Monday, May 16, 2011
Posted: 3:33 p.m.By Reuben FrankCSNPhilly.com
We dont have football right now. We dont have an off-season. We dont have minicamps or trades or signings.
We do have The Most Overrated and Underrated Eagles of All Time, which will appear every Monday this summer on CSNPhilly.com. We start today with running backs. Next Monday, linebackers.
With four words, Ricky Watters sealed his fate in Philadelphia. No Eagles fan will ever forget For Who, For What, Watters famous alibi after he shrugged off a short pass from Randall Cunningham as Hardy Nickerson closed in on him in the final minutes of Watters first game as an Eagle.
It was opening day at the Vet, Sept. 3, 1995, and the Bucs had just taken a 21-6 lead on Trent Dilfers 10-yard TD pass to tight end Jackie Harris. Only three minutes remained in Ray Rhodes first game as Eagles head coach.
The play? Watters was actually right Cunningham laid out Watters, and there was no reason to risk injury trying to catch a meaningless pass that would have netted two, maybe three, yards.
No, Watters mistake wasnt what he did. It was what he said.
Watters never lived down For Who, For What, and Eagles fans still associate him with one stupid comment 15 years ago.
But look beyond that one play, that one comment, and Watters was one of the most productive running backs the Eagles have ever had. In his three years in Philly 1995 through 1997 Watters never rushed for fewer than 1,110 yards, never caught fewer than 48 passes and never had less than 434 receiving yards.
When Rhodes replaced Rich Kotite after the 1994 season, he found a team in shambles. No players, confidence, no hope. But when the Eagles signed Watters away from the 49ers, they gained instant credibility, and Watters almost single-handedly carried the Eagles to the playoffs in 1995 and 1996 with a work ethic and physical style of football that was the polar opposite of what the famous comment indicated. That was the shame of his remarks. He wasnt that kind of player.
From 1995 through 1997, Watters was simply one the best running backs in football right up there with Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and Terrell Davis during their prime.
During his three years with the Eagles, Watters ran for nearly 3,800 yards, caught 161 passes for more than 1,300 yards and scored 32 touchdowns more than Marshall Faulk during the same span and only six fewer than Davis in his prime.
Watters never missed a game, rarely missed a play. His 975 carries during his three years in Philly were the most by any NFL back during those years. Despite spending only three seasons here, Watters still ranks sixth in franchise history in rushing behind Wilbert Montgomery, Brian Westbrook, Steve Van Buren, Duce Staley and Randall Cunningham. Pretty damn good company.
For the sake of comparison, Keith Byars (see below) spent seven years here, played in more than twice as many games as Watters and had more than 1,000 fewer rushing yards, only 1,100 more total yards and fewer touchdowns.
There wasnt much to build on in 1995 and 1996. Those were old teams stocked with fringe players, guys playing out the string, journeymen, castoffs. The quarterback position was in disarray as Cunningham was phased out, and Ty Detmer, Rodney Peete, Bobby Hoying and even Mark Rypien took turns trying to replace him. Yet they made the playoffs in consecutive years for the only time between 1989 and 2000 largely because of Watters and his tireless running, receiving and blocking.
Watters was ridiculously consistent. He ran for at least 70 yards in 30 of his 48 starts here and averaged 107 total yards of offense per game in an Eagles uniform.
There wasnt much Watters did wrong as an Eagle. Just four stupid words that haunt him to this day and have forever altered the way we remember one of the best backs in franchise history.
Because of his knee injuries he missed three entire seasons and because he played in the shadow of Brian Westbrook for all but his rookie year, theres a tendency to forget just how talented and productive a running back Correll Buckhalter was.
During his eight years in Philly, Buckhalter averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Only 11 NFL running backs during the same span (including guys like Adrian Peterson, Tiki Barber, Priest Holmes and Westbrook) had a higher average (based on 2,000 or more rushing yards). And out of those 11, none had as many receptions (85) and a higher receiving average (10.9) than Buck.
When Buckhalter got 10 or more carries, the Eagles were 18-4. When he got 12 or more carries, he averaged 84 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry.
Buckhalters 4.53 career rushing average as an Eagle is third-best in franchise history among running backs, just a fraction behind Westbrook (4.58) and Charlie Garner (4.57).
He wasnt Westbrook. But he was a lot closer than youd think.
During the 1992 playoff run, the Eagles found themselves with an increasingly awkward situation at running back. It turned out ballyhooed offseason acquisition Herschel Walker wasnt very good. And it turned out unheralded backup Heath Sherman was.
So Rich Kotite for once did the smart thing and gradually replaced a Heisman Trophy-winning legend for an unknown former sixth-round pick who had started just five games in his first three NFL seasons.
Sherman had just 15 carries the first eight games of that 1992 season while Walker handled the bulk of the running. But once Sherman became a key part of the offense, the Eagles began rolling.
The second half of the year, he outgained Walker on the ground and wound up leading the NFL with 5.2 yards per carry. And when it was time to face the Saints in a wild-card game, the Eagles who hadnt won a postseason game since 1981 leaned heavily on the unknown Sherman.
While Walker ran five times for an ineffective 12 yards at the Superdome, Sherman pounded the ball 21 times for 105 yards, including a six-yard TD run that gave the Eagles the lead for good in the fourth quarter, and he caught three passes for 29 more yards. The Eagles won 36-20, one of only two postseason wins in the 1990s.
To this day, only two backs in Eagles history Wilbert Montgomery and Westbrook have had more rushing yards in a playoff game. And nobody has ever rushed for more yards in a playoff game against the Saints.
Sherman spent his entire five-year NFL career with the Eagles, finishing with 2,130 yards, 75 catches and 14 TDs. Hes largely forgotten these days, but nearly two decades ago, it was Sherman who carried the Eagles to a rare playoff win. And he did it while one of the most decorated running backs in football history watched from the sidelines.
We know Keith Byars became a good receiver. And we know he was always a terrific blocker. What many of us have forgotten is that more than anything, Byars was a complete bust as a tailback.
Byars is the only running back in modern NFL history taken in the first 10 picks of the draft who had at least 800 career carries and a per-carry average of 3.6 yards or worse. Think about that for a moment. There have been 49 running backs taken among the first 10 picks since 1960, and Byars has the lowest rushing average of the bunch.
Only seven running backs in NFL history with 800 or more carries had a lower rushing average (including household names such as Errict Rhett, Leonard Russell, Karim Abdul-Jabbar and Reggie Cobb).
Byars spent seven years with the Eagles 1986 through 1992 and during that span he was one of 26 running backs in the NFL with 750 or more rushing attempts. His 3.56 average per rush during those seven years ranked 25th out of those 26 backs, ahead of only and Ottis Anderson who had more than twice as many touchdowns as Byars during that span (37 to 17).
Yes, Byars did eventually develop into an outstanding receiver, and he was always a crushing blocker. He even went to a Pro Bowl late in his career with the Dolphins as a hybrid tight end and fullback.
But Buddy Ryan didnt draft Byars with the 10th pick in 1986 to be a fullback or a pass receiver or a blocker. He drafted him because Byars had rushed for nearly 1,800 yards as a junior at Ohio State and finished second to Doug Flutie in the Heisman Trophy voting, and he expected Byars to produce the same kind of ground attack here.
Never happened. Never came close to happening. Byars became one of the biggest running back busts in NFL history, and the absence of a running game during Ryans five-year tenure and the Eagles 0-3 playoff record can be directly tied to Byars inability to produce on the ground. In fact, Byars got only seven carries in five playoff games as an Eagle. Not quite what youre looking for from the 10th pick in the draft.
By the time Byars left Philly, he had averaged a whopping 25.4 rushing yards per game with a grand total of two 100-yard games one as a rookie against a 4-11-1 Cards team that ranked 25th out of 28 NFL teams in rush defense and one in 1987 against a 7-8 Bills team that ranked 22nd against the run.
During his seven years with the Eagles, Byars had three seasons with 130 or more rushes and a 3.4 average or worse. Since 1960, only Eddie George has had more seasons (four) than Byars with a 3.4 average on 130 or more attempts.
Eventually, Byars coaches stopped trying. Over his last nine NFL seasons, Byars averaged 2.3 carries per game. On Dec. 3, 1989, he ran 14 times in a win over the Giants. He played nine more years and never had more than 12 carries again.
Eagles fans look back fondly at Byars, mainly because he was a great guy, terrific with the media and a tough, physical player. He was even picked by one area newspaper as the fullback on the Eagles all-time team even though he wasnt a fullback (Anthony Toney was).
Time has been kind to Byars. But the reality is that he was one of the biggest running back busts in NFL history.
From 1966 through 1985, the Cowboys went to the playoffs 18 of 20 years and won a couple Super Bowl championships.
Then Herschel arrived. And the Cowboys went 18-45.
Then they sent him to Minnesota. And the Cowboys promptly went to the playoffs eight of the next nine seasons and won three Super Bowls.
When Walker arrived in Minnesota, the Vikings were in the middle of their third straight playoff season. They responded by going 21-22 before shipping Walker off to Philly.
Once he left? The Vikings went to the playoffs eight of the next nine seasons.
When Herschel arrived in Philly, he joined a team that had been to the playoffs three of the previous four years and had won at least 10 games four straight years. The Eagles went 10-6 in Walkers first year here winning a playoff game after he was benched in favor of Heath Sherman but didnt have another winning season until they got rid of him.
Once he left? Back to the playoffs two straight years.
Walkers specialty was turning good teams into bad ones. And then turning them into good ones again once he left.
Walkers teams reached the playoffs in only three of his 12 NFL seasons and won just two postseason games. He had just 15 touches in those two games.
Whether he was with the Vikings, Cowboys or Eagles, he compiled lots of stats but did little else. It was impossible to win with Walker.
Michael Haddix is the worst running back in NFL history. And the Eagles bypassed five future Hall of Famers to draft him.
Haddix fashioned a career rushing average of 3.0 yards per carry. Thats the worst in NFL history by any player with 500 or more carries, just behind Warren Moon (3.20) and Brett Favre (3.14).
Haddix is the only player in NFL history to carry the football 500 or more times and score three or fewer touchdowns.
He had 543 career carries and precisely one of them went for at least 20 yards.
From 1985 through 1990, Haddix had 404 carries without scoring a touchdown. Nobody else in the NFL had more than 150 carries during that span without scoring a TD.
But overrated? Absolutely. When youre the eighth pick in the first round of the 1983 draft and your team bypassed Dan Marino, Roger Craig, Henry Ellard, Darrell Green, Jim Kelly, Richard Dent, Joey Browner and Curt Warner to select you, you must have been rated pretty high.
Reuben Frank co-wrote "The Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Coaches, Moments and Teams in NFL History," published in 2007.E-mail Reuben Frank at email@example.com
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