It’s the system, not the running back.
That’s been a common critique against Terrell Davis’ supreme success in Denver from 1995-1999 – when he rushed for a total of 6,413 regular season yards (1,603 average yards/season) and added another 1,140 in postseason play (142.5 yards/game average) in the four-year span.
T.D.’s average yards/carry over his entire career was 4.6 – with a 5.2 ypc high in 1998 and 4.8 ypc average during his first four years – has never even been sniffed by two current Hall-of-Fame RBs Jerome Bettis (3.9 ypc) and Curtis Martin (4.0 ypc). And just for fun, if you calculate Bettis’ and Martin’s first four years in the league of yards/carry to compare to Davis,’ here’s what you get – 4.0 ypc for Bettis; 3.8 ypc for Martin.
Not even close to Davis’ 4.8 average.
Yet Davis doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame because he ran "in a system" that supposedly made it easy.
It’s the system, not the running back.
No. 30’s constant improvement from his outstanding rookie year of 1,117 yards to his 2,008-yard season the fourth year is criminally reduced to "any running back could have run well in that system" (that system being the zone blocking scheme made popular by Broncos’ then-assistant head coach and offensive line coach Alex Gibbs).
But for several reasons, this is a highly flawed – and very lazy – defense for keeping Davis out of his rightful place in Canton.
The rationale given for "any back could run well" is the fact that several after Davis did gain significant yards and that Mike Shanahan, who brought the scheme to Denver with Gibbs, had success with a lot of different running backs post-Davis as well as later as head coach in Washington.
Olandis Gary rushed for 1,159 yards in 1999 for the Broncos.
Mike Anderson hit 1,487 in 2000.
Reuben Droughns got 1,240 yards in 2004.
And, of course, Clinton Portis gained 1,508 and 1,591 at Denver in his first two years in the league in 2002 and 2003.
In fact, Shanahan had a top-five rushing attack in 10 of his 17 seasons (and top 10 in 13 seasons) as a head coach, thanks in part to the zone running scheme he implemented. And when Gibbs left Denver and went to Atlanta in 2004, his zone-blocking scheme helped the Falcons lead the league in rushing yards and yards per carry for three consecutive seasons. In Houston, Gibbs’ system had success once again with Gary Kubiak where the Texans were top eight in rushing for three years.
But none of those backs could truly rival the dominance, consistency and upward trend of Davis’ numbers.
Sure the system was good. And the Broncos had legit offensive linemen blocking for Davis like Tom Nalen, Mark Schlereth and Gary Zimmerman.
It’s not ‘the system’
But here’s why "the system" is not the reason Davis was so good – not only do you need a certain kind of athletic, smart lineman, you need special kind of running back:
"You can't excel behind zone-blockers if you're not supremely patient and you don't possess top-notch vision. Simply put, you have to be smart."
One of the unique outcomes of zone-blocking done right was the creation of cut-back lanes and open pockets of space (created from an over-commitment by the defense and a seal block by the offensive linemen). So a zone run means the running back has to read the blocks and choose the best one to enter - then cut back and run wild.
Not just any running back can do well in a zone-blocking scheme. Just ask Darren McFadden about his 2012 year. The newly instituted ZBS in Oakland that year resulted in 3.3 yards per carry average and just three total touchdowns for the running back who had gone over 1,000 yards two seasons before and again three seasons later.
But OK, it’s the system, not the running back.
It takes a special talent who can look for the right lane and then break free to succeed in this system. And no one could cut back like Davis and then sprint for the house. Giving Davis the ball provided fans the same confidence as having John Elway at quarterback when the team was down in the fourth quarter – you knew he was going to turn it into something big.
Just look at the second quarter of Super Bowl XXXII when Davis was out with a migraine. Playing in three quarters of the game, Davis amassed 157 yards of the Broncos' 179 total rushing yards. While Davis sat out the entire second quarter, the Broncos' "system" gained exactly zero yards rushing.
Still, it’s the system, not the running back, right?
The fact that Davis succeeded in a zone scheme doesn’t mean it was the system that made him successful. It means that the system allowed him to thrive with his special gifts as a running back.
Another – and perhaps more telling – reason TD’s success was not just "the system" is that among all the other backs who have found success with this scheme under Shanahan, none put up as big of numbers as consistently as Davis – 1,117; 1,528, 1,750; 2,008 – his first four seasons. Always getting better and even putting up the fifth best season in all of NFL history - even to this day.
Portis comes the closest with 1,508 and 1,591 in Denver, but then he did it even after leaving the Broncos, showing that Portis was also a special running talent and "the system" wasn’t the only reason. Arian Foster, one of the more prolific backs in recent years using the same system, put up big yards (a 1,600-yard season early on, one just over 1,400 and two a tad above 1,200) - but those don't even sniff Davis' two 1,500-plus seasons along with a 2,000-yard year.
Finally, to the critics who want to take away Davis’ amazing talent and keep him out of the Hall of Fame because he was good enough to take full advantage of a system that showcased his talents, then you must apply the same standard to quarterbacks who stood behind outstanding offensive lines that kept them upright or to wide receivers who had precision quarterbacks throwing them the ball or to pass rushers who have a secondary keeping guys covered so they have time to get to the quarterback over and over again.
Football is a team game, and the success of any player is due in part to the talent of the guys around him. But the players who are Hall-of-Fame-worthy will stand out even among the best, and Terrell Davis most certainly did that.
In "A Football Life: Terrell Davis" several players and coaches point out that despite the success of the backs running "in the system" after him, T.D. was the reason the running game was the difference-maker that it was for the Broncos.
"That 1,200 yards Olandis had, that’d been 1,800 for T.D. The 1,470 or whatever for Mike Anderson, that would have been 2,100 for T.D.," offensive guard Mark Schlereth said of his teammate. "You start compiling those numbers for what could have been, and it’s depressing for me, because he would have been one of the best to ever play the game. And as far as I’m concerned, he is."
Davis’ coach Mike Shanahan knows Davis is the reason Denver got two Lombardis in the late 90s.
"No, he’s the best. There’s no question in my mind," Shanahan said. "He’s a guy I can’t say enough about to let people know what a difference he was to this organization and why we did win the Super Bowls."
But then-running backs coach Bobby Turner probably encapsulates the feeling of Broncos Country the best.
"When I hear, ‘you can just plug anyone in there,’ that ticks me off," Turner said. "Yeah, we had an awesome system, but everyone had a system. He was a special back."
It’s the system, not the running back.
No, it was the running back.
The Broncos offense enjoyed having one of the best to ever play the game prove that a great system can be flawless with the right talent showcasing it.
Not the other way around.