Frank Gore: The Inconvenient Hall of Fame Case

On Sunday, Frank Gore passed Barry Sanders as the third-leading rusher in NFL history with 15,289 yards. The 36-year-old is often mentioned as a future Hall of Famer, and his placement in rushing yards alone is a pretty strong argument for that. Among the 15 other running backs to rush for at least 12,000 yards, 13 of them are in Canton. Adrian Peterson is still playing, but he should be a lock as the best back of his era. The only eligible player not in is Edgerrin James, who has been getting closer in recent years. It may only be a matter of time for him.

But what about Gore? I made a Twitter poll to ask if he should get in on the first ballot, get in eventually down the road, or not make it at all.

The results were surprising (to me at least) in showing that a higher percentage of people (22%) thought he was worthy of first ballot than to not get in at all (13%). I don’t drive in huge traffic from the fan bases of the 49ers and Bills, so tribalism isn’t really driving it.

I’ll quickly point out that I don’t write any of this to demean Gore, who has a great life story. He was a third-round pick in a top-heavy 2005 draft for backs, but he’s outlasted all of those guys with ease despite tearing his ACL multiple times at Miami. He’s not just about rushing yards as he’s also caught 464 balls in his career and rarely had great quarterback play. Notice no one said this week that Gore surpassed Marshall Faulk by one yard for fourth all time in yards from scrimmage (19,155), which is arguably more impressive than the rushing feat.

His durability will be the stuff of legends, but is the HOF really just about longevity and are we okay with compilers going in so easily?

Let me make my position clear:

1. I think Frank Gore will get into the Hall of Fame one day.

2. I don’t think he deserves to go in on the first ballot (and he won’t).

3. I won’t be disappointed if he never goes in because I think he has the weakest case of all the 12,000-yard rushers.

Let’s address each point with its own section.

Part I: Gore Will Get Into Canton One Day

Hall of Fame voters reminds us of their “ok boomer” status best when it comes to love for running backs, the position many of them grew up watching as the hero of the offense. Inclusion in Canton at RB has been a bit easier than any other main position. That’s why not only will you see more modern-era running backs (32) in the HOF than quarterbacks (26) and wide receivers (27), but also more than linebackers (30) and defensive backs (30) despite those units having different positions among them.

Twenty-three of those 32 backs got in within five years of eligibility, but there have been some other cases that took years of debate. One of my favorite pieces I ever did at Bleacher Report was on Paul Hornung being the least deserving member in Canton. Hornung didn’t get in until his 15th year (12th as a finalist). Voters have also let in senior nominees such as John Henry Johnson, Leroy Kelly, Doak Walker, and Floyd Little. So the bar has been set so low here that it looks kind of ridiculous any time one of those guys over 10,000 yards doesn’t get a bust too. Maybe it’s not a surprise that Fred Taylor and Ricky Watters are first-time semifinalists in 2020.

With Gore’s volume of numbers, it’s likely going to be too hard for voters not to scratch that running back itch again to get him in eventually. It will also help that he could reach 100 career touchdowns this season and help Buffalo to a playoff spot. There will come a day when the HOF voters are well-versed in the ways of Running Backs Don’t Matter, but in an era that isn’t going to feature many HOF cases for the position, there will be strong support for Gore.

Part II: Gore Is Not First Ballot Worthy

When it comes to first ballot, that should still be reserved for only the best of the best. Last year’s first-ballot class included Tony Gonzalez, Ed Reed and Champ Bailey, a trio no one reputable would argue with. The last five backs to go first ballot were LaDainian Tomlinson (2017), Marshall Faulk (2011), Emmitt Smith (2010), Barry Sanders (2004), and Marcus Allen (2003). In total, 15 backs in the modern era have gone first ballot.

Gore falls way short of that standard. In fact, it can be argued that he falls short of many standards for RBs in the HOF. I looked at the 26 HOF backs with at least 1,000 carries since 1950 and compared them to Gore. Three problematic results come back for Gore’s HOF case:

1. Gore Has Never Led the NFL in Anything

The most glaring fact is that Gore has never led the NFL in ANY statistic for a season. When you look at his Pro Football Reference page, there is nothing in bold in his stats.

Among those 26 HOF running backs:

Fifteen won a coveted rushing title (number of rushing titles in parenthesis): Jim Brown (8), Emmitt Smith (4), Eric Dickerson (4), Barry Sanders (4), O.J. Simpson (4), Earl Campbell (3), Leroy Kelly (2), Joe Perry (2), LaDainian Tomlinson (2), Walter Payton (1), Marcus Allen (1), Curtis Martin (1), Jim Taylor (1), Floyd Little (1), and Terrell Davis (1).

Four players without a rushing title led the league in rushing touchdowns: Lenny Moore led the NFL in yards from scrimmage and twice in total touchdowns. Marshall Faulk was an MVP and twice led the league in both yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns. Franco Harris led the league in rushing touchdowns (1976), won Offensive Rookie of the Year, won four Super Bowls (1 MVP), and is on the scoring end of the most famous play in NFL history (The Immaculate Reception). John Riggins led the NFL in rushing touchdowns in consecutive seasons (1983-84) after winning Super Bowl MVP in 1982.

Six others led the NFL in something in a season. Jerome Bettis and Tony Dorsett each led the NFL in carries once and also won Offensive Rookie of the Year. Thurman Thomas led the NFL in yards from scrimmage four times in a row and won an MVP (1991). Ollie Matson didn’t lead in any scrimmage stats, but he did lead multiple times as a dynamic return specialist. Hugh McElhenny and Larry Csonka each led the league in yards per carry once. Csonka was also a driving force behind the 1972-73 Dolphins, a two-time Super Bowl winner and the only perfect 17-0 season in NFL history.

The only player among the 26 I didn’t mention is John Henry Johnson, which is fitting because he built the bulk of his case in his thirties and it took 16 years for voters to put him in. Johnson had only rushed for 2,196 yards through his age-30 season, but a move to Pittsburgh changed everything. He rushed for 4,607 yards the rest of his career. The only player to rush for more yards after age 31 than Johnson is…Frank Gore (5,322 yards and counting).

That’s interesting, but it gets even better, or I should say more problematic for Gore.

2. Gore Has Never Been Named First-Team All-Pro

Among these 26 HOF backs, 25 of them were named First-Team All-Pro by the AP at least once in their career. The only one who wasn’t was — you guessed it — John Henry Johnson. Gore has been to five Pro Bowls, but he too has never been an All-Pro. Of course, you might say “well if Johnson made it to Canton, then Gore has to, right?” Gore in his thirties was basically Johnson in his thirties, but he also was productive in his twenties. Sure, but the players in this era get held to higher standards.

So Gore has never led the league in anything and never been named an All-Pro. The third problem may be his biggest since it attacks the stat he’s known best for: his rushing yards

3. Gore Has One Top 5 Rushing Season in His Career

In his second season (2006), Gore broke out with 1,695 rushing yards, good for third in the NFL. He’d finish in the top 10 five more times in rushing yards in his career, but those finishes were 6th, 10th, and three times at ninth. Keep in mind the bulk of these were in recent years when the NFL has moved away from workhorses and gone to more committee approaches.

Still, just one season in the top five in rushing yards (his best stat) is not good for a HOF case. I looked at the 16 HOF backs with at least 2,000 carries so I can compare Gore to players with a lot of volume. The 16 HOFers averaged 4.8 seasons in the top 5 in rushing in their careers. John Riggins is the only one of the 16 to have just one top five rushing season in his career. But I already highlighted some of Riggins’ other accomplishments that make him look like a better candidate than Gore. Marcus Allen had two such seasons, but he was famously misused by Al Davis as part of their ongoing beef. Allen still won a rushing title, MVP, Super Bowl MVP, OROY and was twice voted All-Pro in his career. He’s also sixth all time in touchdowns (145) and not 25th like Gore (98).

No one is going to be in a rush to put a player into Canton who was never considered the best at his position and rarely in the running for top five in any given season.

Part III: Gore’s HOF Case: For Who, For What?

My third and final point was that you shouldn’t find it disappointing if Gore never makes the HOF, because he has the weakest case of any 12,000-yard rusher. You almost could argue he has the weakest case of any of the 31 backs with 10,000 rushing yards in NFL history.

  • Gore didn’t win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
  • Gore was never a first-team All-Pro.
  • Gore never won an MVP (never received a vote)
  • Gore didn’t win a Super Bowl/MVP (played fine in one, but no game-winning touchdown).
  • Gore never won a rushing title.
  • Gore never led the league in any stat.
  • Gore had one season with double-digit rush/receiving touchdowns.
  • Gore rushed for more than 1,214 yards once in his career (26 backs since 2005 have done it at least twice).
  • Gore’s most memorable play is…help me out here.

It’s essentially the least accomplished career for a high-volume runner. When you try to find NFL records for Gore, you basically land on two that show his durability and longevity. He’s the only player with 1,200 yards from scrimmage in 12 seasons (all consecutive too) and he’s the only player to rush for 500 yards in 15 straight seasons.

That’s pretty good, but I know I would trade his last five years (three in Indy, one in Miami, now in Buffalo) for one season where he was MVP, or a 2,000-yard rushing season, or one with 30 touchdowns. Something really memorable rather than just cranking out yards at a sub-4.0 rate for bad offenses.

The only other record is something I alluded to earlier: Gore has the most rushing yards in NFL history for anyone in their thirties (6,450 and counting). That’s awesome, but it’s taken him 105 games to get to that point. Walter Payton only played 60 games in his thirties and he still had a better YPC (4.35) doing it than Gore (4.01) and scored four more rushing touchdowns (32 vs. 28). Had Payton hung around for three more years when he was no longer as effective, does that really make his legacy better? For Gore the answer seems to be yes, that’s elevating his case even if he’s no longer truly elevating a team. Rookie Devin Singletary has been the best lead back for the Bills this year.

By the way, Gore ranked 20th in rushing yards (8,839) in his twenties. That’s certainly good, but several of the players ranked ahead of him have had no HOF traction since their careers didn’t last as long as Gore’s has.

So when exactly did Gore become a HOFer? For some people it seems to be on Sunday when he passed Barry Sanders, who infamously retired after just 10 seasons. Sanders’ numbers would have been beyond reproach had he continued on while Gore’s numbers are only in the conversation because he refuses to stop playing.

Was Gore a HOFer after his 10 years in San Francisco (2005-2014) ended? He hasn’t made a Pro Bowl or played in a playoff game since. During those 10 years, he played in 148 games and had nice numbers: 11,073 rushing yards, 64 TD, 4.5 YPC, 13,956 yards from scrimmage, 75 touchdowns.

Nice, but had he stopped he would never get serious HOF consideration. Here are how other running backs (min. 10,000 rushing yards) stack up through 148 regular season games:

Gore148

Gore’s 11,073 rushing yards thru 148 games has him ranked 17th with only one HOFer (Franco Harris) behind him. Notice some of the names ahead of him. You have HOF semifinalists this year in James and Taylor, and also Corey Dillon and Steven Jackson. Someone like Dillon has an interesting case because he did have two top five rushing seasons, including a huge role on the 2004 Patriots, arguably their best title team. But Dillon was done after his age-32 season.

Also take notice of LeSean McCoy ranked close to Gore, but he has more touchdowns and catches. McCoy was a first-team All-Pro in 2011 when he scored 20 touchdowns and again in 2013 when he won a rushing title. He’s still chugging along at 31 with the Chiefs. Would hanging around for four more years and getting over 17,000 yards from scrimmage and 100 TD make McCoy a HOFer? What if he wins a ring with Patrick Mahomes as his QB? Then we also have the cases of Watters, Marshawn Lynch, Eddie George, and not even pictured are the likes of Tiki Barber, Shaun Alexander, Warrick Dunn, Chris Johnson, etc.

That’s really my sticking point with Gore. He didn’t lock up a HOF spot in San Francisco, so what is it about the last five years that changed that status? Since 2015, Gore’s teams have gone 35-38 (.479) with him and only Buffalo this year may make the playoffs. He’s rushed for 4,216 yards and 15 touchdowns at 3.91 YPC in that time. He’s had six 100-yard rushing games, which ties him for 24th since 2015, and his teams were just 3-3 in those games (those are usually wins in the NFL).

Is it okay to accept someone compiling numbers as the final stamp of approval on a HOF case? That generally feels wrong to me, but it seems to be what’s accepted in the case of Gore, because I sure don’t think he distances himself from his worthy peers on value or really fits in with the standards set by the Gold Jacket members he’ll likely join one day.

The good news is he’s not finished yet. Maybe Gore rushes for 110 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs to shock the Patriots in a major upset. (Note: I swear on my life I picked that yardage at random before seeing that he already rushed for 109 yards in the Week 4 loss vs. New England). Maybe that becomes his shining moment.

The cherry on top to a career that has stood the test of time. That would get my endorsement, but for now, I just see myself picking five names of modern players year after year who were more deserving than Gore.

I think the voters will too for some time.

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