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 undiagnosed.
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.
A Human Joystick
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 momentum.”
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.
Slick, Quick and Licked
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 finale.
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 Gruden.
Four Little Words
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 commodity.
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 Gruden.
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.
Here, There, and Anywhere
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 backs.
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.”
Indispensable, Invaluable, Invisible
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 Rice.
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 counterproductive
Whatever the cause of the Raiders meltdown, Gruden walked away with a Super Bowl ring, and Garner did not.
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 coach.
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 surgery.
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.