Greatness remains focused during chaos and disruption. Considering the entirety of his career, few showed more greatness than Marcus Allen.
If God put one person on this earth to be a professional football player it would have been Marcus Allen…He was the most instinctive, natural football player that I have ever been around. I mean, you feel like you were stealing money getting paid to coach this guy.
-Marty Schottenheimer from NFL Network’s Marcus Allen: A Football Life
This wasn’t pre-LaDainian Tomlinson Marty Schottenheimer talking. Most people think of Allen as a good player that the media bestowed the mantle of greatness. They see Allen as a 16-season stat compiler. They see an overrated player when they note the good-but-not-great, career ypc of 4.1 and only 3 seasons in 16 years with 1,000 yards rushing.
There are far better athletes at the position than Allen not remotely on this list. You can find far more efficient producers of career stats. Few of them earned the greatness label that Allen richly deserves.
It’s harder to appreciate Allen if you didn’t have at least double-digits to your age in the early 1980s. Allen was a four-time Pro-Bowler and two-time All-Pro during four of his first five seasons in the league. Allen was a marvelous runner when allowed to be the starter. He earned it other years, but Al Davis–as integral as he was to the game–is incredibly the most prominent example of owner stupidity in the history of the league when he sabotaged his own team by benching Allen from the owner’s box.
From 1983-1986, Allen averaged 66 catches, including a 64-758-5 season in 1984–a season where he also earned 275-1168-13 on the ground. Allen followed up that 1,926 season with 2,314 yards from scrimmage in 1985.
Allen was money when it counted most. His playoff stats over 10 years are an all-time season on it’s own:
- 16 games
- Rushing: 267-1347-11 (5 yards per carry)
- Receiving: 53-530-2 (10 yards per catch)
These stats include a 1983 postseason where Allen earned 584 yards and 5 touches from scrimmage in 3 games, averaging 8 yards per carry as a runner! The Chiefs and Raiders lines were good, but not great units. During Allen’s best seasons, Henry Lawrence was a two-time Pro-Bowl right tackle and center Dave Dalby was nearing the end of a fine 14-year career. Charley Hannah was a solid player, but not close in ability to his all-time great brother.
Allen entered the league the same year as Eric Dickerson. Walter Payton was in his prime. Tony Dorsett was considered an all-time great. William Andrews was an all-purpose beast. John Riggins had Jim Brown gushing (and still does). James Wilder, Curt Warner, George Rogers and Billy Sims were all fine backs worth adding to the list of quality runners to choose from.
During his era filled with excellent running backs the L.A. Times asked Bill Walsh, Don Shula, Chuck Noll, Dan Reeves, Tom Flores, John Robinson, Chuck Knox, and Joe Gobbs to grade the top running backs based on vision, confidence, ball security, blocking, receiving, passing, mental toughness, determination, and team play.
Payton and Dickerson earned a tie for best “pure runner.” When it came to all-around backs, the tie was shared by Payton and Allen. Don’t get too focused on the quality of the grading process. It’s an entertainment piece. Consider how the coaches felt about these players.
Yes, a better approach would have helped these great coaches see where their confirmation biases were getting the best of them when judging a runner. It doesn’t mean I would throw out the value of how they felt about these players.
Consider how much respect Allen earned in every other category to tie Payton as the top all-around back. Despite grading out ninth among the “pure runner” ranking because he lacked great speed, the coaches recognized the excellence of Allen’s vision, balance, and moves as a runner.
Where Allen is among the best I’ve ever seen is the passing game–both as an option passer and receiver. Pay attention to how the Raiders used Allen as a receiver and option passer early in his career. The range of the field that Allen covered and the degree of difficulty of his assignments were consistently greater than any back I’ve seen (Yes, Walter Payton and LaDainian Tomlinson were really good, too. No, they weren’t as good as Allen at both).
This versatility dovetails with Schottenheimer’s praise of Allen’s skill. Allen was a star quarterback and safety in high school. He began his playing career at USC as a fullback. It’s these experiences and Allen’s intelligence and feel for the game that helped Allen see the field with greater detail and understanding than most players in the history of the football.
Allen was the physical embodiment of the terms Football IQ and Integrated Technique. He was also the most mentally tough non-QB leader that I’ve ever seen in the NFL. On the field, his confidence to play through mistakes was a skill that the league recognized.
“It’s a human tendency to be shattered by one’s mistakes,” says former Raiders Head Coach Tom Flores in this LA Times piece in 1985 about running backs. “The thing that makes Marcus and Walter Payton what they are is that when everything seems to be going wrong, they have the self-confidence to go on as if they’d been doing everything right.”
Flores’ statement was prophetic: Things started to go wrong for Allen in L.A. when Raiders Owner Al Davis developed a grudge against Allen. Over the next 3-5 years, which would have been the athletic prime of Allen’s career, Davis tried to mentally break the team’s star running back.
Despite spending much of Bo Jackson’s four seasons as a fullback and then getting benched for another two years when Davis forced Roger Craig and Eric Dickerson into the equation, Allen continued to work at his craft like he was the focal point. Allen’s teammates recognized him as the leader of the team, and over the protests of Davis, Allen’s coaches would insert the veteran into key moments of games.
If I told you Jamaal Charles would be asked to play fullback to Todd Gurley this year, would you understand if Charles demanded a trade? I love Charles as an all-around player, but he wasn’t in the same class as Allen at the same point in their careers.
Allen was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1982, the Super Bowl MVP in 1983, a two-time Pro-Bowl runner by 1984, and the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year and League MVP in 1985, miss three games in 1986 and still made the his third Pro-Bowl, and after all that, he was asked to lead block for a part-time runner.
Allen never demanded a trade or complained to the media. Instead, he authored some of the better lead blocks you’ll see on Jackson’s all-time runs. Allen earned awards from his teammates while on the bench because Al Davis tried to break his will with Dickerson and Craig and Allen continued to be an asset in the locker room, the sideline, and in clutch moments when his teammates coaches couldn’t stand watching him rot on the bench.
I hear what many of you are thinking: Allen did what he was supposed to do. Athletes are too selfish these days. Why should he be rewarded for doing the right thing?
Fame and celebrity aren’t always good for you. Bill Murray has noted that no matter how well-adjusted you are, who raised you, or how much education you’ve attained, nothing prepares you for fame and celebrity. He estimates everyone that experiences it undergoes a temporary period (in his opinion, at least a few years) where they will behave like a jerk.
I’ve heard writer Elizabeth Gilbert, writer of Eat, Pray Love (I haven’t read it, but even with my self-imposed stints in the film cave, I’ve heard of it), explain that fame takes the essence of who you are–what makes you feel grounded, safe, secure, etc.–and flings it far from anything familiar. It’s often thrilling and seductive because of the special treatment, the recognition, and the money that often comes with it.
This behavior can quickly carry you out to sea and you forget what it means to be a grounded human being. This is the time when you begin doing stupid, arrogant, selfish things because your sense of self is so out of whack.
Allen had five straight years where he performed at the top of his craft. He was the toast of L.A.’s sports scene. Most people based on those with experience coping with fame–not us average fans that think we know better without ever experiencing it’s seductive and damaging power–would tell you that most people in Allen’s situation probably would have thrown a public tantrum or created a controversy as soon as he was relegated to a part-time fullback role. Allen didn’t stir anything up publicly until he could become a free agent several years later and he had already been on Al Davis’ bench for three years.
View Allen’s work on the field, off the bench, and in the locker room, and his career displays the exact kind of versatility, productivity, skill for the game, mental toughness, and leadership that we need for a team to defend the planet. This game against the aliens is going to get rough. There will be some bleak, pressure-filled moments.
There will be egos boiling over.
Allen had more reason than most to let his ego boil over during his career and he kept it under control for the good of his team. He’ll do the same with the team to defend the planet.
I know Allen hated playing fullback, but in the most pivotal moment in human history I know he’ll gladly serve as mine. In my offense, he’ll do a lot more than block or lineup at the traditional fullback spot.
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, the directory of participating writer-built teams, and the other backs Waldman considered for his team.