Countdown to Canton: Ten years later, Roger Craig returns as a Hall finalist

Clark Judge

(The Pro Football Hall of Fame last month announced its 38 finalists for the Centennial Class of 2020. As a prelude to the Hall's choice of 15 inductees, we preview some of the candidates)

When the panel that chooses the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s Centennial Class announced its senior finalists, it did the improbable. It made Roger Craig relevant again.

The former San Francisco running back is one of 20 finalists competing for 10 spots in the 2020 class, and, OK, so you knew that. What you may not know is that he was a long shot to get there, and not because of what the Centennial Class panel did … but because of what the Hall’s board of 48 selectors did not.

Which, basically, was much of anything.

That’s the group that annually votes on candidates for Canton, and it had 20 years to consider Roger Craig as a modern-era choice. And it did, though little beyond that. It made him a semifinalist 10 times and a finalist just once -- way back in 2010 when he failed to make the first cut from 15 to 10.

And since then? Well, since then it’s been Roger, over and out. The guy’s fallen off the Hall-of-Fame’s radar.

Until now, that is. And hallelujah. Because Roger Craig deserves more than he’s gotten from Canton.

An indispensable part of a 49ers’ franchise that dominated the 1980s, winning four Super Bowls in seven non-strike seasons, Craig was the first player in league history to produce 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same year. Since then, it’s been done only twice: Marshall Faulk in 1999 and Christian McCaffrey this season.

Anyone who saw Craig knows he could do just about everything. Run. Catch. Block. You name it. He led the league with 92 receptions in 1985, then a league record for running backs. He set a 49ers’ record when he ran for 1,502 yards in 1988, his second season with over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. And he was the first player in NFL history to be named to the Pro Bowl as a running back AND a fullback.

He was a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro. He was the NFL’s 1988 Offensive Player of the Year. He’s a member of the 1980s’ all-decade team. And he’s enshrined in the 49ers’ Hall of Fame.

What he’s not is in Canton.

“I thought I’d go in a long time ago,” Craig told Hall-of-Fame voter Matt Maiocco on the 49ers’ Insider Podcast. “It’s kind of funny all these other guys went in before me when I kind of changed the game for millennials.”

Except I don’t find it so funny. I think it’s puzzling.

Look, I know the guy didn’t rush for 10,000 career yards, something that always comes up when his candidacy is considered. He ran for 8,189, with three 1,000-yard seasons. But he was part of a diverse offense where he shared the backfield with Wendell Tyler early in his career and wasn’t asked to carry the ball 200-300 times a year. In fact, it wasn’t until his sixth season that he ran more than 215 times and not until his third year that he had 200 carries.

Bottom line: His value was as someone who could do more than run the ball, and the numbers underscore it. He had 4,911 yards in receptions and 13,143 all-purpose yards, enough for Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Walsh to call him “one of the premier players in football.”

A former fullback at the University of Nebraska, Craig was one of the NFL’s first multi-dimensional running backs, someone who could serve as a rusher and/or receiver. And, yes, I know Lenny Moore was multi-dimensional. So were Bobby Mitchell and Charley Taylor and Frank Gifford. But Moore caught passes out of the slot, and Mitchell, Taylor and Gifford evolved into receivers.

Craig was a running back AND a receiver at the same time, catching passes out of the backfield – much like a Marcus Allen, Faulk or McCaffrey. In fact, when he retired, Craig had more receptions than any back in league history.

Allen and Faulk you know about. Both are in the Hall, and Allen had one of the Super Bowl’s greatest performances when he dissected Washington in Super Bowl XVIII, running for 191 yards and scoring twice. But Craig had a marvelous Super Bowl one year later, becoming the first player in the game’s history to score three times vs. a Dan Marino-led Dolphins’ team that was supposed to be too good to fail.

Except it wasn’t. The 49ers won, 38-16.

I mention that because some of Roger Craig’s biggest moments were on the game’s biggest stages. In 14 playoff games he scored nine times, and in 1988-89 he produced 796 yards from scrimmage in six post-season games – or 133 per contest. More than once I’ve heard Hall-of-Fame voters say that Canton should be reserved for those who produce big moments in big games.

Well, there you go.

One more thing: Beyond Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, how many 49ers’ offensive starters are in Canton today from the dynasty that won four Super Bowls in the 1980s? Don’t bother to look it up. I’ll tell you: Zilch. And Rice wasn’t there for the first two championships.

By comparison, the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s have 11 players in Canton. They won one Super Bowl.

That’s a long way of saying that I’m happy to hear Roger Craig’s name as a finalist again. He’s been away far too long. Once upon a time I didn’t think voters would consider him again. Now they are.

Congratulations to him for getting there and to the voters for putting him there. Now, let’s get him through the door.

Follow on Twitter @ClarkJudgeTOF

Comments (6)
No. 1-4
brian wolf
brian wolf

Another great persuasive article.

I firmly believe Craig had a better decade in the 80s than Eric Dickerson. Yes, he didn't have the rushing totals, but was a more complete back, who ran, blocked and caught passes. He didn't fumble much either.

While Craig was a great weapon who blended into the SF offence, Dickerson wanted out of LA.

Craig has the postseason numbers as well as three championships, and could have been MVP of the 84/85 and 88/89 SBs.

His numbers would have been better if Walsh ran him more, but Walsh liked using him to block or catch.

JFLavella
JFLavella

Clark: persuasive piece. But you failed to note that RBs are significantly over represented in the HOF. There are already five RBs who significantly overlapped with Craig in the HOF (and I’m not counting the 70s backs who hung on like Campbell or the early 90s guys like Smith and Sanders who played while Craig was hanging on with the Raiders and Vikings). How many HOF RBs should there be from the same relatively short period? I know you covered him and I know he was a different type of player from his peers, but he had only three season where he rushed for 1000 yards, and only one over 1100. He did have 13,100 yards from scrimmage, but that is still less than Corey Dillon, Ottis Anderson, Fred Taylor, and Matt Forte—none of whom I think are HOFers. Craig was good and played on great teams. Just not sure he reached the level of HOFer.

bachslunch
bachslunch

As always, Clark, fine article with persuasive arguments. I’ve always been lukewarm on Roger Craig and the HoF for various reasons.

For one thing, his career numbers are good but not knockout good. I see him and Rickey Watters as lesser versions of Marshall Faulk, fair or not. Folks always tout the 1000/1000 yard season he had, though it’s an isolated instance (he never got close to 1000 catch yards otherwise, with 675 being his second most such yards in a season). Have seen the observation that his being a pass catching oriented RB is somehow deserving of pioneer status — which isn’t so given that HoF RBs like Frank Gifford, Lenny Moore, and Ollie Matson for three qualify as such and predate him. His honors of 1/4/80s are decent enough if not overwhelming. And RB is the most over-represented position in Canton.

I’ve always seen him as a borderline HoFer, somebody I don’t heavily support, but also wouldn’t complain much about if he got in someday. Honestly, though, I’m not going to be especially happy if he makes it in via this special class route. He’s still relatively young (the youngest of the candidates IIRC), had a chance in the room as a finalist already, and would likely be displacing a guy like Verne Lewellen or Mac Speedie, who may not get another shot. My thinking is that Craig will have another chance via the Senior committee soon enough.

handlebarchuck
handlebarchuck

Roger Craig definitely deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. He had an astonishing career with 49ers and was one of the great running backs of the 1980s. He has made so many great runs, including the one he had against the Jets. Clark, you are an amazing football analyst and I hope you keep up the good work.


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