Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Herschel Walker, Hall of Famer
Over the weekend, Herschel Walker won his second professional mixed martial arts bout. Walker will never contend for a major belt, but he has approached MMA seriously and earned the respect of initially skeptical fans who thought he was pulling a publicity stunt. More to the point, Walker is in amazing shape for a 48-year-old man. This guy is a physical marvel, one of the most gifted athletes of his generation.
Walker is best known for his distinguished football career, and that's what I want to write about. But he's also a state champion sprinter (100 meters), a Tae Kwon Do black belt, an Olympic bobsledder, and 2-0 as a professional mixed martial artist. It's a rare résumé, and while plenty of athletes 60 or 70 years ago starred in multiple disciplines, Walker's success in different fields is almost unique among more recent competitors.
That's the background, but the real reason I'm here is to explain why Walker belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. First of all, let's be clear. Herschel Walker is not Jim Brown. He's not Walter Payton or Barry Sanders or O.J. Simpson. Baseball fans sometimes talk about the "Willie Mays Hall of Fame", the idea that the Hall of Fame only has players like Willie Mays and Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial. Well, the PFHOF isn't just Emmitt Smith and Payton and Sanders. It's also Thurman Thomas and Marcus Allen and Tony Dorsett and Larry Csonka. Walker fits in nicely with that second group.
Herschel Walker was a top-five running back every season from 1986-88, and top-10 from 89-94. That's nine years as one of the best in the business, which is terrific consistency at a position known for injuries and ups and downs. And in the late '80s, Walker was the best running back in football, with the possible exception of Eric Dickerson. Walker is underrated primarily for five reasons:
1. He was good at lots of things, not great at one. Walker was a very good ball-carrier. But he was an also an exceptional receiver, and he was one of the best kickoff returners of his generation. We tend to focus on the rushing, and he doesn't get enough attention for his other skills. Also, I'm not sure why, but he's not perceived as a great receiver, although he undoubtedly was. Walker had almost exactly as many receiving yards (4,859) as Roger Craig (4,911), and he had more receiving TDs (21-17). Walker had more career receiving yards than Thurman Thomas, Brian Westbrook, John L. Williams. He was a great receiver.
2. The Trade. During the 1989 season, the Minnesota Vikings made probably the most infamous sports trade since the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth for cash. The Vikings gave Dallas six first- or second-round draft picks, which turned the Cowboys into contenders, and Walker's production in Minnesota — good, but not elite, and for just 2½ seasons — didn't justify that kind of value. The Trade caused some people to see Walker as a failure, but he was a very good player. He just wasn't that good.
3. Walker spent his prime in the USFL. Running backs peak early. They have the shortest average careers of any position in the NFL, and even the great ones are basically done within a year or two of turning 30. Walker spent his early 20s, when he should have been rushing for 1,400 yards a year in the NFL, rushing for 1,800 a year in the rival USFL. When people assess whether or not Walker was a great football player, most of them ignore those three years, when Walker was in his athletic prime.
4. Walker had a long, consistent career. A little like Marcus Allen, he spent a long time being good after he had fallen off the radar. People sort of forgot about him after 1990 or so, even though he was still a top-10 RB, and never really remembered because he wasn't Sanders or Smith or Thurman Thomas.
5. Walker's best season was cut short by the 1987 strike. This was Walker's first shot as a full-time starter in the NFL, and he was in fact the best RB in the league. But he missed four games due to the players' strike, so the numbers don't jump off the page, and most people don't remember '87 as a special season for Walker.
Those five points explain why Walker is underrated, but the truth behind them is why he was a great player — so great that he deserves a bust in Canton.
Receiving and Returning
How many running backs were better receivers than Herschel Walker? I mean real running backs, not guys like Larry Centers who never carried the ball, or like Charley Taylor, who switched to wide receiver after a couple seasons. I would say only two were definitely better: Marshall Faulk and Lenny Moore. There are others — Allen, Craig, Westbrook — who are about the same, but no one else obviously better.
The Vikings added returning to Walker's duties, and in 1989, he averaged 28.8 yards per kickoff return, returning one for a touchdown. His 22.0 average the next season doesn't look like anything special, but the NFL that year averaged just 19.1 yards on KRs, the 2nd-lowest rate in history ('91 was even worse). In reality, Walker's 22.0 average on 44 returns gave his team an extra 125 yards of field position compared to an average returner. It wasn't even one of his best returning seasons. In 1994, he had another KR TD (27.7 avg), and in '96, he averaged 28.9 yards per return, second-best in the NFL.
Altogether, Walker had over 8,000 rushing yards, about 5,000 each of receiving and returning. His combined 18,168 all-purpose yards rank eighth in NFL history.
1. Jerry Rice, 23,546
2. Brian Mitchell, 23,316
3. Walter Payton, 21,803
4. Emmitt Smith, 21,579
5. Tim Brown, 19,679
6. Marshall Faulk, 19,172
7. Barry Sanders, 18,308
8. Herschel Walker, 18,168
9. LaDainian Tomlinson, 17,727
10. Marcus Allen, 17,654
The only players ever with more than one season of 700 yards rushing and 700 yards receiving are Walker, Faulk, and Westbrook. Walker is the only one with 8,000 rushing yards and 4,000 return yards. He also has more career TDs (84) than any Hall-eligible RB except Ricky Watters (91) and O.J. Anderson (86). Maybe all this doesn't put Walker even with someone like Faulk or Sanders, but it probably puts him around the same level as Allen or Dorsett or Curtis Martin, a notch above the HOF-almosts like Craig and Anderson.
The Trade ruined Walker's image. He was perceived as a failure afterwards, the bad end of a one-sided deal. The Cowboys needed help, and their only shoppable assets were Michael Irvin and Walker, so they solicited offers, and Minnesota thought Walker was the final piece of the puzzle. It was obvious to everyone that the Vikings overpaid for Walker, but that's the kind of star he looked like in early '89. People kind of forgot about him afterwards, but he remained a top-10 RB for years, averaging 1,200 yards from scrimmage from 1989-94 and developing into an elite returner.
The USFL Years
I believe Walker has a strong Hall of Fame case based solely on his time in the NFL. However, Canton hosts the Pro Football Hall of Fame, honoring not just the NFL, but also other professional leagues. Marion Motley had his best years in the AAFC, played only 4½ seasons in the NFL. Billy Shaw, a star with the AFL's Buffalo Bills, never played a down in the NFL.
Herschel Walker won the 1982 Heisman Trophy after finishing in the top three of voting both of the previous two years, and he is widely considered one of the greatest college football players in history. Turning pro after his junior year, Walker signed with the United States Football League, which aimed to provide legitimate competition for the NFL. Other USFL stars included Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Steve Young, and Gary Zimmerman, as well as fellow Heisman winners Mike Rozier and Doug Flutie.
Walker dominated the USFL, rushing for an average of 1,852 yards per season, and he holds every significant USFL rushing record. He also was a dominant running back when he entered the NFL, keeping pace with Eric Dickerson in the late '80s and easily outdoing everyone else.
So we have someone who was a sensational college running back from 1980-82, and a top NFL running back beginning in 1986. It is logical to assume that he was also an exceptionally good RB in the interim, 1983-85, and his play in the USFL only reinforces this view. It seems to me that we can safely assume Walker was at least as good from 1983-85 as he was from 1986-88. If you give Walker six great seasons instead of just three, he enters the discussion of the 10 greatest running backs of all time. Borderline-top 10 is still not Barry/Emmitt territory, but it's Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell territory. Those guys are solid Hall of Famers.
When we evaluate Walker as a player, does it make more sense to ignore three seasons when he was in his athletic prime, or to consider them among his accomplishments?
The only RBs who were rookies between 1985-87 and had any kind of careers were Neal Anderson, Dalton Hilliard, Kevin Mack, John L. Williams, and Walker. None of them did anything worth mentioning after 1991, except Walker, who continued to excel until 1995. At that time, he was 33. John L. Williams was 30. Walker's longevity and sustained productivity, including his USFL seasons, is almost unparalleled outside of Canton.
Actually, let's start in 1986. That was Walker's first year in the NFL. Sharing backfield duties with future HOFer Tony Dorsett, Walker got just 151 carries, but he averaged 4.9 yards per attempt (best in the NFC). He also ranked among the league leaders in rushing TDs (4th) and receptions (9th), with more receiving yards (837) than rushing (737). How often does a player have a year like that, 7th in yards from scrimmage and top-5 in TDs?
By my estimation, even with his limited workload, Walker was the fifth-most productive RB in the NFL as a rookie. Of course, the Cowboys noticed this, and in '87 it was Dorsett getting part-time work. Walker was the best running back in the NFL that season. He lost all-pro honors because the voters didn't notice that Charles White skipped the strike, but Walker led the league in yards from scrimmage by over 100, rushing for 891 yards and catching 60 passes for 715 yards, in just 12 games. His 16-game pace was 1,188 rushing yards and 953 receiving yards.
Walker probably lost over 500 yards to the strike, and he might have gotten to 1,000 receiving, which would have gotten his season the attention it deserved. His most celebrated season is 1988, but he was better in '87 (projected totals below).
Are 326 rushing yards more valuable than 448 receiving yards and 4 TDs? I don't see that they are. Walker had a truly great season in 1987, but he's not recognized for it because the strike kept his numbers down, and because so much of his contribution came as a receiver. The hit to his career numbers doesn't help, either, but the real problem is that people don't remember Walker having great years, because he only has the big rushing stats in one season ('88). He was almost as good in '86, and in '87 he was better.
If we gave Walker his four games from the '87 strike, and assumed that from 1983-85 he would have exactly replicated his performances from 1986-88, his stats would make him a no-brainer, first-ballot Hall of Famer. In fact, he'd have basically the same numbers as Marshall Faulk, except with 5,000 return yards thrown in.
If a running back's only job was to take hand-offs, Walker would have been a good one. But he was also a phenomenal receiver and a gifted returner, with a strong peak and a long, steady career. If people didn't dismiss the USFL years or if they appreciated the enormity of Walker's receiving and returning contributions, he'd be a very strong Hall of Fame candidate. Considering both, he should be a cinch.
Canton is missing a bust — Walker should be in.