A Playoff Argument for Terrell Davis being a Hall of Famer

Denver Broncos runningback Terrell Davis(30) slips the tackle attempt by Cincinnati Bengals safety Greg Meyers as he breaks into the secondary to pickup a first down during the second quarter of their game at Denver's Mile High Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 21, 1997. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

Over the past couple of years, I have analyzed some of the top running backs in NFL history, both on Checking the Numbers (here) and at Behind the Steel Curtain (here and here). In each of these analyses, I have shown that, on a per game basis, Terrell Davis was one of the top RBs in NFL history. In some analyses he showed up as a top 3 player, but in all he was at least top 10. The knock on him has been that he did not play long enough for serious consideration, although for a 4 year stretch, he was every bit as good at Emmitt Smith and very close to Barry Sanders. So, as I did recently for Hines Ward, I am going to look at how Terrell Davis’s playoff numbers compare with other greats in NFL history.

Unlike Hines, Davis does not have the total numbers or the longevity to solidify his Hall of Fame argument. And, up until recently, I could not find anywhere that showed player rankings in terms of playoff yardage, TDs, etc. But, thanks to Pro-Football-Reference.com‘s Play Index page, I was able to query all of the players since 1960 with over 1000 yards rushing in the playoffs for their careers. There are only six such players, including Terrell Davis. The list is shown below. 

Rk Player Tm G W L T Att Yds Y/A TD
1 Emmitt Smith DAL 17 12 5 0 349 1586 4.54 19
2 Franco Harris* PIT 19 14 5 0 400 1556 3.89 16
3 Thurman Thomas* BUF 21 11 10 0 339 1442 4.25 16
4 Tony Dorsett* DAL 17 10 7 0 302 1383 4.58 9
5 Marcus Allen* TOT 16 7 9 0 267 1347 5.04 11
6 Terrell Davis DEN 8 7 1 0 204 1140 5.59 12

Terrell Davis is sixth alltime in career playoff rushing yards. But, take a closer look at that list. He’s the only player on that list with fewer than 16 playoff games in his career, and he appeared in 8. In only 8 playoff games, he gained over 1100 yards and had 12 rushing TDs, with a nearly 5.6 yards per attempt. Let’s break it down a little further. First, I calculated and sorted each players’ rushing yardage per game, shown below. 

Rk Player Yd/G
1 Terrell Davis 142.5
2 Emmitt Smith 93.29
3 Marcus Allen* 84.19
4 Franco Harris* 81.89
5 Tony Dorsett* 81.35
6 Thurman Thomas* 68.67

Davis is first with nearly 50 more rushing yards per game than Emmitt Smith. He averaged over 140 yards in 8 playoff games. According to this query, Davis has more playoff games of 140+ rushing yards than any other player in NFL history, with 4. Marcus Allen and John Riggins both have 3, but unlike them, all of his are also for over 150 rushing yards. Next, let’s look at yards per attempt. 

Rk Player Y/A
1 Terrell Davis 5.59
2 Marcus Allen* 5.04
3 Tony Dorsett* 4.58
4 Emmitt Smith 4.54
5 Thurman Thomas* 4.25
6 Franco Harris* 3.89

Davis is tops here as well, with a full half yard on the next closest player. And, finally, let’s look at TDs and TDs per game.

Rk Player TD
1 Emmitt Smith 19
2 Franco Harris* 16
3 Thurman Thomas* 16
4 Terrell Davis 12
5 Marcus Allen* 11
6 Tony Dorsett* 9

As you can see, Terrell Davis is fourth in rushing touchdowns among players with over 1000 career playoff yards. Here, you can also see that he tied for fourth all time in playoff TDs with John Riggins. In rushing TDs per game, below, he is number 1. From the last link, you can see that Riggins had one more game than Davis, so Terrell is still first all time in rushing TDs per game. 

Rk Player TD/G
1 Terrell Davis 1.5
2 Emmitt Smith 1.12
3 Franco Harris* 0.84
4 Thurman Thomas* 0.76
5 Marcus Allen* 0.69
6 Tony Dorsett* 0.53

Looking over these lists, it’s clear to me that Terrell Davis deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Every other player on this list is a HOFer, and he is first in every category on a per game basis. While it’s true that he never made the playoffs after John Elway’s retirement, that seems to be a specious argument since he was injured early the following season. It seems that if Davis’s injury had occurred one year later and he had similar production after Elway’s retirement, he likely would be in the Hall already. But, because he had only 4 productive years, his candidacy is damaged. And, it’s quite likely that the main reason for his injury was due to his workload late in Elway’s final season (see a good article on PFR’s Blog about why certain types of rushing attemps are more damaging than others).

Certainly, one could argue that his career was too short, and he didn’t ever do anything after Elway left, but IMO, the level of playoff dominance by Davis for those 2-3 years should be enough to get him in. If another running back had two seasons like Davis’s two SB seasons, with 5 years of 1100 yards or so rushing each year sandwiched in between those two SBs, and had the playoff numbers that Davis has, that running back would certainly be a HOFer.

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4 Responses to “A Playoff Argument for Terrell Davis being a Hall of Famer”

  1. Slappy Jones Says:

    Very true.Even more true is the season Davis rushed for 2000 yards he did not play a lot of full 4th quarters.He often would have 120-140 yards and the game would be well in hand when he came out late in the 3rd or early in the fourth.He would have easily had the single season rushing record if Denver played closer games that year.I know I watched them all.

  2. Ron Says:

    An excellent analysis. I agree with Slappy. What is not widely remembered is that during TD’s magical 2000 yard rushing season in ’98, he was pulled out of games early because of the huge leads built up by the Broncos-nearly 8 quarters (2 games). Had he played for entire games during that season he quite possibly would have broken Eric Dickerson’s rushing record. That he had to rush for 170 yards in the last game of the season to pass the 2000 yard barrier (he had 178 yds) seems to be forgotten, too.

    A great RB deserving of the Hall of Fame.

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