State Your Case: Roger Craig


1989 NFC Championship:  Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers

(Photos courtesy of San Francisco 49ers)

By Clark Judge

Talk of Fame Network

Running back Roger Craig was the first NFL player to gain 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season, and if you’re saying, “Yeah, well, OK. So what?” Then listen up. There’s only one other player in NFL history to do it, and that’s Marshall Faulk.

And he’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Roger Craig is not. In fact, he’s not even close. A four-time Pro Bowler, three-time Super Bowl champ, former All-Pro, former NFL Offensive Player of the Year and member of the 1980s’ all-decade team, he’s about as near to Canton as the Rams are to staying in St. Louis.

That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. It just means it probably won’t.

Yeah, I know, Craig’s been a Hall-of-Fame semifinalist the past seven years, which means he made the cut to 25. But that’s where his Hall-0f-Fame train derails, with Craig never getting into the room as one of the 15 finalists. Let’s be honest, people: His candidacy won’t gain momentum with time.

It will lose it.

But that’s not right. Because Craig deserves more than he’s gotten … and what he deserves is a debate of his merits.

The guy was an integral part of the San Francisco 49ers when there was nobody better. He could run. He could catch. He could block. Heck, he pulled down a league-best 92 passes in 1985, then a record for running backs. He set a franchise record when he ran for 1,502 yards in 1988, Craig’s second season with over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. And he was the first player in NFL history to be named to the Pro Bowl as a running back and a fullback.

In short, Roger Craig was a complete player.

So he didn’t rush for 10,000 yards. He ran for 8,189. His value was as someone who could do everything, and when you factor in the 4,911 yards receiving and the 13,143 total all-purpose yardage maybe you’ll understand what I mean.

Outside of Joe Montana, Craig was the best offensive player on one of the game’s best offensive teams for San Francisco’s before the arrival of Jerry Rice. Craig once ranked among the top 20 NFL players in both career rushing and career receiving yardage. That should be good for something, and, so far, it’s good enough to get his name in the paper as a Hall-of-Fame semifinalist.

Period.

Yet this was the guy who, in 1985, not only ran for 1,000 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry, and caught 1,000 yards in passes but who helped lead the 49ers to the first-ever 15-1 season in 1984. He scored a Super Bowl-record three touchdowns against a Miami team that was supposed to be too good to fail and later was the first running back in Super Bowl history to have 100 yards in catches.

Craig was not just indispensable to a great San Francisco 49ers team. He was one of the most dangerous players on the NFL landscape, a versatile back who saved his best for the biggest stage, with 9 TDs in his first 14 playoff starts, and isn’t that how we’re supposed to judge great players?

But it’s not just Craig’s numbers that make his case so compelling. It’s the role he played. He was among the first multi-dimensional backs, someone who could serve as a rusher and/or a receiver. Yeah, OK, so Lenny Moore was a great receiver. So was Charley Taylor. And Frank Gifford. But Moore was a target out of the slot later in his career, and Taylor shifted from running back to wide receiver. So did Gifford.

I’m talking about a back who was a threat to catch passes out of the backfield … someone like, say, Marcus Allen or Faulk or … Roger Craig. When he retired, Craig had more catches than any back in league history, and while he’s been retired for over two decades, he still ranks eighth.

Granted, it was Craig’s fumble that cost San Francisco a shot at a third straight Super Bowl in 1990. I get that. But it happens. Jackie Smith drops a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XIII. Barry Sanders runs for -1 yard in a playoff game vs. Green Bay. Brett Favre throws six interceptions in a playoff loss to St. Louis, including three returned for touchdowns.

As I said, it happens. What doesn’t is Craig reaching the doors of Canton as one of its 15 semifinalists. That should change. So let’s change it.

 

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9 Comments

  1. Mike
    May 12, 2015
    Reply

    Awesome article, love Craig, one of my fav Niners. He wasn’t on the team for the first SB win, though.

    thanks

    • May 12, 2015
      Reply

      Mike, thanks. Got it. Drafted in ’83. You’re hired as our editor. Thanks again.

  2. Julius
    May 12, 2015
    Reply

    His fumble in the nfc championship game is the elephant in the room. This is why he gets no love.

    • May 12, 2015
      Reply

      Funny, I asked a couple of voters that question. They said no. They think his first four years as a FB hurt him, and they’re probably right. Because let’s say he’s the RB and averages 1,000 yards those years. He finishes among the top 15 backs of all time. And look at the list of career rushing leaders: Of the top 14, only LaDainian Tomlinson and Edgerrin James aren’t in the Hall. L.T. will be and Edge might. Just wish Roger would get his day in front of voters.

  3. Rich Quodomine
    May 12, 2015
    Reply

    Think he’s another guy who will look better for two reasons: devaluation of RBs over time shows how great a back used to be, and advanced statistics. Pro Football reference has him here: 95 by weighted career average (166th overall since 1950). His best contemporary comparison might be THurman Thomas: Weighted Career AV : 112 (56th overall since 1950). Thomas was a better back, but Craig was in a similar mold. But I think he won’t get in until he’s in the veterans’ room.

    • May 12, 2015
      Reply

      Not sure it happens there, Rich. Roger Craig deservers more than he’s gotten, but stats aren’t what made him. You’d have to have seen him. He passed the all-important eye test. Multi-talented guy who could do everything — run, catch, block. Too bad he’s gotten lost in the shuffle. Deserves more.

  4. Rich Quodomine
    May 13, 2015
    Reply

    I think so, I just think the devaluation is costing him. You were there, he was only on TV for me. The question is: how do you measure the bellcow RB on a team with Montana and Rice? His problem is that he has some great stats, but he’s a bit behind a Thurman, who played 2 more seasons. The electors should take time to look at 3 underrated RBs: Craig, Curt Warner (injuries), Freeman McNeil (think he’s hall of the very good) but in light of recent RB devaluation, all of them should just get another look. Ran hard, played hard, and in a different era. Do some deep stat comparisons and stack them up. That’s the only way to equal out the playing field: see how they impacted the game in that era, rather than now.

    • May 14, 2015
      Reply

      Good points. The dividing line between the HOF and the Hall of Very Good (HOVG) is a thin but important one. I like the fact Canton is such an exclusive place. Some say too much so but I tend to feel other Halls have simply thrown their nets too wide. It might hinder the candidacy of someone like Roger Craig but it helps to insure that those who finally make it have undergone an exhaustive process, as should be he case if it is truly a Hall of Fame.

  5. bachslunch
    March 20, 2016
    Reply

    Roger Craig is a tough sell for me as a HoFer. He was a really good back for about 4 of his 11 seasons, just kind of okay otherwise. The 1000/1000 season is kind of a fluke as his second highest receiving yards total was 675. And his being a good receiving RB isn’t innovative given that players like Lenny Moore and Frank Gifford are earlier examples of this. One could do worse than induct Craig, but can’t say I’ll think it’s an injustice if he never gets in. Same goes for Ricky Watters.

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