The fall of 1997 was a special year for NFL running backs.
Barry Sanders became only the third running back to rush for over 2,000 yards, gaining 2,053 en route to sharing the league MVP award with Brett Favre. Corey Dillon set the rookie single game rushing mark with his 246 yards on the ground in a Bengals win over the Oilers. Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis enjoyed the best season of his career, rushing for 1,665 yards in 15 games and finished second in the AFC in rushing. The Bus shouldn't feel too bad about his No. 2 finish, because the man that paced the AFC in rushing was in the middle of an unprecedented run that hasn't been seen before or since.
In his third season, the Broncos Terrell Davis rushed for 1,750 yards, a season after rushing for over 1,500 yards in leading the AFC in that category for the firs time. In the playoffs, T.D. gained 581 more yards, giving him the most total rushing yards in a season in NFL history. Davis gained 157 yards in three quarters to go with three touchdowns in Denver's win over Favre's Packers in the Super Bowl.
In 1998, Davis joined Sanders in the 2,000-yard club, rushing for 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns despite missing about two games worth of minutes due to the fact that the Broncos had many victories in the bag by halftime. In three playoff games, Davis gained 468 yards as the Broncos repeated as Super Bowl champions. If you're doing the math at home, that's 4,807 yards in two seasons, with two Super Bowl titles, a league MVP, a Super Bowl MVP and a 2,000-yard season to boot.
But an injury sustained in Week 4 of the 1999 season derailed Davis' career. He was never the same after coming back to play in the 2000 and 2001 seasons, and retired before the start of the 2002 season at the age of 29. Davis' career abruptly ended after seven seasons, 7,607 rushing yards and 60 touchdowns.
Those two final rushing statistics greatly pale in comparison to that of Bettis and many other of Davis' running back peers. Hall of Famer Curtis Martin gained over 14,000 career yards, while Marshall Faulk gained over 19,000 all-purpose yards in 12 seasons with the Colts and Rams. Even Priest Holmes, who didn't become a regular NFL starter until he was 28 years old, finished with more rushing yards than did Davis.
But excluding the argument that Davis' accomplishments in '98 and '99 alone are good enough for inclusion into the Hall of Fame, there was greatness associated with watching him play the position. Davis and Bettis faced each other twice in 1997, and each game, there was a feeling that you were watching two all-timers at the running back position getting after it. In each game, Bettis and Davis played major roles in deciding the outcome. Bettis gained 125 yards in Pittsburgh's 35-24 win over Denver in Week 15, while Davis ran through the Steelers' top-ranked rush defense for 139 yards against the Steelers in the AFC title game.
There were different about Davis and Bettis, and that's what made them the matchups so fun to watch. Bettis was a bulldozer, a chain mover, and someone the Broncos simply couldn't stop, rushing for 230 yards and averaging nearly 4.8 yards a carry in those two games. Davis was the polar opposite, a game-breaker if there ever was one, and arguably the greatest cutback running in NFL history.
Above all, you just knew you were watching two masters at their craft playing at the absolute height of their powers on championship-caliber teams. Those matchups, like Bettis and Davis themselves, are once in a lifetime moments.They're both obvious Hall of Fame players despite their differences in both how they ran the ball and what they accomplished in their careers.
Bettis is arguably the most durable running back of all-time when considering his career longevity of 13 years, the yards he gained and the amount of punishment he endured (while also dishing out his fare share of it, too). Davis achieved everything a player, let along a running back, can achieve in the NFL. Why does his career get penalized because of an injury that he couldn't avoid? It wasn't like his greatness was still in doubt prior to the injury; he had already proven that, anything else Davis did after the '97 and '98 seasons was just gravy. Like Jim Brown once proved in nine seasons and what Gale Sayers achieved in 68 games, Terrell Davis proved during his four healthy seasons that he too is Hall of Fame worthy.
Jerome Bettis and Terrell Davis should be standing side-by-side at the Hall of Fame this summer. Even though they're not, I'll be there enjoying Bettis' finest hour, all the while hoping that the Hall of Fame voters one day reconsider whatever criteria they use for assessing Hall of Fame players in exchange for the only tool they should use when making that decision: their common sense.
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