The Road to the Hall of Fame is Paved by Championships
Recently, I wrote about Zach Thomas' leaving the Miami Dolphins and joining the Dallas Cowboys.
In NFL-Miami_Dolphins-Dallas_Cowboys-Zach_Thomas_Always_a_Miami_Dolphin_-280208">that article, I purported that whenever Zach did retire, he would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. This sparked several discussions and differing opinions—no one thought he didn’t deserve it, just whether or not he would be enshrined that soon.
So, I decided to investigate the practices of the selection committees and those already in the hall at his position.
This year, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will induct six more players on August 5, bringing the total number of inductees to 221 since 1963. Of these 221, there are 18 linebackers.
Almost all of them average the same individual accolades that speak to their success at the position. The averages of the group are eight All-Pro selections, seven Pro Bowl appearances and 161 games played.
These are extremely relevant statistics, but the most important stat seems to be having won either a Championship or Super Bowl—depending on the era.
There are three exceptions to these averages:
Dave Wilcox (H.O.F. Class of 2000)
Played 11 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. He was selected as an All-Pro in eight of those seasons and sent to the Pro Bowl seven times. He has the distinction as the only linebacker in the Hall of Fame to have never played in a Championship or Super Bowl.
Andre Tippett (due to be inducted this year)
Was selected as an All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl a few less than the average with five each and played in 151 games over his 14 seasons with the New England Patriots (’82-’93).
But, besides Wilcox, he’s the only other linebacker to not win a Championship, though his team did lose Super Bowl XX.
Chuck Noll (Class of 1993)
Most people probably remember Noll for coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl victories (IX, X, XIII, XIV), but he’s in the Hall as a linebacker without ever being selected as an All-Pro or making a Pro Bowl appearance.
In addition to coaching four Super Bowl teams, he also played in four Championship Games (’53, ’54, ’55, ’57) during his seven years with the Cleveland Browns—winning two of those.
So what does this tell us about the parameters for entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
While it appears that individual accomplishments count a great deal, it seems that the ring is really the key criteria. There seems to be little in the way of written guidelines or outlined requirements to even be eligible for the vote. The closest expression of these are listed on the Hall of Fame’s website:
- Candidates are scrutinized for “strong enough credentials to give them even a remote chance of eventual Hall of Fame election.”
- “When elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an individual is recognized for his accomplishments as a player, coach, or contributor.”
This would seem to favor individual achievements over Championship and Super Bowl wins, which are “team” accomplishments. I would think the selection committee, made up of mostly sportswriters, would realize more than anyone the ever-increasing challenge of winning a championship.
The number of teams, the number of games played, the level of talent and the competitive parody in the league have all increased, making it more difficult to win a title, not to mention performing consistently above average in individual statistics.
Consider this, on this year's ballot was LB Derrick Thomas, his fourth time on the ballot since his first year of eligibility in 2005 after his untimely death as of a result of complications from a car accident in 2000.
Derrick received the second-most votes of those not selected this year behind WR Cris Carter. In his 11 years with the Kansas City Chiefs (’89-’99), playing in 169 games, he was an All-Pro eight times and appeared in nine Pro Bowls.
These stats are above the averages of the other linebackers in the Hall, but he never got the chance to play in a Super Bowl. Will this keep him out?
He had more All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections and games played that Tippett. Did Tippett’s Super Bowl loss carry enough weight to get him inducted or was it the actual 15-year wait?
Let’s take another case study.
Ray Lewis is heading into his 13th season as a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens. He’s amassed seven All-Pro selections, nine Pro Bowl appearances and played in 162 games (so far). He has two other factors in his favor toward enshrinement—his team won Super Bowl XXXV and he plays for a team that currently has no players representing it in the Hall of Fame.
The Baltimore Ravens have been a franchise since 1996 and is one of only three active franchises without representation in the Hall—the other two are the Jacksonville Jaguars (since 1995) and the Houston Texans (since 2002).
Now, back to the original reason for this entire harangue. Compared to the Hall of Fame linebackers’ averages, Zach Thomas has seven All-Pro selections and Pro Bowl appearances after 168 games. He racked up over 100 tackles in his first 11 seasons and was in the Top 4 in tackles six of the last seven years.
He has more tackles than any other linebacker in the Hall and is fourth all-time with over 1,800 tackles behind only Randy Gradishar, Jessie Tuggle, and Junior Seau—all of which, have been to, but never won, a Super Bowl. Will any of them be inducted?
Zach Thomas obviously has the credentials and above-average statistics to rank among those already in the Hall and even all of the linebackers that have ever played the game. So, though he’s already earned his place, he’s probably going to need a Super Bowl to guarantee his enshrinement.
And though he’ll always be a Miami Dolphin at heart, hopefully going home to Texas will put the cherry on top of all of his career of Sundays.
There are currently no Punters in the Hall of Fame. Maybe Jeff Feagles should be the first? He’s now 42 years old, fresh off the New York Giants’ surprising win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLI and he just signed on to play his sixth season with New York—which is his 21st overall.
He owns the record for the most career punts (1,585) and career punting yards (65,793 and counting). He was selected as an All-Pro and voted to the Pro Bowl in the ’95 season.
With those stats and accolades, plus now having a Super Bowl victory under his belt (or kicking shoe), I think he’s earned the right to be the first to represent his position in the Hall of Fame.
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