Former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis recently chatted with San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Brown, discussing what he has been up to recently. He acknowledged occasionally getting the urge to play, but it goes away after a split-second.
It’s a fun article updating things on Willis, but in light of some recent Hall of Fame news, it has gotten me thinking. Two weeks ago, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the 2017 class, and it includes running back Terrell Davis.
At the height of his career, Davis was one of the best running backs in the NFL. The sixth round pick joined the Broncos in 1995 at the bottom of the depth chart, but quickly emerged to take over the starting role. Davis rushed for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie, and then dominated the next three seasons. In 1996, Davis rushed for 1,538 yards (2nd in NFL) and 13 touchdowns (3rd), earning NFC Offensive Player of the Year honors. In 1997, he rushed for 1,750 yards (2nd) and 15 touchdowns 91st), and was named Super Bowl MVP. In 1998, he rushed for 2,008 yards (1st) and 21 touchdowns (1st), and took home MVP and NFL Offensive Player of the Year Honors, while walking away with a second Super Bowl trophy (but not MVP).
Davis would play three more seasons in the NFL, but he lost it just as quickly as he gained it. In 1999, he tore his ACL and MCL in Week 4, and was lost for the season. He appeared in four games that season, five in 2000, and eight in 2001 before announcing his retirement. He was first eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2007, and has slowly worked his way up until his induction this year.
I bring up Davis because of Patrick Willis. The 49ers linebacker has a few years before he is eligible, but TD’s induction strengthens the case for Willis. TD’s case as a Hall of Famer is based on those first four seasons. It falls somewhere under the Sandy Koufax idea of a few incredibly dominant years overcoming a career otherwise shortened due to injury. Koufax’s first six seasons were pedestrian at best, but starting in 1961, he turned into the pitcher that became a Hall of Famer. His career ended at the age of 30 due to arthritis in his throwing elbow.
The notable edge Davis has over Willis is postseason hardware. Willis appeared in three postseasons, but did not win a Super Bowl, while Davis won two and added in a Super Bowl MVP award. Davis earned MVP and two offensive player of the year awards, and was a first team All-Pro three times. Willis never won defensive player of the year, but was named first team All-Pro five times, and second team All-Pro once. More importantly, he earned those All Pro nods starting with his rookie season.
A running back can get more high profile opportunities, including a better shot at MVP, and of course things like the “2,000 yard” mark that Davis surpassed in 1998. With a linebacker, leading the league in tackles is not the best indicator of who is “the best” at the position. As a team’s defense improves, linebacker tackle totals can often go down. Willis led the NFL in tackles early in his career, but as more talent arrived, he was used in a variety of other roles, most notably in pass coverage.
I think there was a Hall of Fame argument to be made about Willis before this year, but the election of Davis could further open the door to the former 49ers linebacker. One argument for a Hall of Famer is whether or not a player was viewed as the best for any significant stretch of time. There are questions about what NaVorro Bowman’s addition meant for how Willis was viewed, but for a stretch, I don’t think there was a linebacker more feared than Patrick Willis. Whether that is enough to get him into the Hall of Fame will be answered in the coming years.