The HOF Case For Ricky Watters

A few years ago, I wrote a column in which I ranked Ricky Watters the 29th-best running back of all time, and in 2012, I wrote that I believe Herschel Walker, Terrell Davis, and Tiki Barber should join the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and after them, "I don't know that I'd consider any" RB a Hall of Fame snub. So while I acknowledge Watters as a fine player, it's a little strange that I'm writing a column about his Hall of Fame qualifications.

Do I think Ricky Watters belongs in Canton? If the Pro Football Hall of Fame were subject to my unilateral whim, I'd probably have him in there. Watters could get in and it wouldn't bother me. He can stay on the outside and I won't lose any sleep over it. But most fans don't appreciate what a great player — what a consistently great player — Ricky Watters was. After a rookie year spent on injured reserve, he played nine full seasons, 1992-2000, which doesn't sound like a lot but is pretty good for a featured running back, plus an injury-shortened 2001.

You probably don't think of Watters as a serious HOF candidate, but here's a challenge: what was his worst season? Pick one, then remember that he had eight full seasons which were even better. His nine healthy seasons, in chronological order:

1992: A second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame, Watters quickly established himself as an impact player. Teammates compared him positively to Roger Craig and Bo Jackson. A December article in Sports Illustrated seconded the comparison: "By filling a void in the Niner offense, the all-purpose back role in which Roger Craig excelled in the championship years of the late 1980s, Watters has helped restore San Francisco's offense to No. 1 in the NFL." Of the 13 players who rushed for at least 1,000 yards in 1992, Watters had easily the best average per carry, his 4.92 coming in comfortably ahead of Thurman Thomas' 4.77. Before you ask: Barry Sanders averaged 4.33. Watters added 405 receiving yards, and scored 11 touchdowns. He fumbled only twice, compared to 4 for Emmitt Smith, 6 for Sanders and Thomas, and 9 for Barry Foster.

1993: Watters rushed for 950 yards (12th in NFL), averaged 4.57 yards per attempt, gained 326 yards receiving, and scored 11 TDs, 2nd-most of any running back. In the playoffs, he rushed for 5 TDs against the Giants, a postseason record that still stands.

1994: The obvious "worst season" answer, since Watters set career-lows for rushing yards (877) and average (3.67). But in '94, Watters gained 719 receiving yards and scored 11 touchdowns. If you say this was his worst year, you're choosing a season in which he gained the 5th-most total yardage of any RB, scored the 4th-most TDs, made his third straight Pro Bowl, made the cover of Sports Illustrated, and scored three touchdowns in the Super Bowl.

1995: In his first season with Philadelphia, Watters ranked top-10 among RBs in rushing yardage (6th), first downs (t-4th), and TDs (t-4th). The Eagles improved from 7-9 to 10-6, and Watters scored two TDs in a playoff win over the Lions. The 49ers, who advanced to the NFC Championship Game every year with Watters, lost their first playoff game.

Watters was frustrated with his limited role in San Francisco (218 attempts per year), and the Eagles made him a workhorse (325 att/yr), but his rushing average, a superb 4.74 after his first two seasons, never bounced back after '94. From 1994-99, his yardage per carry stayed remarkably steady: 3.7, 3.8, 4.0, 3.9, 3.9, 3.7. Those are not good averages, but Watters made up for it with volume (337 att, 1273 yds), receiving (62 rec, 434 yds), and consistent scoring production (12 TD). If you played fantasy football in the mid-90s, Ricky Watters would have been a first-round pick every year, and if you played PPR, he would have been top-5.

1996: His best season, with career-highs in rushing yards (1,411) and TDs (13). He had 444 receiving yards, too; Watters gained over 400 receiving yards in six of his nine full seasons, and over 300 in each of the other three. The only other running backs with nine 300-yard receiving seasons are Walter Payton, Marshall Faulk, and LaDainian Tomlinson, plus a few receiving specialists (like Larry Centers) who weren't true RBs.

1997: This is among Watters' weakest seasons. He rushed for 1,110 yards, which was 10th-best in the NFL. He averaged 3.89 yards per carry, 13th out of the 16 thousand-yard rushers that season. He scored 7 TDs, the lowest total of his career to that point. He did add 440 receiving yards. If this was the worst season of Watters' career, it was one in which he was a top-10 rusher, led his team in TDs, and gained 1,550 yards from scrimmage.

1998: In his first season with the Seahawks, Watters had another top-10 rushing season (1239 yds), upped his TDs (9), and caught 52 passes for 373 yards.

1999: In my opinion, probably his worst season. Now 30 years old, his stats were in line with previous years: 1,210 rushing yards (9th), 3.72 average (12th out of 14 thousand-yard rushers), 387 receiving yards, 7 TD. Good season. But in the early-mid '90s, those were top-five stats, and by the end of the decade they were borderline top-10. This was still a nice year — Watters gained almost 1,600 yards — but he didn't really stand out any more.

2000: You may recall that 2000 was initially remembered as The Year of the Rusher. There were 23 thousand-yard rushers and eleven 200-yard rushing games, both records. Marshall Faulk won MVP, Corey Dillon broke the single-game rushing record, Mike Anderson set some rookie records, and Eddie George made the cover of Madden. It was madness, but Watters kept up. He rushed for 1,242 yards, outside the top 10, but his average rebounded (4.47) and he posted the second-best receiving season of his career (63 rec, 613 yds). Even in the context of a big year for RBs, it was a very good season.

So what do you think? Which was Ricky Watters' worst season? Even in his worst years, Watters was a top-10 running back, and that is extremely rare. Using yardage, without any other stats, is a limited and flawed way to evaluate seasons, but it works as a very basic measure, so below are the ninth-best seasons — by yards from scrimmage — for the greatest RBs who began their careers between 1989-95:

Chart

Terrell Davis, Rodney Hampton, and Robert Smith all played fewer than nine seasons, so they're not listed.

Total yardage is a simple way to organize this, but there's some room for disagreement on which was actually, say, Curtis Martin's ninth-best year. Maybe you think it was '98, or '02, but it was somewhere in this statistical neighborhood. Martin's career actually is comparable to Watters'. Martin played 10 healthy seasons, Watters 9. Martin had most of his value in rushing yards, Watters had a lot of his as a receiver. Neither was ever the best RB in the NFL, but they were both among the leaders throughout their careers. Martin's career was better than Watters', but only by about that one extra year. Martin was an easy choice for Canton. Watters is borderline.

I judge players on their productive seasons. Any pro running back can have a year like Charlie Garner's 1994. That's just padding the numbers, and it doesn't count for much in my book. Even Bettis and Emmitt ... those are BenJarvus Green-Ellis seasons. They're okay, but any full-time starter can post numbers like that. All you have to do is play the whole season without getting benched. Ricky Watters never had a year like that. He had nine impact seasons, which is special.

Watters doesn't have huge career numbers, because he didn't have any hang-around years. But he rushed for 1,200 yards five times, gained 1,500 yards from scrimmage seven times, and scored double-digit TDs five times. Contrast that with Jerome Bettis, who rushed for 1,200 yards four times, gained 1,500 yards from scrimmage three times, and scored double-digit TDs twice. Watters had easily twice as many impact seasons. But Bettis had half a dozen hang-around years. I don't think those should count for nothing, but Watters gaining 1,500 yards in a season meant a lot more to his team than Bettis gaining 1,500 over the course of two seasons.

Despite the short career, Watters rushed for over 10,000 yards and added another 4,000 as a receiver, with 91 touchdowns. Here's the list of players in the 10,000/4,000/90 Club: Walter Payton, LaDainian Tomlinson, Marshall Faulk, Marcus Allen, Thurman Thomas, Ricky Watters. That's three of the greatest RBs in history, two more Hall of Famers, and Watters.

Watters barely meets those standards, though, so let's soften the requirements to put Watters near the middle of the group: 8,500 rushing yards, 3,000 receiving yards, 70 TDs. That adds Emmitt Smith, Curtis Martin, Tony Dorsett, Edgerrin James, Steven Jackson, and O.J. Anderson. Watters ranks near the middle of a group with 11 very good running backs, including at least eight Hall of Famers (assuming LT is a lock).

As long as we're at it ... in NFL history, there are 18 players with five 1,200-yard rushing seasons, and 14 of the other 17 are in the Hall of Fame or not yet eligible. Twenty RBs have five seasons of double-digit TDs, and 17 of the other 19 are in or not eligible. Only eight players have gained 1,500 yards from scrimmage seven times: Jim Brown, Marshall Faulk, Curtis Martin, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Ricky Watters. That makes seven Hall of Famers — six of them first-ballot — and Watters.

I don't feel strongly about Ricky Watters getting into the Hall of Fame. But I don't believe there are another 10 running backs who had so many good seasons, and it seems pretty clear that Watters is being underrated by the HOF voters, who have never advanced him even to the Semi-Finalist round. A lot of people didn't like Ricky Watters, and many voters judge RBs by one statistic: career rushing yards. Because he didn't have hang-around years, and because so many of his contributions came as a receiver, Watters' career rushing yards are good but not eye-popping. He was also an excellent postseason player, but that doesn't show up in the stats, and he didn't win Super Bowl MVP, so with most people it counts for nothing. Watters was a special player, and he deserves more respect, including serious consideration for the PFHOF.

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