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