Curtis Martin is the one that got away.
Sure, the Patriots won three Super Bowls in seven years while Martin quietly hammered out 1,200-yard after 1,200-yard seasons in New York, but does anyone not think that he would have fit in perfectly with the 2001-04 Patriots? All business, never said a word, just kept his head down and did his job, four yards at a time. Right out of the Belichick model (which is right out of the Bill Parcells model -- and Martin might be The Tuna's all-time favorite player). Think about it: Is there another player who left the Patriots in the 1990s who you wished could have been part of the Super Bowl teams?
No nicknames, no commercials, no rap albums, no bizarre phone calls to sports radio stations to defend himself and no mugshots for Martin during his three seasons in New England. Just on-field production. That's it. And even with all the success this franchise has enjoyed over the last 13 years it's not a reach to suggest Martin -- who played with the Pats from 1995-97 -- is the best running back in Patriots history.
And as good as Antowain Smith was (easy to forget -- but he ran for 175 yards and a TD in the two Super Bowls), and allowing that Corey Dillon had the best season ever by a Patriots running back in 2004, it would have been nice to see Martin play his entire career in New England, retire with three rings, and take his place among not just the greats in Patriots history but on any short list of all-timers in Boston sports annals.
But Martin followed Parcells to New York in 1998 and became -- without question -- the greatest back in Jets history, and quite possibly the best player to ever take the field for that franchise. And now that he is a finalist for the Hall of Fame (one of 17 finalists, with the inductees to be announced the Saturday before the Super Bowl) I decided to dust off the Keltner List, a set of 13 questions that has been used mostly to determine if a player deserves to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I think, though, that it should translate fairly well to football, so let’s take a look at the candidacy of Curtis Martin.
1. Has he ever been regarded as the best player in football? Has anyone ever suggested that he was the best player in football?
Well, no. But that's a really tough standard. During his career (1995-2005), the title of Best Player in Football was held, at one time or another, by Brett Favre, Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk and Peyton Manning. Three all-time all-timers (Favre, Sanders and Manning were all in the top 20 on the recent "NFL Network" list of the 100 greatest players of all time, Martin did not make the list) and a guy just a couple of notches below that group (Faulk's peak was as good as anyone, but didn't do it long enough for a seat at the immortal table). So, no, at no time in his career was Curtis Martin ever considered the best player in the NFL. But that hardly disqualifies someone for the Hall of Fame. Canton is full of guys that were never even thought of as the best player in the sport. Michael Irvin played 12 seasons, made just one All-Pro Team. John Stallworth? Fourteen seasons, four Pro Bowls. John Riggins made one Pro Bowl team in his career -- he played 16 seasons. If being universally recognized as the best player in the NFL was a must for the Hall of Fame, there would be maybe three dozen guys enshrined.
2. Was he the best player on his team?
This one doesn't work as well with football as it does with baseball and basketball. Put it this way: Who is the best player on the Pittsburgh Steelers? Ben Roethlisberger? James Harrison? Troy Polamalu? Hard to define. A guy knocks in 140 runs or averages 26 points a game he's probably the best player on his team. But is a 96 passer rating for a season better than 1,300 yards rushing or 12 sacks? Who knows? Football is really the sport that least lends itself to statistical analysis. But I feel safe in suggesting that it wouldn't be a reach to call Curtis Martin the best player on the Jets in 1999 (1,464 yards), 2001 (1,515 yards, 10 TDs) and 2004 (league-best 1,697 yards) and probably the most valuable player on the Patriots in his rookie 1995 season (1,487 yards, 14 TDs for a 6-10 team).
3. Has he ever been the best player in football at his position?
You could make the case that Curtis Martin was the best running back in the NFL in 2004. Again, he led the league in carries (371) and rushing yards (1,697) and was named to his only All-Pro Team. Was there, however, any point in his career where he was viewed as the best running back in football? Probably not. But for a 10-year stretch there was never a time when he wasn't looked at as one of the best half dozen or so backs in the league. And that's a rare thing at that position. Look at how many guys come and go. Terrell Davis had a higher peak than Martin, but only had four years of value. Shaun Alexander was a great back for five seasons and then did nothing after age 28. The other First Team All-Pro running back with Alexander in 1998? Jamal Anderson. I'll take a decade of 1,200, 1,300-yard seasons over four or five years of 1,500-yard seasons.
4. Has he had an impact on a number of Super Bowls or conference finals?
You don't think postseason when it comes to Curtis Martin. OK, he played in the Super Bowl with the Patriots (42 yards on 11 carries and a TD -- the Pats were behind most of the game and throwing) but that was his only SB appearance. He did make a conference final with the Jets but had a terrible game -- just 14 yards on 13 carries. So his impact on those games were minimal at best. When his candidacy is discussed by the voters, I doubt very seriously that his lack of signature playoff moments or failure to win a Super Bowl will even be mentioned (fair or not, only quarterbacks are judged by Super Bowl wins -- no one wrote about how the monkey was finally off the back of Marvin Harrison when the Colts finally won). But Martin's career playoff numbers are surprisingly good. He played in 10 postseason games, rushing for 795 yards on 182 carries with eight touchdowns. Project those numbers to a 16-game season and you've got 1,272 yards, a 4.4 YPC average and 13 TDs, or a season that would fit perfectly right in the middle of Martin's career.
5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?
His best season came at age 31, which is deep into autumn for most running backs. He played just one more season, rushing for a career-worst 735 yards in 2005 as he missed four games with a knee injury. So I guess the answer is "yes and no."
6. Is he the very best (eligible) player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
Well, the answer is clearly no. Deion Sanders is. That'll change, though, as Sanders will be elected this year. Just among this year's 17 finalists for the HOF, I'd rank Martin behind Sanders, Shannon Sharpe (eight Pro Bowls, four All-Pro Teams) and Dermontti Dawson (six straight First Team All-Pro Teams). There are a handful of other guys not in that I'd put in before Martin (Donnie Shell, Ken Anderson and the most inexplicable non-Hall of Famer in any sport, Jerry Kramer. A nine-time All-Pro with five championship rings is not in the Hall of Fame?) but the total isn't close to a dozen.
7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?
Martin is fourth in NFL history with 14,101 yards. When you look at the top 10 in career rushing yards, the six players on the list who are eligible for the Hall of Fame (Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Tony Dorsett and Jim Brown) all made it on the first ballot. Of the other three, LaDainian Tomlinson will skate in on the first ballot and Jerome Bettis and Marshall Faulk are locks to get in eventually. To me, this pretty much removes whatever doubt there might have been regarding Martin's candidacy.
8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
Yes and yes. Fourth all-time in rushing yardage, 12th in rushing TDs, eighth in yards from scrimmage (ahead of him on the list? Six guys already in the Hall of Fame and Tomlinson), 11th in rushing yards per game (every eligible player ahead of him is already in). Easily meets the standard.
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player is significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
The Patriots made the Super Bowl in Martin's second season and in 1997 -- Martin's third and final season in New England -- the Patriots won 10 games and finished first in the AFC East, a game ahead of the Jets. The next season Martin signed with New York and the Jets improved by three games, winning the AFC East and earning a spot in the AFC title game, while the Patriots dropped to 9-7 and a fourth place finish in the division. And in Martin's last full season as a regular, the Jets won 10 games in the regular season and a road game at San Diego. The next season -- with Martin banged up and part-time player -- the Jets won just four games. So teams got better when Martin arrived and worse when he left.
10. How many MVP-type seasons has he had? Has he ever won an MVP award? If not, how many times has he been close?
Martin never received a single MVP vote in his career. His best chance to win the award would have obviously been 2004, but that was the year Peyton Manning broke Dan Marino's TD record and he won in a runaway. A running back needs a historic season to win an MVP. In the last 15 years, five running backs have won the MVP:
2006: Tomlinson, who set the NFL record for touchdowns scored in a single season (31), as well as rushing TDs (28) for a 14-2 team.
2005: Shaun Alexander, who had the record for TDs scored (28) before Tomlinson broke it.
2000: Marshall Faulk, who had his record broken by Alexander.
1998: Terrell Davis, 2,000-yard season.
1997: Barry Sanders, 200-yard season.
That's what it takes, and Martin frankly never came close to having that kind of season.
11. How many Pro Bowls has he played in? Did most of the players who played in this many Pro Bowls go into the Hall of Fame?
Martin was named to five Pro Bowl teams. That's a perfectly acceptable total for a Hall of Fame back -- Thurman Thomas played in five, same with Larry Csonka and Tomlinson, among others -- but it does help cement the notion that Martin is a notch, notch and a half below the immortals at his position. Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Jim Brown played in nine Pro Bowls, Barry Sanders played in 10. But I don't think anyone has ever confused Curtis Martin with those guys.
12. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the Super Bowl?
Likely? I don't know about that, but it's not crazy to think that Martin was the best player on the 1996 Patriots (1,152 yards rushing and 17 total touchdowns) and that team was down six points in the third quarter of a Super Bowl. And -- two years later -- he might've been the best player (1,287 yards rushing, 50 catches) on a Jets team that a 10-0 lead in the second half of an AFC title game. So, yeah, I think a team with Curtis Martin as its best player could have won the Super Bowl.
13. What impact has the player had on football history? Has he been responsible for any rule changes? Has he introduced any new equipment? Has he changed the game in any way? Was his college and/or international career especially noteworthy?
Not much here, unless we're counting snagging Toni Braxton in her absolute, no-doubt prime. And I do count that, by the way.
So What Do We Know?
Almost exactly what we knew before we started (you should know by now that I'm just here to waste your time). Martin is somewhere in the bottom half of the top 15 running backs in NFL history. I don't think he'll get in the Hall of Fame this year, but I'd be stunned if it took him more than three turns on the ballot. There are just too many important lists that have only Hall of Famers, soon to be Hall of Famers and Martin on it. Again, I’m not sure that he’s the very best player not in the Hall of Fame, but there aren’t five better. He will get (and absolutely deserves) his day.
As classy as they get (and he never had to tell us how classy he was, Mr. Tomlinson), Martin will no doubt thank the Patriots in his acceptance speech when his time comes.
It's just too bad he'll be thanking them for just three years, and not for his entire career.