For three seasons, 1996-98, Terrell Davis was more or less unstoppable for the Denver Broncos. TD’s three glorious seasons, like Sandy Koufax’s four seasons from 1963-66, were a perfect blend of talent and circumstance and surroundings. Davis was a breathtaking runner. The Broncos had an all-world offensive line. And Denver quarterback, John Elway, still had the big arm and stature, keeping defensive players looking downfield.
All of it meant that a simple pitch play to Terrell Davis became probably the most feared play in the game. There’s something funny about football: Pro football coaches, by and large, despise risk. It is risk aversion, more than anything else, that drives the game forward. You probably know that this year, teams threw the football at a higher percentage than at any time in NFL history. A quick pass percentage chart:
So, that would SEEM to suggest that coaches are less conservative and more willing to take on risk today than they were 40 years ago. But it isn’t so. It’s the nature of passing that has changed, not the coach’s nerve. Forty years ago, quarterbacks threw many more interceptions and completed passes at a much lower percentage. Coaches would constantly say that when throwing the ball only three things can happen and two of them are bad.
There was something to that. In 1976, quarterbacks completed just 52% of their passes and threw an interception just about 5% of the time — one every 20 passes.
In 2016, quarterbacks completed 63% of their passes and threw an interception 2.2% of the time, or once every 44 passes.
Coaches aren’t getting braver. The rules and the rhythm of the game have made throwing the ball much less risky. In many cases, throwing the ball is the much safer option over running it. The Patriots, as an extreme example, threw 0nly two interceptions all year and lost nine fumbles.
I only bring any of that up to say that when Terrell Davis was running the ball those three seasons, he fundamentally flipped the game. A pitch play to Davis was not only the Broncos safest play, it was also their best chance for a big play. It was a good play to run on third and long. It was a good play to loosen up the defense. It was a good play to run at any time anywhere on the field. In 1998, Davis ran for eight touchdowns of 20 yards or more.
Well, he had a musician’s sense of timing, that Broncos line always opened holes for him — often, Kansas City fans will tell you, with advanced forms of holding — and the Elway threat just made the whole thing almost laughable. In one playoff game against Miami, Davis had runs of 62, 28, 20, 13, 12, 11, 8 and 8 yards. In seven playoff games in 1997 and 1998, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. This included his insane 157-yard, three-touchdown performance against Green Bay in the Super Bowl XXXII.
You probably know, the Hall of Fame committee voted Davis into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. It’s a fairly controversial pick because while Davis was dominant those three years, those more or less make up the entirety of his career. He did rush for 1,117 yards as a rookie, though that’s nothing special. And injuries basically ended his career after the 1998 Super Bowl — he only played in 17 more games and was mostly ineffective in those.
Should a player be elected to the Hall of Fame based entirely on three wonderful seasons?
Here I bring up Priest Holmes. From 2000 to 2002, Priest Holmes was one of the best football players I have ever seen. You can compare his three seasons to Davis’ three seasons and see the story.
Davis, 1996-98: 47 games, 1,106 rushing attempts, 5,296 yards, 4.8 per carry, 49 touchdowns, 103 catches, 6,110 yards from scrimmage.
Holmes 2001-2003: 46 games, 960 rushing attempts, 4,590 yards, 4.8 per carry, 56 touchdowns, 206 catches, 6,566 yards from scrimmage.
Holmes was, I would contend, the better football player. Davis had more rushing attempts and yards, but they averaged the same per carry, Holmes caught twice as many passes and gained more total yards. He also scored more touchdowns.
Holmes also had the fuller career — he gained 1,000 more yards from scrimmage and scored 20 more touchdowns even if you include postseason games. Holmes only played in 19 games after his last great year, but he scored 20 touchdowns and ran for 1,500 yards in those games.
Of course, Holmes did not have the playoff success of Davis. He was a backup to Jamal Lewis on the Baltimore Ravens team that won the Super Bowl, but that was before he came into his own as a star. During his three-year run, the Chiefs offense scored more points than any team in the NFL. But the defense was wretched. Kansas City only managed to reach the playoffs once during that time because of terrible defense. In that one playoff game, against Indianapolis, Holmes ran for 176 yards, caught five passes for 32 more, scored two touchdowns …
… and it made no difference at all because the Colts scored every time they had the ball except when they ran out the clock at the end of the first and second halves. Holmes fumbled in that game, his only lost fumble of the season, and that proved decisive because it was the only turnover in a game where neither team punted.
The point here is not to say that if Davis is in the Hall than Holmes should be. Instead it is to point out the different philosophy of the football and baseball halls of fame.
In baseball, there is a constant effort to isolate the player’s performance. That is to say, we are always trying to find a player’s TRUE value, minus his teammate’s contributions, minus his circumstances, considering everything in context. In baseball, for instance, Larry Walker gets little Hall of Fame support despite great career numbers. Why? Because he played much of his career at Coors Field when it was a hitter’s paradise, and he took full advantage of that bit of good fortune.
Well, how is that any different than Terrell Davis or Priest Holmes running behind impossibly awesome offensive lines? It isn’t any different. Those players were given extreme advantages, and they made the most of them. It is likely that a handful of talented running backs, given the chance to run behind those Denver of Kansas City lines, would have put up extraordinary seasons too.
Baseball fans and voters think a lot about hypothetical stuff like that.
Football fans and voters … not so much.
Same thing with playoffs. In baseball, when considering a player for the Hall of Fame, playoff performance plays a small role. The thinking is: Some great players get a lot of playoff opportunities, some don’t get any at all. Curt Schilling was an incredible postseason pitcher, and yet he can’t quite get Hall of Fame traction — this was true even before his Twitter war began.
In football — playoffs matter a lot, more than the regular seasons. Yes, of course, John Elway and a great offensive line and a very good defense played important roles in Davis getting all those postseason games. If Ricky Watters or Garrison Hearst or Jamal Anderson had those advantaged …
But they didn’t. And Football hall of fame voters and fans general feeling about this is: So what? History is history. Davis’ playoff awesomeness speaks for itself.
These are just different philosophies. I think if you break it down to the particulars, Priest Holmes really was a better football player than Terrell Davis. He was as effective a runner, a better pass receiver, a better blocker and he had every bit the skill and drive for getting into the end zone.
Holmes had injury problems too but he was a bit more durable than Davis. He led the league in yards from scrimmage twice (Davis never did) in touchdowns twice (Davis led once) and in approximate value twice (same as Davis).
Holmes led the league in yards from scrimmage twice (Davis never did) in touchdowns twice (Davis led once) and in approximate value twice (same as Davis).
Holmes’ best year, 2002, he had more yards from scrimmage than Davis’ best year … and he only played 14 games.
And all of these would be effective baseball arguments. It doesn’t have to be Priest Holmes, there are any number of running backs you can put into this argument. But the Pro Football Hall of Fame is different. Terrell Davis is singular in Pro Football. He was the force that propelled John Elway to two Super Bowl titles. That’s history. And history is what the Pro Football Hall of Fame unapologetically celebrates.