The case for Marshall Faulk as a Top 5 all-time running back

After watching Marshall Faulk’s “A Football Life” episode on the NFL Network, it dawned on me that he’s in danger of winding up historically underrated. Reading this, it might occur to you that I’m being hyperbolic. After all, the man is in the Hall of Fame, he’s widely recognized as a great in the sport’s history, and so on.

And yet…

Ask anyone to give you a Top 5 running backs list, and see how many of them will have Faulk in there. Now, I wasn’t born to see OJ or Jim Brown, I was too young to remember Payton and I missed the first third of Emmitt Smith’s career. But however great these players were, I am making the argument that Faulk belongs on any Top 5 list.

Watching the episode brought historical context to things I barely remembered about him, and even taught me a few things I didn’t know (I must confess feeling selfishly relieved that the Miami Hurricanes lacked the vision to recruit him as a running back. Faulk playing for the Canes? Help us all!).

Statistically, Faulk numbers leave little to be desired. He is one of only three players to have rushed for 10,000 yards and caught for 5,000 (Marcus Allen and Tiki Barber being the others). He is the fastest player to reach 16,000 and 17,000 yards from scrimmage in NFL history. Only he and Jim Brown have ever reached 1,000 yards rushing in six games. Only he and Ladainian Tomlinson have accumulated 10 seasons of five or more rushing touchdowns. Consider the following receiving numbers: 87 catches, 1,048 yards, five touchdowns. Not a bad year for a receiver, right? Thing is, those are Faulk’s numbers from 1999.

One of the clichés we have in sports is that a player’s statistics “speak for themselves.” However, in Faulk’s case, it feels as though they do not. Not quite. As great as his stats are, Faulk’s true greatness doesn’t lie in his tangibles.

Watching the “A Football Life” episode, it struck me that they could have taken away the interviews, the music, the human interest stuff, and simply rolled game footage for an hour, and it would have been enough. Between my days as a player and a coach, I’ve been involved in over 200 games of football, and I’ve watched who knows many more. Football often leaves me impressed, but seldom in awe. Marshall Faulk left me in awe. A lot. Even as I watched the episode, as it replayed moments I could still remember, my jaw dropped several times as I watched him wiggle his way out of piles that would have been impossible to escape for anyone else not named Barry Sanders. If Walter Payton was “Sweetness,” then Marshall Faulk was “Magic.” Unlike several great backs, Faulk wasn’t just great; he was memorable.

But that’s part of the problem. One of my theories as to why Faulk risks being historically shafted to some degree is that nobody seems quite sure what to make of him. We know he was great, but how great, exactly? His rushing numbers are indeed impressive, but they are topped by backs who have managed to play longer. In a way, Barry Sanders may have helped his case by retiring so early, because the fact that he only played eight years will serve as a caveat to justify his not having the numbers some of the other greats have. Fans relish their memories of Walter Payton, for whom running looked so effortless. Most people, for whom running back should be runners above all else, might prefer stallions types with an unnatural combination of length, speed and power, such as Eric Dickerson and Adrian Peterson. And, of course, there are the technical masters, who would never take a step wrong, like Tomlinson and Emmitt Smith. 

How much should we value the fact that Faulk is unquestionably the best receiving back of the modern era, or any era, for that matter? Even that last claim is bound to be contested. Some day, some stat geek born in 2002 or something will crunch the numbers and say that Ladainian Tomlinson was pretty much as a good a receiving back as Faulk. And he’ll be wrong.

Still, if we’re being honest, we must examine whether Faulk benefited from era-specific advantages. This is an especially salient question when we look at his receiving numbers. His prime took place in the last era when a linebacker lighter than 240 pounds was considered too small to play in the middle, 250-pound, 4.9-running Sam linebackers defended tight ends, and virtually all strong safeties were Kam Chancellor types who stank in coverage. Of course, Faulk was matchup hell for these guys. But what about now? It’s hard to believe he wouldn’t be the best receiving back in the league, but would he be quite the same matchup nightmare working against guys like Lavonte David, or Thomas Davis, or DeAndre Levy? Does he pull off his receiving stats from 1999  in today’s NFL? Does he even get enough snaps, given that the running back-by-committee approach is now the norm in the NFL?

They’re not invalid questions, but even if we concede all these points, there are also things in today’s NFL from which he would surely benefit. Would he not be even more of an assassin as an inside runner in today’s zone schemes? Would a lighter workload not allow him to prolong his career? Would the imports from inventive college passing attacks, such as the Air Raid, not compensate for the fact that modern NFL linebackers and safeties are closer to matching him athletically?

I would argue that he would still be a monster receiver because a) today’s linebackers and safeties might be much better athletes, but they still aren’t good enough in coverage to stay with Faulk, and b) in today’s NFL, a bright coordinator would have schemed his way into making Faulk uncoverable. If Dion Lewis can look unstoppable in the Pats’ offence, imagine how Faulk would do. Moreover, given that he was surprisingly durable in an era when front 7 players were much bigger than they are today, it’s safe to assume that lesser workloads would have prevented him from “losing a step” overnight as he did, much like Tomlinson and Eddie George, and would have allowed him to extend his career in much the same way as Emmitt Smith did. Imagine the numbers he would have posted then.

And just in case you remain unconvinced, allow me to give you the bullet-point presentation of why I rank Faulk in my Top 5 running backs of all time, and you should too:

  1. He exuded “X-factorness” (not a word, I know. Sue me.) : We have already discussed this at length, but again, this cannot be overstated. Faulk is one of those players you had to see to truly grasp just how exceptional he was. Look at Emmitt Smith or Tomlinson’s stats, and you pretty much get the picture. Not true with Faulk. He was one of those players who pushed back the limits of what we thought running backs could do. I think that counts for something.
  2. He was a complete, total, utter matchup horror show: You would have needed one of your starting cornerbacks to cover him (and even then, I can think of several stiff starting corners who wouldn’t have had a prayer of staying with him). But you couldn’t have gotten away with that because a) he never lined up in the same spot, and b) because even if you did red-dog him with a starting corner, that would have meant assigning a safety or a nickel corner to cover either Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt (translation: suicide). And while he wasn’t a physical runner, he could wiggle out of tight spaces better than anyone other than Barry Sanders. Your typical NFL linebacker is faster now than he was back then but, with moves like his, Faulk could still leave most modern backers in the dust. One more thing: as a blocker, his cerebral prowess allowed him to excel against linebackers as big as modern defensive ends. Against today’s smaller players, he’d be a world-beater as a blocker. If you want a modern comparison for the kind of mismatch nightmare he was, think Rob Gronkowski. Different athletes; same gameplanning impossibility.
  3.  He turned the moribund Rams into a Super Bowl team: While the media was having a field day signing the praises of Kurt Warner because he was the cuter story, Marshall Faulk was busy being the actual catalyst for the Rams’ turnaround. It’s not that Warner’s performance was without merit, far from it, but ask yourself the following questions: Could the Rams have won that Super Bowl and gotten to another one two years later with Trent Green at quarterback instead of Warner? Probably. Could they have done it without Faulk being the terror that he was, and creating tons of favourable matchups for Bruce and Holt? No, not a chance. 1999-2001 Faulk was, along with Randy Moss, the most dynamic offensive weapon in the NFL. Warner was an unusually smart and accurate quarterback. Deprive him of an offensive star in peak form (Faulk in St.Louis; Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona), however, and his limitations become much more apparent.
  4. Given my tendencies as a fan, I should have hated him, but I didn’t: I have a confession to make. I hate media darlings. And when the media caught on to the fact that they might have, in the ’99 Rams, an amazing Cinderella story in both Kurt Warner and the Rams in general, they couldn’t stop feeding it to us. When I was younger, that drove me even crazier than it does now. There are many players I dislike not because of anything they did, but because I couldn’t take the media marveling over them anymore. I despised Kurt Warner, and I was never too fond of Bruce and Holt. I couldn’t help but like Faulk. I was not very far advanced in my football fandom at that point, but I could tell this was a historically great player having a historically great season. And he was so magical to watch that I couldn’t help but enjoy it.

I realize no one would dare argue that Faulk is overrated, and that nobody is questioning his status as an all-time great. Still, however, I will state until I’m blue in the face that this isn’t enough. There are many names one could put on a list of the greatest running backs of all time and get an argument from no one, but you would get one from me if you were to put five names ahead of Marshall Faulk.

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