Matt Waldman’s RB Cut-Down No.11: Gale Sayers

Gale Sayers

Running back is the most talent-dense position in the history of the league. It’s why narrowing the choice to a single player is insanity.

I’m sharing my process of finding my runner to defend the planet. The criticisms I have for these players are so minor that normally, I’d echo Jim Brown’s sentiments about rating players across eras:

I don’t deal with who’s the greatest. That’s very limited, I’m sorry to say, and I think this is an example of it. Why would anyone want to say that what Adrian has done this year isn’t what someone else did years before? It’s what you do when you do it, and it should not be compared. We don’t have to compare it. It’s unnecessary. And it’s taking something away from someone to give someone else something. You don’t have to do that. Because what Adrian is doing now doesn’t hurt anyone else who’s ever run the football.

I’m not going to look at Walter Payton and take anything away from Walter. I’m not going to look at John Riggins and take anything away from him. I’m only going to look at the positive things of each individual.

I get Brown’s point. My exercise comes from a place of love for the abilities of all of these backs. It’s not a “who is the best” ranking, it’s a “who is the best for this situation based on my needs.”

The backs I’m profiling this week are listed in the order I cut them from consideration for the starter’s role. I said before if I could do it, I’d start five backs for my team. It’s just not feasible.

Gale Sayers

Kansas Comet

Want a play that illustrates Sayers’ all-time greatness. This punt return on the mud-caked field of old Kezar Stadium for Sayers’ sixth touchdown of the day versus San Francisco features one of the most impossible cuts you’ll ever see and Sayers makes it look effortless. In case you need to know for sure which cut it is, it’s at the two-minute mark.

The commentator on this video says choosing the greatest Sayers run is virtually impossible. Although he’s correct, this return is my favorite. Given the conditions, the angle of the cut, the location of the defenders, and the rate of speed, this play is visual art and modern dance rolled into one. It belongs in a museum.

Sayers is the quintessential film guy, because his career stats aren’t remotely worthy of the Hall of Fame. In many ways, he was Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk and Emmitt Smith before Sanders, Faulk, and Smith.

If Jim Brown is the modern era’s forefather of power backs, Sayers is the root of the family tree for elusive runners: He had great suddenness to come to complete stop and accelerate again to top speed in short order; flexible hips to change direction at full speed; phenomenal peripheral vision; balance to run through glancing blows; and the will, stamina, and confidence to believe he can beat 11 defenders if faced with the scenario.

The last point is common among all of these backs that I’m profiling.

The Kansas Comet had the speed, agility, and vision to be a star in today’s league. He was an excellent receiver that could make plays with his back to the quarterback in the middle of the field where the timid don’t tread. Where Sayers would initially struggle in the modern era is ball security. He fumbled the ball every 32 touches and often carried the rock like it had been sitting on hot coals for hours on end.

Where Sayers earns additional points with me on the greatness meter is post-knee injury. The Bears star re-tooled his game in 1969, averaged 4.4 yards per carry, earned 1,032 yards, and scored 8 touchdowns with a determined, downhill style. Imagine Barry Sanders losing what made him special and morphing successful into Rudi Johnson by necessity.

This is the mental and physical toughness of a great competitor. Sayers was also a great return specialist and the range of his receiving skills put him above Campbell for me. Many will disagree because they are thinking about yards, career longevity, and they love the brute force of the Oilers back.

Remember, I’m not rating the best of all-time, I’m picking players I want to defend the planet. Having a great career is only one factor of consideration. It’s how they played and how they faced adversity.

Sayers did enough to get this far. No shame there.

What is the RSP Writers Project (RSPWP)?

The RSP Writers Project is a goodwill community effort among writers that is designed to spur conversation about the game. Here’s the backstory for this year’s project and the directory of participating writer-built teams.

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