ATLANTA – Jim Brown is widely considered the greatest running back in NFL history. In eight of his nine seasons, he led the league in rushing and was a first-team All-Pro. The other year, he was a second-teamer. Brown averaged 104.1 rushing yards per game, and is the only player in history to average more than 100 rushing yards per game for his career. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
Brown knows all about running and running backs. And he is a big Saquon Barkley fan.
“I like his attitude,” the 82-year-old Brown said Saturday evening. “He had to fit in and he’s done that. And he contributes. And he can accelerate. And he’s built in a manner that he’s hard to bring down. He has a freshness about him and an attitude about hm. He understands the game. So he is one of those rare guys that there’s no negative about him.”
Brown and several others spoke on the red carpet as they entered the Fox Theater for NFL Honors. The first award of the evening was the AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, which Barkley won.
Prior to the announcement, teammates, opponents, and running back legends expressed their appreciation for the young back who rushed for 1,307 yards, caught 91 passes, and led the NFL with 2,028 yards from scrimmage.
One admirer who was particularly expressive was Franco Harris, who, like Barkley, starred at Penn State.
“I am so proud of him,” said Harris, who rushed for 12,120 yards and 91 touchdowns in a 13-year career, the first 12 spent with the Pittsburgh Steelers. “I loved watching his game and what he accomplished this year and the type of individual he is. I’m real proud of him. He deserves (the Rookie of the Year Award) so much with the year that he had. I’m hoping this is just the start for him.”
Harris was asked whether he could have duplicated Barkley’s famous hurdle of Chicago Bears safety Adrian Amos on Dec. 2.
“I would love to have all the attributes that he has,” Harris said. “Oh my gosh - his hurdling, his stop and go, his vision. It’s just beautiful to watch. I’m definitely tuned in to him. I’m a big fan and I definitely want to keep watching the great things that he does.”
So does another Hall of Fame running back, LaDainian Tomlinson.
“I’ve had an opportunity to talk to Saquon a couple of times,” Tomlinson said. “I spent a little time with him in training camp. The kid has a great head on his shoulders. At this point, I don’t think he needs much advice, because he’s doing everything the right way. He’s intelligent. He’s a great player, but also he’s doing it the right way off the field.”
Contemporary backs also admire Barkley’s skill, attitude and production.
“There’s nothing Saquon can’t do – speed, explosiveness - he’s super talented,” said Pittsburgh’s James Conner. “There’s nothing he can’t do. He’s a beast. He’s won plenty of awards, he’s going to win plenty of awards in the future. Just keep working. Which he’ll do, and he’ll be just fine.”
“He epitomizes the versatility of the position,” said the Miami Dolphins’ Kenyan Drake. “He had a great year, running the ball and receiving the ball, blocking out of the backfield and being a leader. I feel he’s going to be great in this league for a long time. Every time he is in a hole it seems like he has perfect control of his body. And then he has the explosiveness to break tackles and get about his business.”
Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long faced Barkley twice, and saw him run for 231 yards, including 50 and 51-yard touchdowns, and catch 16 passes, one for a score.
“He’s the type of back that you need a lot of people to get him down,” Long said. “You preach gang-tackling when you go against him. He made a lot of us miss with the Eagles, and he’ll be doing that for a long time.”
“I think he is a generational talent and player. From what I see he’s a great teammate. He’s the kind of guy that’s going to be a leader, and he’s the kind of guy that’s going to carry that franchise for a decade. You can see it already. I think he has a legitimate opportunity to be a face of the league, an ambassador for a long time.
Giants safety Michael Thomas, who attended Honors as the team’s nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, saw Barkley’s sensational debut season up close.
“He was special,” Thomas said. “From the first day we got him in to OTA’s, he was special. To see what he did as a rookie was unbelievable. And he doesn’t even know what he’s doing right now. It just shows how special he is, and I’m excited for him and his future. It was exciting to watch. Obviously, we wanted to win more. But he’s a cornerstone to build with.
“I don’t want to put a limit on his future, and I don’t want to disrespect those who had great careers, and compare him to somebody. I don’t want to put gold (Hall of Fame) jackets and GOAT tags on him right now. But at the same time, he’s a generational talent. He’s special, and I’m excited to watch his career.”
So do a lot of other people.