When LaDainian Tomlinson and Terrell Davis were chosen to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017, they made history. It marked the first time since 1977 that two running backs were chosen from the same modern-era (as opposed to senior) class of candidates.
But with their elections, there’s suddenly a hole at the position.
They were the only running backs among this year’s finalists, and there doesn’t appear to be another among the probable first-time candidates for the Class of 2018 — a group that includes linebackers Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher, wide receiver Randy Moss, guard Steve Hutchinson and cornerback Ronde Barber.
But that’s not where the next running back should come from. This year’s semifinalists is … and Edgerrin James, come on down.
James and Roger Craig are the most qualified candidates for the position, and, while I’d like to see Craig return as a finalist, I’m a realist … and that’s almost surely not going to happen. He hasn’t been one since 2010 and is two years removed from moving to the senior category.
So that takes us to James.
A finalist as a second-year candidate in 2016, he mysteriously disappeared this year, failing to reach the final 15 as seven-first time finalists moved to the head of the class. Among them were Tomlinson and defensive end Jason Taylor, each of whom became first-ballot choices.
So now we move to 2018, and let’s be clear: James shouldn’t move forward just because we’ve had at least one running back among the finalists the past eight years and because there might be a vacancy at that position. Nope, he should move forward because he’s qualified for election to Canton.
Along with quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison, James was part of the Indianapolis Colts’ Triplets — with none other than Manning endorsing his Hall-of-Fame election when the subject was addressed last summer on radio station 1070 the Fan in Indianapolis.
“There’s a large list of guys I played with,” Manning told the station, “that were part of the Colts’ era that I believe should be (Hall of Famers), and, no doubt, Edgerrin James (is one of them). I’m telling you, (he) was tough, he was durable, unselfish, (could) block, catch, pick up the blitz, (was) one of the best teammates I ever had.
“I really mean this: One of the best teammates I ever had. Absolutely unselfish and flat-out productive, and guys just got flat-out tired of tackling him in the fourth quarter, right? You remember those games in the fourth quarter. He would just wear guys down. Great work ethic as well, just like Marvin. So I certainly hope he’s the next one because he’s due and he deserves it.”
James twice led the league in rushing. He had seven 1,000-yard seasons. He was the fastest player to reach 5,000 yards from scrimmage. He was the fastest to reach 10,000, too. He was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. He was a first-team all-decade choice. And he’s the NFL’s 12th-leading rusher, with 10 of the first 11 in the Hall of Fame.
Only Frank Gore is not, and he’s still active.
Now consider this: Edgerrin James got there on an Indianapolis team that was tilted — and tilted heavily — to the pass, which can happen when Manning is your quarterback. Yet James set franchise records for yards rushing, touchdowns rushing and single-season rushing on a team that missed the playoffs only once during his tenure there.
The year? It was 2001 when James tore knee ligaments in the sixth game of the season, and the Colts lost seven of their last nine starts. James returned the following year, and the Colts never missed the playoffs again until 2011 … or after James was gone and Manning was sidelined.
But what I liked about him was that he was a complete player. He could run. He could catch. And he could block. It’s no coincidence that when James bowed out in 2001, Manning was sacked a career-high 29 times. And after James moved on to Arizona late in his career, then-coach Ken Whisenhunt in 2008 turned him into a pass protector — that is, until the playoffs. Then he turned him into a running back again, and James responded with a 100-yard game en route to Arizona’s only Super Bowl appearance.
“You have to look at the body of work,” James said when we interviewed him on the Talk of Fame Network in December, 2015. “You have to look at all three phases of the game. There were a lot of games where you had to make that tough block. When it comes to me you can’t just judge me off of running the ball. You have to look at how many snaps did I play; how often I was on the field. You have to look at all the blocking I did. I played in a one-back system where you didn’t have a fullback who’s going to lead the way and (where) the tight end is going out as far as passes.”
He’s right, of course. There was more to the Indianapolis Colts than Manning, Harrison and coach Tony Dungy. There was Edgerrin James, too, and, while the competition from first-year eligibles will be stiff in 2018, here’s hoping he returns as a finalist.