Just look at the Data: Roger Craig Should be in the Hall of Fame

Roger Craig Hall of Fame Nominee 2020
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Even the most well-trained eyes of lifelong talent scouts cannot equal the value of fact-based evidence and data-driven decisions. That’s why we’re amazed that former San Francisco 49ers running back Roger Craig is not yet enshrined in Canton, Ohio’s Pro Football Hall of Fame. No player not yet inducted enabled their team to succeed more so than Craig. His quantifiable production is in rarefied air—compared to both his contemporaries and current players, including Hall of Fame inductees. 

Why Roger? Just look at the Data

Consider His Total Yardage

Craig changed what it means to be a running back. Before he joined the game, running backs primarily just ran the ball—Craig ran; he also received passes and he blocked with the offensive line. Craig was the first player in NFL history to run for 1,000 yards AND catch for 1,000 yards in the same season; only Marshall Faulk (1999) and Christian McCaffrey (2019), have accomplished this feat since Roger. By redefining the role of a running back, Craig put the 49ers offense first and his own stats second, proving himself to be a selfless and dedicated team player.  

Craig’s rushing and receiving yards total 13,100 throughout his career, eclipsing the likes of all-time running backs Earl Campbell, Larry Csonka, Jim Taylor, and Gayle Sayers.  Additionally, his yards from scrimmage are 1,979 yards greater than multi-Super Bowl-winning Terrell Davis’, when comparing the first seven years (regular season) of his career (note that Davis only played for seven seasons). Craig’s career receiving yardage total is only 550 yards shy of legendary wide receiver Lynn Swann, who was solely devoted to the passing game.

Figure 1: A TIBCO Spotfire scatterplot visualization shows career receiving yards vs rushing yards for NFL RBs from 1950 to present. See top right quadrant—only 2 running backs have more receiving yards and more rushing yards than Roger Craig (maroon). Overall, Roger is third from the top in receiving yards and in the top 2% in rushing yards with respect to other running backs. Amongst hall-of-famers (gold), Roger has more career wins than most, as indicated by the marker size.

Performance in Championship Games

Craig helped his team get to the playoffs each of the 11 seasons in which he played (1983–1993), and is a three-time Super Bowl champion. He was the first running back to score three touchdowns in one Super Bowl game. A main cog and driver behind some of the widest margins of victory in Super Bowl history, Craig amassed 410 total yards and five touchdowns in the 1984, 1988, and 1989 season championship games alone.  

Touchdowns Impacted More Wins, Bottom Line

Craig always prioritized teamwork and was a main contributor to his team’s successes. When he scored touchdowns, the results translated into more victories for his team at a greater frequency than current Hall of Fame running backs like Tony Dorsett, O.J. Simpson, Curtis Martin, and Floyd Little. Craig also had more career touchdowns (73) than “T.D.” himself, running back Terrell Davis (1995–2001)—the two athletes are tied at 65 when you consider Craig’s first seven seasons. Sure, Davis had 60 rushing touchdowns to Craig’s 49, but Craig had 16 from receiving—an impressive number for a running back. 

Figure 2: TIBCO Spotfire visual analysis of Roger Craig (maroon circle) vs Hall of Fame RBs (gold circles) and all other RBs (open circles). Points on the plot are a normalized combination of total yards, total TDs, receptions, & wins, and are sized by wins. 

Recognizing Roger’s Impact

Craig is a true pioneer, having changed the role of running back from one who primarily runs the ball to one who can run, catch, and block for his offense. His strategy and performance led to a number of notable recognitions, including: 

  • Associated Press’s NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1988
  • Sports Illustrated Player of the Year in 1988
  • Four-time Pro Bowl athlete, named to All-Pro team in 1988
  • First and only player selected for the Pro Bowl as a running back and a fullback 
  • Named to the All-Decade Team of the 1980s

Every running back from the All-Decade Teams of the 70s, 80s, and 90s has been inducted into the Hall of Fame aside from Craig. We believe 2020 should be the year Roger receives the nod, and this much-deserved recognition. 

Roger Craig shows off his 2020 NFL Hall of Fame Nominee plaque in the TIBCO suite at Levi's stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers
Roger Craig shows off his 2020 NFL Hall of Fame Nominee plaque in the TIBCO suite at Levi’s stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers

Then, why isn’t Roger already in the Hall of Fame? 

Late to the SABR-minded sports stat party of the 21st century more frequently tied to baseball, football has long been a game cloaked and entrenched in its own unique brand of conventional wisdom: “establish the run”, “three yards and a cloud of dust”, “control the clock”, and “defense wins championships”. If these latter two examples are in fact true, it lends to acceptance of another sports cliche which has gained mass acceptance: “the best defense is a good offense”. No offense has transformed the professional game of football quite like the “West Coast Offense” of Bill Walsh’s 49ers, and without Craig that machine simply would have failed. Can you imagine The Beatles without the timing, rhythm, and harmonization of George Harrison? 

So, whether it’s your gut feeling or fact-based, data-driven decision making, few are more deserving of enshrinement alongside the game’s all-time greats than Roger Craig. 

We invite you to explore the data and analysis presented in this blog with TIBCO Spotfire. You can interact with the graphics, filter the data, and mark the visuals to analyze and compare all of the NFL players’ data.