Philadelphia Eagles: Looking at Hall of Fame case for Darren Sproles

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

With the latest injury surrounding Darren Sproles making it seem like his NFL career is coming to an end, it’s fair to ask if he did enough to deserve a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

With news breaking on Friday that Philadelphia Eagles running back Darren Sproles will miss the remainder of the season with a torn hip flexor muscle, it’s fair to say that the man they call “Mighty Mouse” has finally come to the end of the road in his NFL career.

First off, you have to admire the tenacity of a man who has sustained injury after injury, yet keeps coming back, especially at the advanced football age of 36-years-old. But even Sproles himself seems to be admitting that this is the final blow.

Still, what a ride it was, as Sproles finishes his career in fifth place all-time in all-purpose yards (APY) in NFL history. That sounds impressive on the face of it, but deeper digging needs to be done to determine if such a feat is worthy of enshrinement at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton someday.

Sproles longevity as a returner, recent injuries aside, was certainly the biggest factor in piling up the stats. Sheer volume plus consistency will get you near the top of a lot of lists.

Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles /

Philadelphia Eagles

During the first five seasons of his NFL career with the San Diego Chargers, Sproles saw a lot of time as a kick returner, allowing him to rack up some big yardage in just three or four plays per game.

After that point, he shifted almost exclusively to punt returns. He excelled, twice leading the league in punt return yardage, but his contemporary Devin Hester was even better and more dangerous during the same period of time.

And Hester, while sensational in this area, isn’t someone I ever hear being talked about as Hall-worthy.

To be fair to Sproles, he also contributed as a rusher and receiver, and so that also has to be factored in. He wasn’t merely a one-trick pony.

Sproles crested during the 2011 season with the New Orleans Saints, posting career highs in rushing yards (603) and receiving yards (710). That’s a fantastic all-around season, and it was the only time in his career that he led the league in all-purpose yards.

But, for whatever reason, Sproles never again received as much time on offense as he did that year. He slowly transitioned to more of a “specialist” role after that point. Maybe a few more standout seasons like that could have made more of a Hall of Fame case for Sproles, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Instead, while the more limited usage definitely prolonged his career, I feel as though it hurts his candidacy by putting him more in the “accumulator” category rather than a truly special talent who was among the league’s best players, even if only for a 3-4 year period.

Ultimately, I believe the two best comparisons for Sproles’ Hall of Fame resume are Brian Mitchell and Herschel Walker.

First, Mitchell.

With the second most APY in NFL history, behind only Jerry Rice, Mitchell was a premier returner for his entire career, logging heavy kick return and punt return duty from 1990-2003. He stayed healthy and consistent for his entire career.

His actual usage on offense was much less than that of Sproles, as Mitchell produced only about half as many rushing and receiving yards in his career than Sproles did. But we’re not talking about truly special numbers here, so it really ends up being a wash between the two players when you take Mitchell’s superior return numbers into account.

But as highly regarded as Mitchell was, he has not been recognized as a Hall of Famer. That’s not to say he won’t some day, but right now he’s not, and so it’s hard to justify a player like Sproles being Hall-worthy when Mitchell isn’t in yet.

As for Walker, the guy was so good during his first few seasons that the Minnesota Vikings threw their whole future away to acquire him from the Dallas Cowboys, which played a big part in turning Dallas into a dynasty in the 1990’s.

But you could at least see where Minnesota was coming from, as Walker had led the NFL in yards from scrimmage in his second season in the league, then followed that up by rushing for more than 1,500 yards for the Cowboys the next season.

A humongous talent who burned bright but ultimately only produced a 10-year NFL career, Walker found the end zone 84 times, which should count for something, as it’s far more than either Sproles or Mitchell did in their careers.

And despite never fielding a punt in his NFL career, Walker did rack up over 5,000 kick return yards. This, coupled with his top-50 ranking in career yards from scrimmage, lands him just outside the top 10 in career APY despite a significantly shorter career than most of the players above him on the list.

And yet, Walker is not a Hall of Famer either. Once again, not a good omen for Sproles.

There is a flaw in playing the game of “Player A vs. Player B” in the NFL, but it’s currently the best we can do in considering Sproles’ likelihood of someday reaching Canton. Things may change at some point, but based on current standards, Sproles isn’t heading towards enshrinement.

Still, none of that should diminish what has been a fantastic career by a true warrior of a player.

If this is truly the last that we’ve seen of Sproles on the gridiron, it’s worth reflecting on all that he did for his teams and his true dedication to the game of football.