When talking about the greatest running backs of all time, names such as Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and much more come to mind. However, there is one name that is often not brought up but is deserving to be in such conversations nonetheless. That name is O.J. Simpson.
The majority of us know the basic facts about the legal troubles of Simpson: the “Trial of the Century”, the famous quote, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” and of course, the infamous Ford Bronco slow speed car chase.
Today, we won’t talk about all that. The “did he do it?” debate is downright exhausted and will never be settled unless he admits to it.
As Simpson has been deemed eligible for parole on July 20th of this year and scheduled to be free on October 10, 2017, we can now have the discussion of where O.J. Simpson ranks among the greatest of all time.
Taken first overall in the 1969 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills, the Heisman-winning running back from USC was destined to be the future of the Bills. Needless to say, he did not disappoint. When he retired in 1979, Simpson finished with 11,236 rushing yards, which was second all time at the time. Although he is currently ranked at 21st in career running yards, the impact he has made to the game of football compares to only a few.
Simpson is the only player in NFL history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a 14 game season, as well as being the only player to rush for 200 yards in six different games in his career. His career yards per carry stands at a staggering 5.1 yards per carry, he was nominated to six Pro Bowls and enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985, which was his first year of eligibility.
Knowing this information, one could understand why Simpson should be at least considered to be in the discussion of the greatest running backs of all time.
If we look at the NFL Films’ 2010 list of the greatest players of all time, Simpson is listed as the 40th best player of all time, which also makes him the 6th best running back of all time. Simpson trails behind Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Gale Sayers and Emmitt Smith, in that order.
While this ranking is fair compared to general conversation amongst fans, it still doesn’t do O.J. justice.
All the players ranked above Simpson are all considered to be the greatest players of all time, and deservedly so. But when we look at Simpson’s circumstance compared to the other players mentioned, we see something remarkable about O.J. Simpson.
O.J. Simpson played in Buffalo, New York. If you’ve ever been there, specifically in the winter, you’d know how difficult it is to play there. Now, add the fact that Simpson played at USC; a school that doesn’t see a flake of snow.
Of course, you could argue that everyone mentioned before Simpson other than Emmitt Smith played in cold climates, but these players played on either good teams or teams with a rich tradition (Barry Sanders is an exception, but he played in the Pontiac Silverdome; an indoor stadium).
Is the location of where Simpson played a major factor? Well, yes; it does. It does matter that the Bills were (and still are) not an organization that has a winning tradition. It does matter that Buffalo’s weather is dreadful, since free agents are not primarily attracted to going there. Think about it, if you had the opportunity to go to Buffalo, a team with a losing tradition and bad weather, or teams in warm climates and have a winning tradition like the San Francisco 49ers or the Dallas Cowboys, who are you going to pick?
Another problem with the Bills is that their management consistently made poor decisions in drafting their players. Simpson was a can’t miss prospect and they would have been downright foolish not to select him, so it’s hard to give them credit for him. They have gotten better, however, as Hall of Fame players like Bruce Smith and Jim Kelly are Bills alumni via the draft.
Simpson was an earlier version of what Barry Sanders went through. Great player, bad team. It seems like a waste of talent, but it also enriches the history of struggling franchises. A great example of this would be the Pittsburgh Steelers. Before the “Mean Joe” Greene era, the Steelers were the joke of professional football. As Greene became the dominant talent he was, he and strong drafting from the front office made the Steelers four-time Super Bowl Champions by the time Greene retired, and now they’re at six.
So why does that matter to Simpson’s skill? Why do the players around him and the climate matter so much? The answer lies in the position he plays: running back.
The running back relies on essentially the entire offense to perform at a good level. Obviously, the offensive line must be able to block for them. The wide receivers must be dependable so the running back isn’t given the burden of having to run the football in order to get a first down. The quarterback is very interchangeable in that point as well, since he must be able to deliver a decent throw to these receivers. The quarterback must also have good time-management skills in order for the team to move the ball before they run out of time.
To be frank, O.J. had none of that. Now, add the fact that he’s a California kid who’s only played in either rain or sunshine and never snow, one might think it wouldn’t work out for him.
But it did.
Simpson became the face of the Bills and the NFL as a whole. He shattered records, he was tough as nails, and he was undoubtedly one of the greatest players of all time.
With Simpson being granted parole, people will still remember that he robbed a store owner at gunpoint and was charged with armed robbery and kidnapping. People will remember the double homicide of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and have their opinions on what happened on June 12, 1994; the day they both died.
On the flip-side, people might become more open as to what they thought of O.J. Simpson: the football player, and when we judge his greatness, that’s all that matters; the football player that is Orenthal James Simpson.