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NFL - The Underappreciated Superstar

By Brad Oremland
Friday, July 12th, 2002

How do you measure greatness? On the one hand, you look at career statistics. You also look at peak achievement -- a single, great season or even a miraculous game. And there's a sort of in between -- sustained greatness that doesn't necessarily span a whole career -- say, three or four years. Grace under pressure is important, too -- how does a player do in the most important games, or late in the fourth quarter?

Recently, Marshall Faulk has staked a convincing claim as one of the greatest running backs of all-time, by all these criteria. He is 16th all-time in rushing yards (9,442), having recently passed Hall of Famer Earl Campbell in yards, average per carry, and touchdowns. Faulk also has more receiving yards (5,447) than anyone ahead of him on the list; only the retired Marcus Allen is even moderately close. If he continues at his recent pace, Faulk will be 14th in rushing yards and 7th in rushing touchdowns by the end of next season (he'll also be 4th in career touchdowns, trailing only Allen, Emmitt Smith, and WR Jerry Rice).

And if you're looking for a great season, Faulk's 2000 campaign certainly ranks as one of the best ever. Besides breaking the NFL record for touchdowns in a season, he put up 2,207 total yards, averaged almost 5.5 yards per carry, didn't fumble a single time, and led the offense that gained the most yards in NFL history, winning the league's MVP award to cap the season.

It is by the third standard, however, that Faulk shines most brightly. Over the last three seasons, he has 766 carries for 4,122 yards and 37 TDs, plus 251 catches for 2,643 yards and 22 TDs. That means his average season was 1,374 yards, 5.4 average, 84 receptions for 881 yards, and 20 total touchdowns. That's his average. For three years.

In the last three years, no other running back has gained 881 yards receiving in one season, or averaged 5.4 yards per carry for a season in which he rushed for 1,000 yards. And finally, no other player in the NFL has scored 20 touchdowns in a season even once while Marshall Faulk has made that his three-year average.

For my money, it's the best three-year stretch by a running back since Jim Brown. No one else comes close. If you had to take someone, O.J. Simpson was great from 1973-75 (4,945 yards in 14-game seasons), but he couldn't catch (Faulk edges him by 202) and he didn't find the endzone as often (Faulk by 20). He also fumbled 21 times during those three seasons, 16 more than Faulk.

The final criteria for greatness is grace under pressure. The Rams became winners the moment Faulk joined the team in the summer of 1999. They've made the playoffs every year since and been to two Super Bowls, winning one. But in 2000, when Kurt Warner struggled with injuries and it looked like the Rams would miss the postseason, Faulk picked them up on his back and almost single-handedly carried them into the playoffs.

That year, St. Louis played each of its last three games against playoff teams. In those three games, Faulk rushed for 434 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. In the last game, which the Rams needed to win to clinch a playoff spot, Faulk rushed for 220 yards and scored all three St. Louis touchdowns in a 26-21 Rams win. In doing so, he became only the 10th player in NFL history to rush for more than 200 yards twice in a season.

Marshall Faulk has great career numbers, one of the best seasons ever by a running back, and the intangible quality we usually call "heart." But Faulk's greatness over the last three years moves him up into the highest echelon of running backs in history. With the possible exception of Jim Brown from 1963-65, no running back has ever controlled the game the way Marshall Faulk has since 1999. For sustained excellence -- for less than a career but more than a season -- Marshall Faulk is even ahead of Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, and Emmitt Smith.

Thurman Thomas is another future Hall of Famer, and from 1989-1992, he surpassed Roger Craig as the greatest running-receiving threat the game had known in over a decade, and maybe ever -- but Faulk is better than Thomas as a runner (better yards per carry, more touchdowns) and receiver (better everything).

We give Faulk credit, but we don't give him nearly enough. So put down the remote and try to stop hating the Rams long enough to appreciate Marshall Faulk, the best player in the NFL and one of the best running backs ever. Unless you watched Jim Brown, you've never seen anything like this. Enjoy the show.

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