Larry Rankin is a sports analyst with an especially strong penchant for statistical breakdowns.
The following is the 2nd and final installment of the series. I will make occasional reference to Part I in this article, but primarily will be focusing on NFL fullback Larry Centers and his Hall of Fame worthiness.
Summary of Part I
In part one of the series I posed the question of whether or not any post-1985 fullbacks were worthy of the Hall of Fame accolade, fullbacks I termed as “modern era.” I then gave a historical backdrop of the position and how it has evolved to its current state. Then I established the important criteria for gauging the success of a modern era fullback versus a fullback from the position’s heyday.
The remainder of the article analyzed the career of fullback John L. Williams and led to my eventual conclusion that he does deserve to be inducted.
Larry Centers was a fullback in the NFL whose career spanned 14 years from 1990-2003 with the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals, Washington Redskins, Buffalo Bills, and New England Patriots. Centers was a good-sized and versatile fullback at 6’0” and 225lbs. A 5th round pick out of Stephen F. Austin, he was a bit of a project at first, not finding his identity in the NFL until his 3rd year.
As established in Part I of the series, no aspect of the fullback’s play is more important than blocking ability. Unlike John L. Williams, who entered the league and left the league as a tenacious blocker, Larry Centers had some growing pains. Before the NFL Centers had spent the majority of his time at either running back or wide receiver. Coaches doubted his ability to take on the new role.
The majority of Centers’ first two years were spent either returning kicks or on the bench, seldom playing a role in the backfield at fullback. It wasn’t until his 3rd year that he began to flourish, seeing ample time and statistical accomplishment at fullback, but it was a while longer until he developed into a competent blocker.
1,000 Yard Rushers Behind Larry Centers
1993 Ronald Moore
1995 Garrison Hurst
1998 Adrian Murrell
1999 Stephen Davis
2000 Stephen Davis
2002 Travis Henry
In the latter half of his career Centers became known as a good blocker, as evidenced above, a good number of backs had banner years in his wake, but Centers’ blocking ability was never as consistent or palpable as that of say a Larry Csonka or John L. Williams.
Yards from Scrimmage
Yards from scrimmage is a very important barometer in the success of a modern era fullback. Because fullbacks from this era get so few touches, it is important they make the most of every opportunity and get yardage wherever and whenever they can. In his 14 year career Centers touched the ball only 1,442 times, compared to the 1,791 touches of John L. Williams in his 10 year career and the over 3,200 touches of Franco Harris in his 13 year career, yet Centers was able to pick up 8,985 yards from scrimmage, ranking 7th all-time among players at that position. This also ranks Centers slightly above 2nd ballot Hall of Famer Larry Csonka on the list of career yards from scrimmage for fullbacks. (See Fullback Yards from Scrimmage list in Part 1)
It is also important to note that Centers got his yardage at a time in which the role of fullback was even more diminished in the NFL than when John L. Williams played. In that regard, it is arguable that Centers’ 8,985 yards were harder to come by than Williams’ 9,662.
Receptions/Receiving Yards Analysis
The most glowing area of Larry Centers Hall of Fame resume is his receiving. Centers ranks in the top 5 of pretty much every significant receiving category for running backs and is 1st in every significant receiving category for fullbacks. His 827 career receptions is well above that of any other player to catch passes out of the backfield and in a whole other stratosphere than any other fullback (See receptions list in part 1).
His 6,797 career receiving yards is 2nd among running backs only to Marshall Faulk, coming up less than 80 yards short. The next fullback on the career receiving yards list is John L. Williams, with over 2,000 less career yards than Centers. Though Centers’ 28 career touchdown receptions doesn’t sound like much for a wide receiver, for a receiver coming out of the backfield it is a top 5 statistic, again ranking 1st among fullbacks.
Career Receiving Yards: Running Back
1. Marshall Faulk
2. Larry Centers
3. Ronnie Harmon
4. Keith Byars
5. Marcus Allen
6. Tiki Barber
7. Roger Craig
8. Herschel Walker
9. LaDanian Tomlinson
10. John L. Williams
Larry Centers: Hall of Fame Candidate
But perhaps most impressive on Centers’ receiving resume are some of his single season accomplishments. His 101 receptions in 1995 is a record for receivers coming out of the backfield. His 99 receptions in 1996 only stands behind his own 1995 campaign and LaDanian Tomlinson’s 100 reception season in 2003. Richie Anderson’s 88 catches in 2000 is the next best receiving performance by a fullback in a season.
Running Back: Receptions Season
1. Larry Centers 1995
2. LaDanian Tomlinson 2003
3. Larry Centers 1996
4. Roger Craig 1985
5. Charlie Garner 2002
6. Steven Jackson 2006
--Brian Westbrook 2007
8. Rickey Young 1978
--Richie Anderson 2000
10. Marshall Faulk 1999
In his 14 year career, Centers would eclipse the 80 reception mark 4 times and the 50 reception mark on 10 occasions, unheard of numbers for a fullback. Even among all players, Centers’ 827 career catches ranks 26th. His career best 962 receiving yards in 1995 is far more than any fullback before or since, and almost put him in the elite company of running backs to gain more than 1,000 yards receiving in a season (Marshall Faulk, Roger Craig, and Lionel James).
Though Centers was not much of a homerun threat, catching only one pass in his career of over 50 yards, his shear consistency in getting open and making good gains is the primary reason he is a viable Hall of Fame candidate.
For all the spectacular things Centers did as a receiver out of the backfield, his rushing career is quite lacking. Though Centers’ career average of 3.6 yard per carry is adequate for a fullback, he only carried the ball 615 times for 2,188 yards. His 14 rushing touchdowns is not particularly impressive either.
Centers’ best season as a ball carrier came in 1996 when he carried a career high 116 times for 425 yards. In 1994 he rushed for a best 5 touchdowns. His rushing career was one of consistency and not explosiveness. With exception of a 50 yard run in 2001, he had few carries of substantial length.
All that being said, for a fullback during the modern era, Centers’ career rushing totals were well above the norm. His consistent running ability, coupled with his fantastic receiving skills, made for a complete package that was hard for defenses to account for.
Larry Centers’ playoff career success is somewhat contingent on how you skew the information. The majority of his career was spent with the woeful Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals, and he was often the lone bright spot on the team. In his 9 years at Arizona, they only made the playoffs once, in 1998. They did manage to win a playoff game that year against Dallas, but statistically Centers was pretty anemic. He did record his only career playoff touchdown that year on a reception against the Cowboys.
In 1999, With the Washington Redskins, Centers qualified for his 2nd playoff appearance and again his team made it to the 2nd round, losing to the Buccaneers. His performance in round 1 of the playoffs against Detroit was his finest statistical post-season showing, recording 7 receptions for 61 yards.
Centers had two good seasons with the Bills, but neither year resulted in a playoff qualification.
Centers spent much of the 2003 regular season with the New England Patriots on IR, but was able to come back and play in all 3 playoff games, including a Super Bowl win against the Carolina Panthers. Although Centers’ use was primarily that of a blocker, he excelled at opening up holes for running backs and holding off blockers for Tom Brady. In addition, he made a crucial 28 yard reception in a tight game against the Colts in the 2nd round.
On one hand Centers’ 24 yards per game average and 1 touchdown in the playoffs is well under his regular season statistical output. On the other hand, he has a Super Bowl ring and his performance and timely play was crucial to the New England Patriots success. I feel like Centers’ post-season career is more positive than negative, but there are certainly gaps and no big time statistics.
Centers had 3 Pro-Bowl appearances(1995,1996,2001), putting him in good company. If you look at Hall of Famers, 3 Pro-Bowls is often the magic cutoff number. Though I have mixed feelings about the importance that should be put on Pro-Bowl appearances when assessing Hall of Fame eligibility, (It varies from case to case.) in this case it is a deserved and helpful feather in the candidate’s cap.
The big question, should Larry Centers get into the Hall of Fame? Yes, but is he the best fullback candidate out there right now? No. 800+ career receptions, pretty much every receiving record for a fullback, good blocking skills that developed over time, almost 9,000 career yards from scrimmage, 3 pro bowls and a Super Bowl ring, all very impressive, but John L. Williams had better overall stats in far fewer seasons, has been waiting longer, embodied the complete fullback role more thoroughly, and was a more explosive athlete.
It is border-line amazing that Centers was able to do what he did in the era that he did it in, and it is time for a fullback to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but all things considered, Centers is 2nd in line, not 1st.
The common consensus among football fans is that from henceforth the fullback position is dead, an archaic remnant of the past counting out its final days of usefulness. Though I concur that John L. Williams and Larry Centers mark the death of an era, eras start and end in the NFL all the time. At some point the fullback will rise again, a new fad that new coaches can act like they invented. The NFL will shift and things will open up for the fullback. The only question is “When?”
I’m not just making wild conjecture here. Just look at the position. A running back in front of the running back to mow down potential tacklers, catch balls, and run the occasional quick-hitter dive play. It’s just too integral, too premium of a real-estate to die and never come back. H-backs and loaded lines, strategically it’s just not the same as having a mobile block/run threat in front of a runner.
Eventually the NFL will get so inundated with spread passing plays that defenses will totally forget about power football, and that is when the fullback will come back to prominence.
When? I don’t know, but someday….
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 17, 2016:
I'm licking my wounds after the Seahawks loss today. Oh well, like all of us fans say from time to time, wait till next year. :)