Rating The Runners : Three Stand Out: Payton, Allen and Dickerson

Times Staff Writer

Pure shooter is a term basketball coaches sometimes use to describe the kind of athlete who can get the ball in the basket, although he may be somewhat deficient in other respects.

He may not be tall enough, he may not pass or rebound alertly, he may not even be a good clutch shooter. But--as you sometimes hear--he’s the best pure shooter in the state.

His counterpart in football is the pure runner.

This is a running back who may or may not catch or block well, or contribute otherwise as a team player. But he can run the ball.


Who are the best pure runners in football today?

In the judgment of eight leading National Football League coaches, they are Eric Dickerson of the Rams and Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears.

On a scale of 1 to 5, Dickerson and Payton each graded out at 4.7 when they and the NFL’s 15 other top backs were evaluated at the request of The Times recently by this panel of coaches:

Dan Reeves of the Denver Broncos, Tom Flores of the Raiders, John Robinson of the Rams, Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins, Chuck Noll of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers, Chuck Knox of the Seattle Seahawks, and Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins.

As veteran judges of football talent, they admire Dickerson for

his great speed and Payton despite his ordinary speed.

In a considerably different classification, who are the NFL’s best all-around running backs?

Payton and Marcus Allen of the Raiders.

Both graded 4.5 when judged on four traditional skills, running, blocking, receiving and passing.

Of the ballcarriers examined, Payton and Allen also ranked 1-2 in character traits, among them mental toughness, determination and team play.


Put it all together and Payton, Dickerson and Allen emerge as the best running backs in today’s football.

“It’s hard to dispute that, especially when you consider what they mean to their respective teams,” Flores said.

Who’s No. 4?

The choice, rather surprisingly, was James Wilder of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Outvoted only by Payton and Allen in the all-around and character categories, Wilder also finished third as a power runner behind John Riggins of Washington, and Payton.

Robinson, asked about Wilder, said: “In our conference (the NFC), he’s second to just one man--Dickerson--as an all-purpose (running and receiving) producer.”

As a pure runner, Wilder was seventh on the coaches’ list, behind Dickerson, Payton, Tony Dorsett of Dallas, Billy Sims of Detroit, Curt Warner of Seattle, and Wendell Tyler of San Francisco.

Allen was ninth as a pure runner--mainly because he is presumed to lack speed.

Most of the coaches on The Times panel have themselves been graded high for several years. Walsh and Flores each have led two recent Super Bowl champions. Noll coached four Super Bowl winners. Knox has taken teams from three cities to the playoffs.


Gibbs wins consistently with less than championship personnel. Shula is considered by many to be among the NFL’s all-time best coaches. Of the new ones, Reeves is among the fastest rising. Robinson, a student of runners, has had a hand in developing two of the NFL’s top three, Dickerson and Allen.

In their panelist roles, the eight coaches evaluated the NFL’s most effective 17 running backs on grade sheets listing 20 qualities from speed, quickness and elusiveness to durability and determination.

The grades went into a computer, which sorted them out and gave back the averages.

There are, of course, other ways to measure ballcarriers. Merely watching him run on a Sunday afternoon at Anaheim, some people consider Dickerson as quite possibly the best yet.

“Dickerson is the greatest since O.J. (Simpson),” Walsh said. “Though Payton is a Hall of Fame player--he has all the intangibles--Dickerson is the best (pure) runner in the game.”

Most coaches, however, including Walsh, also appreciate other backfield qualities. They are drawn to other kinds of running backs: They are partial to backs who, like Wilder, show up every day, well or ill, and risk their bodies blocking or, perhaps, leaping for off-target passes.

Above all, coaches are drawn to Payton. Most of them, college or pro, would take Payton if granted a request for one back for one game.


During much of his long career, Payton, who overtook Jim Brown last year as the NFL’s leading career ground-gainer, has played for inferior teams in Chicago. And coming from Jackson State, he wasn’t always properly appreciated publicly in the 1970s. Since he is 5 feet 10 inches and 202 pounds, he was often called too small, and not fast enough--the Fran Tarkenton of running backs.

But from the start, Payton has been a coaches’ ballplayer. He is always ready to play, and instead of ducking out of bounds, he runs into people on the sideline--as ill advised as that may be. Those are things coaches love.

Dickerson matches Payton in durability on the chart, having proved it for two years. But Payton has proved it for 10. Dickerson also rates well in the five character traits, averaging 4.6. But Payton is off the charts with a character grade of 5.1.

“He (Payton) has done it for a full decade,” Robinson said. “Eric is just getting started. It’s a compliment to Eric to just be mentioned in the same breath with Walter Payton.”

All the same, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Payton would show up at the top of a 1985 poll of running backs.

In any all-around category, Allen, 24 last season, figured as a strong candidate. He is the only NFL halfback routinely used by his team as a short-yardage blocker. He catches like a wide receiver and he throws more accurately than some quarterbacks.


As a pure runner, Dickerson, also 24, is so gifted that, last year, he carried a team that didn’t throw successfully or defend that well.

Yet in the view of the experts, Payton at 30 can play like Allen and run with Dickerson.

Hurdlers can be measured mathematically and scientifically. Running backs can’t. There’s no way to prove that any one of them is the champion of America. Nonetheless, there are six broad areas in which backs can be meaningfully compared:


In this category, the coaches gave Dickerson 5.25, the highest average grade of any back for any quality.

Although the evaluation scale was 1 to 5, a top grade of 5.5 was permitted, and as a sprinter, Dickerson had four 5s and four 5.5s.

The only other back higher than 5 on speed, Dorsett, averaged 5.1.

From Dorsett it’s a long leap to the next fastest, Sims and Tyler, who each graded 4.5.

The athletes’ clocked times for the 100 and 40-yard dashes weren’t considered.

Instead, the coaches were asked for their perceptions of each man’s speed in the context of a football game.

Those judged as the fastest after the top four, all with average grades of 4 or better, were Warner, Payton and George Rogers, traded since last season by the New Orleans Saints to the Redskins.


On the middle level, grading 3.9 to 3.6, were Wilder of Tampa Bay, William Andrews and Gerald Riggs, both of Atlanta, Greg Bell of Buffalo, Earnest Jackson of San Diego, Sammy Winder of Denver, Ottis Anderson of St. Louis and Freeman McNeil of the New York Jets.

Deemed slowest were Allen, with an average grade of 3.4, and Riggins at 3.


On the 1-5 scale, Payton graded a league-leading 5 in this category, which includes five athletic qualities--quickness, acceleration, balance, elusiveness and cutting ability--plus vision.

In a four-way tie for second, Dorsett, Tyler, Sims and Warner were followed by Allen and Dickerson in a two-way tie for sixth.


The coaches graded the players on three qualities in this department: one-on-one power, moves-the-pile power and strength.

The obvious winner, Riggins, with a mark of 5, was followed by Payton, Wilder, Andrews and Dickerson.

Riggins earned mostly 5s--along with some 5.5s--in the three power columns.

Payton and Wilder moved ahead of the other players on strength, and Dickerson and Andrews each gained in one-on-one power.


Allen averaged a low 3.7 as a power runner.


In measuring the backs as pure runners, the following formula was used:

--The three power qualities were collectively weighted at 1.

--The six moves qualities were also collectively weighted at 1.

--Speed was valued at 1.

It was this formula, giving speed an edge, that enabled Dickerson to tie Payton for first.

Still, conceivably, speed could be weighted even more. As a football quality it is so important that, perhaps, it should be valued at 1 1/2 to 1 for power and 1 for moves.

Using a 1 1/2-1-1 formula, Dickerson would be the champion of the pure runners. And Dorsett would jump over Payton to second.

On balance, however, such a method seems to overvalue speed. In the 1-1-1 formula, cutting ability is already only 1/6 of 1--by comparison with speed’s 1.

And it is cutting ability that makes Sims, for example, a better back than the faster Herschel Walker.

Most coaches seem to think that speed and moves are about equally important in an NFL running back.


In this category, a back’s pure-runner grade was weighted at 1. Also assigned weights of 1 were his grades for each of three other football skills: blocking, receiving and passing.


The computer put Allen and Payton on top with average grades of 4.5--well ahead of the No. 3 man, Wilder at 3.9.

In the estimation of the coaches, Dickerson figures seventh as an all-around back and Dorsett 10th. Neither has been a strong receiver.


When they talk about an athlete’s character, football coaches mainly mean five things: self-confidence, mental toughness, determination, the way a player performs in clutch situations, and his influence on his team.

They are not so much interested in whether Riggins goes to sleep at a fancy Washington dinner as they are in his football character. And in their view, Riggins has lots of that, grading behind only Payton and Allen in this category when all five relevant traits are averaged in.

Earlier in his career, Riggins was clearly multitalented but of suspect character. For one thing, he contributed as an elusive receiver for Joe Namath without ever supplying the positive influence that Namath exerted on the Jets.

In his later years, however, Riggins has become a producer on the field well beyond his talent, doing it these days with mental toughness and determination, particularly on clutch plays. He also has a readiness to play hurt.


Like an old pitcher who has lost his fastball, Riggins has shown the character to keep winning another way.

There are several other specific ways in which backs can be meaningfully compared:

Vision--On the coaches’ grade sheets, vision was grouped with five athletic qualities under the general heading of moves. It is vision that, for example, leads to properly timed acceleration and cuts. When vision is separated from the other qualities, Allen and Payton grade 5.1, followed by Dickerson at 4.9.

Said Robinson of Dickerson: “It takes a fast back longer to develop great vision because it’s so easy for him to just use his speed. To Marcus (Allen), vision is everything.”

Confidence--The coaches think that the NFL’s six most confident running backs are Allen, 5.1; Riggins, 5.1; Payton, 5; Dorsett, 4.8, and Dickerson and Wilder, 4.7.

Said Flores: “It’s a human tendency to be shattered by one’s mistakes. The thing that makes Marcus and Walter Payton what they are is that when everything seems to be going wrong, they have the self-confidence to go on as if they’d been doing everything right.”

Durability--This helps Riggins, 5, and Payton, Dickerson and Wilder, all 4.9. A presumed lack of durability hurts Andrews, 3.9; Sims, 3.3, and Warner, 3.


Robinson said: “Nothing else matters if you can’t play.”

Fumble grades--Riggins doesn’t fumble and gets a 5, but McNeil does and gets a 3.9. So do Allen, 3.4; Dorsett, 3; Dickerson, 3, and Tyler, 1.8.

“Players don’t fumble. Style makes fumbling,” Flores said. “Breakaway runners who twist around open themselves up to all kinds of hits and more fumbles than a fullback, who is always protecting the ball.”

Three qualities--When blocking, receiving and passing are grouped separately, the leaders are Allen, 4.5; Payton, 4.4, and Wilder, 3.7.


The scale is 1 to 5. The numbers are grades the players averaged in each category after they had been individually graded by eight NFL coaches: Dan Reeves (Denver), Tom Flores (Raiders), John Robinson (Rams), Don Shula (Miami), Chuck Noll Pittsburgh), Bill Walsh (San Francisco), Chuck Knox (Seattle) and Joe Gibbs (Washington).

The players (in their order of finish as pure runners): Eric Dickerson (Rams), Walter Payton (Chicago), Tony Dorsett (Dallas), Billy Sims (Detroit), Curt Warner (Seattle), Wendell Tyler (San Francisco), James Wilder (Tampa Bay), William Andrews (Atlanta), Marcus Allen (Raiders), Freeman McNeil (N.Y. Jets), George Rogers (New Orleans), John Riggins (Washington), Ottis Anderson (St.Louis), Gerald Riggs (Atlanta), Greg Bell (Buffalo), Earnest Jackson (San Diego), Sammy Winder (Denver).

SPEED (a) Dickerson 5.25 Dorsett 5.1 Sims 4.5 Tyler 4.5 Warner 4.4 Payton 4.3 Rogers 4 Wilder 3.9 Andrews 3.8 Riggs 3.8 Bell 3.7 Jackson 3.7 Winder 3.7 Anderson 3.6 McNeil 3.6 Allen 3.4 Riggins 3 MOVES(b) Payton 5 Dorsett 4.8 Sims 4.8 Tyler 4.8 Warner 4.8 Allen 4.7 Dickerson 4.7 Wilder 4.4 McNeil 4.2 Andrews 4.1 Anderson 3.8 Rogers 3.8 Winder 3.8 Bell 3.7 Jackson 3.6 Riggins 3.6 Riggs 3.6 POWER (c) Riggins 5 Payton 4.8 Wilder 4.6 Andrews 4.5 Dickerson 4.3 McNeil 4.1 Riggs 4.1 Rogers 4.1 Sims 4 Anderson 3.9 Warner 3.9 Allen 3.7 Dorsett 3.6 Jackson 3.6 Bell 3.5 Tyler 3.5 Winder 3.4 PURE RUNNER(d) Dickerson 4.7 Payton 4.7 Dorsett 4.5 Sims 4.4 Warner 4.4 Tyler 4.3 Wilder 4.3 Andrews 4.1 Allen 4 McNeil 4 Rogers 4 Riggins 3.9 Anderson 3.8 Riggs 3.8 Bell 3.6 Jackson 3.6 Winder 3.6 ALL AROUND(e) Allen 4.5 Payton 4.5 Wilder 3.9 Tyler 3.7 Andrews 3.6 McNeil 3.6 Dickerson 3.5 Sims 3.5 Warner 3.5 Dorsett 3.4 Riggs 3.4 Winder 3.4 Anderson 3.3 Bell 3.3 Riggins 3.3 Jackson 3.2 Rogers 3.2 CHARACTER(f) Payton 5.1 Allen 4.9 Riggins 4.8 Wilder 4.8 Andrews 4.7 Warner 4.7 Dickerson 4.6 Dorsett 4.6 Winder 4.3 McNeil 4.2 Sims 4 Riggs 3.9 Anderson 3.8 Tyler 3.8 Bell 3.7 Rogers 3.7 Jackson 3.6


(a-Speed) As graded by the coaches. (This isn’t their stopwatch time.) (b-Moves) Composite average grade for quickness, acceleration, balance, elusiveness, cutting ability and vision (after the players had been individually graded by each coach on each of these six qualities). (c-Power) Composite average grade for three qualities: one-on-one power, moves-the-pile power,and strength. (d-Pure Runner) The weights are 1 for speed, 1 for moves, 1 for power. (e-All-Around) The weights are 1 for blocking, 1 for receiving, 1 for passing,1 for pure-runner grade. (f-Character) Composite average grade for confidence, mental toughness, determination, clutch play ability and positive influence on team (after the players had been individually graded by each coach on each of these five qualities). RUNNING BACKS: SOME COMPARATIVE QUALITIES

As graded by six NFL coaches: Reeves, Flores, Robinson, Shula, Noll, Knox, Walsh and Gibbs.

VISION Allen 5.1 Payton 5.1 Dickerson 4.9 Dorsett 4.8 Warner 4.8 Sims 4.8 Wilder 4.6 Tyler 4.5 Riggins 4.5 Andrews 4.5 McNeil 4.3 Anderson 4 Winder 4 Riggs 3.8 Jackson 3.7 Bell 3.7 Rogers 3.5 CONFIDENCE Allen 5.1 Riggins 5.1 Payton 5 Dorsett 4.8 Dickerson 4.7 Wilder 4.7 McNeil 4.6 Warner 4.6 Andrews 4.5 Sims 4.4 Winder 4.3 Riggs 4 Rogers 4 Tyler 3.9 Anderson 3.8 Jackson 3.7 Bell 3.5 DURABILITY Riggins 5 Payton 4.9 Dickerson 4.9 Wilder 4.9 Dorsett 4.6 Allen 4.1 Winder 4 Andrews 3.9 Riggs 3.9 Jackson 3.8 Rogers 3.7 Tyler 3.7 Anderson 3.4 McNeil 3.4 Bell 3.3 Sims 3.3 Warner 3 NOT A FUMBLER Riggins 5 Wilder 4.2 Winder 4.1 Payton 4 Andrews 4 McNeil 3.9 Warner 3.6 Sims 3.6 Jackson 3.5 Rogers 3.5 Bell 3.5 Allen 3.4 Riggs 3.3 Anderson 3.3 Dorsett 3 Dickerson 3 Tyler 1.8 3 QUALITIES(x) Allen 4.5 Payton 4.5 Wilder 3.7 Tyler 3.6 Andrews 3.5 McNeil 3.5 Warner 3.3 Winder 3.3 Anderson 3.2 Bell 3.2 Riggs 3.2 Dickerson 3.1 Dorsett 3.1 Jackson 3.1 Riggins 3.1 Sims 3.1 Rogers 3 20 QUALITIES(y) Payton 4.9 Allen 4.5 Wilder 4.4 Dickerson 4.3 Dorsett 4.2 Riggins 4.2 Andrews 4.2 Warner 4.2 Sims 4.1 McNeil 4 Tyler 3.9 Winder 3.8 Bell 3.7 Rogers 3.7 Anderson 3.6 Riggs 3.6 Jackson 3.5

(x-3 Qualities) The weights are 1 for blocking, 1 for receiving, 1 for passing. (y-20 Qualities) The weights are 1 for each: speed, quickness, acceleration, balance, elusiveness, cutting ability, vision, one-on-one power, moves-the-pile power, strength, blocking, receiving, passing, durability, fumbling confidence, mental toughness, determination, clutch play and influence on team.