The case for Marshall Faulk as the best player in the NFL
This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 11, 2000, issue. Subscribe today!
IN THE MATTER of gridiron supremacy, in the court of public opinion, petitioner hereby offers running back Marshall Faulk, currently of the St. Louis Rams Football Co. Inc., in nomination for the office of Best Player in the NFL, with all its honors and privileges. Although fully cognizant of legitimate claims by other candidates -- including but not limited to Warren Sapp, Peyton Manning, Randy Moss and Eddie George -- petitioner argues that Faulk's abilities have acquired a unique and transcendent quality (defined most recently in Michael Jordan v. NBA Coaches et al.). Accordingly, petitioner respectfully submits the following amicus curiae brief to the court in support of its contention:
STATEMENT OF FACTS
In a game dominated by specialties and specialists, Faulk's talents travel far beyond the margins. Defensive coordinators must account for Faulk's multitasking from the moment they begin to prepare for the Rams. More often than not, they find themselves cornered. Cover Faulk with a linebacker and watch him split wide or go in motion to get behind the defense. Cover Faulk with a defensive back and watch Kurt Warner or Trent Green team up with Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim to tear up man coverage. Pay too much attention to the passing game and watch Faulk run for 208 yards (see Week 7, Falcons vs. Rams). So far, the only proven way to undermine the Rams' explosive offense is to beat the Rams' permissive defense. "Marshall Faulk is a great player surrounded by great players," says 49ers vice president/general manager Bill Walsh. "It's a tough combination."
The story behind the story
There was nothing quite like Marshall Faulk in 2000, and nothing quite like the St. Louis Rams' offense. The team had come out of nowhere -- and the canned foods aisle of a Hy-Vee grocery store -- and suddenly Faulk was the most entertaining aspect of football's most entertaining unit. It didn't take much high-level sleuthing to identify him as the best player in the NFL at the time, but these days it's easy to forget exactly how good he was and how many things he could do better than just about anybody else. Over the subsequent 13 years, we've anointed and unanointed dozens of running backs in our exhaustive and exhausting search for the best player in the league. Faulk might not have been better than every one of them, but he was definitely different. In his first two years in St. Louis, he averaged 1,370 yards rushing and more than 900 yards receiving. Kurt Warner, the erstwhile shelf-stocker, got most of the attention, but Faulk did a ton of the work. No running back since has had such a wide-ranging impact on a game. Although he wasn't flamboyant or provocative -- Faulk is near the top of the list of athletes-turned-commentators who never had much to say during their playing career -- he occupies a unique slot in NFL history: the next-best runner after Barry Sanders unexpectedly retired in 1999. And he got there using the same formula his predecessor did: overstated ability, understated demeanor. -- Tim Keown
In 1999, Faulk became the second player in NFL history to gain 1,000 yards each rushing and receiving in a season (Roger Craig was the first). His 2,429 yards from scrimmage led the NFL. He has rushed for 1,000 yards five times in his career and is 169 yards away from a sixth. Since being traded from the Colts before last year's Super Bowl run, Faulk has become the sun around which the NFL's best offense orbits. Despite missing two games -- and only two games -- after knee surgery to remove five pieces of cartilage, Faulk leads the league in touchdowns with 15 (nine rushing, six receiving). A concise and symmetrical accounting of Faulk's versatility occurred in Week 9 against the 49ers, when he scored four touchdowns, one in each quarter, two rushing and two receiving.
"Marshall was a great back in Indianapolis, but with the Rams he's a great player," says 49ers linebacker Winfred Tubbs. "He's probably the first guy I've seen who could go to the Hall of Fame based only on what he's done over two years."
1. Good players make those around them better, but only the best players are good enough to control a game without much help.
A play's design is only a loose guideline for Faulk -- see Browns vs. Rams, 1999, 33-yard touchdown run: "We didn't block anybody, not a soul," retired Rams coach Dick Vermeil says. Not a down lineman, not a linebacker, not a defensive back downfield. The way Vermeil tells it, the blocking was so bad, it was like a conspiracy. Faulk broke tackles in the backfield, at the line and downfield. In one of those legendary twists, he broke tackles from the same defender more than once.
Plays that don't exist for everyone else exist for him. He can take a mundane off-tackle play, or a standard swing pass, and make it distinctly his. In the time it takes a frantic heart to beat twice, he's gone. Huge, fast men bearing hypertrophic biceps and impure thoughts are turned into feeble dust mites by the blink-speed of his feet.
"Some guys have tunnel vision, but Marshall sees everything," says Bobby Jackson, the Rams' running backs coach. "I think he sees not only the guys approaching him, but the guys behind him." Tubbs, talking about the way Faulk runs, says, "A couple of times we had the guy in the backfield, and he'd run and stop and the guy would be right on him, and he'd make a move, make him miss, and he's turned a loss into a 10-yard gain. He sees holes nobody else sees. That's a special guy."
2. The "Superiority of the Quarterback" clause in the NFL handbook remains valid, but it fails to recognize the manner in which a player such as Faulk impacts the course of the game, not to mention the opponent's preparation thereof.
The following is a given: The quarterback is the key to a team's success. But we respectfully argue that the obsession with acquiring and nurturing quarterbacks is nothing more than a direct reflection on the current state of NFL quarterbacks. It's supply and demand -- coaches would rather have a good quarterback than a good running back because there are more competent runners than competent quarterbacks. This is a preference based on fear -- fear of how thoroughly an inadequate quarterback can foul up a promising season. (See Shaun King, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2000.)
"If someone says, 'Will you take a good quarterback over a good running back?' most people will say, 'Give me the good quarterback,' " says Tubbs. "But if you say, 'Will you take a good quarterback or will you take Marshall Faulk?' -- now, that changes the equation. Marshall Faulk can take an average quarterback and make him great, because he can make the game easy on him."
There is a way to deal with a defensive lineman such as Warren Sapp: Double-team him and avoid him like you'd avoid a Doberman lunging at a chain-link fence. There is a way to deal with a quarterback such as Peyton Manning: Blitz him and hope for a cold day (see Colts vs. Packers, Nov. 19). Given the current composition of the Rams offense, there is no proven way to neutralize Faulk. Perhaps the most viable comparison is with the Colt who replaced him, Edgerrin James. As Tubbs says: "Every defensive player has his name circled from the moment he goes in to study film on Monday morning. 'Stop this guy, you stop the Rams.' The problem is, you really can't stop him."
3. Faulk can beat you to your face, or behind your back. This is not a comforting thought on D.
Everything the man does is forward. Even when he's moving sideways, he's moving forward. Everything the man does is at full speed. Even when he's changing direction or undressing a linebacker with a stutter step, he's operating at a speed few others can match. To watch Marshall Faulk take a pitch and cut upfield is to see someone be both liquid and steel in the same instant.
It is equal parts acceleration, instinct and decisiveness. Track stars seldom make great football players, but this speedster does. It is why, at 5'10" and 211 pounds, he can give the appearance of someone bigger, stronger and faster than he really is. It is also why Faulk gives football people the chance to make the term "functional speed" sound as edgy and smart as when it was used to describe the young Jerry Rice. "I try to do everything -- just about everything -- as fast as I can," Faulk says. "If I make decisions and make them fast, and I move fast, I can beat most people."
Faulk also tweaks the concept of the game-breaker. He can beat the defense by getting past it (the conventional, Randy Moss way), and he can beat the defense when the defense is in front of him. "He's not just a home run threat behind the defense," Vermeil says. "He can get the ball in front of people and break it anyway. It boils down to this: Marshall can run any way he wants."
Perhaps that's the right cue to bring this argument back to the visceral. There is an element of excitement and unpredictability that propels Faulk beyond the mundane limitations of the game, and of the people who play it and the honors it provides (see Most Valuable Player trophy). Forget the staid analysis for a moment and leave it at this: The man is damned fun to watch.
Jackson, Faulk's position coach, gets the most pleasure watching Faulk turn a sure loss into a small gain. When Faulk comes to the sideline after such runs, Jackson seeks him out. "How the hell did you do that?" he asks. To which Faulk generally responds, "I dont know -- I just did it." To explain it would be to restrict it. Besides, there is a certain inexplicability to greatness: If it could be explained rationally, it wouldn't be quite so special. An air of mystery is still the best air of all.
4. Faulk is the NFL's flavor of the moment, the kind of player who changes the way NFL people think about a certain position.
Once upon a time, one man convinced everyone in the NFL that a sleek, fast, ornery pass-rushing linebacker was the key to the kingdom (see Lawrence Taylor, 1981-93). Dan Marino spawned a mini-generation of raw-boned, big-armed QBs, most of whom failed to evolve the species (see Jim Druckenmiller, XFL). What Faulk has done in two seasons with the Rams is change the criteria for the all-purpose back. It is the greatest compliment -- and testament -- to his impact on the game.
Still, seekers of The Next Marshall should proceed with caution, taking into account the special traits that make Marshall Marshall. Jackson, the coordinator, says he has learned more from Faulk than vice versa. He says Faulk could coach the offense and call the best play every down. He says that Marshall Faulk, with a week of practice, could play a better-than-average game at cornerback.
Faulk is widely respected for his class, too. He wanted to wear No. 34 as a tribute to Walter Payton the Sunday after Payton died last year, but the NFL said it was against the rules. So Faulk pledged $340 to the American Liver Foundation for every touchdown he scored. He also sends his mother each football he carries into the end zone.
When Faulk came to St. Louis, a team that was throwing off secret signs (mainly to friends and family) of becoming something special went straight to the top. A whole bunch of bricks strewn about the yard came together when Faulk provided the mortar. What followed was the most prolific offense in NFL history.
Again, Tubbs: "As good as that passing game is, it's all because of him. There isn't a linebacker in the league who can consistently cover him one-on-one. I have never seen an athlete with the skills that he has. He's built like a running back, and he's one of the best running backs in the league. But if you split him out, he could be one of the best receivers in the league."
Opponents sense serenity in Faulk, a silence in the helmet that contrasts with the outer pounding and confusion. When Faulk looks as if he knows something you don't, it's disconcerting if you're on the other side. "He's the most dangerous guy out there," Tubbs says. "I don't fear anyone, but with him ... it's hard to explain. You have to be on all points at all times against him."
Given the prima facie merits of its argument -- along with the ipso facto nature of the candidate's performance -- petitioner respectfully rests its case. In addendum, and to ease the court's mind, counsel presents into evidence a sworn affidavit from the honorable Mr. Vermeil: "At first, I was slow in forming such a high opinion of Marshall; he benefited from the people we had around him. But he gradually improved his preparation, mechanics and tempo, so that now I can say two things: 1) I truly believe he is the best overall player in the NFL, and 2) he was the key that made the Rams a world champion."
Quid Erat Demonstrandum.
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