Matt Waldman’s RB Cut-Down No.8: Bo Jackson

Bo Jackson

Does the Bo Jackson, the real-life tall tale and modern interpretation of the Achilles myth still have appeal for a spot on Matt Waldman’s Team to Defend the Planet?  Be prepared for disappointment. Matt is.

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.

Bo Jackson

Hands down, the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen, Bo Jackson is a real-life tall tale. The two-sport superstar is the Achilles legend as a modern athlete. Instead of getting held by his heels when dipped into the River Styx to make him invulnerable, Jackson must have been lowered into its waters with a diaper harness.

If there’s validity to the argument that Jim Brown was an athlete 20-25 years ahead of his time, the same should be said of Jackson. The Raiders’ part-time running back could read the line, see a crease where the defender had leverage to fill the gap, and still decide he that he had the burst and strength to go where no sane pro running back has gone before.

Bill Walsh was the commentator on NBC for several Raiders games and one of observations the great coach made about Jackson had to do with the runner’s burst. “[He’s] so fast and so sharp and hits [the crease] so quick that you’re stunned.” What Walsh was trying to say in real time is that defenders weren’t expecting Jackson to be on top of them as fast as he was when they met him in the hole and the combination of Jackson’s size, strength, and quickness often kept the defender on his heels and prevented any shot at good leverage.

Even with this scenario straight from a comic book, Jackson’s game, like every back on this list, is subject to scrutiny.

It’s easy to assume that Bo Jackson in his prime could do anything he wanted on a field of play. He came closer than most. But reasoning that Jackson’s speed and strength are so great that he’d be unstoppable in this situation is pre-teen, comic book fantasy.

Jackson told Mark Heim of in March that he couldn’t have been a two-sport athlete today because the advancements of athletic training and nutrition has deepened the talent pool. His versatility spanned multiple sports, but within the game of football there are several more versatile football players than Jackson, including his teammate Marcus Allen. Jackson only caught 40 passes during his four-year career and there is enough tape to show that he was a capable and consistent receiver, he didn’t have Allen’s breadth of skill in this area.

The displays of speed, strength, and quickness are extraordinary. I love Jackson’s pad level and leverage to attack defenders. Although he lacked the hip flexibility to make cuts we saw from the likes of Dickerson, Emmitt Smith, or even Edgerrin James, Jackson could alter his step size and flip his hips at lightning speed to make difficult changes of direction in traffic.

His dominant runs are among the most impressive of any back in history. It was tempting to anoint Jackson my starter based on his best work until I looked at his weekly output. Jackson had 10 games in his 38-game, regular season career where he earned less than 4 yards per carry with at least 10 carries in the game–8 of this games he averaged 3.5 yards per carry or much less. Drop that minimum carry-count to 9 and Jackson had 12 games of fewer than four yards per carry.

Yards per carry is not a great statistic to measure efficiency. If you examine adjusted stats like Football Outsiders’ DVOA and DYAR, Aaron Schatz will tell you that Jackson may surpass Barry Sanders as the greatest boom-bust runner of all time. There’s a fine line between the terms boom-bust and big-play option but in this rarefied air of all-time running backs, I’m seeking a starter at running back that can break the big play and do all of the little things  One of those little things isn’t putting the ball on the ground every 50 touches.

Of all the running backs that I want on my team that I cannot find a starting role, Jackson is one of my two most disappointing cuts. I want to take all of Jackson’s tall tales come true that he performed off the field or in other sports and extrapolate them to football skills we didn’t see. I want to believe the only reason he isn’t considered a great receiver in every range of he field, a great pass protector and lead blocker, or a viable H-Back has to do with no team giving him opportunities to prove it.

I just can’t evaluate that way–even if I want to believe it’s true. If you want me to compose a football team on faith, then Bo will have a spot. If you want me to use film and experience, it’s a painful “no.”

For all I know, the aliens are having us play this game as a front for some scientific research they’re conducting on our best athletes so they can use it to their advantage to insure world domination. Fuck them, they’re not getting Bo.

I know. Weak. I can’t come up with a good rationalization.

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 back story for this year’s project and the directory of participating writer-built teams.

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