Jerome Bettis, one of five first-year eligible players among the 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is from a different era of running backs. Gone are the days of the feature back, the back who played all three downs and touched the ball 350 times a season.
That designation is nearly extinct in today’s NFL, replaced by more specialized roles and backfields by committee in the latest offensive evolution. As it pertains to the Hall of Fame, the increased specialization among running backs could also make it much more difficult to put up career numbers worthy of consideration.
During his visit to the NFL Network set Thursday, Bettis was asked an astute question by analyst Jamie Dukes: Given the lack of feature roles, are there any backs in today’s NFL that have Hall of Fame potential?
“There’s probably one guy that you can look at and say he could probably last the test of time, and that’s Adrian Peterson, in the sense that he has the tools to do everything,” Bettis said. “And you figure when he does slow down, he’s going to slow down to a speed where he’s faster than most of the players anyways. So I think this is a guy who potentially can get it done.”
The topic leads to this question: How long is the short list of current NFL backs who belong in the HOF conversation?
Peterson, 25, has 5,782 yards and 52 touchdowns in his first four seasons. Duplicating that effort over the next four would put him past 10,000 yards and into the top 25 in NFL history. Chris Johnson, also 25, has 4,598 yards and 34 touchdowns in three seasons, including his 2,000-yard campaign in 2009.
It’s likely Bettis simply overlooked LaDainian Tomlinson, the No. 6 on the list of all-time leading rushers (13,404) and third among all-time scorers (159). Give him a mulligan on that one.
Next on the list is probably Steven Jackson (7,948 yards, 47 TDs in seven seasons). If his role as a feature back with the improving Rams continues, Jackson might reach the top statistical echelon.
An interesting topic, no doubt. With true feature backs becoming less common, it might have a lasting impact in HOF consideration.