Was Steven Jackson behind his time?

Our colleague Bernie Miklasz had an interesting and compelling column in Sunday’s Post-Dispatch discussing the possibilities of Rams’ running back Steven Jackson someday making the Hall of Fame. It’s an interesting thought, and brings to mind an interesting question.

If Bernie and other Hall of Fame voters are having trouble coming to grips with what Hall of Fame receiving numbers are in this era, what about coming to grips with what great running backs are? We just came out of an era in the last five or six years in which, between 1990 and 2005, seven of the top eleven rushers of all-time played a good portion of their career in that time frame. Emmitt Smith is the league’s all-time leader, Barry Sanders is third, Curtis Martin fourth, LaDanian Tomlinson fifth, Jerome Bettis sixth, Marshall Faulk tenth and Edgerrin James eleventh. Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas and Marcus Allen also played a good portion of their careers in that era. And, Terrell Davis, whose career was scuttled prematurely because of knee injuries, is third all-time behind Jim Brown and Sanders in yards per game.

There are other guys who played the majority of their careers between 1990-2005 who might get consideration. Maybe Warrick Dunn, who’s sixteenth on the all-time yards from scrimmage list, maybe Jamal Lewis, who had 10,607 yards including 2,066 in one year, Maybe Fred Taylor, who is 15th all time.

As Bernie noted, Jackson leads the NFL is rushing yards since 2005. Tomlinson was great in ’05, ’06 and ’07, but fell off the cliff in ’08. Adrian Peterson has been great since 2007, but is coming off a severe knee injury.

But what running back playing right now is a surefire Hall of Famer? As the season starts, Jackson is the active rushing leader with 9,093 yards. That’s 32ND all-time! In pretty much every year since I can remember, there’s been a single, dominant back. Going all the way back to O.J. Simpson and Franco Harris, then Walter Payton, Tony Dorsett, Marcus Allen, Eric Dickerson, Sanders, Smith, Bettis, Faulk, Martin and Tomlinson.

That’s some pretty clear-cut Hall of Fame material. As the season starts, Jackson will be the top active rusher in the league, because Tomlinson and Ricky Williams have retired, and Thomas Jones doesn’t have a job. In THIS day and age, Jackson could be a Hall of Fame candidate because he’s the best of his era. But his numbers don’t stack up to the players that are already in.

In an interesting paradox, Hall of Fame voters can’t figure out which great numbers should allow a receiver into the Hall, and probably will have trouble with running backs before too long. Nine of the top twelve receiving yardage leaders of all time (eleven of whom are wide receivers) have played the majority of their careers in the last twenty years, and three of those have already been eligible for the Hall but haven’t made it. Only the all-time greatest, Jerry Rice, has gone in. In the next two years, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Marvin Harrison will join Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Andre Reed in eligibility, with Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Hines Ward and Derrick Mason not far behind.

Meanwhile, when Bettis goes in, the top ten rushers will either be in, or in Tomlinson’s case, be a lock to get voted in. The top ten rushers are or will be in, but only one of the top ten receivers will be, even though three are eligible but haven’t gotten enough support.

The landscape has changed in the NFL. Receivers are the main guys now, and they’re putting up Hall of Fame numbers. The numbers for running backs are changing dramatically, too. It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes for the Hall of Fame committee to determine that guys like Carter and Brown were ahead of their time, and if a guy like Steven Jackson was behind his.