State Your Case: Did Ricky Watters run his way to Canton and the Hall of Fame?

Ron Borges

Four words aren’t much when compared with 10,643 rushing yards or 91 touchdowns unless they are the wrong four words. So they may have been for Ricky Watters, a man with a Hall of Fame case but no one eager to make it.

In 1995, Waters was a Pro Bowl running back and Super Bowl champion who had just arrived in Philadelphia as a free agent. That arrival was big news coming off a final game as a 49er in which he’d scored three touchdowns in Super Bowl XXIX, reminding the world he was not only an adept runner but a reliable receiver out of the backfield at a time when that was becoming a valuable asset. His future in Philadelphia seemed bright.

Then he said those four words: “For who? For what?’’ Few people would ever forget it and so it seems football has forgotten him. But that’s not easy to do considering Watters scored 91 touchdowns in 10 seasons and rushed for over 1,000 yards seven times with the 49ers, Eagles and Seattle Seahawks, one of only two backs in NFL history to rush for over 1,000 yards for three teams.

He was a workhorse as well as a show horse, carrying the ball over 300 times in four seasons, including a shoulder-numbing 353 for the Eagles in 1996 and over 300 in back-to-back seasons with the Seahawks in 1998-99, while also making 467 career receptions good for 4,248 more yards and 13 touchdowns.

Today, 15 years after retiring, Watters still stands 23rd on the all-time rushing list and his 2,622 carries are 20th. Clearly he is a back who showed up on time at all times. Yet his name never shows up when potential Hall of Fame running backs are mentioned. Why not?

Four words. Or so it seems.

On Sept. 3, 1995, following his first game as an Eagle, Watters was asked why he hadn’t stretched out for a pass from quarterback Randall Cunningham, the obvious reason being he would have gotten crushed by two Tampa Bay defenders in a disappointing 27-6 loss in the home opener. His reply was four words that followed him the rest of his career.

“For who? For what?’’ Watters said. Later he would admit he regretted what he’d said and the way he’d said it. His was a brash and too often flippant personality, a guy some felt hurt his locker room. Certainly he wasn’t sunshine and roses every day but on Sunday he was a force for most of his career, a force that consistently advanced the ball and always was in the lineup.

Watters missed his entire rookie season in 1991 due to injuries but rushed for 1,013 yards the following year. The 49ers’ approach led to less than optimal carries (206, 208 and 239) in three seasons in San Francisco though and led to a disgruntled Watters. Yet in his final year there he ran for 877 yards and caught 63 passes good for 719 more, a total offense that netted the Niners’ 1,596 yards, 11 touchdowns and a Super Bowl championship. In his final game, Watters scored three times in a Super Bowl XXIX rout of the San Diego Chargers.

After three years in Philadelphia, where he eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing each season and ran for 31 touchdowns, he moved on to Seattle and posted back-to-back 1,200-yard rushing seasons before retiring after one final, injury plagued year. By then he had proven he was more than a runner. He was one of what became a new breed of runner who was also a dangerous receiver out of the backfield and a workhorse who didn’t miss a game for seven years before that final season.

One can debate whether Ricky Watters is a Hall of Famer or a member of the Hall of Very Good but that, of course, is the point. It is a debate his production earned him but four words may well have denied him. So how about Hall of Fame’s voters directing four different words at him just once: “Let’s take a look.’’

If they do, they’ll find a running back who may have said the wrong thing a time or ten but who seldom took a misstep when a football was given to him.

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