Jerome Bettis vs. Herschel Walker

I wrote in a recent column that Herschel Walker deserves election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On the ballot for years, Walker has never gotten much support. Jerome Bettis, in his first year of eligibility, reached the Finalist stage, one of the last 10 candidates to be cut. Walker and Bettis have something in common, which is that besides great football careers, they both seem like genuinely nice people. What they don't have in common are Hall of Fame credentials: Walker has them, and Bettis does not.

On the surface, that may seem ridiculous. Bettis, after all, rushed for 13,662 yards, fifth-most in NFL history, and Walker rushed for just 8,225. We all know that over 8,000 yards is awfully good — that's more than Roger Craig or Priest Holmes or Larry Csonka — but really, how is someone with almost 5,500 fewer rushing yards a better player?

The obvious answer is that Walker actually had 13,787 yards, including his years in the USFL. But here's the thing: Walker was so much better than Bettis, so incredibly far ahead, that you don't even need to include his three seasons in the USFL — his athletic prime — for him to come out ahead of Bettis. That's how much of a no-brainer Walker is for the PFHOF, and how undeserving Bettis is.

So how does Walker make up all those yards? Mostly as a receiver. Walker is one of the most accomplished receivers of any RB in history. In his NFL career, Walker caught 512 passes for 4,859 yards and 21 TDs. Bettis had 200 receptions for 1,449 yards and 3 TDs. Obviously, 300 catches, 3,400 yards, and 18 TDs are worth quite a lot. Walker also was one of the greatest kickoff returners of his generation, amassing over 5,000 yards as a returner.

Walker also had more great seasons than Bettis, whose numbers are big largely as a function of luck. Bettis was a very good player ... for three seasons. Other than that, well, he got a lot of carries, because he played forever, and he was on a rushing team. Let's look at their three best seasons: 1986-88 for Walker, 1993 and '96-'97 for Bettis.

Chart

That's pretty close, right? Walker has more total yardage and more touchdowns, but Bettis has slightly better rushing averages, and rushing yards should probably count for a little more than receiving yards anyway. Basically equal. Here's the thing: because of the 1987 strike, Walker only played 12 games. He was the best RB in the NFL that year. In 1987, Walker averaged 74.2 rushing yards per game — 1,188 in a 16-game season. He was on pace for 953 receiving yards (2,141 total) and 11 TDs. Include those missing games, and Walker is clearly ahead. His numbers are just as good as Bettis', even though one of these years was effectively a 12-game season.

Well, that's three seasons. What about the rest of their careers? Let's look at another three seasons.

Chart

Again, this probably looks close to equal. Walker's advantages in receiving (700 yards) and TDs (+10) make up for Bettis' advantage on the ground. What's missing from the stats above is Walker's returning: 62 KR, 1,423 yds, 23.0 avg, with a TD (which is included above). Walker was perhaps the best kickoff returner in the NFL during these years, with a better average than celebrated returners like Rod Woodson, Deion Sanders, and Eric Metcalf. That's a pretty important detail in determining which was the better player, adding the little fact that Walker was maybe the best kickoff returner in the NFL. So again, Walker has the advantage.

Chart

Walker is obviously ahead here, right? I know Bettis has the rushing yards, but his averages are terrible, he's behind by nearly 1,000 receiving yards, and Walker has more TDs again. People often assume that because Bettis was so big, essentially a power back, he must have been a great goal-line runner. The truth is that he wasn't a particularly effective short-yardage runner. He wasn't bad, but he wasn't anything special. You know how many times Bettis, in his 13-year career, led his own team in touchdowns? Four. Walker, who spent 12 seasons in the NFL, led his team in TDs nine times. In 1989, he actually led both the Cowboys and Vikings in TDs. Bettis was big and strong, but Walker's first step was so much quicker, he was actually a more effective goal-line back, and unlike Bettis, he could score on pass plays.

In their six best seasons, Walker was ahead of Bettis, not by a lot, but pretty clearly ahead. For these three seasons, though, Walker is ahead by a lot. The stats above don't even include his returning: 35 KR, 834 yds, 23.8 avg, TD.

But forget this season-by-season stuff — big picture, who were the best RBs of the late '80s? Eric Dickerson and Walker. Who were the best RBs of the late '90s? Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Terrell Davis, Marshall Faulk, Curtis Martin, and Ricky Watters. Then Eddie George, Corey Dillon, and Bettis. Go with the mid-'90s instead? Sanders, Smith, Watters, Thurman Thomas, and Chris Warren. Early 2000s? Bettis isn't even in the discussion.

There was never a time when Bettis was considered the best running back in the NFL. There was never a time when he was considered second-best, or even third. Walker, when he was traded to the Vikings in 1989, was widely seen as the premier RB in the game. Bettis was never the best, and he was never particularly close to being the best. He was good, and he played for the right teams and hung around for a long time.

Look at 1994. At this point, Bettis was 22 and Walker was 32. Bettis should destroy him. Instead, Walker had the better season. True, Bettis had 497 more rushing yards. He also had 206 more rush attempts, and honestly, those are wasted plays for the Rams, 2.4 yards per attempt. Bettis' 3.2 average is the second-worst in history for a 1,000-yard rusher. Walker has a 207-yard receiving advantage and 4 more TDs. He also had over 500 kick return yards, with a 27.7 average (second in NFL) and a touchdown. Walker had 4 fumbles, Bettis had 5. Who's going to help your team more, a guy who averages 3.2 yards per carry and can't do anything else, or one with 500 yards but a great average, plus good receiving and exceptional returning? I'd take Herschel in a heartbeat.

We've looked at nine years, and Walker is out of good NFL seasons at this point, but so is Bettis, really. In all of his four remaining seasons, he was under 1,000 rushing yards, with horrible averages (under 3.6), no receiving (under 20 catches), and single-digit TDs. Those four seasons account for 2,500 of Bettis' rushing yards. He wasn't helping his team at that point. That kind of production is easily replaceable, if not outright detrimental. Walker's last three seasons account for just 229 rushing yards (4.9 avg), so about 95% of his productivity is at a high level, where much of Bettis' career was barely average, the running back equivalent of an innings-eater, a fourth or fifth starter. You don't put those guys in the Hall of Fame.

Bettis is overrated, and Walker underrated, for mostly the same reason. Statistics are about simplification, and for running backs, the simplest thing to do is just look at their rushing yards. But with both of these players, that's misleading. Bettis had a weak rushing average, couldn't catch, and didn't score a lot. Among the top 15 rushers of all time, he is the only one to average below 4.0 yards per attempt, the only one with fewer than 2,000 receiving yards, and ranks 11th of the 15 in TDs. He's uniquely one-dimensional among the great backs in history: all he has are the rushing yards. Look at any other statistic, and he's not impressive. Walker, in contrast, is uniquely multi-dimensional. He was a grade-A receiver and a great returner whose talents frequently didn't show up in his rushing yards.

I know some people will never get past 13,662 and 8,225. But Walker was a standout in his own era, a player good enough to command six first- or second-round draft picks in a trade. Bettis was good for a long time, but he was never at the top of the list. Walker's best season were better than Bettis', who compiled much of his yardage simply as hang-around value. They were both great players, but Walker was clearly better. His case for the Hall of Fame is incredibly clear, while Bettis' case rests on a single, misleading statistic.

Comments and Conversation

February 16, 2011

john:

Take away the first three seasons (to match Walker’s USFL years) for any big time HOF back and calculate the numbers. How many stack up with Walker? Herschel actually beats Dickerson, is a hair behind Jim Brown and Thurman Thomas, and is almost 4000 yards ahead of Earl Campbell. It is fair to say that, had Herschel played those three years in the NFL & had run behind the 1991-1995 Dallas offensive line, he could have put together 6 or 8 1500 yards seasons.

November 15, 2012

Logan:

I personally think Jerome Bettis was a better player.Because did you ever hear of a player that was porr and just belived that he could do anything like Jerome Bettis. I think Jerome Bettis is my hero Because they had different positions and over 1,000 more rushing yards. So I personally think you needed to read a book called Sports Great Jerome Bettis so I didn’t like this report.

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