Dent, Hilgenberg Deserve Hall Passes

Paul LadewskiCorrespondent IIAugust 10, 2009

15 Oct 1995: Defensive End Richard Dent of the Chicago Bears looks on during the Bears 30-27 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida.

The Bears have more primary Hall of Famers than any NFL franchise, but seven years have passed since the last one got busted in Canton, O. The drought could come to an end soon, though, and here are the candidates most qualified to crash the party:

Richard Dent (1983-93, 1995)

From the 1984 to 1988 seasons, the Bears defense was as dominant as any in pro football history. So why does it have only two Hall of Famers then? A third member would do it justice, and as the most accomplished pass rusher of the group, Dent is next in line.

"To control the position for the number of years that he did, Richard belongs in the Hall of Fame," said former Bears guard and current broadcaster Tom Thayer, who played eight seasons with the defensive end. "Much to his credit, he had to learn the position in a different way to fit (coordinator) Buddy Ryan and his defense."

Dent ranks first on the Bears all-time sack list (124.5) and sixth in NFL history (137.5). If there are any doubts, then his Most Valuable Player performance in Super Bowl XX should answer them. Chance for a Hall call: 80 percent.


Jay Hilgenberg (1981-91)

In the 1980s decade, the Bears ranked first or second in ground yardage in the league five times, but not one of their o-linemen is in the Hall of Fame today. Hilgenberg could change that in the years to come.

"Based on his talent level and career numbers, Jay deserves to be there," Thayer said. "For an undrafted free agent to develop into one of the best offensive linemen at any position . . . I played next to him, so I know how good he was on the field. If we had won more than one Super Bowl, he and Richard would be shoo-ins."

Hilgenberg anchored the o-line for eight seasons, a period in which the center was a two-time All-Pro first-teamer and seven-time Pro Bowl selection. Despite average size, he started 122 of his final 128 games in a Bears uniform, a tribute to his instincts and agility. Chance for a Hall call: 60 percent.


Richie Petitbon (1959-68)

Not only was Petitbon among the better strong safeties in the league for 14 seasons, but as a defensive coordinator, he was instrumental in the Washington Redskins success for a dozen more (think: Dick LeBeau).

The four-time Pro Bowler intercepted at least five passes in six seasons, and his career total (48) ranks 38th in league history. Only Gary Fencik and Dick Butkus had more takeaways (44) in a Bears uniform. Chance for a Hall call: 25 percent.

Buddy Ryan (1978-85)

For the brunt of 26 seasons, his defenses set the standard for the rest of the league. As Bears d-coordinator, he was the brains behind the celebrated 46 Defense, which allowed the fewest yards in the league in consecutive seasons. His legacy continues today, as his sons Rex and Rob are widely respected coaches in the league.

If not for his blustery image and marginal success as a head coach (career record: 55-55-1), Ryan wouldn’t be dismissed as easily. Chance for a Hall call: 25 percent. Chance that da coach Mike Ditka would give his presentation speech: absolutely none.

Rick Casares (1955-64)

Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff once told me that, among fullbacks, Casares and Jim Taylor ranked behind only the great Jim Brown on his all-time list. The Bears bruiser played in five consecutive Pro Bowl games and was selected to the All-Pro first team once.

In 1956, Casares rushed for 1,126 yards and 12 touchdowns in a 12-game season, a team standard that only Gale Sayers and Walter Payton achieved since then. If not for the brutally physical nature of the game at the time, he would have put up better career numbers. Chance for a Hall call: 20 percent.

Joe Fortunato (1955-66)

Even though his 12-year career was comparable to those of linebackers Ray Nitschke and Dave Wilcox, both Hall of Fame inductees, he is rarely mentioned in such discussions.

A three time All-Pro first-teamer and five-time Pro Bowler, he was a fixture at outside linebacker for a unit that ranked among the best in the league for years. Only Butkus recovered more fumbles (22) in team history. Chance for a Hall call: 20 percent.


Steve McMichael (1981-93)

Dan Hampton had a greater impact in the 46 Defense, but was he that much better than the guy who played alongside him for 10 seasons? Hampton was a three-time Pro Bowler, one-time All-Pro first-teamer. McMichael was a two-time Pro Bowler, two-time All-Pro first-teamer.

The man called Mongo had more sacks (92.5) than any Bears player except Dent since the league began to record the statistic. If Dent were to join Hampton in the Hall of Fame, however, it's highly unlikely that the voters would select a third member of the line. Chance for a Hall call: 20 percent.


Dick Barwegan (1950-52)

Of the 19 players selected to the 1950’s All-Decade Team, the guard is one of only four not in the Hall of Fame currently. In three seasons in a Bears uniform, the Chicago native was selected to the Pro Bowl three times and to the All-Pro first team two times.

Because the Hall of Fame voters have largely ignored the guard position over the years, Barwegan appears destined to remain one of the best o-linemen that few have heard of. Chance for a Hall call: 10 percent.

Harlon Hill (1954-61)

The careers of Hill and Sayers are eerily similar. In his first three seasons, Hill caught 134 balls for 3,041 yards and 32 TDs, which were ridiculous numbers in an era of run-heavy offenses.

At 25 years of age, like Sayers, Hill began to encounter health problems that would have a pronounced effect on his career. Yet while Sayers is in the Hall of Fame on the strength of five stellar seasons, Hill has been overlooked even though his five best were in the same ballpark. Chance for a Hall call: 10 percent.

(Pssst, NFL Network: Kindly explain how Randy Moss (69 catches, 1,313 yards, 17 TDs in 16 games) owns the best rookie season ever, and Hill (45 catches, 1,124 yards, 12 TDs in 12 games) doesn't crack the top 10?

Neal Anderson (1986-93)

At his peak, he was on the short list of best all-purpose backs in the league. He averaged 1,835 total yards and 12 touchdowns in a four-year period, each of which included a Pro Bowl invitation.

Only Payton had more rush attempts (1,515) and yards (6,166) and total touchdowns (71) in team history. Even though injuries shortened his career, he still ranks 53rd in rush touchdowns (51) in NFL history. Chance for a Hall call: 5 percent.


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