Charlie Garner JRB Stuart Wrote:
> Aka Lightning from the Crossroads
> Before Alvin Kamara, there was Charlie Garner.
> Both were mid-round picks out of Tennessee. Both
> were (are) diminutive, dynamic all-purpose backs.
> Both played for offensive masterminds and made a
> big impact for not-quite championship-caliber
> teams. Heck, Kamara and Garner were almost the
> same guy!
> Or perhaps our memories of Garner are a little
> cloudy. Yes, he was one of the most effective
> all-purpose runners of his era, with five top-10
> finishes in rushing DVOA and four top-10 finishes
> in receiving DYAR. But times were tougher for
> everyone, especially tiny scatbacks, in the days
> when running back workloads weren't well
> monitored, marijuana use was considered a serious
> character issue, and concussions often went
> This is the story of an outstanding player who
> spent his career shunning a spotlight that some of
> his teammates and coaches couldn't stop hogging.
> Garner was atypically focused and driven as a
> youth. When Garner was 11 years old, according to
> a 1995 profile by Frank Fitzpatrick of the
> Philadelphia Inquirer, he grew so obsessed with
> Pac-Man that he would play until his fingers were
> red and blistered. A rec center counselor in his
> Northern Virginia hometown later taught Garner to
> play chess, and Garner played every day until he
> could checkmate the counselor.
> Garner went on to be a standout running back at
> what is now Justice High School in Virginia,
> rushing for over 2,000 yards and 38 touchdowns in
> his senior season. From there it was off to
> Scottsdale Community College in Arizona, where he
> broke a variety of juco records.
> Garner idolized Herschel Walker growing up, and he
> verbally committed to Georgia before ultimately
> choosing Tennessee. Vince Fulmer took over as head
> coach midway through Garner's first season, and
> the Vols went 18-5-1 in two years with Heath
> Shuler at quarterback and Garner splitting time
> with future NFL players James "Little Man"
> Stewart, Aaron Hayden, and Jay Graham.
> The Vols were so good, and so deep at running
> back, that it cut into Garner's playing time.
> "There were a lot of games in Knoxville my senior
> year that I really didn't get a chance to play in
> the second half," Garner later told the university
> website. "We'd be up 25 or 30 points and, well,
> they'd bench me and then would have to bench James
> because he's running well, and then Aaron and then
> finally you got Jay Graham."
> "Back in school, I would get negatives on [my
> practice grades] because I'd just stand and watch
> whenever Charlie had the ball," Shuler would later
> say. "I've never seen a player who could go from
> right to left like he does and not lose
> Despite sharing the load, Garner managed to rush
> for 1,163 yards and 7.6 yards per carry in his
> final season. He was expected to be a first-round
> pick. But Garner failed his combine drug test for
> marijuana use. Agent Tom Condon blamed secondhand
> smoke, front office types performed their usual
> background checking and pearl-clutching about the
> devil's cabbage, and Garner fell to the
> Philadelphia Eagles in the middle of the second
> round of the 1994 draft. (It must be noted that
> Garner's size, often cited around 5-foot-9 and 189
> pounds in his playing days, may also have
> contributed to the slide).
> The Eagles of the mid-1990s were a franchise in
> transition. Jeffrey Lurie had just purchased the
> team from Norman Braman, who was the archetype of
> a terrible owner. Rich Kotite coached a team
> loaded with holdovers from the fabled Buddy Ryan
> era, including Randall Cunningham, coming off his
> second major leg injury in three years. Garner's
> childhood idol was also in Philly: Herschel
> Walker, several years removed from his
> college/USFL/Cowboys stardom, was the Eagles'
> somewhat-plodding featured back.
> Garner's Eagles career got off to a rocky start.
> He missed a flight to Atlanta for a preseason game
> because he went to the wrong airport terminal. "He
> must have thought he was going to Beirut or
> something," Kotite joked. Garner then suffered a
> rib injury and missed the first three games of the
> 1994 season.
> Once healthy and on the same page of the travel
> itinerary as his teammates, Garner made an
> immediate impact. He made his debut in Week 4 of
> the 1994 season and rushed for 116 yards and two
> touchdowns in a 40-8 romp over the heavily favored
> 49ers. He rushed for 122 yards on 28 carries the
> next week against Washington. But Garner
> re-aggravated his rib injury and was forced out of
> both games in the second half.
> "He was slick and quick and, as usual, left the
> game after taking an unusually large lick," wrote
> columnist Phil Anastasia of South Jersey's
> Courier-Post after the Washington game.
> Walker, still semi-effective at age 32, replaced
> Garner in the 49ers and Washington games. Burly
> James Joseph and darting Vaughn Hebron, both
> adequate committee backs, were also available. So
> there was no reason to overtax Garner. But Kotite
> had a reputation for incompetence to cement.
> Garner was held out of practice contact drills,
> then fed to the teeth of the Cowboys defense 17
> times for 57 yards in Week 6. Garner carried 29
> times for 69 yards in the three games after that,
> then was only sporadically healthy for the rest of
> the season. Garner ended the year on the injured
> reserve after knee surgery.
> The Eagles climbed to 7-2 while Garner grew
> increasingly ineffective, then went into one of
> the most epic tailspins in pro football history,
> losing their final seven games. Cunningham, now
> barely able to scramble, endured a severe
> second-half slump and was benched in favor of
> Bubby Brister. The offense collapsed and the team
> appeared to quit late in the year, coughing up a
> 17-point lead to lose to the Bengals in the season
> Garner's back-to-back 100-yard games became a
> footnote in a doomed season. Still, fans and
> observers were encouraged by what we briefly saw.
> "After decades of watching plodding running backs
> such as Michael Haddix, Keith Byars, James Joseph,
> and even Herschel Walker, Garner is a refreshing
> sight, a slashing runner with incredible instincts
> which cannot be taught," wrote Bob Brookover in
> the Courier Post.
> Lurie fired Kotite after the collapse. Longtime
> 49ers defensive assistant Ray Rhodes took over as
> head coach, bringing along an offensive wunderkind
> from pal Mike Holmgren's Packers staff named Jon
> With Garner recovering from knee surgery and Lurie
> eager to give his team a 49ers flavor, the Eagles
> signed Ricky Watters, fresh off a three-touchdown
> performance in Super Bowl XXIX, for a whopping
> $6.9 million over three years before the 1995
> season. Garner dealt with another round of
> marijuana rumors that offseason, then had a
> phenomenal training camp, leading the NFL with 251
> preseason rushing yards on 41 carries.
> Yes, Garner was given 41 preseason carries eight
> months after knee surgery. Let's put a pin in that
> for now.
> Anyway, you probably know where all this is
> heading. Let's get to Watters' Eagles debut in a
> season-opening loss to the Buccaneers. Take it
> away, legendary Philadelphia Inquirer columnist
> Bill Lyon:
> It was as though someone had written on a
> blackboard all the things a professional athlete
> shouldn't do and all the things he shouldn't say,
> and then Ricky Watters defiantly stood up and did
> them and said them, every last regrettable,
> stupid, self-absorbed one of them.
> In the Eagles' season opener ... Watters, the
> running back who has yet to prove he is nearly as
> wonderful as he believes he is, blatantly shied
> away from collisions on the field, threw telephone
> tantrums on the bench, and then committed the most
> grievous sins of all afterward.
> In response to the question of why he didn't try
> to reach a pass aimed his way over the middle and
> then pulled up to a dead stop when he saw a
> defensive back coming at him, Watters offered up
> the following quote, one that should be in every
> manual given to rookies, one that could be
> engraved on his own tombstone:
> "Hey, I'm not going to trip up there and get
> knocked out. For who? For what?"
> Lyon's column comes off as patriarchal to
> problematic today, but he accurately captured the
> local response to Watters' debut. "For who? For
> what?" instantly became the stuff of Philly
> legend. The "tantrum," on the other hand, has been
> largely forgotten. When Garner came off the bench
> in the third quarter and ripped off two runs for
> 20 yards, Watters (who was already getting the
> business from the Boo Birds) could be seen stewing
> on the sideline. When Garner needed a breather at
> the end of the drive, Watters returned and
> promptly fumbled to kill a scoring opportunity.
> "Charlie Garner needs to be in the game more, and
> we'll address that," Rhodes said after that game
> while dodging Watters questions.
> Rhodes had a lot to address. Cunningham was
> completely unsuited to Gruden's version of the
> West Coast Offense. Rodney Peete replaced
> Cunningham in Week 2, then came on in relief in
> Week 4 before taking over as the starter. "Games,
> for the 1995 Eagles, have become like Mike Tyson
> fights," wrote Fitzpatrick in the Inquirer, "A few
> minutes of occasionally interesting action
> surrounded by days of gale-force controversy."
> The Watters-Garner controversy sorted itself out
> by virtue of the Eagles' utter lack of a downfield
> passing game, which gave both backs plenty of
> touches. Watters toned down the drama and shook
> off the rough start, rushing for 1,273 yards and
> 11 touchdowns while adding 62 receptions. Garner
> rushed for 588 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per
> carry. The Eagles went 10-6 and won a playoff game
> through the sheer force of Rhodes' brimstone
> motivation and Gruden's intricate short game.
> Garner led the NFL in rushing DVOA in 1995; Emmitt
> Smith finished second. Garner finished ninth in
> rushing DYAR despite his part-time role; Smith led
> the league. Watters ranked 29th in DVOA and 18th
> in DYAR; he was also 49th in receiving DVOA.
> The 1996 season brought more of the same. Watters
> rushed for 1,411 yards and 13 touchdowns, adding
> 51 receptions. Garner came off the bench for 5.2
> yards per carry but failed to qualify for the DVOA
> leaderboards. Peete battled Ty Detmer to see who
> had the peskiest popgun, while Irving Fryar added
> a credible downfield threat for any quarterback
> who could reach him. The Eagles reached the
> playoffs again. Gruden became a hot head coaching
> The formula wore thin in 1997. Watters and Garner
> put up similar numbers in similar roles for a
> third straight year. Garner finished fifth in the
> NFL in DVOA behind Marcus Allen, Barry Sanders,
> Terrell Davis, and Corey Dillon, ranking 11th in
> DYAR. Watters ranked 20th in rushing DVOA and 18th
> in DYAR, with some positive receiving value. But
> Rhodes' defense began to crumble and Gruden could
> only coax so much adequacy out of Peete and
> RePeete. Hope came in the form of a cannon-armed
> second-round pick from Ohio State: Bobby Hoying
> looked sharp in some late-season performances.
> Late in the 1997 season, Watters' then-girlfriend
> approached Gruden in the tunnel after a loss and
> demanded, in front of reporters, that Watters get
> the ball more. Watters, who was never quite 100%
> with the program despite his production, left for
> the Seahawks as a free agent after season. Gruden
> also left to become the head coach of the Raiders.
> Rhodes replaced Gruden with Stanford offensive
> coordinator Dana Bible, who was billed as a West
> Coast offense guru with a longer pedigree than
> Bible was a disaster. Hoying became so hapless on
> Bible's watch that he could barely execute
> handoffs properly and sometimes crumpled untouched
> in the pocket, forcing Peete and a Detmer (Ty's
> brother Koy) into service. Garner, who signed a
> contract extension in the offseason, averaged just
> 4.0 yards per carry behind Duce Staley and missed
> the end of the season with another rib injury.
> Out went Ray Rhodes. In came Andy Reid. Garner was
> now an oft-injured 27-year-old backup coming off a
> poor season with a reputation (overshadowed for
> years by Watters' shtick) for missing the
> occasional team meeting. Reid unceremoniously
> released Garner in April of 1999.
> Garrison Hearst, a former Georgia standout and
> third overall pick whose early career was ruined
> by injuries, gained 2,105 yards from scrimmage for
> a 49ers team that went 12-4 in 1998. But Hearst
> bent backwards while getting pulled down on his
> first carry of the wild-card game, breaking his
> left leg so badly that the resulting vascular
> damage would erase his next two seasons.
> When the 49ers realized the severity of Hearst's
> injury in July of 1999, they held a casting call
> for free-agent running backs. Charlie Garner won
> the audition.
> Not everyone was excited by the new arrival. "In
> the good old days when NFL scouting was more of a
> hit-or-miss matter," wrote Ray Ratto for the San
> Francisco Examiner, "Charlie Garner might have
> excited you more than he seems to now." Ratto
> lamented that the Eagles were "always finding
> someone better, from Herschel Walker to Ricky
> Watters to Duce Staley." Even the 49ers hedged
> their bets, signing the deeply troubled Lawrence
> Phillips days after Garner.
> Finally given a featured role in a functional
> offense, Garner quieted any skeptics. He rushed
> for 1,229 yards at 5.1 yards per carry, relegating
> Phillips to irrelevance. He also caught 56 passes
> for 535 yards after never catching more than 25
> passes for the Eagles. Garner finished fourth in
> the league in both rushing DVOA and DYAR. Stephen
> Davis, Marshall Faulk, and Napoleon Kaufman
> finished ahead of Garner in DVOA, while Davis,
> Faulk, and Emmitt Smith topped him in DYAR. Garner
> also finished eighth in receiving DYAR for running
> How did Garner take to Steve Mariucci's West Coast
> Offense so quickly? "I give a lot of credit to Jon
> Gruden," Garner said after topping the 1,000-yard
> mark in December of 1999. "He really helped me
> learn this offense. So when I came here I was able
> to step right in."
> "He has been terrific," Mariucci said of Garner.
> "He's such a tough guy. He has taken a lot of hits
> this year."
> Garner was the only terrific thing about the 1999
> 49ers. Steve Young got injured, giving way to Jeff
> Garcia and Steve Stenstrom. The defense was
> miserable. The 49ers finished 4-12.
> Garner enjoyed another fine season for an awful
> 49ers team in 2000: 1,140 rushing yards and 68
> receptions, ranking second to Faulk in receiving
> DYAR among running backs. He became a free agent
> after the 2000 season. 49ers general manager Bill
> Walsh remarked, somewhat accurately, that Garner
> "suffered wear and tear at the end of the season."
> Agent Scott Crawford fired back. "Bill's comments
> hurt Charlie a lot," Crawford said. "He feels that
> Bill is trying to de-value him, and we are not
> going to tolerate that."
> The 49ers decided to roll with a totally
> refurbished Hearst instead. So Garner signed a
> four-year deal with the Raiders, reuniting with
> Gruden. "I always had the Raiders in my mind,"
> Garner said at the signing.
> "He's an outstanding football player, a very
> productive back," Gruden said. "He's versatile and
> tough. He can play here, there, and anywhere on
> the football field."
> It's shocking how many coaches, legendary and
> infamous, used Charlie Garner incorrectly.
> Garner just looked like someone who should get 10
> to 20 carries and five to seven targets per game.
> Everything about him, from his stature to his
> shifty style to his injury history, screamed for
> such a role. Yet Kotite briefly tried to use him
> as a battering ram. Then Gruden and Rhodes limited
> his receiving opportunities, lest Watters get
> nettled. Mariucci finally figured out that Garner
> could run routes and catch, but also used him as a
> 25-carry workhorse for part of the 2000 season.
> Garner was always either stuck behind a Watters or
> Walker who needed lots of touches to get going
> (weren't as effective but got paid more, in other
> words), or, in San Francisco, without any reliable
> complementary back at all.
> Gruden knew how to use Garner after their reunion.
> Bruiser Tyrone Wheatley and fullback Zack Crockett
> did most of the short-yardage dirty work but were
> strictly complementary players. Garner caught 72
> passes while rushing for 839 yards for a Raiders
> team that went 10-6 with the help of another
> player from across the bay: a fellow named Jerry
> Gruden, meanwhile, was in a contract squabble with
> Al Davis. And the Buccaneers felt they were headed
> in the wrong direction under defense-oriented Tony
> Dungy. A few weeks after the Raiders lost a
> playoff game to the Patriots on a controversial
> call [winks devilishly], the Buccaneers traded two
> first-round picks to the Raiders to acquire a new
> head coach.
> Gruden left behind a strong staff that included
> Bill Callahan, Aaron Kromer, and Marc Trestman.
> Callahan, now the Raiders head coach, was in
> charge of the Eagles offensive line during the
> Watters/Garner years and knew what Garner was
> capable of. Garner, playing the same role in a
> very slightly (probably too slightly) tweaked
> offense in 2002, finished third in the NFL in
> rushing DVOA and DYAR behind Priest Holmes and
> Clinton Portis and led the league in receiving
> DYAR and DVOA. Garner finished second to Marshall
> Faulk in the NFL with 1,903 scrimmage yards.
> "Charlie Garner may be the most indispensable,
> invaluable—yet often invisible—Raider," wrote
> Gregg Bell for the Sacramento Bee as the Raiders
> approached the playoffs. Bell noted that Garner
> avoided interviews and remained in "seclusion"
> during the week, only to emerge on game days as a
> trash-talking chatterbox. It's a common thread
> throughout his career: even when Eagles columnists
> were interviewing Garner's family for Pac-Man and
> chess stories early in his career, Garner declined
> most interview requests.
> The Raiders cruised through the playoffs, then got
> pummeled by Gruden's Buccaneers in the Super Bowl.
> Quarterback Rich Gannon threw five interceptions
> in that game. Garner rushed seven times for just
> 10 yards. Gannon later claimed that Buccaneers
> defenders were calling out Raiders plays at the
> line. Tim Brown and Rice suggested that Callahan
> changed his entire game plan in midweek, possibly
> for nefarious reasons. Looking back, I can't help
> but think that Callahan got a late case of the
> yips because he knew he hadn't changed enough of
> his offense after Gruden's departure, then tried
> to make last-second changes which proved
> Whatever the cause of the Raiders meltdown, Gruden
> walked away with a Super Bowl ring, and Garner did
> Garner finished seventh in rushing DVOA in 2003,
> but Wheatley outgained him as a rusher. Gannon
> suffered a midseason shoulder injury. Callahan
> completely lost the locker room. The Raiders fell
> to 4-12. Garner and Charles Woodson missed curfew
> before the season finale and received a one-game
> suspension in one of Callahan's last acts as head
> Garner signed with Gruden's Buccaneers in April of
> 2004, but he lasted just three games before
> suffering a knee injury which ended his season,
> and ultimately his career.
> The Jets snapped up Rich Kotite soon after the
> Eagles fired him. The former Jets assistant was
> hailed as a likely franchise savior. Instead, he
> led the team to a 4-28 record in two seasons,
> ending a 20-year NFL career.
> Bill Callahan coached the University of Nebraska
> for several years before returning to the NFL as
> an offensive line coach, coordinator, and sometime
> assistant head coach. He currently coaches the
> excellent Browns offensive line.
> While it might never be written on his tombstone,
> For Who, For What: A Warrior's Journey is the
> title of Ricky Watters' memoir. Watters spent
> several seasons as a productive, mostly quiet
> running back for the Seahawks after leaving
> Philly, retiring with 10,643 rushing yards. The
> girlfriend who yelled at Gruden has been his wife
> for decades.
> Herschel Walker has become an outspoken political
> figure on social media and may be considering a
> Senate run in Georgia. Hearst played three more
> seasons for the 49ers, who bounced back into
> contention after Garner's departure. Ty Wheatley
> is now the head coach at Morgan State. Duce Staley
> is the assistant head coach of the Lions.
> Doctors told Charlie Garner in 2017 that he is
> likely suffering from CTE. Garner was only
> diagnosed with two concussions during his career
> yet estimates that he suffered "at least a dozen
> concussions per year over 11 years."
> "I don't have all my faculties anymore," Garner
> told the Sporting News in 2017. "I can't remember
> things. When I go to the mall or grocery store, I
> have to take one of my kids with me to remember
> where the car is parked. I have trouble
> remembering conversations I had five minutes ago.
> Bright lights bother me. I just don't feel right
> all the time." Garner recently announced
> involvement in a sports entertainment enterprise
> called Legit Rare on Facebook.
> There's an unmistakable undercurrent just below
> the surface of Garner's story: the undiagnosed
> concussions (probably less than 132 but certainly
> more than two), the moody reputation, missed
> flights and meetings, frequent marijuana
> peccadillos, even the obsessive childhood video
> gaming. I'm not going to pretend to really know a
> person based on press clippings and memories from
> 30 years ago. But if he played today, Garner's
> concussions would be better diagnosed and treated.
> (Not ideally diagnosed and treated by any means,
> but better). Any marijuana dabbling he might have
> done would be shrugged off, or perhaps identified
> as self-medication. Some behavioral traits, from
> youth through superstardom, are better understood
> and tolerated/managed these days than they were 30
> years ago.
> A modern Garner might well be Kamara, someone
> whose workload was carefully managed and
> optimized, a star in his own right instead of an
> invaluable but invisible role player. At the very
> least, he'd emerge from his career a little bit
> healthier if he played in our somewhat more
> enlightened era when running backs don't endure 40
> preseason carries while recovering from knee
> DVOA suggests that Garner could have been one of
> the all-time greats. But the NFL, in various ways,
> just wasn't quite ready for him.