I’m just going to come out and say it right off the bat: Jerome Bettis should not be in the Hall of Fame.
I can hear the chorus of Steelers fans moaning. Yes, he is sixth all-time in rushing yards. Yes, he is tied with fellow Steeler Franco Harris for tenth all-time in touchdowns. Yes, he was a six-time Pro Bowler and a two-time All-Pro. Sure, he won a Super Bowl in 2005, his last NFL game and also at the end of a season during which he was the undisputed backup to Willie Parker.
On the surface, Bettis seems like an ideal candidate for the Hall of Fame. And, depending on your view of what a “Hall-of-Famer” is, the volume statistics alone might qualify him. I am not one of those people, and that says more about the NFL’s Hall of Fame than it does about Bettis. When I think of a Hall-of-Famer, I think of an all-time great. I think of a player who helped define a generation, who was consistently one of the top performers at his position, who brought it 100% day in and day out, and who defined his position for at least part of his career.
Bettis was never that. He was a good running back, but there are some major red flags that, to me, signify a player who has no place among the all-time greats, even if his career statistics indicate that he should be. I don’t consider Emmitt Smith to be the greatest running back of all time just because he accrued the most yards. Volume stats, especially when there is ample evidence that they were compiled in an inefficient manner, shouldn’t mean much. Vinny Testaverde is ninth all-time in passing yards. Drew Bledsoe is tenth. Kerry Collins is twelth. Are these guys better than Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Steve Young, or Jim Kelly? Absolutely not. Testaverde, despite the volume, is never going to be a Hall of Famer.
Bettis is definitely comparatively superior to Testaverde, but his metrics have many of the same problems. For starters, Bettis averaged 3.9 yards per carry over the course of his career. That is, quite frankly, abysmal. It is bordering on below average. It also is a signifier that, for whatever you want to say about Bettis, he was very reliant on a dominant offensive line to get his yards. He didn’t lead the league in yardage a single time, despite leading it in carries in 1997 (kind of unfair because that was the year Barry Sanders went nuts on the whole league). He only cracked the four yards per carry barrier four times in 13 years, and he only rushed for 90+ yards per game twice.
Interestingly enough, the NFL Hall of Fame provides us with a counterpoint to Bettis’ sustained ability to not get injured. The running back he beat out to get his bust in Canton, Terrell Davis, qualifies as a flash in the pan compared to Bettis’ longevity. Yet, the one thing we can say about Davis, is that from 1996-98 he was the second-best running back in football (Barry Sanders was superhuman). He won a regular season MVP, a Super Bowl MVP, and carried an aging Broncos team to consecutive Super Bowl victories. His 1998 MVP season is still one of the five best seasons ever for a running back, rushing for 2,008 yards on 5.1 yards per carry and a ridiculous 125.5 yards/game, capped off with 21 touchdowns. That season, he led the league in yards, rushing touchdowns, yards/game, and total touchdowns. The year before, the same year as Jerome Bettis’ best season, Davis netted 100 more yards and eight more touchdowns on six less carries.
Now, I’m not sure Davis belongs in the Hall of Fame either. It’s hard to make an argument for someone who really only has four seasons to go off of. But, for three of those seasons, he was the second best back in football (Barry Sanders averaged a legitimately unbelievable 6.1 ypc in 1997), and he was a crucial cog in back-to-back championships.
Therein lies the problem. At the end of the day, this is more of an indictment of the NFL’s Hall of Fame process than it is of Bettis himself. For the same reason that Tim Brown was voted in over Marvin Harrison, NFL voters have traditionally valued volume statistics over what those statistics actually represent. Tim Brown was a good receiver, and didn’t have the benefit of playing with Peyton Manning, but he’s not better than Marvin Harrison. There is a strange tendency in the NFL to vote in Hall of Famers whose time is due; often voting in players who might be marginal talent-wise, but have been on the docket for years and were immensely popular in their playing days. Tim Brown has been eligible for longer than Marvin Harrison so he was voted in first.
What’s the answer? The NFL needs to move to a system more like the Major League Baseball’s. For all of the faults of baseball and the MLB, damn is it hard to get into their Hall. And that’s how it should be. While the NFL isn’t as bad as the “Basketball Hall of Fame” (which includes international ballers), in voting in Bettis and Brown over Marvin Harrison and Orlando Pace, we are still seeing generational talent replaced by fan-favorites. It shouldn’t be positional, there shouldn’t be marginal selections: the fact that there is this much debate about Bettis and Brown means they probably shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame. Is anyone going to question Marvin Harrison’s eventual place in Canton? Definitely not. Just like nobody is questioning whether Charles Haley and Junior Seau should have been inducted. Those are the types of players that should be voted in, and we should do away with this sense of deservedness that leads to a Hall of Fame class that is only half worthy of induction.
Because otherwise, what’s the point of a Hall of Fame?