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NFL - Terrell Davis in Perspective

By Brad Oremland
Thursday, August 22nd, 2002
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As Terrell Davis' career comes to a close, a great debate has arisen regarding TD's chances of making the Hall of Fame. I don't think he will. But I do think he should. I can even make my whole argument with two words: Gale Sayers.

The parallels between their careers are eerie. Consider:

  • both played seven NFL seasons
  • each was healthy for only 4.5 of those 7
  • Sayers played 68 games (14-game seasons) -- 69.4%
  • Davis played 78 games (16-game seasons) -- 69.6%
  • both players were the heirs to a new guard: Sayers' first year was Jim Brown's last; Davis' first year was Emmitt Smith's last great one, and he peaked in Barry Sanders' final season
  • each had his career prematurely ended by knee problems

When Sayers became eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there was some concern that his brief career would keep him out. However, Sayers, who was named the all-time NFL halfback in 1969, was inducted in his first year of eligibility. Davis, who holds the NFL record for most rushing yards in a three-year span, deserves the same. Numbers can't tell the whole story, but Davis' stats compare favorably with those of Sayers.

		Sayers	Davis
Seasons		7	7
Rush Att	991	1655
Rush Yds	4956	7607
Avg		5.0	4.6
Rush TD	        39	60
Total TD	56	65
All-Pro		5	3
Rookie of Year	1	0
NFL MVP	        0	1
Super Bowls	0	2

These numbers leave several things out. Sayers may have been the greatest kick returner ever, and still holds the record for career kick return average (30.6). He also owns the NFL's single-season record for touchdowns by a rookie (22), and in 1965, tied the NFL record with 6 touchdowns in a game. He was also Player of the Game in three Pro Bowls.

Davis has his own claims to fame. He is one of four players to rush for 2,000 yards in a season and one of only six to score more than 20 rushing touchdowns in a season. He was also the MVP of Super Bowl XXXII, during which he set a Super Bowl record for rushing touchdowns (3) despite missing most of the second quarter with a migraine.

In fact, for all his excellence in the regular season, Davis was at his best in the most important games. In eight postseason appearances, he rushed 204 times for 1,140 yards (5.6 avg) and 11 touchdowns. Projected to a full season's worth of games (16), Davis would have had 2,280 rushing yards -- obliterating Eric Dickerson's record of 2105 -- and 22 rushing TDs, the third most in history. And this against playoff teams.

In the minds of HOF voters, Sayers' brilliance on the field compensated for his short career. The same argument applies to Davis. His 1998 season could justly be considered the greatest ever by a running back, and even his 1997 campaign (1,750 yds, 15 TD), which he capped by winning a Super Bowl MVP, must be ranked among the best in recent history. Davis averaged more yards and touchdowns per game than Sayers and helped his team to two Super Bowl victories. The Broncos were 47-17 during Davis' healthy seasons. They are 25-23 since, with one playoff appearance and no victories.

In a recent article on CNNSI.com, Peter King argued that, "One good season, two great seasons, and one fabulous one aren't enough." In the same article, he showers praise on Jerome Bettis, who's never had a single great season, although he's had a lot of good ones. It's worth noting that Davis -- in 68 games -- had more touchdowns and more receiving yards than Bettis has in exactly twice as many games (136). I could go on -- Davis is better in just about any category - but I'm not here to beat up on Bettis.

Look up some other players who had "two great seasons and one fabulous one." It's a short list: Steve Van Buren, Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, and Marshall Faulk. That's it. You could argue for Jim Taylor, Leroy Kelly, Earl Campbell, Marcus Allen, or Eric Dickerson if your standards are a little lower. Fine. Every one of those guys -- on both lists -- is in the Hall of Fame or not eligible yet. It's pretty elite company either way.

Gale Sayers' induction into the Hall of Fame set a precedent: truly great players should be rewarded even if injuries end their careers early. Davis' career paralleled that of Sayers -- four and a half healthy seasons in seven years, with brilliant moments and devastating knee injuries -- makes him an excellent candidate for the Hall of Fame.

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