Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Waiting For The Weekend: Looking at the Numbers

Posted on October 15, 2009 by Dean Hybl
Jacksonville Jaguars v Seattle Seahawks

Edgerrin James is within 18 yards of moving into the top 10 in NFL rushing history.

This week we are looking at some statistics and looking at their worth in determining all time greatness.

Reaching the Edge
I saw an interesting note this week that Seattle Seahawks running back Edgerrin James is 18 yards away from passing Marcus Allen for 10th place on the NFL’s all-time rushing list. He is less than 100 yards away from passing Marshall Faulk and Jim Brown to move into eighth place on the all-time list.

Now, James is a very good player and will probably one day earn a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he is no Marcus Allen or Marshall Faulk and definitely not on the same level as Jim Brown.

His situation is just another example of how inaccurate statistics can be when used as a tool for measuring all-time greatness.

I still believe that statistics have value, but now see them as a way to compare players of the same era rather than for looking across generations.

When Jim Brown passed Jim Perry to become the NFL’s all-time rushing leader and then became the first player in NFL history to eclipse the 10,000-yard mark, there was little question that he had achieved something very special.

Today, the 10,000-yard club includes 24 players with Clinton Portis likely to become the 25th member later this season.

However, are Portis or Jamal Lewis or Tiki Barber or Corey Dillon really better than Jim Perry, Jim Taylor, Earl Campbell or Leroy Kelly?

Running back has always been a position where long-term durability is difficult to achieve. For every Jerome Bettis (13 seasons) or Warrick Dunn (12 seasons), there are dozens of player such as William Andrews (6 seasons) or Terrell Davis (4 full seasons) who had their careers cut short due to injuries.

Career statistics help showcase such durability, but unfortunately, too many people, especially first generation fans, see them as the Holy Grail for determining greatness. After all, it is just easier to assume that because Curtis Martin is fourth on the all-time rushing list he is the fourth best running back of all-time.

That may seem practical in theory, but I wouldn’t spout that theory around anyone who ever saw Jim Brown play or, for that matter, share it with Brown himself.

Great Stats For The Great One
While statistics can be misleading, they are cases when they can be pretty accurate in illustrating greatness.

Wayne Gretzky scored nearly 1,000 more points than anyone else in NHL history.

Wayne Gretzky scored nearly 1,000 more points than anyone else in NHL history.

When talent, performance and statistics are all combined, it is very difficult that anyone is the “greatest” in hockey history than Wayne Gretzky.

This week marks a milestone of one of those statistical reference points toward greatness. It was on October 15, 1989 that Gretzky passed Gordie Howe to become the all-time leading scorer in NHL history.

What was particularly impressive about Gretzky’s record-setting milestone was that it occurred in only his 11th NHL season. In comparison, it took Howe 26 years to score 1,850 points.

By the time he retired a decade later, Gretzky had tallied 2,857 career points. His total is still 970 greater than the point total for Mark Messier, who ranks second on the NHL list.

There have been other great hockey players including Mario Lemieux, Marcel Dionne, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Maurice Richard and Howe, but no one maintained the high level of Gretzky for anywhere near as long a timeframe as Gretzky.

For that reason, Gretzky will always be considered as hockey’s “Great One.”

Each week we look at some current and former athletes who were born during the week.

Here are some notable sports figures born during this week:
October 16 – Dave DeBusschere (1940), Tim McCarver (1941), Manute Bol (1962)
October 17 – Danny Ferry (1966), Alfred PuPunu (1969)
October 18 – Keith Jackson (1928), Forrest Gregg (1933), Mike Ditka (1939), Willie Horton (1942), Martina Navratilova (1956)
October 19 – Mordecai (Three Finger) Brown (1876), Evander Holyfield (1962), Brad Daugherty (1965)
October 20 – Juan Marichal (1937), Isaac Curtis (1950), Chad Hennings (1965), Herman Moore (1969)
October 21 – Whitey Ford (1928), Mo Lewis (1969)
October 22 – Jimmy Foxx (1907), Pete Pihos (1923), Leonard Marshall (1961)

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