 at 9:10 PM
    Response: What's really sad about that is that Craig wasn't the guy that ultimately lost that game. The defense held the Giants after Craig's fumble and forced a punt. The Giants ran a fake on a direct snap to Gary Reasons and the Niners only had 10 men on the field because Keena Turner missed his cue and stayed on the sideline. Reasons ran right through the gap that Turner would have occupied had he been out there.

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