Gale Sayers: Greatest Bear Ever?

Hat Tip to Just Dave for this post idea as the winner of last week's Tuesday Bears Trivia!  

It's been over 40 years since Gale Sayers has carried the rock.  Injuries to both of his knees led to an untimely retirement after just 5 productive seasons and 7 seasons total.  But, oh, what a player he was before the injuries.  Follow me to the clearing at the end of the jump to find out why Gale Sayers should be in the conversation for Greatest Bear Ever.

I joked in my response to Dave when he requested this topic that he was asking me to prove the un-provable.  And while I don't draw the same final conclusion that Dave does about who the greatest Bear ever was (my vote goes to Papa Bear) the argument can easily be made that Sayers was, in fact, the greatest.  He was a once in a generation player, and that is putting it mildly.  And had he not suffered two catastrophic knee injuries (one of which he managed to somehow come back from) we might now consider him inarguable the best Bear, and maybe NFL player, ever.

Sayers was drafted in 1965 in what would become the best first round drafting of any team ever....period.  The Bears got two of the greatest players to ever grace the field in consecutive picks:  Dick Butkus with the 3rd pick and Gale Sayers with the 4th (the also picked up defensive tackle Steve DeLong with the 6th pick, who contributed in 103 games over 8 seasons with the Bears.) .  That may not to the '74 Steelers and their 4 HOFer's in 4 picks over the whole draft, but it certainly is the best, IMO, that has ever been done in the first round.  Interesting note here:  The Bears drafted five running backs in 1965.  Sayers wasn't the only one who turned out pretty good, either.  They drafted Jim Nance in the 4th round.  Nance signed with the AFL's Boston Patriots and went on to be the 1966 AFL MVP, a two time all-star, '69 comeback player of the year and is a member of the Patriots Hall of Fame.  He led the AFL twice in rushing yardage, and was the only AFL player to ever rush for more than 1400 yards.

With names like Payton, Butkus, Nagurski, Grange and Halas all available, how can the argument be made that Sayers is the greatest Bear ever?  Let's look at some of what he did....

(note: For the purpose of this argument, I'm not going to include his 1970-1971 seasons.  I just don't find it fair to rate him as a player and consider those seasons.  He was trying to return a second miraculous time from a career ending knee injury and touched the ball all of 37 times in those two years.  Those seasons could be used to determine how much those injuries destroyed a great player, but should not be used to determine the greatness of said player.  Mortal men wouldn't have even tried......)

-He rushed for 4876 yards on 955 attempts in just 64 games before his second knee injury.  That's 5.1 yards per carry, folks.  By comparison, Sweetness averaged "just" 4.4 yards per carry and only crossed the 5 Y/C threshold once in his 13 year career.

-While you hear a lot about his other seasons, in '68 he put up an astounding 856 yards on just 138 carries before his first debilitating knee injury sidelined him  for the last 5 games.  Sayers was leading the league when he suffered numerous torn ligaments in his right knee.  He was never the same after this injury.

-In '69, after rehabilitating the knee injury that robbed him of his speed and burst, he still put up 4.4 yards per carry and led the league in rushing....all while playing for the single worst team in Bears history, finishing 1-13.

-In all 5 of Sayers seasons before the second knee injury, Sayers was selected both to the Pro-Bowl and as an All-Pro.

-He set the record for all purpose yards in 1966 that has since been eclipsed 9 times, but only once by a player in a 14 games season, and then only by 4 yards.  His 174.3 all purpose yards per game for that season is still second all-time.

-Sayers scored 56 total TDs in just 64 games.  If Payton had held that same ratio, he would have scored 42 more TDs than he did.  If Jerry Rice, who is the leagues all-time TD leader, had held that standard, he would have scored 57 more TDs than the 208 he scored.

-And Sayers was also a great return man. He leads the league all-time in yards per KR with 30.6, making him the only player in history to average over 30 yards per KR.  By contrast, Devin Hester averages 24.1, Josh Criobbs averages 25.8 and Danieal Manning averages 26.8 yards per KR.  Additionally, his 14.5 yard punt return average would be the best in history, if he had met the minimum attempts requirement.  He only returned 27 punts.  He also scored 8 TDs returning.

-For all of the noting of his rushing ability, Sayers was as good as anyone ever was receiving from the backfield.  His rookie season, he posted a phenomenal 17.5 YPC from the halfback position.  No, that's not a typo.  That really say 17.5 YPC.  And this wasn't done with 5 catches.  It was from a stat-line reading 29 catches for 507 yards and 6 receiving TDs.

This is a pretty impressive list of feats.  Of course, he did plenty more, but I felt that some of the less considered statistics should be shown, as Bears fans all know the obvious about Sayers abilities.  He's a legend, after all.

A lot of people knock Sayers due to his ego and his seeming bitterness towards the Bears organization.  I disagree.  Sayers has a right to a big ego.  When he says he was a better return man than Hester, he has a case.  When he says the Bears aren't very good, he has a case there, too.  A man's opinion can either be honest or political.  Not both.  I'd prefer Sayers to be honest about his thoughts.  I also believe that many of his comments have been way overblown. 

He was perceived to have been slighting Hester when he said he was the better returner.  But he never insulted Devin.  In fact, he sang Hester's praises, saying that "I would not kick to him. I would find some kind of way to kick down the sideline because if he gets his hands on the ball he is so quick and so fast."  But it was turned into some slight at Hester.  Take this headline, for example.......THe title implies that Sayers says Hester is great but not that great.  The article goes on to admit that Sayers thinks very highly of Hester, but think's he was better.  There is an argument that Sayers WAS better.  How is that a slight on Hester?  In fact, Sayers has since talked about how Hester belongs in the HOF.

Prior to this "slight", He was ripped apart by Bears fans for saying the Bears "are not doing a good job".  Why?  The Bears weren't doing a good job.  Everything he said was not only true, but was being said by Bears fans everywhere.  Why must Sayers lie to please hypocrites?  Somebody please explain this to me.  And can someone please explain to me how this makes him less of a loyal Bear?

Can the argument be made that The Kansas Comet was the Greatest Bear of all time?  You damn betcha!  Sayers was Barry Sanders before Sanders was.  He was Marshall Faulk before Faulk was.  And he was Devin Hester before Hester was.  He could run, catch and return with the best.  

Sound off, Bears fans!  Do you think Sayers should be in this conversation?

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