Roger Craig

Roger Craig's Hall of Fame case advocated by 49ers legend's rivals


Nothing sours the mood of a former Los Angeles Rams defensive player quite like the memory of Roger Craig’s churning knees.

“That’s where the pain starts,” former NFL safety Vincent Newsome told NBC Sports Bay Area on Friday.

Newsome and other former rivals of the 49ers spoke up this week to advocate for Craig being elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Craig is the only running back in a pool of 12 seniors candidates under consideration for three spots as finalists for the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2024.

Craig was a game-changing running back for Bill Walsh’s innovative offense. His versatility enabled Walsh to take the 49ers' offense to new heights.

Running backs were generally not deployed as weapons in the passing game. But Craig came along and broadened how teams viewed the position. He led the 49ers in receptions in four of his eight seasons with the club, including the Super Bowl seasons of 1984 and 1988.

In 1985, Craig was the first running back to rush for 1,000 yards and have 1,000 yards receiving while leading the NFL with 92 receptions. Only Marshall Faulk and Christian McCaffrey have since accomplished the 1,000-1,000 feat.

The iconic play of Craig’s career came in 1988, when the Rams -- almost all of them, it seemed -- simply could not bring him down on a 46-yard touchdown run at Anaheim Stadium.

“He had these big saucer eyes and you’d see him coming downhill,” said Newsome, who had Craig in his arms at the 35-yard line before losing his grip. “He knew when he was going to have contact and he’d cover the ball with both arms.

“Then those knees would be high and he’d just lower himself like a ball. And if you see the tape, we literally fell off of him, and I thought I was a pretty darn good tackler.”

Former Rams linebacker Mike Wilcher said Craig’s combination of power, speed, balance and toughness made for a difficult challenge.

“Unless you wrap him up, he’s not going down,” Wilcher said. “Those kinds of plays were the ones that were backbreakers because generally all our games were close, and he would do something in most of them that would turn it around.”

Newsome, now the Baltimore Ravens’ director of pro personnel, pointed out Craig changed how running backs play the game. Newsome played 17 games against the division-rival 49ers in a career that spanned the same time as Craig’s tenure with the 49ers.

“He was ahead of his time," Newsome said. "We’re looking at backs like that now that we want. We want backs who can catch out of the backfield and also kind of spread you out and get downhill fast and hit those creases quickly. And Roger Craig epitomizes that.”

Former New York Giants nose tackle Jim Burt also spent two seasons with Craig as a member of the 49ers, and compares Craig’s impact to another former teammate who changed the game.

“I look at Lawrence Taylor on defense; he changed the game,” Burt said. “He was a pass-rusher on the edge. He changed everything.

"Roger Craig came along and no running back could catch the ball and go out there and do what he did. He gets 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving. That’s crazy. Obviously, it’s a copycat league, and everyone copied Bill Walsh and Roger Craig. It’s as simple as that.”

Craig, whose teams advanced to the playoffs in each of his 11 NFL seasons, was a member of three Super Bowl champions.

He became the first player to score three touchdowns in a Super Bowl to cap the 1984 season with a 38-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins.

“He was really a catalyst for a lot of what they were able to accomplish,” said former New York Giants linebacker Gary Reasons, who played 10 games against the 49ers and Craig in his nine NFL seasons.

“I look at him and Walter Payton as the No. 1 and 2 running backs in the 1980s. They were the two guys who could really do it all.”

Burt said he is shocked Craig has not already been elected into the Hall of Fame. Craig has been in the seniors pool for six years after being a finalist just once as a modern-era candidate.

Craig ranks 46th all-time with 8,189 yards rushing and 47th in yards from scrimmage at 13,100.

“His intangibles were unbelievable, and nobody even pays attention to that,” Burt said.

Burt noted that Craig set the tone for the 49ers with his work ethic. He was the first to run to the end zone in practices every time he touched the ball.

“Then, Jerry started doing it,” Burt said. “Roger created these work habits and the professional way of going about business, and Jerry said, ‘This is cool. I want to do this, too.’

“It became a contest between the two of them, back and forth. You think the other teammates didn’t pick up on that? They'd say, ‘You know what, I better get my ass going, too.’”

Burt believes it is wrong if previous voters kept Craig out of the Hall of Fame because of his fumble late in the 1990 NFC Championship Game. The 49ers were going for a three-peat and held a 13-12 lead over the Giants late in the game.

Defensive lineman Erik Howard forced a fumble. The Giants moved the ball 33 yards in the final two minutes to set up Matt Bahr’s 42-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.

“Roger Craig belongs in the Hall of Fame. Come on,” Burt said. “There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. He had one (bad) play. If that one play is holding him out of the Hall of Fame, which it probably is, that’s a damn shame.”

The Hall of Fame’s seniors committee is scheduled to meet next week, and the three finalists will likely be announced on Wednesday. It is a strong group of candidates who have advanced this far in the process, and Craig has a lot of support from rivals to cross the finish line.

“Roger was one of those guys I always admired because of the style, the toughness and the ruggedness that he played,” Reasons said. “He didn’t shy away from contact. He was one of those guys that was able to do what was asked of him in that offense and that system.

“He’s deserving of any accolade you can put on a running back, because I think he is literally one of the best running backs of all time. Certainly, (he’s) deserving of a spot in the Hall of Fame.”

RELATED: Roger Craig shrugged off past Hall of Fame snubs

Wilcher said the stardom of teammates Rice and Joe Montana probably contributed to Craig being overlooked for the Hall of Fame. The 49ers had the most dominant offense of the 1980s. But there is plenty of room in Canton, Ohio, for Craig to join them.

“The truth is the truth,” Wilcher answered when asked why he is publicly supporting a former opponent for the Hall of Fame.

“At this point, credit needs to go where it needs to go. And he was really a deserving player. I always felt like he was underrated because of what he was doing with the receiving and rushing."

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