[This Sunday is the 25th Anniversary of the massive Herschel Walker trade from Dallas to Minnesota. Why were the Vikings so willing to give up such a massive haul that basically helped start the Cowboys' Super Bowl dynasty? There's a pretty good case that Herschel Walker is an overlooked candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and is being ignored because of his USFL years. This article originally ran in July 2013]
Ichiro Suzuki got his 4,000 professional hit this week, 1,278 of which came in Japan, before he began playing in MLB in 2001. That raises a whole host of questions, how many would he have had if he had been born in the United States? Would he have reached the majors as fast as he began playing professionally in Japan? The seasons were shorter, but his average was higher compared to his major league career, playing at a younger non-peak age (.350 vs. .320 since age 27 in MLB).
One thing I am sure of is that Ichiro would have had more (MLB) hits had he come up in the American system, likely reaching the majors well before age 27. He gets some credit for this. When the Hall of Fame selections are being debated, you can be sure that the 4,000+ number and his accomplishments before he broke down the door to MLB will be considered in some fashion.
That brings me to Herschel Walker. By the same accounting method applied to Ichiro, Walker has 20,120 yards rushing and receiving as a professional, which would place him 4th on this list, behind only Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, and Walter Payton. That’s pretty rare company, though Herschel Walker is not in the Hall of Fame. Herschel Walker, of course, played for three years in the USFL before moving to the NFL. If we consider only his 13,084 yards in the NFL, he comes in at 38th overall, and 25th in yards among running backs.
Other Hall of Famers have had their time in another league, the CFL, cited as part of their case (Warren Moon comes to mind). With Walker, the question is how much credit do we give for his time in the USFL. We cannot give full credit, as the USFL played an 18 game schedule and Walker accumulated those numbers over more games from age 21 to 23 than a similar player in the NFL. We also are doing a disservice to ignore that he chose a different path.
The USFL produced many quality players who would go on to thrive in the NFL, from Jim Kelly to Reggie White to Sam Mills to Gary Zimmerman. The depth of talent may not have matched the NFL, but all told, there was probably the equivalent of a draft class full of players that moved to the NFL after it folded, combined with players who left for the USFL toward the end of productive NFL careers and players who were good enough to at least get a shot in the older league. A few years ago, I tried to look at a comparison of the AFL vs. NFL, going through a series of exercises to try to assess how the younger league compared.
Such a comparison is more difficult with the USFL, because the teams never played exhibition games, Super Bowl games, had competing drafts over a long period time, or merged together. The NFL merely assimilated the best players from the USFL after a three year stretch.
It might be tempting to think that the numbers are hugely inflated by being in the USFL, but the scoring was not out of whack with the NFL. In fact, from 1983-1985, the NFL teams averaged 21.5 points a game; USFL teams averaged 20.7. Remember, talent dilution is occurring on both sides of the ball. A running back may not be facing the same number of top level defenders, but he is also being hampered by fewer top blockers, a worse quarterback, and receivers on average.
To try to estimate the impact on Walker, I looked at his numbers both with the USFL and soon after in the NFL, and also used three other backs who were the stars of the USFL and also had careers in the NFL: Joe Cribbs, Kelvin Bryant, and Gary Anderson. For each, I found the production in the NFL on a yards per game basis in the three years after the USFL (or in Cribbs case, the three years before), and found a list of comparable players at the same ages. I then compared what those comparable players did during the years that the four top backs were playing in the NFL to try to estimate inflation.
Here is a summary:
The average adjustment ratio was 1.326. Some of that is due to the two extra games. On a per game basis, a NFL back would be expected to gain 86% of a USFL back. So, a top back who could average 100 yards from scrimmage would have been expected to average 86 yards a game in the NFL.
If we apply this ratio to Walker, his 2,301 yards as a rookie would convert to 1,735 yards as a 21 year old rookie. That would put him 12th all-time for rookies compared to the NFL, right behind Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin. That’s conservative, in my opinion, since Walker was considered perhaps the most-NFL ready back when in college and is often referenced as one of the few guys that could have gone straight from high school to the pros.
His third year, when he went for an incredible 2,878 yards, would convert to 2,170 NFL yards, another conservative estimate (it would be 26th all-time). Overall, this guesstimate would put Herschel Walker at about 5,314 in his first three years. That would make him 9th all-time in the first three years of a career. As it stands, the first three years of his actual NFL career, from ages 24 to 26, place him 12th.
If you give him credit for that amount, he would place 5th among running backs for a career, between LaDainian Tomlinson and Barry Sanders. In fact, you have to go down to Tiki Barber and Edgerrin James to find running backs not in the Hall of Fame. You would have to credit Walker with fewer than 2,500 yards for his first three seasons (basically, Knowshon Moreno or Tim Hightower) as a starter to have him fall below that line.
While the Pro Football Hall of Fame is almost always synonymous with the NFL, that is because the best players in the sport have almost exclusively played there. Walker is an exception, just as the Browns in the AAFC were an exception, and just as early AFL stars were. Walker was a star, and everyone knew it, when he signed to play in the USFL after his junior year at Georgia. The NFL prohibited juniors from entering at that time, a rule that was later changed in 1990 (after an exception was crafted for Barry Sanders in 1989). He went pro because he was good enough, and went to a rival league because of a rule that the NFL no longer has. Any attempt to put his USFL years in context, in good faith, should lead to the conclusion that, like Ichiro, he gets some credit for what he did outside the main professional league in the United States.
[photo via Sports Illustrated archives]