Why Roger Craig deserved more from Hall-of-Fame voters

Why former running back Roger Craig deserves so much more from Hall-of-Fame voters than fading into oblivion with a mountain of qualified senior candidates.

The failure of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to warm up to Edgerrin James is a reminder that he's not the only star running back out there to elicit indifference from voters. Nope, there's former San Francisco 49ers' standout Roger Craig, too.

Like James, the was an integral part of a dominant team. Like James, he was a triple threat -- a guy who could run, catch and block. Like James, he was an all-decade choice. And, like James, he can't get Hall-of-Fame selectors to pay attention to him.

But there's where the similarities end. Because, unlike James, Roger Craig won Super Bowls. In fact, he won three of them. But more importantly, he no longer is eligible as a modern-era candidate. He had his last chance in this, his 20th, year of eligibility, but wasn't a finalist for the Class of 2018.

In fact, he wasn't a finalist for anything but the Class of 2010, and then he didn't make the first cut. I mention that because every player in the 2010 class of candidates is now in Canton ... every player, that is, except one.

Guess who?

Yet Roger Craig is one of the most intriguing ... or at least, was, when he was in the modern-era category ... because he forced voters to think beyond the numbers and trust their eyes and instincts. He wasn't just a running back; he was a fullback, too. In fact, he was a Pro Bowl choice as a running back AND fullback.

But he was more than that. He was a multi-dimensional weapon opponents struggled to defend.

No, he didn't pile up huge numbers like, say, a Frank Gore during his career. Gore is the fifth leading all-time rusher in the NFL. Roger Craig is its 44th. Gore almost surely will be chosen to the Hall on the basis of career numbers. Craig probably won't ... not unless the senior committee somehow rescues a candidacy that has been in eclipse for years.

But, quick now, tell me: Which would you rather have in your backfield -- Frank Gore or Roger Craig?

Roger Craig was a critical element to the most dominant team of the 1980s, the San Francisco 49ers, both as a running back and pass receiver. He was the first back to have 1,000 yards receiving and 1,000 yards rushing in the same season and one of only two in league history. Marshall Faulk is the other, and he's not only in the Pro Football Hall of Fame; he was elected in his first year of eligibility (2011).

But Roger Craig? He's the only all-decade running back from the 1970s, '80s and '90s not in Canton.

"Basically," said Hall-of-Fame voter Ira Miller, who covered the 49ers for the San Francisco Chronicle, "Roger Craig was Marshall Faulk before Marshall Faulk ... what Bill Walsh considered the final piece of his offense (before Jerry Rice came along).

"The NFL's first 1,000-1,000 man in in rushing and receiving. Scored three touchdowns in Super Bowl XIX, the first running back to do that. Pro Bowl selection as both a running back and fullback. In the two seasons before Craig, including their first Super Bowl win, the 49ers averaged 22.6 points a game. In Craig's first two seasons, again pre-Rice, they averaged 28.3.

"I know his stats look skimpy compared to recent seasons, but his impact on that offense went beyond sheer numbers. By themselves, the numbers were pretty darned good. But, beyond that, the impact he had on the 49ers' offense was significant."

And that's what is so puzzling.

The 49ers were a rolling thunder in the 1980s, winning all four Super Bowls in which they appeared, but only two starters from that offense -- Joe Montana and Jerry Rice -- are in Canton ... and Rice was there for only the last two championships of that decade. Surely, there must have been someone to help Montana carry the 49ers' offense for most of that decade, and that someone was Roger Craig.

In 1985 he caught 92 passes, then a record for running backs. That same year he ran for 1,050 yards and averaged 4.9 yards a carry. He set a franchise rushing record with 1,502 yards in 1988, the second season he topped 2,000 scrimmage yards. He was an NFL Offensive Player of the Year, had nine touchdowns in his first 14 playoff games and, when he retired, led all running backs in career receptions.

In short, outside of Joe Montana, he was the best offensive player on one of the best offensive teams ever before the arrival of Jerry Rice.

So where has it gotten him? A ticket to what former Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman once called "the senior swamp" -- a pool so rife and deep with qualified candidates ... many of whom are all-decade choices ... that, sadly, most never escape.

Roger Craig doesn't deserve that fate.

Then again, he shouldn't be there in the first place. At least Edgerrin James has 16 more years to reach Canton as a modern-era choice. Roger Craig does not. And that's more than a shame. It's a mistake that needs to be corrected.

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