This week’s piece is an extension of last Monday’s — an examination of the Hall-of-Fame credentials for a player that stuck out like a sore thumb in my analysis. Does this player deserve more credit than history will probably afford him?
NEAR the end of my work on compiling the last chart on my Adrian Peterson piece — a massive list of every rushing leader over any given ten-year stretch since 1957, Jim Brown’s rookie year — a glitch in a trend became apparent. When including Peterson and LaDainian Tomlinson as Hall-of-Famers (they’ll both be first-ballot), only two non-HOF shoe-ins have ever led the NFL in rushing over the span of a decade — Steven Jackson and Edgerrin James.
Jackson is an anomaly. While a stellar player, and certainly one of the best backs of the new millennium, the decade that Jackson topped the league in yards (2004-2013) was perfectly conducive to a leader that could stay healthy and string together several thousand-yard seasons. Despite playing three more seasons in that span than Peterson, a 2007 draftee, he only outpaced the former Sooner by 563 yards; “All Day” still racked up 24 more touchdowns on .80 more yards-per-carry. Tomlinson had retired and Shaun Alexander’s production fell of a metaphorical cliff, too. It was a weak ten years for running backs, doubtlessly influenced by the pass-happy rules instituted after the 2003 playoffs. Jackson has no shot at the Hall.
But does the other guy?
James made multiple appearances on the list, notably finishing first in rushing from 1999 to 2008 … AKA his tenure as a starting tailback*. “Edge” immediately became a bell cow for Indianapolis, leading the NFL in carries and rushing yards as a rookie to earn First-Team All-Pro honors before repeating as the yardage king in 2000. He was the best tailback in the world by the time he was legally allowed to buy a beer.
James’ workload was incredible. When calculating percentage of team rushing yards by a single player, Chase Stuart of Football Perspective found that Edge’s 1999 and 2000 seasons rank first and second respectively all-time in that category. Peyton Manning was Indy’s second-leading rusher in ’99, and the only other running back to register a carry was Keith Elias (with 13 on the year). And non-James running backs were only given seven attempts in 2000!
Some of that is due to playing alongside the famously immobile Manning in those years, of course; his stats may have looked different if he shared a backfield with Doug Flutie, Rich Gannon, or Donovan McNabb, but his best season may have actually came in 2004, when he ran for 1,548 yards on a career-best 4.6 yards-per-attempt in one of the premier passing attacks in history. One may assume that it was simple to pile up numbers in an offense that featured Manning, Dallas Clark, Marvin Harrison, Marcus Pollard, Brandon Stokley, and Reggie Wayne, but here were the teams’ leading rushers in the other top-ten passing offenses since the merger (according to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric):
None of these are particularly close to James’ 2004. The only back on DVOA’s top-25 passing offenses that had an objectively better year was Terrell Davis in Denver’s repeat season, who totaled 2,008 yards at a 5.1 clip in one of the finest rushing campaigns in NL history.
This can justifiably be characterized as nitpicking, though. While the Hall’s committee members certainly factor in a player’s peak when casting their ballots, it would probably be a better use of our time if we examined James’ resume as a whole.
In his 11-year career, Edge is currently …
— 11th all-time in rushing yards (12,246).
— 19th all-time in rushing touchdowns (80).
— 13th all-time in rushing yards per game (82.7) among halfbacks with at least 900 carries.
The touchdown list is a bit cramped, with 12 players being within six touchdowns of James’ mark, but his placement in terms of total rushing yards may be Edge’s best argument for induction. When counting Tomlinson, all ten players higher than James are Hall-of-Famers other than Jerome Bettis, and five of the seven below him are in as well. Fred Taylor — 15th all-time at 11,695 — was a criminally underrated player in terms of league-recognized achievement, masquerading as the London Fletcher of offense with just one Pro Bowl (and zero All-Pro selections) to his name, but these accolades matter. Every article and exposé I have read on the tabulating process insists that the committee weighs media-bestowed honors fairly heavily, so let’s see where James’ three All-Pro selections rank at his position among the top-25 yard-gainers:
|Running Back||Tenure||Rushing Yards||AP All-Pro Selections|
(Italics denote a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.)
Edge appears to cross the necessary threshold of three All-Pro selections to earn Hall consideration, and Allen, Dorsett, Harris, and Martin all got in fairly easily over the years. He also has the yards (possessing a higher career total than 34 of 42 current Hall-of-Famer running backs**), the touchdowns (surpassing 31 of them), the consistency (rushing for more yards-per-game than all but eight), and the durability (starting more games than 32 of the 42) to round out an impressive resume. So what makes him a borderline case and not a slam-dunk shoe-in?
Reputation. Legacy. Timing.
As good as he was in 2004, James will likely be remembered as the fourth-best player on that record-setting Colts offense. Manning and Harrison are all-time greats, and Wayne’s excellent play so far in the Andrew Luck era may earn him a spot in the Hall alongside them, having posted a dominant season at the age of 34 without either. Those Indianapolis teams will always be known as the Peyton show; the rest were simply ancillary parts to a well-oiled blitzkrieg assault. James is probably harmed by that narrative more than any of the other cogs in the Manning machine.
Rings should matter even less for runners than throwers when determining a player’s value, but it doesn’t help Edge’s case that voters never got to see him hoist the Lombardi Trophy. The Colts got the monkey off their collective backs just one year after letting James walk in free agency and rolling with a rookie and his old backup on the way to a championship, and he was an afterthought during Kurt Warner’s miraculous 2008 playoff run that came up just short in Super Bowl XLIII. Edge was let go in the offseason and proceeded to post a brutal 2.7 Y/A with Seattle in brief action, effectively forcing him into retirement when the league saw how much mileage he’d logged.
The last knock against James is an unfortunate one, as much of it was out of his control. His short stint as the rushing king came very early in his career — well before the normal mid-twenties prime of most running backs — and by the time he was ready to notch another elite season onto his belt, Tomlinson was already widely recognized as the best back in the NFL. Chris Johnson faces a similar problem, having compiled an all-time great season in his second year in the league but never came close to repeating it. Fans get used to the normal progression of good-great-gradual decline, but Edge was great, good, and then completely irrelevant to fans that weren’t benefiting in fantasy football from his inefficient workhorse days as a Cardinal.
So is he a Hall-of-Famer? Um, I dunno. It’s a tough call. Gun to my head? I’d have to say no, only because Canton is so difficult to get into that anyone who isn’t a first-ballot guarantee risks joining the crowded backlog of All-Pros and generational talents. James’ eligibility begins in 2015, and at that point he will be a decade removed from being an above-average player in the NFL. That’s a long time in the mind of voters, obviously, and it may prove to be fatal to his chances. He will definitely have to wait and see if his time ever comes.
A silver lining for Edge is that the running back pool is pretty shallow. Compared to a loaded position like wide receiver — how the hell did it take Cris Carter six tries to get in, how the hell is Tim Brown still waiting, and how the hell was Marvin Harrison not first ballot? — James’ competition is certainly lacking once you look past the inevitability of Tomlinson and Peterson’s induction. Recent retirees Taylor, Dillon, and Dunn don’t have a shot. Bettis will probably make it in one day, but the committee has pegged him as a toss-up after four unsuccessful years as a finalist. Steven Jackson and Frank Gore were dependable but never dominant (sans Jackson’s 2006). Maurice Jones-Drew won’t have the numbers; neither will Matt Forte. And Terrell Davis? Obviously should’ve stuck around to rack up a bunch of garbage time yards Marcus Allen-style, dude. Even on one leg.
Other than Edge, Shaun Alexander has the most interesting case to me. He was absolutely amazing over a five-year span, averaging 1,501 yards and 17 touchdowns per season between 2001 and 2005 while picking up a league MVP award and a Madden cover along the way, but Alexander hit the wall faster than any superstar I can remember. He seemed to disappear overnight, and somehow snuck in 11 carries with the Redskins during that free fall. That, coupled with the fact that most observers give a ton of credit to Walter Jones, Steve Hutchinson, and Mack Strong for the team’s early 2000s running game, will make Alexander’s Hall-of-Fame fortunes much more uncertain than we expected back when Walk It Out was topping Billboard.
If nothing else, I think these last two pieces have increased my appreciation for the sustained greatness of legends like Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, and the Greatest of All Time himself, the indomitable Jim Brown. To be so consistently great at such a volatile position, to make yourself a no-doubt, hands-down, near-unanimous selection for a recognition that places you among the pantheon of the best ever at your sport … that’s what makes me feel lucky to wake up and watch Adrian Peterson every time he’s on TV.
But there is plenty of room in Canton for runners that were a step below. I don’t know if voters will consider Edgerrin James to be in that tier or the one beneath it, but I think it will make for some interesting discussion when the next class is ready to be unveiled.
* Can we pretend those seven games in Seattle just didn’t exist? That was torture.
** As classified in Pro Football Reference’s database.
Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and will begin attending the Gatton College of Business and Economics in June.