Matt Waldman’s RB Cut-Down No.12: Earl Campbell


Rankings Suck

This article is not a ranking of the greatest backs of all time. I’m choosing the best fit for my team to save the planet from a little-known opponent that appears to know a lot more about us. It may not seem like there’s a difference, but there is.

My decisions are based on limited knowledge of these players personally. I’m sure if I knew more about these men my decisions could have been dramatically different. Last week, I profiled backs that didn’t make my final dozen. There are additional players I considered, but didn’t profile.

Many of you were curious about them. Here they are:

  • Terrell Davis – A fine all-around back with underrated agility and great vision. He’ll earn a spot in the HOF one day.
  • John Riggins – One of the great power runners in history. He also has that “keep things loose” attitude that a team will need with the world in the balance.
  • Maurice Jones-Drew – An all-purpose great in every phase of the game, MJD at his best could easily be on any top-15 list as a candidate to defend the planet.
  • Tiki Barber – As Chase Stuart and Jason Lisk have written about in the past, Barber’s final three seasons were all-time efforts for the rare back that integrated his skills late in his career.
  • Frank Gore – If Gore didn’t have two ACL tears before entering the NFL, his pre-surgery athleticism and his savvy could have equated to all-time greatness.
  • Ottis Anderson – He was fun to watch with the Giants, but the Cardinals incarnation of “O.J. Anderson” was an incredible talent. It’s a shame so many don’t remember him back then.

I might ask “why” if someone assigned one of these players to me over the greats I’m about to profile, but I would not complain about it. 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 listed below 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.

Earl Campbell

Earl Campbell

One of the scariest pure power runners in football history, Campbell’s 1980 season (373-1934-13) indicates what this monster could do. He only fumbled 4 times that year; a 1-per-96 fumble rate nearly twice as good as his career average of 1 per 53.  For a bruising runner that earned all but 806 of his 10,213 yards from scrimmage on the ground and practiced poor ball security, it’s a mind-blowing effort.

Campbell’s agility and his stop-start quickness relative to his size always amazed me. Built like an over-sized cannonball at 5-11, 232 lbs., Campbell was light on his feet. It’s this skill that helps a player of that size transfer his power and attack an opponent.

He was a nightmare for defenders, except when he faced the Steelers. Campbell went against Pittsburgh 12 times during his career. His first two games as a rookie yielded 28 carries, 130 yards, and 3 touchdowns–all three scores came in the first match-up.

In the remaining 10 contests, Campbell only scored 3 times. This isn’t counting a 57-yard TD pass Campbell threw in 1980. During these 10 contests, Campbell only averaged 4 yards per carry in 2 of those games. In 5 of those 10 games, the big fella averaged less than 3 yards per carry.

The Steel Curtain is the closest unit on earth to anything we’ll likely face from the aliens. Why else would they have the confidence to invite us to pick a team from our all-time greats? If Campbell couldn’t transcend the limitations of his surrounding talent to post better production against the Steelers, I’m left to wonder if he’s the right choice in this scenario.

It seems unfair to pin these poor performances solely on Campbell when the offensive line has a major responsibility in the run game. Although these linemen didn’t play together throughout the entire Campbell era in Houston, there were some excellent teammates creating holes for the Oilers:

  • Carl Mauck was a second-team All-Pro center in 1979 and was the started from 1978-81.
  • Leon Gray was a Pro-Bowl left tackle from 1979-1981 and two-time first-team All-Pro.
  • Left guard Mike Munchak was nine-time Pro-Bowl left guard and two-time first-team All-Pro. He played in front of Campbell from 1982-84.
  • 14-time Pro Bowl OL Bruce Matthews  played right guard and center in 1983-84.
  • Ed Fisher had a 9-year career as a starter from 1974-1982 at right guard.
  • Morris Towns was a first-round pick and started 65 of 88 games at right tackle from 1977-83.

This line wasn’t filled with chumps. Even so, Campbell couldn’t get it done. He didn’t have to win every time, either. I actually prefer that my players experienced failure on the biggest stages. I want men that demonstrated the discipline and mental toughness to work through failure.

When it comes to beating the most important rival in the biggest games, Campbell never overcame that kind of failure in the NFL. I’m not saying Campbell wouldn’t rise to the occasion versus the aliens behind a great line, but I have the luxury of choice.

I want a back with amazing athleticism, elite versatility, and a proven history of physical, mental, and emotional toughness in a variety of situations. When I evaluate rookie prospects I make the conscious choice to presume a player cannot perform the criteria on my list until I see proof that he can.

The same has to apply to Hall of Famers in this situation.

Other backs ahead of Campbell on this list have proven their mettle. Although Buddy Ryan’s Eagles or Bill Parcell’s Giants weren’t the Steel Curtain, they were great defenses. The Dallas Cowboys and Emmitt Smith got the better of these units and others with greater consistency than Campbell.

Fans will argue that the Cowboys lines were filled with Pro-Bowlers and All-Pros. Mark Stepnoski, Erik Williams, Nate Newton and Larry Allen comprise this list of all-stars for the Cowboys and it’s not a sum of linemen that completely outclasses the Oilers units. Like Houston’s line during the Campbell era, these five Cowboys didn’t play together throughout the entirety of Emmitt Smith’s career and the Cowboys’ runner still managed to transcend difficult match ups and have strong performances. More later on Smith and why football analysts that perpetuate the overrated label with the Cowboys back need the same football therapy I recently underwent.

Campbell is no doubt an all-timer. He is one of the 4-5 best power runners on the planet and in his prime, he had game-breaking speed. What’s so difficult to say, but needs to be stated in the context of judging these nanoscopic differences among players that in any other situation would be beyond reproach, is that Campbell didn’t do enough against his biggest rival in these most important games of his career to merit the starting gig for what would be the most important game in the history of mankind.

As I mentioned in the previous article on this subject, if I was “forced” to have Campbell as my starter, I’d rejoice. I’d still love the chances of Campbell being a great asset to my team and our planet in this game. If given a choice to select any player, knowing that the opposition is likely every bit as good–if not in many respects better–than the best we’ve ever seen on a football field, then I’m selecting a back with greater versatility in the passing game and a proven track record of production in big moments.

It feels blasphemous to put a tag in Campbell’s locker. A big reason it feels that way is the layers upon layers of media praise that has become folklore about Campbell’s game. Much of it is earned, but I’ve never see analysts define a working scenario where they must choose the best of the best for anything other than talk show fodder.

Watching Campbell highlights at his best and it evokes the tribal, animistic nature embedded deeply into the fabric of our culture that is often the appeal of contact sports like football. How can you not look at Campbell’s career highlights and get pissed off that he might not be on a team to defend our planet?

I hate it. I want to see him do to the aliens that he did to the Rams at the 2:53-mark of this highlight package. It’s one of the most primal runs I’ve ever seen on a field.

I want more versatility, because we don’t know exactly what the aliens will bring to the table other than great teamwork, smarts, and enough skill to to challenge the best we’ve ever seen. All of these backs that didn’t earn the nod are decisions that feel wrong in some respect–especially Campbell.

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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