BASN NFL Matchup: Gale Sayers or Terrell Davis?

By Eric Williams
Updated: February 21, 2007

NFLPHILADELPHIA — Every serious football fan knows what Gale Sayers and Terrell Davis have in common. Both players were extraordinary runners whose careers were cut short because of serious knee injuries.

Sayers’ gridiron genius earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame while Davis’ special abilities helped the Denver Broncos win consecutive Super Bowl titles in 1997 and 1998 and have many mentioning him as a future Hall of Fame inductee as well.

My question then, is, simply put, which player was better? I will admit that answering that question was a lot tougher than I originally anticipated. Let’s take a look at the careers of both players before I make my selection.

Gale Sayers

Sayers burst upon the NFL scene in 1965 with the kind of impact that professional football had not felt in many years. His rookie season was absolutely dynamic.

In his first heavy preseason game, he raced 77 yards on a punt return, 93 yards on a kickoff return, and then startled everyone with a 25-yard scoring pass against the Los Angeles Rams.

In the regular season opener, Sayers scored four touchdowns, including a 96-yard game breaking kickoff return, against the Minnesota Vikings.

In the next-to-last game of the season, playing on a muddy field that would have stalled most runners, he scored a record-tying six touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers.

Included in his sensational spree were an 80-yard pass-run play, a 50-yard rush and a 65-yard punt return. For the entire season, Sayers scored 22 touchdowns and 132 points, both then-rookie records.

Quiet, unassuming, and always ready to compliment a teammate for a key block, Sayers continued to sizzle in 1967 and well into the 1968 season.

Then, in the ninth game that year, Sayers suffered a knee injury that required immediate surgery. After a tortuous rehabilitation program, Sayers came back in 1969 in a most spectacular manner, winding up with his second 1,000-yard rushing season and universal Comeback Player of the Year honors.

However, injuries continued to take their toll and just before the 1972 season, Sayers decided to retire.

In his relatively short career, Sayers left an impression on the game that can never be forgotten. His career totals show 9,435 combined net yards, 4,956 yards rushing, and 336 points scored.

At the time of his retirement he was the NFL’s all-time leader in kickoff returns and won All-NFL honors five consecutive years and was named Offensive Player of the Game in three of the four Pro Bowls in which he played.

Terrell Davis

Terrell Lamar Davis was drafted by the Broncos in the sixth round (196th pick overall) of the 1995 NFL Draft after graduating from the University of Georgia, where he played backup to Garrison Hearst.

In Davis’ rookie season, he rushed for 1,117 yards, becoming the lowest drafted player in league history to rush for over 1,000 yards in his rookie year.

Davis eventually would go on to become the key cog in the Broncos first Super Bowl victory over the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII.

In the Super Bowl, Davis rushed for 157 yards, caught 2 passes for 8 yards, and became the first player in Super Bowl history ever to score 3 rushing touchdowns.

This performance earned him MVP honors and he also was named the league MVP for the 1998 season. During this Super Bowl run, it was discovered that Davis also suffers from often severe migraine headaches, one of which plagued him during this Super Bowl XXXII.

In 1998, Davis rushed for 2,008 yards, then the third highest rushing total in NFL history. This performance earned him his third straight AFC rushing title, his first NFL rushing title, and his second time being named NFL Offensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.

In 1999, the Broncos beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, with Davis recording 102 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards.

Super Bowl XXXIII ended up being the last postseason game Davis would play in. In his 8 postseason games from 1996 to 1998, his numbers were staggering: 204 carries for 1,140 yards and 19 touchdowns, along with 19 receptions for 131 yards.

This included a streak of seven consecutive games with over 100 rushing yards, all of which the Broncos won, breaking the previous record for consecutive 100 rushing yard postseason games held by John Riggins (6).

Even in the sole playoff game in which Davis didn’t gain 100 rushing yards, he still had an impressive performance, rushing for 91 yards and a touchdown and catching 7 passes for 24 yards.

Terrell Davis was nominated to the Pro Bowl in the 1996, ’97, and ’98 seasons. Nicknamed “TD,” Davis popularized the “Mile High Salute,” a military-style salute given to fans and teammates in celebration of a touchdown.

After the 1998 season, Davis was plagued with injuries and saw action infrequently. In 1999, Davis tore his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments while trying to make a tackle on an interception thrown against the New York Jets.

In 2000 and 2001, he had numerous foot and leg injuries and retired during the 2002 preseason. Through his first four seasons, Davis rushed for 6,413 yards and 56 touchdowns.

Among the 24 modern-era Hall of Fame halfbacks and fullbacks, only Earl Campbell (6,457) and Eric Dickerson (6,968) had more rushing yards during their first four seasons; no member of the Hall of Fame matched Davis’ first-four-season 56 rushing touchdowns.

Overall, Davis finished his 7 NFL seasons with 7,607 rushing yards, 169 receptions for 1,280 yards, and 65 touchdowns (60 rushing and 5 receiving). Davis is the Broncos’ all-time leading rusher and is also one of two Broncos (the other being John Elway) to be named league MVP.

Davis was on the ballot for the 2007 Pro Football Hall of Fame selection along with former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and running back Ricky Watters.

My Pick

I never saw Sayers play live, but I am convinced that he was literally, in a class of his own. Don’t get me wrong, by no means whatsoever was Davis chopped liver. I enjoyed watching Davis play immensely and believe he, like Sayers, is a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

However, Sayers, next to Barry Sanders, was arguably the most elusive running back of all-time and a player that could beat you in more ways than anyone not named Walter Payton.

Not only was Sayers a threat to score every time he touched the ball from his running back position, but he was also one of the greatest retun men in NFL history and could throw the ball better than some of today’s confused signal callers.

In closing, I’m going to give Sayers the nod over Davis in a close, close call.