Gauging Nick Chubb's Chances At The Hall Of Fame

A milestone was reached in the midst of the Browns' otherwise dispiriting loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on the first Monday of 2022: Nick Chubb passed the career rushing total of a Browns legend, Hall of Famer Marion Motley. Motley rushed for 4720 yards in his pro career, which began where the Browns began in the All-America Football Conference in 1946. Chubb finished the season with 4816 yards thus far in his career.

Though he led the league in rushing in 1950, Motley's overall accomplishments may seem modest by current standards; but it was a different era, one where seasons were shorter, rehab and modern training methods unheard of, and 1000 yard rushing seasons still fairly rare (also, in part due to his war service, Motley didn't play his first professional game until he was 26 years old). Chubb has passed the career totals of several Hall of Famers from the early, shadowy days of the NFL already, and will add more in the coming seasons assuming good health and productivity.

Chubb is now 26 (turning 27 at the end of the year), so he's basically at the midpoint of what are typically the prime years for an elite NFL running back. His proximity to Motley is one thing, but at his current rate of 1204 yards a season, by the end of 2023 Chubb would be right on the heels of the career numbers of a Browns Hall of Famer a few more of us will remember having seen play, Leroy Kelly. These numbers got me thinking: can we guess anything about Chubb's eventual chances at the Hall of Fame based on what he's done to this point? What are the sort of overall totals and career milestones that Hall of Fame running backs tend to amass? Does it help to have played on a major winner; or conversely, if the Browns never win a Super Bowl or become a serious contender again during the remainder of his time with the team, will that negatively impact his chances of someday returning to Ohio for an induction ceremony?

I'm focusing on Chubb because after four seasons, three of which have seen him named to the Pro Bowl, he's far enough into his career where you can say, yes, he's done some things characteristic of eventual Hall of Fame careers. In fact, of the top ten rushers in NFL history, three of them — Frank Gore, Tony Dorsett, and Jerome Bettis — had fewer than Chubb's 4816 yards rushing in their first four seasons. He's at a place where things could go in various directions: he could become banged up and gradually lose effectiveness in his late twenties as happens to so many backs, or he could manage the kind of durability that saw Gore rush for at least 800 yards in 12 straight seasons. And frankly, speculating on the Hall of Fame chances of any Brown is a novelty in recent decades. Since 1999, the Browns have one mortal lock for Canton in Joe Thomas, but likely no one else who would even show up on a Hall of Fame radar (Jarvis Landry has more career receptions than Ozzie Newsome, but given the current numbers for his position, he's a long way from ever getting consideration).

Another reason why I find it interesting to think about Chubb in this way is the position he plays. Players who run the ball have been a mainstay of the Hall since its founding nearly 60 years ago, and the best backs from various eras have all eventually found their way to Canton, even though the numbers being racked up now are much bigger than they used to be (it's a pass-happy era, but the seasons are longer; and there's financial incentive to play as long as possible that didn't exist in the NFL's infancy). So it's a pretty simple matter to look at how Chubb compares to not just his contemporaries, but to similar players through the decades, and guess at what he still needs to do to merit Hall consideration.

The position we now call "running back" has evolved as the sport has changed, but there have been, roughly speaking, about 50 people inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame whose primary job description was "taking a snap directly, or a handoff from the quarterback, and then running with the ball." Because Chubb has already exceeded the rushing totals of most Hall of Famers from the early decades of the league (to the extent those records were even kept), I'm going to compare him to players whose careers fully took place in what I would consider the "modern era" of pro football, from 1960 forward (1960 was the year the AFL was founded and the NFL began its expansion; one can also claim 1961, when the 14-game schedule was introduced, and 1970, when the NFL and AFL merged, as the start of a modern era).

During this modern era, there are two basic ways that a running back has gotten to the Hall of Fame, and they both make intuitive sense:

1. Career longevity. 12000 yards career rushing has been the point beyond which induction into the Hall has been, at least so far, automatic.
2. Brilliance over a shorter period of time; recognition as being clearly the best in the business for at least a couple of seasons (obviously, many backs in Category #1 are also part of Category #2).

The person generally thought of as the best back in the league isn't always the leading rusher in a particular season, but there's a decent enough overlap. Among backs whose entire careers took place in the modern era, there is only one running back who has made the Hall without ever leading the league in rushing or finishing with over 10000 career yards (more on him later).

Let's start with the career totals. People are accustomed to thinking of "magic numbers" in baseball that make a previously iffy Hall of Fame case airtight: 3000 hits for a batter, or 300 wins for a pitcher. But I was surprised to find out that the running back position has its own magic career number. 12000 yards has become a stark dividing line for NFL running backs, especially for guys who don't have the obvious credential of having ever led the league in rushing. Sixteen players have passed 12000 yards career rushing; all except the not yet eligible Gore and Adrian Peterson are in the Hall of Fame.

But below 12000 yards, the number of backs who have been admitted to Canton drops off dramatically. Fifteen players, all from the modern era, finished with between 10000 and 12000 career rushing yards. Only two have reached the Hall. Those fifteen are, in order:

Fred Taylor 11695
Steven Jackson 11438
John Riggins 11352 (in Hall)
Corey Dillon 11241
O.J. Simpson 11236 (in Hall)
LeSean McCoy 11102 (not Hall eligible yet)
Warrick Dunn 10967
Ricky Watters 10643
Jamal Lewis 10607
Thomas Jones 10591
Tiki Barber 10449
Eddie George 10441
Marshawn Lynch 10413 (not Hall eligible yet)
Ottis Anderson 10273
Ricky Williams 10009

Simpson, who led the NFL in rushing four times in a five year stretch, is the obvious outlier on this list; his status as a Hall of Famer (at least based on his play) was never in doubt. His career totals suffered a bit due to the somewhat slow start to his career on some really bad Bills teams. Riggins, the other Hall of Famer in this group, also had a unique career, being one of a handful of players whose case for the Hall is built primarily on what he did after turning 30. But he was the key offensive force on a surprise Super Bowl champion, and that may be the element that carried him over the top (aside from the fact that the man was, whatever else you might say about him, genuinely famous, which ought to count for something in a Hall of Fame).

The rest of this list is dominated by guys who were reliably productive for many years, but were rarely thought of as being truly elite. Only four of the fifteen ever led the league in rushing even once (McCoy, Lewis, and Williams are the other three). Many of them toiled in near-obscurity (admit it: you had no idea Thomas Jones was the 26th leading rusher of all time). Take Jackson, who had a remarkable eight straight 1000 yard seasons on some truly hopeless Rams teams. But: he was never first team All-Pro. He never led the league in rushing. He only made the playoffs as a rookie (the last hurrah of the Faulk/Bruce/Holt era) and in his final season as a roleplayer in New England. He made three Pro Bowls, which is nice but not a number that makes you a Hall no-brainer. Essentially, you can tell the story of the NFL in the first 20 years of the century without Steven Jackson in a way you can't say about Peterson or LaDainian Tomlinson.

It's interesting to compare Fred Taylor, who has the highest totals of anyone not in the Hall, with the player just above him in 16th place, Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas. Their careers were the same length, Thomas entering the NFL 10 years before Taylor. Neither ever led the league in rushing. But Thomas played on four Super Bowl teams, and also won an MVP award. Taylor's case for the Hall has been tainted by some miserable luck. His best season came the same year Jamal Lewis ran for over 2000 yards, which cost him a rushing title. He had one season mostly wiped out by injuries, which kept him from the 12000 yards that would have made him a lock. He made just one Pro Bowl. And of course, he's associated with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the most anonymous franchise in the league. No matter how good you were, you weren't winning an MVP with the Jags.

(This is not to say that Thomas, who also had unusually high value as a pass receiver by elite runner standards, is an undeserving or even marginal Hall of Famer. I also wonder if Lewis, the only person in this group of 15 who was both a key figure on a Super Bowl champion and an NFL rushing leader, might eventually become talked up for Canton on that basis. I suspect Lynch's role on some memorable Seahawks teams will get him some votes too.)

Now, I want to talk about modern-era backs with less than 10000 yards who made it to the Hall of Fame. It's a pretty small list, but some of the better backs in history are on it. In order from top to bottom:

Earl Campbell, 9407 yards: Led the league in rushing his first three seasons before he began breaking down; as dominant at his peak as any back since the merger.
Larry Csonka, 8081: This is the guy I mentioned above: the only running back to play his entire career in the modern era to get to the Hall of Fame while never leading the league in rushing or getting to 10000 yards. But he was a key part of the attack on a team that went to three straight Super Bowls (and he was typically at his best in the playoffs). Plus, he shared the load with a couple of other horses, and also missed all of one season after a jump to the ill-fated World League, which cut into his career totals.
Terrell Davis, 7607: Only played seven seasons, but a three-year stretch where he rushed for almost 5300 yards and won two Super Bowl rings counts for a lot.
Leroy Kelly, 7274: He and a player I will mention below were the dominant runners of the immediate post-Jim Brown era. Kelly's career numbers aren't daunting, in part because he spent his first two seasons watching Brown from the sidelines. But he was atop the league rushing standings in 1966 and 1967, and every eligible player who has led the league in rushing in consecutive seasons since World War II is in Canton. And of course, the Browns were a really good team during his peak years.
Floyd Little, 6323: The NFL rushing leader in 1971 (his only 1000 yard season), Little's case for the Hall seems a "little" murky to me. Most of his comps are players who aren't in the Hall and aren't gonna come close. But he did make five Pro Bowls, a signal as to what observers of the era thought about him. He was also a truly beloved figure among Denver fans even though the Broncos were generally not good during his career.
Gale Sayers, 4956: Played basically five seasons before his second and career-fatal knee injury, during which he led the league in rushing twice, was named All-Pro five times, and was named the halfback on the league's 50th anniversary team (alongside fullback Jim Brown). It's safe to say no one doubted his worthiness for the Hall of Fame.

Chubb is basically two decent games away from passing Sayers. With good health and his usual production, he will be in the top 100 in league rushing history by the end of the 2022 season. But obviously, there aren't 100 running backs in the Hall of Fame. What sort of progress is Chubb making on the road to Canton?

Where he's helped is that he's been considered among the best backs in the league since about halfway through his rookie season. He's made the last three Pro Bowls. He's finished in the top ten in rushing in the NFL every season of his career so far. To some extent he benefits from the overall diminished standing of running backs in today's game. To finish second in the NFL in rushing in 2021 despite missing three games is a testament both to how good Chubb is and how nondescript the competition is. Chubb's status as an old fashioned feature back in an era with skyhigh passing totals could work in his favor going forward. Frankly, it's easier for someone who rushes for 1200 yards in a season to stand out today compared with 20 years ago. In the same way that Hall of Fame voters in baseball are going to have to adjust to an era where it's looking unlikely anyone will ever again win 300 games, Hall voters for Canton will have to judge modern day running backs alongside their peers, and those peers are generally doing less than they used to.

But clearly, Chubb still has a ways to go. He's not yet at 5000 yards, and I just got done saying that unless you're considered the best of the best, you're not getting serious consideration until you've got more than two times 5000. And there have been a few unfortunate missed opportunities, the biggest one coming when Chubb was caught for the league rushing title on the final day of the 2019 season. Having that particular credential does seem to mean a lot when weighing a borderline Hall of Fame case. Coming off the bench for the first several weeks of his rookie campaign certainly cost him a 1000 yard season. And while he has so far avoided a critical injury (at least as a professional), he has missed seven games in the last two seasons. At his usual level of production, that's over 500 yards missing from his career totals, and Chubb could certainly finish with a number where one could imagine 500 additional yards would come in very handy when weighing a Hall case (keeping in mind that almost every back will miss time at some point).

The unanswerable question with Chubb is just how durable he will be, both in terms of avoiding serious injury and maintaining the sort of production that will keep him in the lineup. An awful lot of backs over the years have been where Chubb currently is after four seasons, but it's impossible to know which ones will turn out to be someone like Curtis Martin, who began with nine straight 1000-yard seasons and only then had his career year with the Jets at age 31. But then you have someone like Leroy Kelly — also in the Hall, but his fairly rapid decline kept him from racking up truly stellar career numbers. Kelly's last 1000 yard season came in 1968 at age 26, but leading the league in yards and carries two straight years took its toll on a back who weighed barely 200 pounds. 1969 was the last season Kelly averaged over 4 yards a carry. During his final four seasons in the NFL (1970-73), he was a pedestrian performer.

Chubb's Hall of Fame case can't survive a decline like that based on what he's thus far accomplished. It's impossible to predict which path he'll take, but simple math can tell us what he needs to do from here. A best case scenario for him for the next four seasons would probably be something like maintaining his current 83 yards/game average without missing any games. That would give Chubb 1411 yards a season, for 5644 over the next four seasons, and 10,460 yards total for his career. That would likely put him somewhere around 30th on the alltime rushing list (depending on the futures of some players in front of him currently like Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry), and would definitely put him in the conversation for the Hall. A fifth such season would put him near 12000 yards, and behind only players who have been inducted or will be once they're eligible. Of course, rushing for 1400 yards at age 30/31 would be a tall order, but being able to do exceptional things is something that characterizes Hall of Famers.

But let's say Chubb declines a bit from here and doesn't have spectacular luck with health. Say he averages 75 yards/game over the next 4 seasons, and misses two games a year. That would give him 1125 yards a season, 4500 over the next four, and 9316 for his career. Still very good, but it would leave him with a lot of work to do. That's near the career total of Shaun Alexander, who hasn't gotten serious attention as a Hall of Fame candidate despite a 2005 season where he won MVP, led the league in rushing, and played in the Super Bowl, all things Chubb has yet to do.

So I would sum up Chubb's progress toward the Hall of Fame this way:

1. He's done a few things thus far characteristic of eventual Hall of Famers, most notably that he's firmly entrenched in the mind when thinking of the best backs in the league.
2. He would probably need four more seasons like the four he's just had before getting on the Hall radar — this is if he never leads the league in rushing or takes his game to a new level somehow. Realistically, he would probably need five such seasons, which would put him in the vicinity of 11000 career yards by the time he would turn 31 in December 2026. 11000 yards in an era where the passing game is dominant ... who's to say Hall voters won't find that persuasive?
3. His case would be dramatically helped by leading the league in rushing even once, or by doing something tremendously memorable in the postseason like John Riggins ... or even by being seen as a key member of a truly great team. 2021 didn't help him, or any Brown, much in that department.

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