When Roger Craig calls back, he starts the conversation hot. His voice is fast. His mind, still blown.
OK, many people believe he changed the running back position.
“I wish Canton would recognize that!” Craig said. “Think about it, man. Come on. They put in all these other guys before me and I was really the trailblazer.”
In LeSean McCoy, the Buffalo Bills hope they have a do-it-all threat themselves. Craig and others dissected his game in Sunday’s story. And in talking to these backs about McCoy’s receiving ability, you have to wonder where the position would be without Craig. When Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense took the league by storm, Craig was the quiet glue holding it all together. A threat by air, by ground.
Another group will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next month. Another running back too in Pittsburgh’s Jerome Bettis. Should Craig get the call? There are now 30 halfbacks/fullbacks from the modern era in the Hall. To understand Craig’s impact on the 49ers’ revolutionary offense — and how that led to a dual-threat back in LeSean McCoy — start in Craig’s hometown of Davenport, Iowa.
The summer before his first pro season, Craig was scared. He knew Bill Walsh used backs as receivers in this new offense, but he only caught 16 passes in four years at Nebraska.
So Craig caught 100 balls a day all summer long. Quarterbacks. His girlfriend. Random kids in town. It didn’t matter who threw the ball. Craig lined up 10-12 yards away from somebody and got used to seeing an object whistling his way. The passes were high, low, over his shoulder, wounded ducks, he got used to every type of pass.
Then, Craig showed up for rookie camp and only dropped two passes.
By his third season, he became the first player ever to record 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. He led the NFL with 92 receptions. He finished his career with 8,189 rushing yards, 4,911 receiving yards and 73 touchdowns. In 1988, he was the AP’s Offensive Player of the Year.
And Craig was also named to the 1980’s All-Decade Team.
“When they saw that I could catch the ball, it immediately opened up the passing game,” Craig said. “So I learned how to run routes, I learned how to read the defense — if it’s zone or if it’s man — it was a learning curve for me. Foreign for me. I’ve never had to read a defense. At Nebraska, we just ran the ball, blocked and ran the ball. Run the ball up and down their throats. So I was innovative enough to prepare myself when that opportunity came. I was going to show them they didn’t just get a guy who could run and block.”
Craig is quick to credit former Minnesota Vikings running back Chuck Foreman as the first receiving threat, but he was the first, true West Coast running back.
To maintain the condition needed for such a job, he sprinted 80 yards after every catch, every run. Veterans made fun of him at first. But now, players do this in training camps across the country.
On the field for “98 percent” of the snaps, Craig adopted Walter Payton’s grueling off-season workouts, a string of 300- and 550-meter gassers. And then Dr. Arthur Ting introduced Craig to “The Hill.” This 2 ½-mile gauntlet so often associated with Jerry Rice is steep. Downright “dangerous,” Craig said.
The wind and switchbacks can whiplash you off course.
After Craig first took Rice to The Hill, he said the receiver didn't come back for another three weeks.
“I had to beg him to come back," Craig said. "Jerry takes all the credit like it’s his. But he has amnesia, man. He’s been hit in the head too many times. It’s Art Ting’s hill and he introduced it to me two years before Jerry."
After practices, Craig would run nothing but play-action fakes with Joe Montana for 20-30 minutes. Sell this fake and the strong safety would bite two, three steps, leaving wide receivers in 1-on-1 coverage. This is the omnipresent, Magic Johnson-like effect of a dual-threat back.
“That’s why Jerry was open so much,” Craig said. “They had to watch me. They had to watch John Taylor. Somebody’s going to be open. Joe could sit back there like, ‘Which one will be open today? Oh, Jerry, boom!’"
Craig sees McCoy having this effect on Buffalo’s offense, fully expecting other receivers to benefit. The Bills haven’t boasted a receiving back like this in years.
At his best in Philadelphia, McCoy was used in a multitude of ways. He had two 500-yard seasons before Darren Sproles arrived.
Craig’s stream of screens, swing passes and wheel routes had a back-breaking effect. Several defensive players have told Craig their No. 1 priority was to stop him. An unselfish mentality, Craig repeats, is a must for multi-faceted back. Sometimes, you’ll be clearing out routes. Other times, you’ll be a play-action decoy.
"You’ve got to buy into the system," Craig said. "Because some running backs don’t like to catch passes. They want to run the ball and get their 1,000 yards each season. And they get a little selfish. They want to carry the ball 25-30 times in a game. In our system, if I carried the ball 25-30 times a game, we’re not going to win. That’s the bottom line. Our system’s not built that way. And when you look at systems in the millennium today, they’re built like the Niners back when we played."
Chances are the Bills will feed the McCoy early and often. But Buffalo will be hoping for a Craig Effect here.
Even if, you know, Roger Craig isn’t giving an induction speech next week. Again.
“It’s crazy that Canton is not responding,” Craig said. “I make the semifinals every year. For some reason, they can’t get me over that hump. Hopefully next year when we host the Super Bowl here and I can walk out onto the stadium. Right?”