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Roger Craig: The overlooked running back of the Super Bowl Era

An undervalued star

When Roger Craig left Nebraska in 1982, he trailed Rick Berns; the school’s all-time leading rusher, by a paltry 3 yards. He had an excellent season in 1981 with his lone 1,000-yard season with Nebraska and averaged 7.3 yards per carry, and was poised to have another good year in 1982. Craig would be paired with Mike Rozier in the backfield, but an early season injury hampered him for most of the season.

Craig entered the 1983 NFL Draft as a back who had been good, but Craig was not highly regarded like Eric Dickerson out of Southern Methodist University. He had been a fullback, which at the time, was a different position than it is now. Fullbacks would primarily block and occasionally receive. They were also the secondary running backs to eliminate another player for that requirement.

49ers Coach Bill Walsh saw something else in Roger Craig that other scouts seemed to have missed. Walsh saw Craig as a legitimate, pass-catching threat, which fit Walsh’s system perfectly. The 49ers were gaining a back with speed and power, the ability to lead block and pass protect, but most importantly, be another option for quarterback Joe Montana in Walsh’s famed West Coast Offense.

Craig entered his rookie year, having been drafted in the 2nd round in arguably the greatest NFL Draft in the league’s history, ready to contribute out of the gates. He was able to showcase his skills about halfway through the season due to nagging injuries to Wendell Tyler. He started in 13 games, rushed for almost 800 yards and scored 12 touchdowns combined.

The next year, possibly the finest in 49ers history, Craig continued to run the ball, caught 71 passes and scored another ten touchdowns. In Super Bowl XIX, Craig scored three more touchdowns as San Francisco won its second Super Bowl.

But it was in 1985 that Craig was able to show everyone how talented he was. He became the first back to record 1,000 yards rushing (with a 4.9 average) and 1,000 receiving (on 92 receptions). It was a feat that has only been duplicated one time, by Marshall Faulk in 1999. And he did it on grass and in lousy conditions.

Craig became the starter for Walsh’s high powered offense and continued to punish defenders with his powerful running style that featured his famous high-knees. Defenders were afraid to tackle him as his knees would consistently catch them in the head and upper body. His hands and route-running made him as accomplished a receiver as any in the league.

In 1988, Roger Craig was considered the best running back in football. He was the AP Offensive Player of the Year with 1,502 rushing yards, 76 pass receptions, and 10 Touchdowns. Craig had the best run of the decade against the Rams, a 46-yard dazzler that capped a 190 yard, three touchdown day. He was also a key receiver in the greatest drive in Super Bowl history, which ended with the 49ers again lifting the Super Bowl trophy at season’s end.

Why does Roger deserve to be enshrined in Canton? He is one of the most versatile and complete running backs in the history of the NFL. He performed big in big games, being one of only four players in the history of the Super Bowl to score three touchdowns in a single game. His thousand-thousand in 1985 was ground-breaking. Before Craig, you could be a just a great running back. After Craig, a running back had to be able to catch out of the backfield as teams began adapting Walsh’s concepts into their game-plans. Another fact that gets overlooked is that his contributions helped every team he ever played for making the playoffs in each of his 11 seasons.

Does Roger Craig have the numbers? Yes. He has the same amount of 1,000-yard seasons as Hall of Famer Marcus Allen; three. But Allen played 16 seasons to Craig’s 11. Craig is number six all time for receptions among running backs, and of the five that lead him, four played longer than Craig. Twice he broke the 2,000-yard barrier for yards from scrimmage, something that had rarely been seen in his era. His 92 receptions in 1985 were the most ever by a running back in a single season, and to this day, he is only one of four backs in the history of the NFL to catch 92 passes or more in a single season.

The Hall of Fame is not merely a list of players who put up eye-popping numbers. It is a fraternity of players who played great when it mattered, regardless of how long or short their careers were. Compare Roger Craig to the Packers’ Hall of Fame running back Paul Hornung. Hornung had an incredible 1960 season where he set the scoring record and an MVP season of 1961. Add in 1959, and you have a total of 3 good statistical years out of the nine seasons he played, yet he is in the Hall of Fame. Gale Sayers only played for five full seasons, yet no one questions his enshrinement.

Roger Craig was one of the most versatile, ground-breaking running backs in the history of the NFL. He was a key cog on one of the NFL’s all-time great dynasties and helped them win three Super Bowl titles. He compares statistically too many running backs who are already in the Hall of Fame and is deserving of that honor. Craig belongs in the Hall of Fame and should be remembered as one of the greatest running backs in NFL history.

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