With a loaded class full of deserving competition, it will be difficult for any San Francisco 49ers to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014. However, four San Francisco 49ers were among the Pro Football Hall of Fame semifinalists announced on Wednesday. Roger Craig, Charles Haley, Kevin Greene and Eddie DeBartolo all made the final 25-man list, which will be cut down to a 15-man list at the beginning of January before the new members are officially elected during Super Bowl weekend.
It is a particularly tough class to crack this year. From last year, we still have the single-season sack leader, Michael Strahan, and a 12-time Pro Bowler in Will Shields waiting their turn. They’re joined by a star-studded cast of first-year eligible candidates in Derrick Brooks, Marvin Harrison, Walter Jones and Tony Dungy. With names like that, the former 49er greats who have been hanging around on the periphery of the Hall of Fame conversation may find themselves trapped behind a list of newer names. Let’s look at each of their candidacies.
Roger Craig: the Goldilocks Candidate
There are three running backs on the semifinalist list, and Craig is the Goldilocks candidate. Terrell Davis had a spectacular peak, but his career was cut short by injuries, leaving him with four seasons of production to try to sway voters. Jerome Bettis is the opposite extreme, rarely having a season that stood out as much as Davis’ peak but lasting as a productive runner for over a decade. He finished his career with the sixth-most rushing yards of all time, a testament to his longevity.
Craig slides in between the two rather nicely. He had seven seasons of double-digit approximate value, according to Pro Football Reference, which compares very nicely to both Davis and Bettis’ four apiece. Essentially, that means he contributed at Pro Bowl-quality levels for almost twice as long as either of his competitors. He doesn’t have the same blistering, best-player-in-football-style seasons Davis has, nor does he have the extended back end of his career that Bettis claims. He’s at middle ground between peak and longevity; a nice mixture of highlights and continued production.
The three Super Bowl rings don’t hurt, either, when it comes to showing off for the voters.
The most important thing Craig has going for him, though, is his role as the first major dual-threat out of the backfield. He’s one of only two men to have both 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a single season, alongside Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, and his role as a receiver out of the backfield in Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense helped pave the way for other threats out of the backfield—he was a prototypical LeSean McCoy, dangerous both taking handoffs and escaping into the flats for quick passes.
With less than 50 rush yards per game, Craig’s production on the ground is dwarfed by both Davis (97.5 rush yards per game) and Bettis (71.2). Looking at Craig as just a rusher, though, eliminates half his game. Craig averaged 108.3 yards from scrimmage over his career, which is well beyond Bettis’ 78.7; the only reason Bettis’ total numbers end up higher than Craig’s is because of some stat-padding at the end of Bettis’ career, when he was no longer the bruising force of nature he was when he was younger. It’s in the same ballpark of Davis’ 113.9 yards from scrimmage, too, and the fact that Craig was a high-level contributor for almost twice as long as Davis has to count for something.
Will Craig make the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year? It’s a rough year, with so many new names atop the list. If any running back is going to make the Hall, though, it should be Craig.
Kevin Greene and Charles Haley: Lost in the Shuffle
When it comes to sheer sack numbers, how can you argue against Kevin Greene? With 160 sacks, Greene’s third all-time, behind only Bruce Smith and Reggie White. Of the top 10 all-time sack leaders, six are in and one’s not eligible, leaving only Greene, Leslie O’Neal and Michael Strahan on the outside looking in.
A five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro, Greene was also named to the All-1990s team in respect of his solid performance, especially for a Steelers team that lost Super Bowl XXX.
As for Charles Haley, there’s no one out there with more Super Bowl rings than he has, having helped the 49ers to two titles and the Cowboys to three more. He had six seasons of double-digit sacks and was another five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro. He was a vital contributor to two separate NFL dynasties and has earned a place in the Cowboys Ring of Honor. Both, then, are covered with plenty of glory and have impressive resumes for Canton.
The biggest issue they face in their quest for enshrinement is the risk of being overwhelmed by other pass-rushers. Both Greene and Haley have been finalists for the past two seasons but saw Chris Doleman and Warren Sapp elected ahead of them. It’s similar to the situation we’ve had at wide receiver over the past few years: Tim Brown, Andre Reed and Cris Carter were battling for receiving votes, keeping all of them out of the Hall for years on end.
There’s a tendency to only vote for whichever player you feel was best at the position and leave the second- or third-best players for next year. When there is a generally-accepted king of the position, they get in; witness Strahan having to wait for Warren Sapp last season, Curtis Martin waiting until after Marshall Faulk was elected in 2011, or Chris Doleman having to wait for Richard Dent to be enshrined before he got his turn. It’s worse if there’s not a clear favorite; we saw Brown, Carter and Reed steal votes from one another for four years before one of them finally had enough inertia to squeak into the Hall.
For the pass-rushers, there’s a big gap-toothed blockade standing in their way in one Michael Strahan. Strahan is fifth on the all-time sack list, putting him well ahead of Haley and in the same ballpark as Greene, while his single-season record provides enough "peak" to have him ahead of Greene in a lot of voters' eyes. While Greene’s been eligible since 2005, he only began hitting the final ballots in 2012, indicating a consideration as a lower-lever candidate when compared to someone like Strahan, who made the ballot in his first year of eligibility.
Hurting Greene’s chances further is the fact that the team he played the majority of his career with, the Los Angeles Rams, no longer have a representative in the voting, with the Rams’ slots going to their St. Louis writers. While NFL players don’t go in as a member of a team, it helps to have strong supporters in the room, and while Strahan is a New York Giant legend and has the support of that group of voters, Greene’s likely to get less support from his Pittsburgh, Carolina or San Francisco writers, as he’s not one of "their guys."
Haley is hurt, as well, due to how he treated the media. Off-the-field incidents like that should have zero impact on a player’s candidacy; unlike in baseball, the Pro Football Hall of Fame does not contain a character clause. Still, those same members of the media Haley was often abrupt with are the people who are voting on his candidacy now, and, when compared to a media-friendly player like Strahan, that has to have some effect, consciously or subconsciously.
In the end, this doesn’t feel like Greene or Haley’s year quite yet.
Eddie DeBartolo: a Tough Comparison
Quick, which stat is more impressive—5,000 passing yards or 1,500 rushing yards?
What about 1,500 rushing yards versus 17 sacks? Or 35 field goals in a season?
Where in that list do you slot five Super Bowl championships as owner of a team, more than any other owner in history?
It’s hard enough to compare players across positions and eras, but when you start weighing their candidacy against people who contributed off the field, it becomes near impossible. Owners and coaches definitely can have a huge impact in shaping the direction of a franchise, and the best of the best should be enshrined in the Hall—but when they are forced to compete against stars on the gridiron, they often find themselves coming up short.
Joe Horrigan, the Hall of Fame’s vice president for communications and exhibits, says, per The Baltimore Sun, that “we can see that in some instances, contributors may be impacted by the sheer number of good, quality players who are eligible.” A separate slot for the DeBartolos and Tagliabues of the world, similar to the extra spots the senior candidates currently enjoy, would allow their contributions to be acknowledged without costing a player a slot. The National Baseball Hall of Fame has non-playing personnel voted on separately by the Veterans Committee, and Canton would be wise to borrow that idea.
On his own merits, DeBartolo is certainly worth strong consideration. It’s easy to forget now, but before DeBartolo took over the organization in 1977, the 49ers hadn’t made the playoffs for five seasons and had only four playoff appearances in their NFL history.
Under DeBartolo, the 49ers managed an amazing string of 16 consecutive seasons with 10 or more wins, the NFL record. He brought in Bill Walsh, John McVay and Carmen Policy who, together, turned San Francisco from an afterthought into a predominant NFL power in the 1980s. He changed the entire mindset and culture around the franchise, created a model that other NFL owners have tried to copy, and was beloved by both his players and his team's fans.
Which former 49er most deserves to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame?
For many voters, it would be difficult to select DeBartolo for the Hall of Fame when it means keeping a Walter Jones or Tim Brown out, and that’s understandable, considering the limited quota of players they are allowed to send through. However, if there is an owner worthy of being in the Hall of Fame, it’s DeBartolo. Perhaps one day, the Hall of Fame will set up a contributors category, and DeBartolo can get the recognition he so richly deserves.