Marshawn Lynch appears to be set to retire at age 29. Talk will turn to his legacy and, usually in the immediate afterglow, pretty good football players who starred prominently will be anointed Hall of Famers. Years down the road, they may be finalists, and we wonder why they have not gotten in yet. I think that will be the case with Marshawn Lynch.
Most running backs who retired before age 30 and got into the Hall of Fame were dynamic stars recognized as the best at their position for a good stretch of their twenties. While Marshawn Lynch has been a very good back, he is not in their class. He has been selected first team all-pro once in his career. I’m talking of guys like Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, and Gale Sayers.
Terrell Davis, who won two Super Bowls as the centerpiece of the offense, and who was selected first team all-pro three times, is still on the cusp fifteen years later, but has not been selected yet.
If you look at the Pro-Football-Reference.com similar players list for his career to date, there is only one player in Canton out of the 10 that show up there: Earl Campbell. Campbell has similar overall numbers, but a) was two years older than Lynch when he started, in an era with no early entrants; and b) was selected as the best running back each of his first three years, before breaking down.
That looks at career “approximate value” by season and shape. I also just took his total yards from scrimmage, rushing yards, receiving yards, and touchdown totals and ran a similarity score with all other backs since 1960 through age 29. (subtracting 1 point for every 10 yards difference in total yards, rushing yards, and receiving yards, and subtracting 6 points for every difference in total TDs, rushing TDs, and receiving TDs).
O.J. Simpson and Franco Harris show up on the list among Hall of Famers, and Adrian Peterson is almost a certain choice when he retires. But in regard to the former two, they played in an era when there were two less games AND they were older when they entered the league, so Lynch has a large games played advantage to put up the same numbers. Simpson led the league in rushing yards four times (something Lynch has never done) and Harris made the pro bowl every season in the league before age 30.
The rest are contemporaries, many of whom will also fall in the “Hall of Very Good” discussion, and who have a similar case to Lynch.
Five years ago, on the day after Lynch was traded to Seattle for a fourth round pick, I talked about the eerie parallels with Jerome Bettis, and how I thought that trade in getting a reasonably productive, highly drafted 1st rounder at age 24, would prove profitable. That was underestimating it. Lynch had every bit as good a stretch through age 29 as Jerome Bettis did when he revitalized his career in Pittsburgh.
However, Bettis most certainly wouldn’t be in the Hall had he walked away at age 29. Lynch is probably in the same boat. Bettis put up several more compiler seasons and played into his mid-thirties. I don’t think Lynch has the clear cut case that one would need if retiring before age 30. And he’s going to be relying on media members that haven’t always been his best of allies during his career.