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Borges: Terrell Davis’ induction lowers bar for Pro Football Hall of Fame

August 4, 2017

CANTON, Ohio — Terrell Davis will be officially inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame tomorrow night and he has no doubt his bust belongs in Canton.

But does he?

“If the Hall of Fame is about a person who impacted the game and played at the highest level when the stakes were high, I think I checked all the boxes,’’ Davis says. “If you can raise (your game) and play to the level I was able to play at during those moments that speaks for that. When you throw in the accomplishments on the team front — two championships — and every individual award you can imagine (including league and Super Bowl MVP) I achieved, there was nothing I did not achieve in the period of time I played.’’

Davis’ words are all true and they are also the issue. Was the former Denver Broncos’ runner great? For three years indeed he was.

But was he great enough, long enough, to be called a Hall of Famer?

Frankly, sorrowfully, no.

Davis was one of those victims of his game’s violence. After three consecutive seasons (1996-1998) in which he ran like a Hall of Famer and was the league’s best back, Davis blew out his knee chasing down an opponent who intercepted a pass, an unselfish act from which he emerged drastically changed.

Davis was never again even a shadow of the same player. He never lasted more than a half season and three years later was gone after playing only 16 games after his 2,008-yard rushing season in 1998. His injuries had taken the quickness, speed and power that once made him special.

Ever since, a debate raged over Davis, who was a Hall of Fame finalist the same number of years he played like a Hall of Famer — three — before his election in February. When asked if longevity should be an issue for induction, Davis has a quick retort.

“My career wasn’t short,” he’s said. “It was efficient.”

Davis indeed had three of the greatest rushing seasons in league history, gaining 1,538, 1,750 and 2,008 yards and scoring 49 touchdowns while also running for an additional 1,140 yards and two Super Bowl titles in eight playoff appearances. But can a Hall of Famer be a comet racing quickly across the night sky and then fading away or must he be someone as reliable and bright as the sun?

Now consider this: From 2001-03, Priest Holmes also went to three Pro Bowls, as Davis had. Each won a rushing title. Davis ran for 5,296 yards to Holmes’ 4,590 in their best three years but Holmes carried 146 fewer times while rushing for more touchdowns (56 to 49), scoring more touchdowns overall (61 to 53), catching twice as many passes (206 to 103) and doubling Davis’ receiving yardage.

Holmes twice led the NFL in yards from scrimmage. Davis never did. Holmes led the league in scoring once. Davis never did. Holmes led in touchdowns twice. Davis did it once.

Holmes was on his way to winning a third rushing title in 2004 with 892 yards and 14 touchdowns in eight games when he too went down with a knee injury. A year later he hurt his spinal cord and retired in 2007 after an aborted four-game comeback.

At the time of his retirement, Holmes had rushed for more yards, caught more passes and scored more touchdowns than Terrell Davis but never had the chance to excel in the playoffs that Davis had playing beside John Elway.

There’s one other thing they don’t have in common. Priest Holmes doesn’t have a prayer of getting into the Hall of Fame.

Holmes has never been even a semifinalist. Last year his name was not even included on the preliminary list of 94 candidates.

Why? Because normally longevity matters to gaining entry into the Hall and it should. Gale Sayers was always considered the outlier in Canton. He was a back so brilliant that his five seasons of sustained excellence (five All-Pros, twice a league leader in rushing as well as being the game’s most dangerous kick returner) in a seven-year career marred by two devastating knee injuries created an exception.

Few had a quarrel with that then or now but this year the benchmark has been dangerously lowered.

If three brilliant years are enough to enter Canton, is Holmes a Hall of Famer? What about Clinton Portis, who in his first four seasons rushed for an average of only 120 yards less than Davis and after suffering his own injury came back to gain 1,262 and 1,487 yards, giving him six seasons of over 1,000 yards rushing to Davis’ four?

Did you ever once watch Portis and think Hall of Famer?

This is the dilemma the induction of Terrell Davis, who is a wonderful guy and was once all too briefly a wonderful runner, created.

So where’s the line now? Nobody’s quite sure but one guy who hopes it’s moved is a long forgotten running back named Larry Brown. Unless you hail from D.C. or are over 50 you’re probably saying, “Who?”

Well, between 1969 and 1972 Larry Brown was the best running back in football. He won a league rushing title, twice led the NFC in rushing, was a league MVP in 1972, ran his team to the Super Bowl and went to four consecutive Pro Bowls, one more than Davis. The only other back to go to four straight Pro Bowls in those years was Hall of Famer Floyd Little.

But at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, the beating Brown took wore him down. He became more of a receiving threat after those years and although still a consistent back he was no longer the same. He retired at 29 after eight seasons, four of them brilliant, sure that he would never get to Canton.

“When I retired I was told that I didn’t play long enough (to enter the Hall of Fame),’’ Brown told me and my Talk of Fame Network colleagues after Davis’ election. “I said, ‘but I used to think all I had to do was make a significant contribution to the game.’ In retrospect, I think I did that.

“But with Terrell Davis being inducted this year, hopefully things will change because we have very similar stats and both our careers were cut short because of injuries.”

Larry Brown is right.

Priest Holmes can make the same argument.

A number of others can argue a similar case. Heck, even Clinton Portis can say ‘what about me?’

That’s the conundrum created when Terrell Davis enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame tomorrow night. How little brilliance equals a Hall of Fame career?

All we know for sure is a lot less now than there used to be.