DDFP: Running back U of the AFC

Adam Rank & I brought back our NFL.com pal, Elliot Harrison, to talk about whether the Niners and Titans are spending their money wisely by bringing back their respective franchise running backs in these pass-happy days of the 21st century. We also yap about which boxer from the “Rocky” movies would win in a tournament, and continue our search for the team that’s had the greatest collection of runners in NFL history.

Why? Well … when I refer to “Tailback U,” I trust you know I’m talking about USC, the alma mater of legendary collegiate runners like O.J. Simpson, Mike Garrett, Charles White and Reggie Bush. The title “Linebacker U” is synonymous with Penn State thanks to guys like Jack Ham, Shane Conlan, Lavar Arrington and Paul Posluszny (although Miami, Ohio State and USC might want to debate that point). Stanford, Maryland, Miami and BYU have all laid claim to being college’s “Quarterback U” -– and Miami of Ohio is known as the “Cradle of Coaches.”

So then, how is it we don’t have an NFL equivalent for such categories? Shouldn’t there be a “Quarterback Franchise,” a nominal honor given to the NFL team with the greatest lineage at a given position? (That last question was rhetorical.) It’s time to figure this thing out, position by position, by using the NFL Playoffs format (four division champs and two wild-card teams per conference).

Today, let’s tackle … the running backs. But first, a few philosophical questions to address as we establish the ground rules:

How many running backs per team should be counted?
On one hand, a team like the Chiefs should be rewarded for their unusually deep roster of strong RBs over the decades. On the other hand, younger franchises like Jacksonville would have an unfair disadvantage — in spite of a good collection of RBs in its short history -– if we were to count, say, the top 10 runners in each franchise’s history. So -– in an effort to strike a balance –- we’ll go with four RBs per team (at least until the playoffs).

Should we include RBs who played in the first half of the 20th century?
I don’t think so. Accuse me of being an ageist, but I’m just following the lead of all the old timers who refer to the 1958 NFL Championship as “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” because it brought the previously fringe sport of pro football to prominence. By definition, then, nothing that came before that game counts. However, in order to avoid a call from Gil Brandt reprimanding me for ignoring the NFL’s pioneers, I’ll make this concession: Every team will get to add a fifth RB from any era to their roster for our postseason.

How exactly are we deciding who the best RBs from each franchise are?
As it turns out, most of the names that should be included are self-evident. You and I might disagree on a player here and there, but — like Luke Skywalker trying to blow up the Death Star -– some things you need to do on feel.

Alright, so here’s how the standings shape up (with each playoff team’s fifth RB in parentheses):

AFC EAST

x – BILLS – O.J. Simpson, Thurman Thomas, Joe Cribbs, Cookie Gilchrist, (Travis Henry)
JETS – Curtis Martin, Freeman McNeil, Emerson Boozer, Matt Snell
DOLPHINS – Larry Csonka, Ricky Williams, Tony Nathan, Mercury Morris
PATRIOTS – Sam Cunningham, Jim Nance, Tony Collins, Corey Dillon

Synopsis: Buffalo barely beats out the Jets on the strength of their killer duo, Juice and Thomas, plus a very strong No. 3, Cribbs, who derailed his promising career with the Bills by going to the USFL. New York has good depth thanks to the AFL combo of Snell and Boozer, but Martin & McNeil can’t stick with Buffalo’s top two. Csonka and Morris (plus Jim Kiick) dominated in the early 1970s, but the Dan Marino Era –- during which the Dolphins ran only four running plays –- effectively ended Miami’s chances. For the first time in a decade, New England finds itself at the bottom of this running back-rich division.

AFC NORTH

x – BROWNS – Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly, Mike Pruitt, Kevin Mack, (Marion Motley)
y – STEELERS – Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Barry Foster, Willie Parker, (John Henry Johnson)
BENGALS – James Brooks, Corey Dillon, Rudi Johnson, Pete Johnson
RAVENS – Jamal Lewis, Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, Priest Holmes

Synopsis: Cleveland has Brown … not to mention a great No.  2 in Kelly and some very good –- if not great –- physical runners in Pruitt & Mack. Pittsburgh’s Harris is too often forgotten when history’s best RBs are discussed, but when he retired he was the second-leading rusher in NFL history; and Bettis — currently with the league’s sixth-most career rushing yards -– is soon to join Franco in the Hall of Fame. Cincinnati’s quartet is surprisingly strong from top to bottom, but there’s not a true legend among them. For a young franchise (yeah, we’re considering the Ravens a separate entity from the Browns), Baltimore had some talented runners, including one-time 2000-yard man Lewis and the 2011 breakout superstar Rice. Still, the Ravens can’t rival the division’s two best teams.

AFC SOUTH

x – TITANS – Earl Campbell, Eddie George, Chris Johnson, Lorenzo White, (Mike Rozier)
y – COLTS – Edgerrin James, Lenny Moore, Marshall Faulk, Eric Dickerson, (Lydell Mitchell)
JAGUARS – Fred Taylor, Maurice Jones-Drew, James Stewart, Natrone Means
TEXANS – Arian Foster, Domanick Williams, Vontae Leach, Steve Slaton

Synopsis: Tennessee benefits from its Lone Star origins with Campbell, plus George and CJ2K, both of whom can claim to being the league’s best back in at least one NFL season. The names Faulk and Dickerson look great, but keep in mind that the better parts of both players’ careers occurred somewhere other than Indianapolis. Jacksonville’s MJD is putting together a HOF career, but for now is no better than the franchise’s second-best RB behind Taylor. Houston -– the league’s newest team -– not surprisingly might also be the worst.

AFC WEST

x – CHIEFS – Marcus Allen, Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, Christian Okoye, (Ed Podolak)
CHARGERS – LaDanian Tomlinson, Chuck Muncie, Natrone Means, Paul Lowe
RAIDERS – Marcus Allen, Bo Jackson, Mark Van Eeghen, Clem Daniels
BRONCOS – Terrell Davis, Floyd Little, Otis Armstrong, Sammy Winder

Synopsis: None of Kansas City’s four selections had exceptionally long runs in a Chiefs uniform, but Allen was a revolutionary at the position and the other three from the group won a rushing title. Muncie was paradoxically successful in the Air Coryell years and Means had a moment in the sun during San Diego’s run to Super Bowl XXIX, but the Bolts come up short because LT, the franchise’s best RB ever, chose to sit out the franchise’s (second) biggest game ever. Considering the Raiders’ rugged mystique, Oakland seems a little underwhelming -– but maybe things would feel a lot different if Bo could’ve stayed healthy for a few more seasons (and quit baseball). Denver is another “what if,” as in, “What if Terrell Davis didn’t have that knee injury?” … but of course, he did have that knee injury, and the Broncos don’t have a whole lot of quality RBs besides him.

We’ll cover the NFC side — then the playoffs -– soon. In the meantime, tune into the podcast for the aural experience of a lifetime.

 

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