The 49ers West Coast offense was exceptionally innovative in the 1980s. Is anybody going to argue?
There was Joe Montana, a super cool quarterback hurling clutch passes as reliably as eruptions from Yellow Stone's Old Faithful. There was Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver ever. And among the many, many other greats in the vastly-ahead-of-its-time-system, there was a revolutionary running back who changed the position, and the game.
With the induction of the incomparable Rice into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio this summer, we will see greatness enter among greatness. There has never been, and will probably never be a football player as great as number 80.
Yet, among the busts and memorabilia in the iconic museum—a tribute to the best players of a great American sport—there is a void. This void is not easy to see among the stars and legends, but it exists. And after the induction of the 2010 class, Roger Craig will still not be a member of the NFL Hall of Fame.
Somehow, somewhere, someone must have made a case against Craig for the Hall of Fame. The mind-boggling thing is that somehow, somewhere, someone listened to them. Any case against Craig will not hold water.
As far as the case for why Roger Craig should be voted into the Hall of Fame, the only question is where to start.
After a solid career at the University of Nebraska, where for years he held the record for the longest run from scrimmage (94 yards), Craig was drafted by Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers in the second round of the 1983 NFL draft. He went on to have a very respectable rookie year.
In the pass oriented West Coast offense, Craig compiled 725 rushing yards in 176 attempts, including eight touchdowns. The rookie running back also added 48 receptions for for 427 yards and four more touchdowns. Craig's numbers would only get better as his career progressed.
Craig's sophomore year seemed expected at first. As the 49ers passing game took center stage, Craig put up 649 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 155 carries; he also grabbed 71 receptions for 675 yards and three touchdowns on the year. The team emerged as the first to post a 15-1 regular season record, and the 49ers stormed through the playoffs.
It was in Super Bowl XIX where Craig took center stage and made himself a household name by becoming the first player in history to score three touchdowns in a Super Bowl—two receiving and one rushing.
The record setting and success carried over to the next season, when Craig became the first player to compile 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in a season. In total, he rushed for 1,050 yards and nine touchdowns on 214 carries, and caught 92 passes for 1,016 yards and six touchdowns.
Although the 49ers were defeated 17-3 in the playoffs by the New York Giants, and the Chicago Bears went on to do the Super Bowl Shuffle, Craig accomplished a feat that has only been duplicated once—by future Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk in 1999.
Over the next couple of years, a selfless Craig would average 1,380 total yards from scrimmage while newcomers like Jerry Rice began racking up numbers of their own. Craig averaged 73.5 receptions, and 5.5 touchdowns during the next two seasons.
Though he did not breach the 1,000-yard mark in rushing or receiving either year, Craig's excellent blocking remained a constant.
As the 49ers returned to prominence, so too did Craig's numbers. He set a franchise record with 1,502 rushing yards on 310 attempts in 1988. That record stood until Garisson Hearst posted 1,570 yards in 1998. Craig also tacked on 534 yards on 76 catches, while rushing for nine touchdowns, and adding one more through the air.
The 49ers went on to win Super Bowl XXIII that year.
As part of one of the most dominant teams of all time, Craig rushed for 1,054 yards and six touchdowns with the 1989 49ers. He added 49 receptions for 473 yards and a touchdown receiving. That 49ers team is included in conversations about the all-time bests.
Wrapping up his career
Craig's last year with the 49ers was 1990. In 11 starts, he carried the ball 141 times for 439 yards and added 201 yards on 25 receptions. He also scored one touchdown that year. It was his costly fumble in the playoffs, however, that left a final impression. Although Craig wanted badly to redeem himself, it was his last game as a member of the 49ers.
Eight intense years of top-notch football had taken their toll on him, but Craig hung around for three more season: one with the Raiders and two with the Vikings. He would score no more than four touchdowns in any of those years. Nevertheless, every team Craig was a part of saw action in the postseason.
The 49ers won Super Bowls before, and after Craig showed up, but he was at the center of three really big titles.
He was not the MVP of Super Bowl XIX; Montana was. But Craig's 58 yards on 15 carries and seven receptions for 77 yards and three touchdowns aided Montana's 24 completions on 35 attempts for 331 yards and three touchdowns.
Rice Took MVP honors in Super Bowl XXIII, hauling in 11 passes for a Super Bowl record 215 yards and a touchdown, while also rushing once for five yards. Craig quietly caught several key passes on Montana's legendary final drive.
Montana took the honor again in Super Bowl XXIV as well, while Craig, again, played in the shadows.
Still, Craig's three rings shine as bright as any.
Feast your eyes
They used to say a picture is worth 1,000 words; here's a few thousand words.
Summation and Synopsis
Roger Craig's Career rushing numbers are deceptive: 8,189 yards on 1,991 carries and 56 touchdowns. So are his receiving numbers: 566 catches for 4,911 and 17 touchdowns. One must instead see the whole picture to understand the scope of Craig's impact on the field—13,100 total yards from scrimmage—he could hurt you both ways.
The running back position was never the same after Craig; players coming from the backfield were expected to do more than take hand-offs. Often imitated, but only once duplicated, Craig paved the way for cumulative yard backs like Chris Johnson, Barry Sanders and the great Marshall Faulk.
Sharing the ball was never an issue with a team player like Craig; he understood that the top of the mountain in the NFL is a Super Bowl victory—and he was a part of three 49ers teams to reach the summit. In 11 NFL seasons, Craig made the postseason 11 times. Many players don't get there once.
Craig's absence from the NFL Hall of Fame is an insult to the game of football, and the Hall itself suffers from this. It mocks an honor that is supposed to be the highest recognition of brilliant careers.
Canton has it wrong, and the NFL needs to admit it has been wrong for several years if it is ever going to set things right.
Sure there are bigger injustices in the world every day, but this is an easy fix. Roger Craig was a revolutionary running back, a perennial winner, and a class act; and his greatness needs to be recognized, remembered, and enshrined.