Every week or so, I’ll be delving into each team’s franchise history to shine the spotlight on a player who hasn’t received the recognition he rightfully deserved. outside of that fan base. All teams have players who come into the organization, work hard day in an day out, do everything that’s asked of them, and ride off into the sunset with little to no fanfare. This series is meant to give these players their due diligence.
Howard Griffith: The Human Plow
Much like mules on a farm who pave the way for crops, fullbacks are known for carving out running lanes in NFL offenses. That is how the 6′, 230-pound Howard Griffith earned the nickname “The Human Plow” during his time with the Denver Broncos. Fullbacks rarely garner the attention they may deserve, Griffith included.
Before we get into his time with the Broncos, I’d be remiss not to at least mention the night where Howard Griffith was on top of the world. On September 22, 1990, the No. 15 Fighting Illini of Illinois met the Southern Illinois Salukis at Memorial Stadium. After a quarter of play, Griffith -the senior starter at running back- and the Illini found themselves down 21-7. By the final whistle, Griffith had made history by finishing the game with 8 rushing touchdowns, an NCAA record that stands to this day, en route to a 56-21 victory.
Landing in the Perfect Situation
After spending two bottom-dwelling seasons with the Rams and one with the expansion Panthers, it looked as if Griffith was going to have all of his hard work go unnoticed with nothing to show for it. After the Panthers went 12-4 in his final season in Carolina, he found himself in Denver, lining up beside one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game.
Not only was Denver a great situation for Griffith because of the surrounding cast, but because the coaching staff knew how to utilize him, though it did take them a season to do so. In 1997, Griffith saw a career-low 26 touches in the offense, but paved the way for backfield teammate Terrell Davis to take over games with his running abilities.
A year later, the defending Super Bowl champions knew they’d need a new facet of their offense to keep some of the pressure off of Elway and the rest of the skill players. So they looked to Griffith, who answered the call. With a minute role (outside of his blocking, of course), Griffith produced in a big way. On just 15 receptions, he was able to score on 3 of them. He scored 10 percent of the times he was targeted and 20 percent of the times he caught the ball.
Griffith also found success taking the handoff from Elway. On just 4 carries in 1998, he scored 3 touchdowns. Granted, these were all near the goal line with offenses focused on Davis and all of Elway’s other toys in the offense, but you can’t take away Griffith’s effort.
Six touchdowns on 21 touches is a ratio just about any coach would be happy with out of his fullback.
Showing up in Crunch Time
Griffith always found ways to make himself available to handle the big tasks when he was asked to. For the Broncos, he was integral to both Super Bowl victories.
In one of the all-time great championship games, Super Bowl 32 against Brett Favre and the Packers, Griffith made possibly the biggest catch of his career. With the score tied 24-24 in the fourth quarter and the Broncos driving, Elway dropped back from Green Bay’s 31-yard line with 2:24 left in the game. He dumped the ball off to Griffith who worked his way down to the Green Bay 8-yard line for a 23-yard gain. Three plays later, Davis scored the go-ahead touchdown, which eventually led to the victory.
The 23-yard catch is the longest play in Griffith’s career, and it couldn’t have come at a more crucial moment.
Then again, with the Broncos again looking to take home the Lombardi Trophy, Griffith found himself with an opportunity to make himself useful. While Davis carried the majority of the running workload, Griffith took over at the goal line. The Human Plow scored 2 one-yard touchdowns against the Falcons in the Broncos’ 34-19 drubbing.
Griffith racked up 5 career post-season touchdowns on just 23 touches. Again, a ratio many other players would be overjoyed to have.
Paving the Road to Canton
Howard Griffith won’t make it into the National Football League Hall of Fame. It’s not a knock on him in the least bit. His career just wasn’t long enough, or illustrious enough. No All-Pro or Pro Bowl recognition. Two Super Bowl rings are priceless, but not helpful to his argument. What he did do, however, was aid a teammate in his quest for a golden jacket.
Terrell Davis is set to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame this August after a short, but outstanding career in the Mile High City. His regular- and post-season accomplishments speak for themselves. But even Davis knows he may not have reached all of those milestones without his own personal bulldozer in the backfield with him.
Griffith helped T.D. rack up 3,758 yards and 36 touchdowns in his first two seasons blocking for the fifth Bronco to make the Hall. That’s not even including the 1,041 yards and 11 post-season scores Davis racked up with Griffith leading the way. In the 7 playoff games the two lined up together in the backfield, Davis averaged 5.52 yards per carry and an absurd 149 yards per game.
After his pro career ended, Griffith wrote a book entitled “Laying It on the Line: Notes of a Team Player” about his life. The forward was written by none other than Terrell Davis.
Don’t be surprised if Griffith gets a mention during Davis’ Hall of Fame introductory speech in August.
The Final Verdict
As I said earlier, Griffith has no hope of being enshrined. But Davis’ inclusion in Canton should be a testament to the work Griffith put in. Obviously the lineman played a huge role too, not taking anything away from them, but there’s a reason Griffith was in the backfield with Davis as often as he was. While he wasn’t indispensable, I’m sure Mike Shannahan wouldn’t have wanted to be caught without him.
The fullback position has never really been glorified. It’s one of those dirty jobs that someone has to do. But it’s a job that Griffith did gladly, and did well.
Although Griffith played only four seasons in Denver, he endeared himself to the ever-loyal fans there. He is the ultimate unsung hero, and one of the biggest their franchise has ever known.