State Your Case: Ricky Watters

Did Ricky Watters run his way into the Hall of Fame or talk his way out of it?


(Ricky Watters photo courtesy of Philadelphia Eagles)

By Ron Borges

Talk of Fame Network

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 those 91 touchdowns in 10 seasons and rushed for more than 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.

Watters was a workhorse as well as a show horse, carrying the ball more than 300 times in four seasons, including a shoulder-numbing 353 for the Eagles in 1996, He had over 300 carries in back-to-back seasons with the Seahawks in 1998-99, while also making 467 career receptions 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 four-word response followed him the rest of his career.

“For who? For what?’’ Watters said.

Later he would admit he regretted what he said and the way he 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 always in the lineup who consistently advanced the ball.

Watters missed his entire rookie season in 1991 due to injuries but rushed for 1,013 yards the following year. San Francisco's offensive approach led to fewer-than-optimal carries (206, 208 and 239) in three seasons with the 49ers, 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 49ers 1,596 yards, 11 touchdowns and a Super Bowl championship.

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 back who was also a dangerous receiver -- plus a workhorse who didn’t miss a game in 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 seldom took a misstep when a football was given to him.