Seahawks Legend Shaun Alexander Doesn't Belong in Canton

aryannaprasad

While Shaun Alexander has long been viewed as an egregiously overlooked Hall of Fame contender by many writers and analysts, including our own Corbin Smith, there is still room to debate whether he truly belongs in Canton.

Alexander’s career certainly merits praise and accolades - winning league MVP as a running back is a feat unto itself - but that’s not even all Alexander accomplished in his eight-year career.

His incredible 2005 campaign won him MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, the Bert Bell Award, First-Team All-Pro honors, the rushing yards and rushing titles respectively, and a Pro Bowl spot. But Alexander’s earlier years were full of awards as well. He led the league in touchdowns in 2001, played in the Pro Bowl three consecutive years from 2003-2005, and earned Second-Team All Pro recognition in 2004.

Alexander also made the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, the Seahawks 35th Anniversary team, and was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. He impressed fans and teammates alike: Alexander ranked 11th on our annual SeahawkMaven Top 100 Seahawks list, and NFL analyst and former teammate Nate Burleson agrees that he’s undervalued HOF material. 

Still, the question remains: does he really belong in a prestigious club that has only immortalized 26 running backs to date?

There is no debating that Alexander’s career was exceptional, and it certainly uplifted a franchise reeling from an era in the 90s that lacked offense. But so far, only five running backs that have played in 1998 or afterward have graced the walls of Canton: Marshall Faulk, Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas, Emmitt Smith, and LaDanian Tomlinson. Examining the career of these running backs may offer insight as to whether Alexander will make it to the Hall himself someday.

Faulk is a fellow league MVP running back who was inducted into the Hall of Fame five years after retirement because his stats are just that extraordinary. He is the only running back to amass 12,000 rushing yards and 6,000 receiving yards - holding that title alone deserves Hall of Fame credentials. But Faulk also enjoyed a 12-year career, which counts toward longevity, a crucial factor in the selection process. Running backs endures the most wear and tear of any football position, so players are lucky to continue playing past 30 years old.

Beyond that, Faulk was awarded some of the same honors as Alexander, but to a much greater degree. He too was a league MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, and rushing touchdown leader, but Faulk was also a seven-time Pro Bowler, a three-time Offensive Player Of The Year, made First-Team and Second-Team All-Pro three times each, and became a Super Bowl champion. His MVP season was the same year he won a Super Bowl ring, meaning he can largely be credited with the team’s success that year. These prestigious titles are awarded to the best players, but winning them as much as Faulk did for as long as he did puts him in a different league entirely.

Sanders was another running back that took the league by storm for a decade - he made the Pro Bowl every year he played before retiring too soon in 1998. While the former Heisman Trophy winner notably languished on an inefficient Detroit Lions offense, he made a name for himself as one of the greatest running backs of all time. Sanders was All-Pro every year he played (six First-Team selections, four Second-Team selections), as well as winning Offensive Player of the Year twice and winning four rushing titles.

His 15,269 career rushing yards stat runs circles around running backs on superior teams - the difficulty earning stats on a dysfunctional team speaks volumes to Sanders’ exceptional talent. He still holds several NFL records, including rushing for over 1,100 yards for 10 seasons, a distinction shared only by fellow Hall of Famer Walter Payton. The list goes on and on, cementing Sanders’ legacy as one of the best to ever play the game.

Sanders’ college teammate, Thurman Thomas, was another ‘90s running back who amassed the leagues’ most impressive awards from 1989 to 1993. In five years, he made five consecutive Pro Bowls, two First-Team All-Pro squads, three Second-Team All-Pro squads, and won NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year honors in 1991. Notably, he led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls from 1990-1993. Although they lost every one, they are also the only team ever to win four consecutive conference championships.

Thomas is also the only player in NFL history to lead the league in total scrimmage yards for four consecutive seasons. Suffice it to say that Thomas was a prominent fixture in a dominant Bills team that made history, earning his place in the Hall of Fame for his contributions in that record-breaking era. He finished his career with 12,074 rushing yards, surpassing 10,000 rushing yards like many of his Hall of Fame cohorts.

Smith belongs in a league of his own. He not only won a ridiculous amount of awards, but add three Super Bowl rings, a Super Bowl MVP award, and four rushing titles. Playing for a whopping 15 seasons, Smith is the league’s all-time leading rusher with 18,355 yards - that’s double the 9,453 rushing yards Alexander notched in his career. He also holds the record for career rushing touchdowns at 164, and is one of two non-kickers to score more than 1,000 career points, with the other player being legendary receiver Jerry Rice.

However, the most impressive back of the entire bunch may be the only one who has been enshrined in Canton whose career started in the new century.

Tomlinson is perhaps the best Alexander comparison because they played during the same era. Like Sanders, Tomlinson lacks a Super Bowl ring despite playing in several playoff games, but he put together one of the most dominant careers by a running back in NFL history with the Chargers and Jets. Tomlinson won league MVP the year after Alexander did in 2006 and broke his rushing touchdown record that year Additionally, he made five Pro Bowls and six All-Pro teams, with three of those being First-Team variety. He also won back-to-back rushing titles in 2006 and 2007 and was the rushing touchdown leader for three years.

Tomlinson ranks seventh for all-time rushing yards with 13,684, while Alexander is 36th on that list. The ex-TCU star sits behind only Smith with 145 rushing touchdowns and ranks third in all-time total touchdowns with 162. Tomlinson had seven consecutive 1,200-plus rushing yard seasons, demonstrating his consistent success over a significant span of time. Another member of the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, Tomlinson was an electric running back whose numbers easily made him a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Now, let’s take a look back at Alexander. While he was a league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, appeared in a Super Bowl, and achieved Pro Bowl and All-Pro success, his career numbers are notably inferior compared to his Hall of Fame counterparts. Alexander didn't break 10,000 career rushing yards, which is something every one of the aforementioned running backs accomplished. All five of these Hall of Famers also played for a decade or more - playing for just eight years diminishes Alexander's case.

Alexander was an NFL standout in his first five seasons, but after that remarkable 2005 campaign, his last three years were dreadful. Lastly, it’s important to note that he benefited from having five Pro Bowlers and two Hall of Famers blocking for him. Steve Hutchinson and Walter Jones are in Canton, while Robbie Toebeck, Sean Locklear, and Mack Strong earned Pro Bowl nods. And that's not considering Chris Gray, who was one of the most underrated linemen in the league in the 2000s.

While Alexander had an impressive career that garners respect and admiration from Seahawks fans, he simply doesn’t have the records or numbers that these comparable running backs have had. An argument can be made for Alexander’s place in Canton, but an argument can just as easily be made against it: it’s an exclusive club and his overall resume just doesn't stack up to his peers.

The remaining 21 running backs in the Hall of Fame illustrate how the league has changed over the years. In a pass-friendly league, running backs don’t enjoy the limelight the way they once did. Football was once more akin to grit-filled rugby trenches than the infamous Chiefs-Rams arcade-style showdown in 2018. Running backs are still valuable to an offense, but they face shortened careers and struggle to win MVP ahead of quarterbacks. Had Alexander played in an earlier era and shaped an early Seahawks franchise, perhaps he would be remembered differently.

But as time goes on and more competitive talents make their mark in the NFL, the case for enshrining Alexander in the Hall of Fame becomes that much more difficult. A legend in the 2000s and a fixture in Seahawks history, he will always be viewed as one of the best, but it’s unlikely Canton will do the same. 

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