It is difficult to know who is the most underrated running back in NFL history, but in any debate it would not take long to hear the name “Deacon’’ Dan Towler mentioned. To that, many people today would then say “Who?’’ which is the point isn’t it?
What was so great about Dan Towler? Just about everything except the length of his career.
Towler was a powerful fullback on the great Los Angeles Rams teams of the early 1950s that boasted the “Bull Elephant’’ backfield made up of three running backs each weighing over 225 pounds. That may not sound unusual today, but in the 1950s few backs packed the power of Towler, Tank Younger and Dick Hoerner,
And of the three it was Towler who was the most productive and the most feared.
Towler has been called “the greatest running back nobody knows,’’ and his production makes a strong argument for that unwanted title because for four seasons, between 1951-1954, Towler was pro football’s most consistent runner.
He ranked in the top four in rushing all four seasons and twice led the league in rushing touchdowns. He was the NFL’s leading rusher in 1952, when he ran for 894 yards, and was second the following year with 879.
Most remarkably, in 1951, Toler’s second season in the NFL and first as a full-time starter, he AVERAGED a remarkable 6.78 yards per carry on his way to 854 rushing yards (third most rushing yards in the NFL that season). Only Beattie Feathers’ 8.4 yards per carry back in 1934 tops Towler’s 1951 consistency among NFL running backs.
Towler was a four-time Pro Bowl selection, made first team All-Pro in 1952 and second team in 1951, 1953 and 1954, scored the winning touchdown in the 1951 NFL championship game and finished his six-year, 67-game career rushing for 3,493 yards and 43 touchdowns and averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
While those career numbers may pale in comparison to many of the great backs of later years one must consider several factors. First, Towler’s yards were produced in only 12-game seasons. Second, he was one part of an offense that had TWO Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks, several Hall-of-Fame receivers and shared the running load among three behemoth backs.
To put Towler’s 1950s' production into proper statistical context with today’s 16-game season one must take his average per-game rushing yards in 1951, 1952 and 1953 and add four more games of such production to his totals. When that is done, Towler would have rushed for over 1,100 yards in each of those seasons by today’s 16-game standard.
This is not an unreasonable thing to do, by the way, because Towler never missed a game in his first five seasons with the Rams. So one can fairly assume he would play them all today, as well, and very likely with the same consistency he showed throughout all but the final season of his career.
That year, 1955, was an injury-plagued one for Towler and led him to make a life choice that shocked the Rams. Towler had been studying for a master’s degree in theology at USC while playing in Los Angeles. After receiving it announced he was abruptly leaving pro football to become a Methodist minister and pursue a Ph.D in education.
Towler attained the latter and would both minister to his church throughout the rest of his life and serve for 26 years on the Los Angeles County School Board, including six terms as its president. “Deacon” Dan Towler would tell you he made his greatest mark on the world in those years after he left pro football, but his on-the-field accomplishments should have long ago caught the attention of the voters of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
If Terrell Davis set a new standard for short career Hall of Famers, Dan Towler deserves to be looked at in the same light. In his three greatest seasons (1951-53), Towler rushed for 6.05 yards per carry, scored 22 rushing touchdowns in 12-game seasons and piled up what today would be the equivalent of 3,500 rushing yards.
“This gentleman belongs in the Hall of Fame and should be recognized as one of the greatest running backs to ever play in the National Football League,’’ said Hall-of-Fame defensive back Dick LeBeau.
LeBeau’s opinion is shared by many of his contemporaries who were so often run over by him. By any measure, if his NFL record is viewed in its proper context, “Deacon’’ Dan Towler certainly is “the greatest running back nobody knows.’’
Maybe it’s time the Pro Football Hall of Fame found out about him?