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Pointless Comparison

Entering Walter Reyes’ senior season in 2004, there was a deluge of rumor and commentary concerning the Struthers Strider and whether he would be donning the vaunted 44 jersey. Having the luxury of hindsight, had Reyes chosen to wear 44, his 2004 production would have fallen significantly below the expectations associated with the legacy of the number.

While there is little doubt that Reyes was not worthy of wearing 44 during 2004, the question still remains whether Reyes was worthy of donning the jersey entering the season. The question may not be timely, but it’s still one worth examining.

Well, maybe.

The real impetus for this examination is that I’m terrifically bored and this just happened to pop into my head.

Since the question presented is whether Walter Reyes was worthy of donning 44 going into his senior campaign, the best way to complete this examination is to select a triumvirate of Syracuse’s greatest 44’s and then compare Reyes’ 2003 season to each of these rushers’ “greatest” seasons. By comparing Reyes’ numbers to the signature seasons of each of these historic backs, it can be determined whether Reyes had sufficiently established himself amongst the pantheon of Syracuse excellence.

Selection of which rushers to use for this comparison was a fairly simple task. Choosing the particular seasons of each of these backs was much more difficult. Ultimately, I settled on using the following as high watermarks for 44 greatness: Jim Brown’s 1956 season, Ernie Davis’ 1961 season, and Floyd Little’s 1965 season. Of course, each of these rushers had multiple seasons of terrific production to choose from, but these three seasons seem to be, at least from my perception, the signature seasons for each rusher.

In crafting this examination, both rushing statistics and receiving statistics will be considered. As a running back contributes more than rushing yards to a team’s offensive production, it is necessary to consider both statistical categories.

Jim Brown - 1956 Season
Total Touches1589866.2413.49438.4%

Ernie Davis - 1961 Season
Total Touches1669805.9014.50633.2%

Floyd Little - 1965 Season
Total Touches21413136.13615.42137.97%

Walter Reyes - 2003 Season
Total Touches29117225.9221.43339.3%

What makes this examination unique is that the 44 jersey is usually issued to an incoming freshman. As such, the opportunity to judge whether a player is worthy of donning the jersey is very infrequent. Of course, all of the talk about 44-worthy backs becomes moot come mid-November when Syracuse officially retires the jersey during the South Florida game.

Wearing the 44 jersey indicates that a rusher is a significant value to the Syracuse football team and, generally, one of the most dominant backs in the game when examined through the vacuum of the college football universe.

Under this set of parameters, Reyes seems to fall just above the delineating mark between great running backs and 44-worthy running backs. It is close, but with the given data, it appears as if Reyes is at least close enough to the great Syracuse backs to have been a worthy candidate to don the jersey.

Even though Reyes appears to be 44-worthy, it’s not because his 2003 season is in the same league as Jim Brown’s 1956 season or the season Ernie Davis put together in 1961. The two latter rushers are in a league of their own, not only in the history of Syracuse football, but nationally as well. It’s simply amazing that Davis and Brown were able to generate around six yards and half a point every time they touched the football.

While all this may seem fairly pedestrian when viewed in the abstract, the enormity of Brown’s and Davis’ production become all the more impressive when you consider Reyes scored 20 touchdowns and compiled more than 1300 rushing yards in 2003 and couldn’t even approach Davis’ and Brown’s numbers. It’s not just number of yards and points scored that is important; it’s the value of each of these when put into their proper context of per play output since the characteristics of the college football season and offensive philosophy have changed so much in the last 50 years.

The controlling question, therefore, is how Reyes matches up with Floyd Little. Little was not the back that Davis and Brown were, but is still generally considered one of Syracuse’s greatest 44’s. If Reyes’ numbers at least approach Little’s then it wouldn’t be ludicrous to believe that Reyes could be considered a 44-worthy back.

Obviously, there is no single category that is determinative of whether a back can be considered worthy of 44, but there is one that should be considered a prerequisite – percentage of offense running through the back.

In 2003, Reyes is credited with contributing over 39% of Syracuse’s total points while in 1956, Little contributed about 38% to the Orange offense. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that Reyes was a more effective back than Little, it does indicate the importance of Reyes in the Syracuse system. With percentages almost being equal (as well as overall statistical outputs) and given the premise that to be a 44-worthy back a rusher must contribute the same as another 44 back would, I'm led to believe that Reyes was at least in the same productive league as Floyd Little in 1965.

With all this in mind, it should be pretty clear that Reyes was worthy of wearing 44 in 2004. His 2003 season was not the greatest season ever put in by a Syracuse rusher (it may have been, however, the bookend to the greatest back-to-back seasons ever put together by a Syracuse rusher), but it was enough to put him in the conversation when speaking about the great seasons put in by Syracuse’s greatest rushers. Had this examination taken place one year ago, I don’t think it would have been ridiculous to think that Reyes would have tarnished the legacy of 44 by taking the number.

Thankfully, hindsight is 20/20.

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