The Best Hall of Fame Argument for Every NFL Team
The "best" Hall of Fame argument is not always the argument about the best player. Arguments about all-time greats aren't really arguments, just biographies. Great Hall of Fame debates start with players or coaches who haven't achieved legend status: the overlooked old-timers, controversial current players, guys famous for losing Super Bowls, individuals who may have rubbed voters and/or the public the wrong way, and so on.
You won't find many Marvin Harrison-level candidates in this slideshow: Harrison is a Hall of Famer; it's just a matter of time before he squeezes through. There are one or two A-plus candidates here, but we're focusing on the B-plus and even the C-plus guys in the name of having really good arguments.
Some housecleaning and clarification before we begin. All stats and Pro Bowl/All-Pro listings come from Pro Football Reference. Remember that All-Pros are first-team all-league all-stars while Pro Bowlers could be conference backups: that's a big deal.
You'll read a lot about "signature moments" in the upcoming debates. Those are the plays you see when you close your eyes and think of the NFL: Lynn Swann's catches in Super Bowl X, Joe Namath's guarantee, and so on. Signature moments have historically been a big deal for Hall of Fame voters, particularly when deciding among second-tier candidates.
You will also read plenty of voting committee meta-commentary in the debates to come. There are only 46 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters, one from each of the 31 NFL cities (two for New York) and 14 at-large voters. I know many of them on a let's-do-lunch basis and respect all of their football knowledge and experience. But get 46 people in one room, and a kind of crazy groupthink can get the better of everyone. Ever try to get 12 people in your fantasy league to agree on a pizza order? Try doing it with 46 people spanning the whole country and several generations, with people's legacies at stake. You will end up eating a lot of plain pizza. In Hall of Fame terms, that means a lot of split tickets, Balkanization and other politics that don't always have much to do with how great a player truly was.
Disclaimers, explanations and preemptive apologies aside, here are the best Hall of Fame arguments for every NFL team.
Arizona Cardinals: Anquan Boldin, Wide Receiver
Baseball's Hall of Fame is all about statistics: 3,000 hits, 300 wins, 500 home runs (in the old days), zero steroid allegations. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is all about the absence of statistics: linemen who never touch the ball, cornerbacks whose best years produced the least interceptions, stars of bygone eras when the game was so different that stats are almost impossible to interpret, like the mid-1970s.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is built on moments and memories, not spreadsheets. That's one reason why Cris Carter waited several years for enshrinement, and why Marvin Harrison is now waiting. Fans see rows of 100-catch seasons. Voters see them too, but they are also gazing at something a little more ephemeral. It's often unfair, but it's usually consistent.
Boldin has good stats—he will retire with over 1,000 receptions and could crack 15,000 yards—but he does not have Cris Carter-Marvin Harrison stats. Three Pro Bowl appearances over a long career do not scream "Hall of Famer." Boldin was thought of as the No. 2 receiver on his own team during his Cardinals days, though he topped Larry Fitzgerald in receiving yards twice, and the difference between them in most years came down to a handful of catches and yards.
But Boldin has moments and memories. Boldin has a 15-yard catch on 3rd-and-1 in the fourth quarter and a 30-yard catch on 3rd-and-3 in the final moments of the third quarter of Baltimore's win in Super Bowl XLVII.
Boldin moved on to San Francisco at age 32 and immediately became the leading receiver on another championship-caliber team. He added to his postseason credentials for the 49ers in 2013: eight catches to beat a pesky Panthers team, a touchdown in a nip-and-tuck battle with the Seahawks for the NFC title. Boldin is now 11th on the all-time postseason receptions list, 12th on the postseason receiving yardage list. He has done most of it without a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback.
Boldin's teams won, and they won because of Boldin. He was a Pro Bowl member of the most important team in Cardinals history (since the Truman administration, at least). He pushed the Ravens over the top. He became the gritty third-down receiver whose every reception mattered. In the era of fantasy stats, Boldin was a receiver whose contributions were measured by who the Cardinals, Ravens or 49ers beat, not whether you beat your brother-in-law in an imaginary game.
That makes Boldin exactly the right kind of receiver for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His stats only tell a fraction of his stories. It's up to our memories to do the rest.
Atlanta Falcons: Mike Kenn, Offensive Tackle
Kenn started 251 games at left tackle for the Falcons from his rookie season in 1978 until his retirement in 1994. He blocked for Steve Bartkowski as a rookie and Jeff George as 38-year-old veteran. He played through the Leeman Bennett, Dan Henning, Marion Campbell, Jerry Glanville and June Jones regimes, enjoyed the highs of a 12-4 season in 1980 and endured the pits of six 5-11 or worse records in a seven-year span.
Kenn played left tackle in a 1970s-style offense to start his career and blocked for a run-'n'-shoot offense at the end. He entered college as a 207-pound offensive lineman and retired from the NFL as a modern 290-pound behemoth. Cut open his career and count the rings, and you can see the NFL grow and change, from the offensive explosion of 1978 through the start of free agency 15 years later.
Though Kenn made only five Pro Bowl rosters, balloting for the game can be a slippery thing. A left tackle on a 4-12 team isn't going to get many votes, even from his peers. Kenn was a first-team All-Pro when the Falcons made the playoffs in 1980, but by the mid-1980s he was typically relegated to Pro Bowl alternate status. When the Falcons got competitive (and buzzy) again under Glanville in 1991, Kenn was again a first-team All-Pro. He was the same player; only the circumstances had changed. Had he played on even a decent team in the mid-1980s, Kenn would have made a few more Pro Bowls, and his Hall of Fame profile would look like Willie Roaf's.
Kenn was also a union leader during the most difficult labor relations era in NFL history. In this interview with SB Nation's Jeanna Thomas from 2014, Kenn talks about battling for basic player rights during the 1982 players strike—he led the effort to allow players access to their own medical records, which (amazingly) they did not have at the time–coping with the contentiousness of the 1987 strike, and eventually becoming NFLPA president during the dawn of the free-agency era. Union leadership in times of tumult won't help a player reach the Hall of Fame: It can lead to bad blood among Pro Bowl-voting peers, then some acrimony among sportswriters on the other side of the fence. But decades later, Kenn's courage and contributions stack neatly atop his on-field accomplishments.
The Hall of Fame has been cruel to the Falcons. Deion Sanders is in, but he's Deion Sanders, a Cowboys and 49ers star as much as (or more than) a Falcons star. The Seniors Committee finally rescued Claude Humphrey last year. That's it for Falcons Hall of Famers, unless you count one-year, end-of-career guys like Eric Dickerson. (You shouldn't.)
Kenn became a finalist this year, and enshrining him will help preserve a forgotten corner of pro football history. The Falcons didn't enjoy much success in their first 30 years, but they had their moments. Kenn was a key figure in many of those moments; enshrining him would reintroduce football fans to him, a franchise that took decades to find traction and a contentious era that shaped the modern NFL.
Baltimore Ravens: Terrell Suggs, Pass-Rusher
Ray Lewis or Ed Reed Hall of Fame arguments would be a little silly, as both will easily get in. A passionate Anquan Boldin argument was used on the Cardinals, though Boldin's defining Super Bowl moments occurred with the Ravens. That leaves us dipping down into the lower tier for an organization that has existed in its current form for two decades. While Suggs isn't the best candidate on our list, we're lucky to have a player as good as him.
So let's construct the best argument we can:
- Suggs was Defensive Player of the Year in 2011.
- He was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2003.
- He made six Pro Bowls.
- Suggs is currently 24th on the all-time sack list and is almost certain to finish his career in the top 20. The all-time sack lists have stabilized after three decades, so while there are several active players ahead of him (Robert Mathis, Jared Allen, John Abraham, Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney, DeMarcus Ware), there aren't many active players gunning to catch Suggs quickly after his retirement.
- Suggs has 12.5 career postseason sacks, the third-highest total ever, behind Willie McGinest and Bruce Smith but ahead of Reggie White, Charles Haley, Richard Dent, Michael Strahan, Lawrence Taylor and many other Hall of Famers. Sacks only became an official stat in 1982, so we cannot compare Suggs to Joe Greene or Buck Buchanan, but he would probably fare pretty well.
- In terms of "signature moments," Suggs' two sacks in the Ravens' 38-35 win over the Broncos in the 2013 playoffs—a game that will be well-remembered by history—certainly qualify.
- Suggs was part of the "Big Three" for a defense that won a Super Bowl and led a team with a so-so offense to perennial contention. It's not unreasonable at all for a team like the John Harbaugh Ravens to have three defensive Hall of Famers.
OK, that's a C-plus Hall of Fame argument at best. But if Suggs has 12 more sacks this year and leads the Ravens on another deep playoff run, it will look a little better. Two more years like that and Suggs will be in range of the top 10 in sacks. So this may not be a great argument, but it's not a completely ridiculous one, either.
Buffalo Bills: Kent Hull, Center
It's hard for Bills fans to decide whom to campaign for now that the biggest stars of the early-1990s AFC championship teams are all in Canton. On the one hand there's center Kent Hull, who never missed a start during the Super Bowl years and made three Pro Bowl rosters. On the other there's Steve Tasker, the living embodiment of short white guy wish fulfillment. That could be you out there, forcing that fair catch and earning kudos from Dick Enberg for your grit and determination!
Ouch, that was mean. Tasker has those seven Pro Bowl selections as a special teamer and a rather nimble candidacy bandwagon: six Hall of Fame semifinalist appearances since 2004. But "best kick gunner of his generation," while certainly an accomplishment and a benefit to his teams, sounds too much like "best utility infielder of his generation" for me to take it seriously when there is no room in the Hall of Fame for guys like Jerry Kramer and Cliff Branch. Let's focus on the positive: a great player for a historic team who did the little things we expect of Hall of Famers, like start. (Ouch!)
Hull, recently called the "real-life living embodiment of what John Wayne played on the movie screen" by Bill Polian, has a more conventional Hall of Fame resume than his more-famous teammate. Like new inductee Mick Tingelhoff, Hull was an iron man center for a team that lost four Super Bowls.
Hull had a shorter career and fewer Pro Bowl notices than Tingelhoff. But Hull was an innovator as well as a great player. The Bills were one of the first teams to use the no-huddle offense in non-emergency situations. Hull was the first to do what Jeff Saturday, Dan Koppen and other centers had to learn to do for this generation's great quarterbacks: hurry to the line, read the defensive front and make adjustments in sync with his quarterback, all without the benefit of a huddle.
Hull, like Tasker, lacks an overwhelming Hall of Fame case. After Bruce Smith, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Polian and Marv Levy (and James Lofton for a while), those 1990s Bills were loaded with near greats: Hull, Tasker, Cornelius Bennett, Darryl Talley, Ruben Brown, Shane Conlan. A Super Bowl win or two would have made all of their resumes look a lot better, but it didn't happen, and second-tier stars are bound to feel the brunt of those losses, either by being shut out of Canton or forced to wait decades to get in.
Just ask Tingelhoff.
Carolina Panthers: Julius Peppers, Defensive End; Steve Smith, Wide Receiver
Smith and Peppers have similar Hall of Fame credentials. Neither has an outstanding case, but both have more to offer than you might think.
- Smith and Peppers each reached five Pro Bowls with the Panthers, earning two All-Pro selections. Peppers has since added a third All-Pro selection and three Pro Bowls for other teams, strengthening his Hall of Fame argument.
- Smith counters Pepper's Pro Bowl edge with a big "signature moments" advantage: nine playoff touchdowns, a huge 163-yard performance in the wild 29-23 overtime win against the Rams in the 2003 playoffs, the "broken arm" catch, and so on. Some of Peppers' most memorable moments, including two pick-sixes and some playoff big plays, occurred last year in Green Bay. They may not age as well.
- Both Smith and Peppers lost a Super Bowl that has been interpreted by history as a sacrifice to the greater glory of the Patriots. Both played for a Panthers team that kept ping-ponging between 12 wins and irrelevant mediocrity, so neither can hang his hat on an "era."
- Smith's quarterbacks were inconsistent throughout his career, and the Panthers offense was run-oriented, deflating his numbers. Peppers played on defenses with few other stars and ordinary pass-rushers, robbing him of a few potential 15-sack seasons. Neither Smith nor Peppers has exceptional league-leader or all-time-list qualifications.
- That said, both Smith and Peppers play positions where the Hall of Fame voters are historically wary of arguments based on raw stat totals. Smith is known as a nasty tough-guy receiver, and Peppers proved his all-purpose capability late in his career, so both help their causes with versatility and a better-than-the-numbers rep.
- Smith and Peppers each added value to their Hall of Fame resumes last year, but both were stopped short of the Super Bowl in close games. Each really could have used Super Bowl heroics in a second city to help build a voting bloc.
These two guys represent a split ticket of borderline candidates if ever there was one, and split tickets of borderline candidates usually result in a loss-loss scenario.
If I were representing the Panthers on the committee, I would stump for Peppers first: It's a simpler argument, and it will get a sympathetic hearing from Chicago and Green Bay. Once Peppers gets pushed through, passing stats may be inflated to the point that the committee will welcome receivers who offer "more than stats." Some very good candidates who rank ahead of Smith in that category (namely Hines Ward) may already be in, setting a precedent. While waiting for Peppers and Smith to retire, I would help push Sam Mills and Kevin Greene through so there is more room for second-tier candidates and more clarity at the top of the all-time sack leaderboard. It's the kind of strategic thinking you need to advance a Hall of Fame agenda.
The Panthers haven't produced any slam-dunk Hall of Famers, but Peppers and Smith give voters a chance to work on their mid-range jumpers.
Chicago Bears: Devin Hester, Kick Returner
There is one kicker in the Hall of Fame: Jan Stenerud. Stenerud will soon be joined by Morten Andersen, then probably Adam Vinatieri and one or two others. There's a precedent for kickers making the Hall of Fame, which is an important first step for kickers actually getting into the Hall of Fame.
Ray Guy is now the Hall of Fame's only punter. There aren't many great followers in the pipeline– Shane Lechler may someday mount a case–but Guy set a precedent, and that's important.
Steve Tasker may set a precedent for great "core special teamers" (or gunners or whatever) to make it into Canton under extreme conditions, but he has yet to make it after being a Hall semifinalist six times.
There are no return specialists in the Hall of Fame. Devin Hester should set the precedent. He has something Stenerud, Guy and Tasker don't have. All three of those specialists played on multiple Super Bowl teams. Only Hester played on a Super Bowl team that probably would have gone .500 without him.
Hester scored six return touchdowns for the 2006 Bears, adding a seventh in the Super Bowl. He was actually tied with several players as the Bears touchdown leader that year, though he rarely played on offense. The Bears almost certainly would not have won the "crown their ass" game against the Cardinals without Hester. They would not have beaten the Vikings 23-13 without Hester; that was the game in which Rex Grossman threw for 34 yards and three interceptions. The Bears probably would not have beaten the Rams without Hester's two return touchdowns. By the playoffs, opponents were starting to squirt kickoffs to Hester's blockers around the 15-yard line, with the Bears reaping the field position boost to help their rickety offense.
Those short kickoffs and keepaway punts are also points in Hester's favor. Sure, Guy introduced the public to the concept of hang time and Steve Tasker forced a few extra fair catches. Opponents spent three years squib kicking an inordinate number of times to keep Hester from burning them. That's the kind of "impact beyond the numbers" that makes a great Hall of Fame case.
Hester has a pair of punt return touchdowns in the last two seasons and has led the NFL in kickoff return yardage twice for the Falcons. Most kickoffs are now touchbacks, making Hester the only player who consistently returns 40-50 of them per year. The fact that coaches trust Hester to make something happen from deep in the end zone is another testament to his uniqueness.
Hester is the all-time pro football non-offensive touchdown leader with 20 and counting. He is far ahead of traditional full-time returners like Brian Mitchell (13) and Dante Hall (12) and among Hall of Famers like Deion Sanders (19) and Rod Woodson (17), who mixed interception returns with kick returns. Sanders kept opponents from throwing to one side of the field. Woodson kept opponents from throwing deep. Hester kept them from kicking off the way they did against 31 other teams. See the similarity?
Unlike Stenerud, Guy and Tasker, Hester didn't play for a perennial powerhouse. That should work in his favor, not against him. Where would Stenerud be without the Hank Stram Chiefs, Guy without the Raiders, and Tasker without the Bills to give him all of that postseason attention? For Hester, the question gets turned around: Where would the Lovie Smith Bears have been without him? The short answer is "not in the Super Bowl."
Cincinnati Bengals: Lemar Parrish, Cornerback
Parrish is the best cornerback you've never heard of, a converted college running back who became a big-play machine and feared bump-and-run defender. Parrish made eight Pro Bowls, intercepted 47 passes and scored 13 touchdowns on various types of returns in a 13-year career. He's tied for fifth on the all-time non-offensive touchdown list; because you don't see that list very often, here it is:
All-Time Non-Offensive Touchdown Leaders:
- Devin Hester 20
- Deion Sanders 19
- Rod Woodson 17
- Ronde Barber 14
- Brian Mitchell 13
- Lemar Parrish 13
- Ed Reed 13
- Darren Sharper 13
- Aeneas Williams 13
- Charles Woodson 13
Parrish's credentials are similar to those of Aeneas Williams, who is in the Hall of Fame, and Charles Woodson, who will probably get in. Ronde Barber, who we will see later in this slideshow, is also in the same ballpark. Woodson and Barber won Super Bowls, of course, and Williams played in one. Parrish spent his late career with the Redskins, but the Redskins traded him to the Bills before the 1982 season, so Parrish missed his chance to play on a storied team.
Instead, Parrish played most of his career for the 1970s Bengals, a team that was mind-wiped from history because they were not the Steelers or Raiders. Parrish and Ken Riley gave the Bengals the best cornerback tandem in the AFC for several years, but you won't see many NFL Films specials about them, because the Bengals got pushed around by the Steelers in their own division every year, then (this may sound familiar) lost in the first round of the playoffs. Mel Blount and Willie Brown held charter All-Pro memberships, relegating Parrish to annual second-team status, in part because he was stuck on a second-tier team.
Parrish also developed a crippling cocaine problem just as his playing career ended and was arrested several times in the mid-1980s. He was just coming out of rehab when he first hit the ballot, but the arrests were still fresh in voters' minds, and that was an era when a) attitudes toward cocaine addiction and the post-career perils of NFL players were just starting to crawl out of the primordial ooze; and b) the selection committee was still processing Lombardi Packers and the cream of the Steel Curtain crop.
Parrish is now exactly the kind of forgotten player from the 1970s that the Seniors Committee has gone out of its way to rescue recently. He is much like Elvin Bethea, Curley Culp, Claude Humphrey and Mick Tingelhoff: a perennial Pro Bowler who got left at the station because the Hall of Fame train was full of guys who played on dynasties. He was the best player on those 1970s Bengals, a team like the 1970s Oilers (who have three Hall of Famers) in many ways: not outstanding, but historically unique and memorable.
Speaking of those 1970s Bengals: were you expecting Ken Anderson? I have been invited to join a few Ken Anderson Hall of Fame campaigns over the years. I'm a stat guy, after all, and most of the Anderson campaign is based on stats. I always turned down the opportunities, because while I loved Anderson, he is not a Hall of Famer.
But that's a tale for another slideshow. Let's get Parrish in and worry about his quarterback later.
Cleveland Browns: Marty Schottenheimer, Head Coach
It takes a truly great coach to lose 13 playoff games. That coach had to lead his team to the playoffs 13 times, after all.
Schottenheimer is one of seven coaches in NFL history to win 200 or more regular-season games. The others are all either in the Hall of Fame or Bill Belichick. Schottenheimer's .613 career winning percentage is better than those of Tom Landry (.607), Bill Parcells (.569), Chuck Noll (.566) and Mike Ditka (.560).
Yes, I have to keep writing regular season. We all know about Schottenheimer in the playoffs. Schottenheimer is third to Landry (16) and Don Shula (17) on the all-time playoff loss list, and both Shula and Landry have championships to show for those defeats, as well as winning playoff records and endless careers as pioneers and innovators.
There are only four head coaches with no championships in the Hall of Fame (as coaches): George Allen, Al Davis, Bud Grant and Marv Levy. Davis is really in as an executive; the labels have changed recently. Grant and Levy have four Super Bowl losses each and respectable 10-12 and 11-8 playoff records, respectively. Allen is similar to Schottenheimer in many ways, though he led the Redskins to a Super Bowl and built some iconic teams. Schottenheimer never reached the Super Bowl; the most similar historic coach to him is Chuck Knox, who helmed a long string of 10- to 12-win Rams, Bills and Seahawks teams but went 7-11 in the postseason. Knox has never earned much Hall of Fame buzz.
This is the point where I'm supposed to bring up The Drive, The Fumble, whatever the heck Chargers fans call that Marlon McCree play and all the other snake-bit circumstances that kept Schottenheimer's teams out of the Super Bowl. I prefer to wonder how some of those teams reached the playoffs in the first place.
How did the 1986 Browns go 12-4? Yeah, Bernie Kosar was a pretty good quarterback, Ozzie Newsome was a Hall of Fame tight end and the cornerbacks (Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield) were great. That team's leading receiver was Brian Brennan, Kevin Mack led them in rushing with 665 yards and 34-year Carl Hairston was the sack leader. The 1995 Chiefs went 13-3 with Steve Bono at quarterback, 35-year-old Marcus Allen rushing for 890 yards and Willie Davis leading the team with 527 receiving yards. Yeah, Neil Smith and Derrick Thomas led a 47-sack defense, but 13 wins with Steve Bono?
Schottenheimer's Hall of Fame candidacy boils down to whether you see an outstanding coach who kept getting 12-14 wins out of 8- to 10-win teams before crashing into John Elway or Tom Brady in the playoffs or a great "regular-season coach" who didn't have "what it takes to win the big one" (whatever the hell that means). There haven't been many coaches like Schottenheimer in football history. If you look at what he did, instead of what he didn't do, you'll start to really like what you see.
Dallas Cowboys: Jason Witten, Tight End
Witten is overqualified for the Hall of Fame.
There are no guaranteed benchmarks for enshrinement, but 10 Pro Bowls usually do the trick and then some. Barring an unfortunate injury, Witten will be the 11th player and second tight end to reach 1,000 career receptions. Antonio Gates is currently 155 receptions behind Witten and 23 months older than him, so Witten's numbers can't be written off as a product of an era where pass-catching tight ends get a lot of opportunities. Witten also has a Walter Payton Man of the Year award and the esteem of both Dallas-based and national reporters. He won't face a split Cowboys ticket, because Tony Romo won't generate any Hall of Fame buzz unless he embarks on an epic late career.
Witten probably doesn't "feel" like a Hall of Famer to non-Cowboys fans. He was generally the second- or third-best tight end in the league for his whole career, with Tony Gonzalez ranked first and a rotating cast of Gates, Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski ranked second. The Cowboys have been more famous for falling short of the playoffs than for reaching them for much of Witten's career. And while Witten has always been a very good blocker, many fans are preconditioned to look at tight ends with high reception totals with suspicion; our dads and grandpas hit us with a lot of "couldn't hold a candle to Mike Ditka" nonsense when we sat at their feet and watched Shannon Sharpe all those years ago.
There's no shame in sharing second-best status, for a whole decade, behind the greatest player in NFL history at your position. It's not Witten's fault that Jerry Jones decided to be his own general manager for a decade, weakening the Cowboys' infrastructure. And the whole "real tight ends block first and catch second" thing went out the window over 30 years ago. Witten is the best player to represent a period of Cowboys history that, if you take a second look at it, hasn't been as ridiculous as we sometimes make it out to be.
One quick final note: For a historically great franchise that is also one of the world's most recognizable professional sports brands, the Cowboys have not done as well in Hall of Fame voting as you might think. Chuck Howley has five All-Pro selections and an MVP award from Super Bowl V, which admittedly is the Godfather III of Super Bowls. Howley is not in the Hall of Fame. Cornell Green was a three-time All-Pro and one of the best safeties in pro football during the merger era. He has never gotten any consideration. Don Meredith was a great quarterback for many years, played in some of the most famous games in history and became one of football's most well-known and likeable personalities after his retirement. He has never been a finalist.
There are others. Howley is the only one with top-tier qualifications, but there are a lot of old Cowboys whose accomplishments were swallowed up by history because the whole organization was so good for so long, and perhaps by a smidge of anti-America's Team backlash.
The whole "Cowboys were just too good" problem is something Witten doesn't have to deal with.
Detroit Lions: Alex Karras, Defensive Lineman
I searched for a good recent candidate. Heaven knows I tried. Calvin Johnson? Try composing a Calvin Johnson Hall of Fame argument that doesn't begin and end with "he catches a lot of passes." Jason Hanson? Do we really want to go there? Herman Moore? There are only so many 1990s receivers who can be seriously endorsed.
The Lions are a charter NFL franchise with almost a century of history and one real Hall of Famer from the last 40 years. There's no way to sugarcoat it: Barry Sanders must carry the flag for roughly two generations.
At least the 1950s and early-1960s Lions are well represented: Doak Walker, Yale Lary, Lou Creekmur, Joe Schmidt and other guys whose biggest fans probably don't read Internet slideshows. Those old Lions are almost over-represented in the Hall of Fame, yet the most famous pre-Super Bowl-era Lions player of all has never been a finalist.
Karras was a three-time All-Pro defensive tackle and one of the NFL's biggest stars in the early 1960s. He later went on to have a successful acting career and star in one of the funniest scenes in cinema history. He was also Webster's adopted dad on Webster. If you are too young to know what that means, well, maybe you should just click forward a few slides.
Karras was also somewhere between the Chad Ochocinco and Marshawn Lynch of his era. He initially turned down the NFL in favor of pro wrestling, and he was always involved in some contract hassle or other kerfuffle. Like Lynch, he was polarizing in his day. Karras and Packers running back Paul Hornung were suspended for one year in 1963 for getting too chummy with gamblers. Hornung was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame. Karras was more of a cuss during his career and a showman before and after. Throw in a mid-career suspension, and he gave voters plenty of reasons to say no.
So we're left with a player with pretty good on-field Hall of Fame credentials and a long second career as one of the most famous ex-football players in America. By the time Karras died in 2012, memories of his suspension and contract battles had long faded. All that was left were those great old Lions teams and Blazing Saddles. Maybe the Seniors Committee can also forgive what most of us have already forgotten.
BONUS KARRAS CLIP: Karras grappling with a female wrestler on The Match Game. This is what the 1970s were like, kids.
Denver Broncos: Randy Gradishar, Linebacker
In 1983, Randy Gradishar retired after seven Pro Bowl appearances, a Defensive Player of the Year award and a star turn as leader of the Orange Crush defense. Yet in the years that followed, the Hall of Fame exclusively inducted Lombardi Packers, Al Davis Raiders, Fearsome Foursome Rams, one Cowboys great and a bunch of guys whose best seasons took place at least 20 years earlier.
It was a problem that would get worse as the years went by. From 1980 through 2002, the Hall enshrined:
- Eleven Raiders (including Al Davis);
- Ten Steelers (including Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney);
- Eight Dolphins (including Don Shula);
- Eight Cowboys (including Tom Landry and Tex Schramm);
- Seven players whose stardom predated the arrival of the AFL in 1960;
- Six Hank Stram-era Chiefs (including Stram);
- Five Lombardi Packers (many of the biggies were already in);
- Five George Allen-era Redskins (including Allen);
- Fifty-two other players and coaches representing the rest of the AFL and NFL combined across several decades.
Now, the period from 1980 through 2002 was a long time. Early in the era, 1960s Rams like Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen had to jockey for the handful of slots not occupied by Lombardi Packers, Steel Curtain Steelers and two-way players for football's New York Yankees. By the end of the period, Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott had to muscle their way onto ballots that were still clearing Howie Long and Art Rooney through the system. By 2002, Jim Kelly made the Hall along with John Stallworth and Dave Casper (and others), as voters kept going back to those vintage teams like lab mice to a pellet tube.
In other words, if you played from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s and wanted to be a Hall of Famer, you had better have played for one of the dynasties, unless you were ultra-famous like Joe Namath or insanely overqualified like John Hannah.
The Seniors Committee has been working overtime in recent years to correct this problem, bringing Mick Tingelhoff, Floyd Little and Claude Humphrey into the fold. There's a long backlog of great players from the merger through the mid-'80s who are just as qualified as those second-tier Packers-Steelers-Raiders stars, and the backlog gets longer every year.
Gradishar was a Hall of Fame finalist in 2004 and 2008; it's time to stop goofing around and vote him in. The Orange Crush was second only to the Steel Curtain among defenses of the late 1970s, and Gradishar was second only to Lambert among linebackers. He was one of the pioneer coverage linebackers of an era when passing games suddenly opened up and inside linebackers had to do more than focus on run keys. When Pro Football Weekly published an All-Time 3-4 Defense in 2008, Gradishar was an inside linebacker, along with:
- Defensive end Howie Long (Hall of Famer);
- Defensive tackle Curley Culp (Hall of Famer);
- Defensive end Lee Roy Selmon (Hall of Famer);
- Outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor (Hall of Famer);
- Outside linebacker Andre Tippett (Hall of Famer);
- Inside linebacker Harry Carson (Hall of Famer).
Pretty good company. Gradishar should join them soon—as soon as he stops getting penalized for retiring at a time when Hall of Fame voters thought the NFL was an eight-team league.
Green Bay Packers: Jerry Kramer, Guard
Vince Lombardi entered the Hall of Fame in 1971. Jim Taylor joined his coach in 1976. Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg came aboard in 1977, Ray Nitschke in 1978. Herb Adderley got his bust in 1980, Jim Ringo and Willie Davis in 1981, Paul Hornung in 1986 and Willie Wood in 1989.
The committee then rolled over, lit a cigarette, and stopped thinking about the Lombardi Packers.
Jerry Kramer was a finalist in 1974, '75, '76, '78, '79, '80, '81, '84 and '87. He was always competing with one of his teammates, usually two or three. If you know how Pro Football Hall of Fame voting works, you know that is bad news: the Packers regional representative can only stump for so many players per year, and while national voters weren't going to deny a Lombardi Packers entry, they weren't ready to wave them in three at a time.
The Seniors Committee found a little more Lombardi love in 1995, but instead of honoring Kramer they chose defensive lineman Henry Jordan. Jordan had only been a finalist twice during the Packers gold rush. Like Kramer, Jordan was a five-time All-Pro. But Kramer was an important figure in one of the signature plays of NFL history: Starr's one-yard touchdown in the Ice Bowl. "Signature moments" are a big deal in Hall of Fame discussions. Kramer might have the most memorable "signature moment" of any offensive lineman in history. Still, no bust.
The modern Seniors Committee appears committed to recognizing great players from "near miss" teams like Mick Tingelhoff, Curley Culp and Claude Humphrey instead of adding even more second-rung superstars from dynasties. It's a worthy cause: Those old Packers-Steelers induction sprees left a lot of outstanding players on the sideline. But Kramer is overwhelmingly qualified. No one deserves to be penalized for contributing to one of the most historically important franchises in American sports history.
Houston Texans: J.J. Watt, Defensive Line
Click fishing? Me? Do you really think I would violate the sanctity of an Internet slideshow by writing something provocative just to get attention? Heaven forbid.
This is serious. At age 26, Watt has already built up about 75 percent of a Hall of Fame resume. We don't have to play the if he keeps this up for another five years game to speculate about his candidacy. It's more like if he keeps this up until February.
Through four seasons, Watt has three All-Pro selections, three Pro Bowl berths, two Defensive Player of the Year awards and one sack title. Let's compare him to other recently inducted defensive linemen whose careers were not very long:
Lee Roy Selmon had one All-Pro selection, six Pro Bowl appearances, one Defensive Player of the Year award and no sack titles. Many of Selmon's prime seasons came before sacks were officially kept, but it is unlikely that we would have won any sack titles from 1976 through 1981. He unofficially recorded 11 sacks in his 1979 Defensive Player of the Year season, and before that he was the only guy on the Florida's Gulf Coast that opponents really had to block.
Dan Hampton had one All-Pro selection, four Pro Bowl appearances, and zero sack titles or Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Cortez Kennedy had three All-Pro selections, eight Pro Bowl appearances, one Defensive Player of the Year award and no sack titles.
Howie Long had two All-Pro selections, eight Pro Bowl appearances, and no Defensive Player of the Year awards or sack titles.
Before you complain about some of the other defenders not playing "high sack total" positions: Watt is a 3-4 end, like Selmon and Long. His 20-sack seasons are historically unique, which is another feather in his fledgling Hall of Fame cap.
Hampton and Long played for championship teams. Watt still may, but he doesn't need to. His best Hall comparison is Selmon, who was an expansion team's first breakout superstar. He was a great defender who dragged the Buccaneers into the playoffs in their best seasons and kept them from becoming a laughingstock in their worst. Sound familiar? Yes, the Texans had Andre Johnson before Watt, but Watt's the first player to spur Texans jersey sales in Michigan and Delaware.
Let's say Watt is a first-team All-Pro for two more seasons. After that, he can decline a little, switch to tight end, retire to run for senate, whatever. Five All-Pro selections, two Defensive Player of the Year awards and a long highlight reel of signature plays (on both sides of the ball) would make Watt an overwhelmingly qualified Hall of Fame candidate, not a borderline candidate. It would push him past guys like Selmon and Kennedy, making him more like the Gale Sayers of defensive linemen, a player so transcendent for a few years that voters say "Short career, shmort career."
Watt's Hall of Fame application could be signed, sealed and delivered by New Year's Eve 2016. Anything after that would be very rich gravy.
Indianapolis Colts: Edgerrin James, Running Back
Edgerrin James was a great player who left a tricky Hall of Fame legacy. He comes in at about a B-plus in just about every category that makes up the typical Hall of Fame portfolio:
All-Time Records: James ranks 11th on the all-time rushing list at 12,246 yards. Everyone above him is either in the Hall of Fame or LaDainian Tomlinson (who will get in quickly), and the next three guys below James on the all-time list are also in. But totals yards alone don't do the trick: many James contemporaries, such as Corey Dillon, Fred Taylor and Warrick Dunn, aren't too far behind him, and some still-active players, such as Frank Gore, are still climbing.
Signature Seasons: James won two rushing titles in his first and second seasons, then had a magnificent 2004, rushing for 1,548 yards. But he also lost most of 2001 and part of 2002 to injuries, and his late-career 1,000-yard seasons with the Cardinals aren't needle-movers by Hall of Fame standards.
Pro Bowls: James was a first-team All-Pro as a rookie and made the Pro Bowl three other times. His Pro Bowl credentials aren't spectacular, but Pro Bowl berths don't mean as much to running backs as they do to players at no-stat positions.
Awards: James won a Rookie of the Year award and was named to the Hall of Fame's all-decade team for the 2000s. A little MVP or Offensive Player of the Year notice would have helped here, but James shared the backfield with a guy who got most of the MVP attention.
Memorable Teams: James was part of the Peyton Manning Colts, but he was not part of the Peyton Manning Colts when they won the Super Bowl. He was also a committee back for the Kurt Warner Cardinals when they reached the Super Bowl, but he missed the chance to cap his career, Jerome Bettis-style, with some heroics off the bench to win a championship.
Defining/Signature Moments: James was famous for dozens of 15- to 25-yard runs, not a handful of 80-yarders that fit neatly into a three-minute montage. His Colts teams are known for losing playoff games. James had lots of important runs and games, but there is no singular remember when he did this moment that non-Colts fans can bring immediately to mind.
Other: James ranks 13th on the all-time yards-from-scrimmage list, but that's not a great list to turn to when trying to win a Hall of Fame argument. Anyone who wants to play ”credit Jenga" (the game where you declare someone to be "a product of the system" by shifting the weight of his accomplishments to teammates) can point out how much of an impact Peyton had on James' production.
James is on a split ticket until the committee finishes toying with Marvin Harrison. James reached semifinalist status in 2015 and will probably stay there until Harrison cycles through. Tomlinson then arrives to complicate matters, and other Colts candidates like Dwight Freeney will hit the ballot if James lingers too long—we're assuming Peyton won't need any stump speeches from Indiana to make his case.
If the Pro Football Hall of Fame lacked a backlog, James would probably slide in soon. As it stands, he needs voters to take a second look at how dominant he was in his best years. Sometimes, lots of B-pluses add up to an overall "A."
Jacksonville Jaguars: Tony Boselli, Offensive Tackle
Four major obstacles stand between Tony Boselli and the Hall of Fame: Willie Roaf, Walter Jones, Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Pace.
Boselli was the best offensive lineman in the NFL from 1996 through 1999. Then Jones, Ogden and Pace rose to take that title, while Roaf (Boselli's peer in the late 1990s) kept playing at a high level forever. Injuries ended Boselli's career after just seven seasons, and the sands of time buried an era when the Jaguars were one of the most competitive, exciting new franchises in American professional sports.
Roaf, Ogden and Jones are all in the Hall, and Pace is just waiting his turn while the Greatest Show on Turf Rams all queue up. Boselli's career looks short and inconsequential compared to theirs: no Super Bowls, no teams with nicknames, not even a Shaun Alexander or Priest Holmes with a 20-touchdown season to list on the blocking resume.
But then we start to remember those 1990s Jaguars. They beat John Elway's Broncos 30-27 in the playoffs in just their second season of existence. They went 14-2 in 2000, defeating Dan Marino and the Dolphins 62-7 in the playoffs. Those were great teams, assembled under unusual circumstances. And while Pace's Rams really belonged to Kurt Warner, Odgen's Ravens to Ray Lewis and the defense, and Roaf's Chiefs and Jones' Seahawks to a host of personalities and stars, the 1996-2000 Jaguars belonged to Tony Boselli.
The selection committee used to have a soft spot for linemen whose careers were cut short by injuries like Dwight Stephenson. More recently, however, the great left tackles of the 2000s set the bar much higher. Boselli can't quite match the accomplishments of the linemen who followed him. But for a few years, he was as good as any lineman ever to play in the NFL, and the story of the expansion Jaguars and their conquest of the AFC old guard deserves to be remembered. Enshrining Boselli would help keep those already-fading memories alive.
Kansas City Chiefs: Tony Gonzalez, Tight End
We've kept most of the obvious soon-to-be Hall of Famers off this slideshow. The problem is that there are few old Chiefs worth arguing about now that Will Shields is being enshrined. We could bang the drum for AFL superstar tackle Jim Tyrer (six All-Pro selections), except that:
a) I know nothing about Jim Tyrer except that he's an AFL superstar tackle who earned six All-Pro selections; and
b) The Hank Stram Chiefs have gotten plenty of Hall of Fame notice. The Chiefs, in general, are well-represented in the Hall of Fame for most of their history.
Gonzalez is a Hall of Fame candidate of the Brett Favre-Tom Brady level, and I would probably have just spent a slide on Tyrer or Deron Cherry or somebody, except that:
- Marvin Harrison is entering his third season of waiting for Hall of Fame enshrinement.
- Cris Carter and Tim Brown each waited six years.
- "All he did was catch a lot of passes" is the second-favorite contrarian argument among some voters.
- "He wasn't a complete player" is the favorite.
So while Gonzalez will reach the Hall of Fame, there's precedent for making him wait two, six or an indeterminate number of years.
That's why this slide exists: to assert that Tony Gonzalez was the greatest tight end of all time, that the "not a good enough blocker" argument that was used against him for much of his career is a toxic nonsense dump, that a tight end who blocks at all while finishing second to Jerry Rice on the all-time reception list is one of the most remarkable feats in football history, and that Gonzo needs to go in on the first ballot, get voted onto pro football's All-First 100 Years team when that happens and generally receive every honor a tight end can possible earn.
Sometimes, playing Devil's Advocate is healthy. Sometimes, it's just going into denial for the sake of denial. Most voters are certainly planning to fast-track Gonzalez into Canton. For those who want to waive "not a blocker" (like we haven't heard that since Kellen Winslow) or "no signature moment" (start with the 2012 playoffs against the Seahawks and work backward) around, well, don't make me unplug your laptops in the press box, guys.
Miami Dolphins: Zach Thomas, Linebacker
Head over to Pro Football Reference, load up the Dolphins franchise encyclopedia, click on the all-time Dolphins leaders in Approximate Value, and you get a list that starts like this:
- Dan Marino, 216
- Zach Thomas, 145
- Bob Griese, 139
- Jason Taylor, 131
- Larry Little, 126
Those Approximate Values are great HoF argument starters but lousy finishers; the values contain lots of built-in compromises and distortions that can lead an argument in some loopy directions. Still, when a player like Thomas finishes second on a list like the Dolphins' list, which overflows with Hall of Famers, it makes you take notice.
You remember Thomas: He was supposedly too short to play linebacker at 5'11", but Jimmy Johnson inserted him behind a very big, very good defensive line (which included Jason Taylor, Thomas' eventual brother-in-law) and Thomas read, reacted, flowed and pursued his way to five All-Pro seasons, 1,100 tackles, 17 interceptions, four interception-return touchdowns and a host of other big plays for a perennial playoff team that finished sixth or better in the NFL in yards allowed for five consecutive years from 1998 through 2002. Thomas, Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher were the best middle linebackers in the NFL from 1998 through 2006, with Urlacher arriving a little later in that period.
Are there knocks on Thomas? Well, he's third behind Lewis and Urlacher in most minds, and his candidacy could hit a jetty if he's still on the agenda when those linebackers reach the ballot. Thomas has already been a nominee twice without reaching semifinalist status, which is more about the insane backlog the committee faces each year than about Thomas' worthiness, but he is likely to finally creep into the finals just as Lewis and Urlacher hit the docket. Those Johnson Dolphins are not well remembered nationally, which hurts Thomas' chances of building a consensus, as does the fact that he shares nominee status with Taylor. It's never good for two players on a playoff also-ran to knock on the Hall of Fame's door at the same time: The result is usually a split ticket.
Taylor is an argument for another time. Thomas has an excellent Hall of Fame resume. There aren't many guys who can push Bob Griese down a list of all-time Dolphins greats, and it would be a shame to keep him out of Canton for reasons that have little to do with his actual accomplishments.
Minnesota Vikings: Jim Marshall, Defensive End
Hall of Fame voters of the last generation loved toying with the Purple People Eater Vikings, who, of course, muddled their own cause by losing four Super Bowls.
Paul Krause is still the all-time pro football interception leader with 81 career picks. He made eight Pro Bowls and played in four Super Bowls. Krause retired in 1979 but did not even reach finalist status until 1994, earning enshrinement in 1998. The logic of the era was that Krause was a mere cherry picker playing behind a great defense, his high interception total turned against him by a committee that had an almost pathologically contrarian attitude toward stats back in the day.
Carl Eller was a five-time All-Pro defensive end for that defense, which was so good it allowed a punk like Krause to cherry-pick 81 interceptions. Eller started in the NFL for 13 seasons. He was a finalist 12 times before finally getting inducted in 2004, 25 years after his retirement.
Class of 2015 member Mick Tingelhoff, a five-time All-Pro and starter for 17 seasons, was never even a finalist. Dwight Stephenson and Dermontti Dawson both made the Hall at center while Tingelhoff twiddled his thumbs; Tingelhoff basically had the same resume as Stephenson and Dawson early in his career, then played for another decade and started for Super Bowl teams. The anti-Tingelhoff wisdom for years was that he had a terrible game in Super Bowl IV against the great Chiefs defensive line. Unless Tingelhoff turned around and punched Joe Kapp in the face himself (he didn't), it's hard to comprehend that reasoning.
Fran Tarkenton retired with every passing record in the book. It still took him three tries to get in. Did I mention the committee used to be almost pathologically anti-stat?
OK, committee-of-the-past, we get it: great stats, long careers, no rings. And not everyone was forced to wait forever: Alan Page was waved through quickly, as any eight-time All-Pro should be. But Jim Marshall, one of the most famous, remarkable players of that era, is still on the outside.
Marshall played defensive end from 1960 through 1979 and never missed a start. He was an NFL starter at a grueling position for a competitive team until he was 42 years old. Only three players in history have started more games than Marshall—Brett Favre, Bruce Matthews and Jerry Rice—and only Favre topped Marshall's record of 270 consecutive starts.
Marshall got a lot of Favre-like ironman writer-sportscaster love in those late '70s starts, and with good reason. Longevity like Marshall's at any position is rare, which is why George Blanda became a folk hero (and Hall of Famer) in the 1970s. But longevity like Marshall's in the trenches? The only guys who came close to Marshall's consecutive game streak on either line—Mathews, Tingelhoff, Will Shields, Page, Jim Otto, Gene Upshaw—are all in Canton.
Marshall played in just two Pro Bowls, and Page and Eller made him the third-best player on his own defensive line, though it was one of the best lines in history. His "signature moment" is running the wrong way for a touchdown, which doesn't exactly help his cause. Marshall probably received a little Favre-like backlash from the committee in the early years of his candidacy: Voters can be leery of players who were more famous for being famous than being great.
But over 30 years later, that consecutive starts streak only looks more amazing. Claude Humphrey and Elvin Bethea recently made the Hall of Fame, and while I am a huge fan of each of them, Marshall was a much more remarkable player who also happened to be much more famous in his time.
Unfortunately, now that the seniors have finally enshrined Tingelhoff, they may not look back at those Purple People Eaters for a long time.
New England Patriots: Wes Welker, Wide Receiver
I've brought up Welker's candidacy with a few Hall of Fame voters. They always give me the same look. Why don't you switch to coffee, Mike. We'll hail you a cab.
What's so crazy about Welker's Hall of Fame credentials? He's a two-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro. He played in three Super Bowls, led the league in receptions three times, has produced five 110-catch seasons and has 88 postseason receptions. He led the most dangerous passing offense in history in receptions during a 16-0 regular season, which counts for quite a bit. It's not a crazy argument at all.
Let's argue against Welker for a moment. Welker benefited from Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for his entire career. Except for that season when he caught 111 passes from Matt Cassel, made the Pro Bowl and helped the Patriots win 11 games without Brady, but never mind. Welker never won a Super Bowl with the Patriots or Broncos. He was often his team's No. 2 receiver, with Randy Moss doing the stuff that gets the Hall of Fame juices pumping, like out-leaping two defenders for a touchdown. Those 100-catch seasons were a product of a system and an era, Welker catching eight-yard slants in the most pass friendly environment possible.
These sound suspiciously like Andre Reed/Cris Carter arguments; Reed was James Lofton's second fiddle for many years (in terms of deep passes, anyway), Carter shared the limelight with Moss, and both played in great offenses that never won a Super Bowl. Reed and Carter are now Hall of Famers, and most fans were shocked at how long it took.
The selection committee has good reason to be wary of huge reception totals because passing rates have increased steadily since 1978. This year's jaw-dropping total could look like a typical receiver's numbers in about a decade. But 110-catch seasons are not a dime a dozen. There were five 100-catch seasons last year, and the numbers have hovered between two and seven for a decade. Welker's numbers will still jump off the page 10-20 years from now.
We can argue that Brady and Peyton made Welker what he was. Or, we can argue that those short passes to Welker were the defining plays of this era, the post-2007 equivalent of the Packers sweep or the West Coast Offense slant. We can declare that the road to the Hall of Fame cannot be paved with 10.5-yard passes, but then we must wonder why the greatest quarterbacks and coaches of our generation were so darned fond of them.
The problem underlying the Welker candidacy is that it is about to get really, really hard to sort out which Brady-Belichick Patriots reach the Hall of Fame besides Brady and Belichick. Ty Law is in the semifinalist queue and should get in. Adam Vinatieri may not be the best kicker available, but it takes a Grinch to argue against all of those famous playoff field goals. Randy Moss will get in, as much as a Vikings great and citizen of the cosmos as a Patriots star. Richard Seymour has a strong resume, but I'll bet he gets lost on a split ticket. Tedy Bruschi has supporters. Bruschi only made one Pro Bowl and has a career full of injuries, but he's so iconic that he demands at least a little consideration. Vince Wilfork? His resume is not as good as Seymour's, but he's more popular, which muddles everything. Gronk? Way too early.
When prioritizing these guys, how do we weigh multiple rings against contributions to the 16-0 team, the 2011 team, or some other amazing Patriots team that came up a little short? Whose contributions are his own, and whose get lumped onto Belichick's or Brady's ledger? Voters are going to have a lot to sort out over the next 15 years or so.
Welker is not a bad Hall of Fame candidate. He'll just get stuck on ballots with a bunch of teammates who were just about as good.
New Orleans Saints: Sam Mills, Linebacker
Mills led his team to two professional championships and was named all-league three times from 1983 through 1985. Unfortunately, his team was the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars and the league was the USFL.
Mills and Herschel Walker are the only two truly great football players whose participation in the USFL has hurt their Pro Football Hall of Fame candidacies. Walker, a superstar in college, left what would have been three signature NFL seasons in a league that has all but evaporated from memories. Mills, a pint-sized hustle-and-heart linebacker from Montclair State University, would never have gotten a chance to play pro football if the new league hadn't provided extra opportunities. Mills went from obscurity to perennial championship games, but the USFL became a historic footnote and $3 punchline. By 1986, being the league's all-time second-best defender (after Reggie White) wasn't going to impress anyone.
Mills went from the greatest team in USFL history to the greatest Saints team in the franchise's first 40 years, leading the Dome Patrol linebackers (including Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson) as they led the Saints through their first run of playoff seasons. He reached five Pro Bowls, the last with a second-year expansion Panthers team that reached the NFC Championship Game with the 37-year-old, 5'9" Mills having perhaps his best professional season.
Have you spotted a trend? Mills' Stars won big. Mills' Saints, a comically inept team for decades, became a playoff team. Mills' Panthers won so suddenly that they changed our perception of what an expansion franchise should accomplish. Mills was a subatomic particle on the field, flying around at near-light speed and causing explosive collisions, but he was a renowned leader in the huddle and the locker room. Maybe the Pro Bowl totals don't scream "Hall of Famer," but Mills brings a ton of intangibles to the table. (Yes, if they are intangible, then they cannot be weighed. But there are a ton of them. Trust me.)
Maybe USFL greatness doesn't count for much. In Mills' case, however, it underlines what makes a player with good credentials into a great candidate.
New York Jets: Mark Gastineau, Defensive End
You were expecting Joe Klecko? So was I when I started this project. Klecko would be an easy, popular choice—a commonly cited Hall of Fame "snub" who is frequently the subject of fan petitions and other campaigns. The Seniors Committee should get to Klecko in the next few years, and I will applaud his selection.
But consider this…
Klecko and Abdul Salaam became full-time Jets starters in 1978. Marty Lyons joined them in 1979; that's three-fourths of the New York Sack Exchange. Gastineau joined the mix as a starter in 1980.
We don't have official player sacks before 1982, but we have team sacks. The Jets recorded 22 sacks in 1978, a very low total. They recorded 22 more in 1979 and 28 in 1980. Then, suddenly, the Jets produced 66 sacks in 1981. It was widely reported that Klecko recorded 20.5 sacks that season, Gastineau 20. Sacks became an official stat in 1982 in part because of the excitement surrounding the 1981 Jets defense; there's nothing like the attention of the New York media to stimulate demand.
Klecko never approached double-digit sacks again, though he had several other excellent seasons, including an All-Pro selection in 1985. A Jets blog credited Klecko with 96 tackles as a nose tackle (the Jets kept switching from 4-3 to 3-4) that season. But if you know anything about the history of tackle statistics, you know that: a) nose tackles don't record 96 tackles, even if they are Hall of Famers; and b) the Jets media guides had a habit of extreme number fudging that dated back to popular 1960s linebacker Wahoo McDaniel. Not to take anything away from Klecko, but his best years are backed up by lots of phantom stats.
Gastineau's best years, meanwhile, are backed up by real stats: 19 sacks in 1983, 22 (the record for 17 years) in 1984, plus three All-Pro selections, and the UPI's Defensive Player of the Year award in 1984. The big Sack Exchange sack years were essentially big Gastineau sack years, with Klecko and Lyons (and others) pitching in here and there.
Gastineau was also famous and loved it, which was part of his problem. Gastineau invented the sack dance, which was an easy way to get old-school writers to turn on him. He partied (and got arrested) at Studio 54, canoodled with Brigitte Nielsen and gave the tabloids plenty of "selfish showboater" grist. Klecko, meanwhile, made cameos in Burt Reynolds movies, and everybody loved Burt Reynolds movies.
Gastineau recorded 1.5 sacks against the Browns in the 1986 playoffs, but he also got flagged for roughing on a 2nd-and-24 incompletion that gave Bernie Kosar the chance to spark a comeback. The call was controversial, but Gastineau's reputation was not going to earn him any breaks with the refs, and he wasn't going to win many public opinion polls after the Jets lost the game.
So let's see. We have a player who joins three established starters and suddenly triples the team's sack total, sparking a sensation that leads to an actual change in the way statistics are tabulated. He then invents the sack celebration, which we all loathe, unless J.J. Watt is doing it, and then it is cool for some reason. He dominates the league for four years and sets a sack record that lasts for a generation.
There are good reasons why Gastineau is not in the Hall of Fame—his peak was short, the roughing call turned his signature game into a negative, and he has owned up to being something of a nitwit in his best years—but there are also good reasons to give him a second look and unpack a little of his legacy from that early-80s box full of leg warmers and Atari 2600 cartridges.
Maybe Klecko was the better player: He was a much better run defender, more dependable, and so on. But when it came to the Sack Exchange, let's be honest about who really rang the bell.
New York Giants: Tom Coughlin, Head Coach
Coughlin is one of those coaches whose Hall of Fame candidacy will look a lot better in 20 years than it does now. In two decades, we will remember the ornery old cuss fondly. Right now, when he is still snapping at questions he doesn't like and trying to coax injury-plagued teams into the playoffs, he's just another coach disappointing the memory-challenged Big Apple masses—and growling at present and future voters for asking innocent questions about topics like fireworks safety.
Even after time smooths Coughlin's rougher edges and erases his weaker seasons, he's a mid-tier candidate at best. There are six coaches in pro football history who won two championships but are not in the Hall of Fame: Tom Flores, Jimmy Johnson, Buddy Parker, Lou Saban, George Seifert and Mike Shanahan.
Saban won two AFL championships; do with that information what you please (I think of them like AFC Championships; Jack Kemp and Cookie Gilchrist wouldn't have beaten Bart Starr or Jim Brown if there had been a Super Bowl).
Parker led the Lions to two championships at the start of his career in the early 1950s then spent 11 years in Detroit and Pittsburgh proving he wasn't quite as great a coach without Bobby Layne and four other future Hall of Famers in the lineup. Think of Parker as the Shanahan of the pre-Super Bowl era.
Shanahan won't get in because his Super Bowls are tied to Elway and he has come to be defined by his intrigues, not his championships.
Coughlin is nothing like these three coaches.
But Coughlin is a lot like Flores, Johnson and Seifert. All three suffer from comparisons to more successful, more dynamic coaches who either immediately preceded them (John Madden for Flores, Bill Walsh for Seifert) or were still recent enough to be well-remembered by even young fans (Bill Parcells for Coughlin). Their two Super Bowls each are great Hall of Fame conversation starters, but their arguments are a little lacking in the second and third paragraphs: no endless careers, not much "innovator" cred, no shining era in their teams' histories that belong to them and them alone.
But Coughlin has more wins than any two-championship coach who is not in the Hall of Fame except Shanahan, who he should pass this year. (Shanahan has 170 wins, Coughlin 164). Coughlin has more playoff wins than any of the two-ring, no-Hall guys: Coughlin has 12, Seifert 10, Johnson 9, Shanahan and Flores 8.
Coughlin also has a definitive period from 1996 to 1999 when he turned the expansion Jaguars almost immediately into one of the best teams in the NFL. Coughlin's Jaguars teams, which routinely foiled the Elway Broncos, Dan Marino Dolphins and Jim Kelly Bills in the postseason, were historically unique. They may not have won Super Bowls, but the Jaguars add much more to Coughlin's credentials than, say, Johnson taking the Dolphins to the playoffs a few times.
So Coughlin is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate with a prickly pear personality. There may never be a campaign launched in his honor. Then again, he would probably just yell at the campaigners.
Oakland Raiders: Cliff Branch, Wide Receiver
The list below shows the all-time NFL (plus AFL) leaders in postseason receiving yards:
1. Jerry Rice, 2,245 yards (Hall of Famer)
2. Michael Irvin, 1,315 yards (Hall of Famer)
3. Cliff Branch, 1,289 yards
4. Reggie Wayne, 1,254 yards
5. Andre Reed, 1,229 yards (Hall of Famer)
6. Hines Ward, 1,181 yards
7. Fred Biletnikoff, 1,167 yards (Hall of Famer)
8. Paul Warfield. 1,121 yards (Hall of Famer)
9. Drew Pearson, 1,105 yards
10. Art Monk, 1,062 yards
You know who you don't see on that list? A couple of guys named Lynn Swann (he's 16th) and John Stallworth (11th), whose HoF campaigns were built largely on their postseason and Super Bowl heroics.
OK, so Stallworth had 12 postseason touchdown receptions, Swann nine, while Branch only had five. Three of Branch's postseason touchdowns came in two of the three Super Bowls the Raiders won during his long career. But Swann's performance in Super Bowl X became an NFL Films screensaver for 30 years, while Super Bowl XV highlights are rarely shown (or at least this traumatized old Eagles fan never watches them), while the big highlight of Super Bowl XVIII belongs to Marcus Allen, not the veteran receiver who caught six passes for 94 yards and made the game a rout long before Allen's back-and-forth run.
But let's not make this about Branch versus Swann or Stallworth. Branch's credentials stand on their own: three Super Bowl wins in two distinct eras, three All-Pro seasons, a run from 1974 through 1977 when he was probably the best receiver in the NFL, and all those postseason catches and yards. He may well have been the fastest player of his era; by 1983, at age 35, he was still fast enough to outrun the Redskins secondary for a 99-yard touchdown catch. But he wasn't the subject of a million puffy profiles about his ballet dancing, so no Hall of Fame for Branch. Stop making this about Swann!
All Branch had to do to be a shoo-in for the Hall was run his career in reverse. He had his best statistical seasons in the 1970s, when seasons were 14 games and rules favored the defense. By the time the season lengthened and offensive levels increased, Branch was on the downside of his career as the crafty veteran for a Super Bowl team. Move the Super Bowl heroics to the start of Branch's career, then move those 60-catch, 1,092-yard, 13-touchdown seasons to the early 1980s (where they would become 80-catch, 1,400-yard monsters) and suddenly you have a player with rings and stats. In fact there's a receiver with precisely that profile in the Hall of Fame. His name is John Stallworth.
Branch was a semifinalist in 2004 and 2010, and the Seniors Committee is likely to circle back to the old Raiders again after the death of Ken Stabler. Stabler was a great quarterback, but he isn't a great Hall of Fame candidate. Branch was Stabler's top receiver during his glory years and was still helping the Raiders win Super Bowls when Stabler was snaking around Houston and New Orleans. Branch may be the best player of his era not in the Hall of Fame, a fact made a little more frustrating by the fact that a pair of lesser receivers from his era are waving from the inside.
Philadelphia Eagles: Harold Carmichael, Wide Reciver
Carmichael's 1973 season—67 catches, 1,116 yards, nine touchdowns—is one of the greatest wide receiver seasons ever. It doesn't look like much, because seasons were just 14 games back then and defensive backs were allowed to wear spiked gauntlets on the field, but using state-of-the-art analytics, I determined that Carmichael's 2014 numbers would work out to 5,280 catches, six million yards and infinite touchdowns.
OK, maybe my late-70s Eagles fandom skewed the calculations a bit. But Carmichael led the NFL in receiving by more than 200 yards and receptions by eight in 1973. He was not a first-team All-Pro, however. All-Pro honors went to Harold Jackson, who caught 40 passes, and Paul Warfield, who caught 29 passes.
Carmichael doesn't look like a Hall of Famer on the encyclopedia page: four Pro Bowls, three 1,000-yard seasons, lots of apparent ordinariness. There was, in fact, nothing ordinary about Carmichael, a 6'8" matchup nightmare at wide receiver, the likes of whom the NFL has not seen before, or since. Imagine Calvin Johnson, four inches taller, just as athletic. Like Johnson, Carmichael was stuck on many awful teams and a handful of memorable ones. Unlike Johnson, Carmichael was trapped in an era when offensive levels were lower than they had been in the 1950s and when catching a lot of passes was often held against a receiver. The great ones, like Warfield, only needed to catch two passes per game. Or so the logic went.
Carmichael also caught passes from aging Roman Gabriel and the immortal Mike Boryla for the first half of his career. Gabriel pulled the trigger during the 1973 seasons—the Eagles receivers were called the Fire High Gang for their ability to catch jump balls—but he was injured and inconsistent for the remainder of his career, while Boryla was a 1970s Kirk Cousins, who would have one or two good games, get everyone riled up, and then rapidly disintegrate. Carmichael also had some problems: He was perceived as a cocky pass dropper, like a taller Stevie Johnson.
Then Dick Vermeil and Ron Jaworski arrived, Carmichael matured a bit, and new rules opened up the passing game just as the season expanded to 16 games. Carmichael became a perennial Pro Bowler, the 1980 NFL Man of the Year Award winner for his community service and the most famous player on a team that was suddenly, briefly among the best in the league. Had Carmichael stayed healthy beyond 1982, he would have put up Charlie Joiner numbers; Carmichael's resume blows Joiner's away until Joiner spends the mid-1980s with Dan Fouts. But Carmichael was finished by 1984 and missed the high-reception gravy train.
Carmichael might not be an A-plus Hall of Fame candidate, but he is the kind of player the Seniors Committee should take another long look at. The Hall's receiver selections from the 1970s are a hodge-podge: Selectors grabbed a pair of Steel Curtain Steelers and the ageless-not-extraordinary Joiner, but they missed Carmichael, Cliff Branch, Drew Pearson and other receivers who were generally considered the most dangerous players of their time, not just the guys who caught passes for the best team. Carmichael never won a Super Bowl and even got elbowed out of All-Pro opportunities, but if you remember the era, you know that Carmichael was almost literally larger than life.
(A quick note: Brian Dawkins doesn't need our help to get in the Hall of Fame. Or at least he'd better not.)
Pittsburgh Steelers: Alan Faneca, Guard
With six All-Pro selections, a Super Bowl ring, membership on some other memorable teams (like the 15-1 2004 Steelers) and a recent endorsement from Jerome Bettis, Faneca has everything needed to breeze into the Hall of Fame except fame.
It's not shallow to suggest that Hall of Famers should be famous. Not everyone gets to be Brett Favre, and offensive linemen have a hard time drawing attention to themselves, but Faneca's accomplishments are not that well known outside of Pittsburgh, even by the standards of offensive linemen.
For example, who do you know more about: Faneca or Steve Hutchinson? You probably said Hutchinson, who joined Walter Jones on a great offensive line, blocked for Shaun Alexander and Adrian Peterson, and became the focal point of the infamous "Poison Pill" free-agent negotiations a decade ago. Faneca has more All-Pro and Pro Bowl appearances than Hutchinson, and his Steelers beat Hutchinson's Seahawks in the Super Bowl, but Hutchinson wins the name recognition battle. And neither is as famous as your average quarterback.
The "fame factor" becomes more significant as you look at the voting committee's upcoming docket, see lots of Favre, Ray Lewis and LaDainian Tomlinson shoo-ins, see Marvin Harrison and Orlando Pace lined up at the ticket stand, and realize that there are only so many slots available. "How the heck are we voting Alan Faneca in and leaving Kurt Warner out?" becomes a compelling argument at some point in the selection process.
That's why an endorsement by Bettis helps; it gets Faneca back into the minds of voters. The little things Faneca has done since retirement, like lose 100 pounds and run marathons, help to shape his story a bit: Voters aren't supposed to consider off-field or post-career factors, but it's better to make the news for inspirational reasons than for bad reasons, or to not make any news at all. The fact that Faneca played left tackle for part of one of his signature seasons is also a boost: Guards are sometimes thought of as the worker bees of the offensive line, so a few snaps at a more glamorous/challenging position can go a long way.
Faneca can even be helped by a slideshow like this one. We may not make Faneca trendy, but we can let the voters know that we know who he is.
San Diego Chargers: Walt Sweeney, Guard
You know that Junior Seau was an all-time great, a relentless wild man on the field but a respected figure off it, a fixture in San Diego for many years, an individual who paid far too high a price for his service in the NFL, and a cautionary tale from which the Pro Football Hall of Fame prefers to distance itself. You may not know that there is a very similar player lurking in the forgotten corners of pro football history.
Walt Sweeney was a nine-time Pro Bowler in the AFL and NFL. AFL all-stars should be examined skeptically during Hall of Fame arguments, because the league was not close to NFL caliber in its first two or three seasons, but Sweeney remained a Pro Bowler and sometime All-Pro through the late 1960s and early '70s, when the AFL was winning Super Bowls and forcing mergers.
Sweeney was a star lineman for Sid Gillman's innovative Chargers teams that featured John Hadl at quarterback and Hall of Famer Lance Alworth at wide receiver, with Hall of Fame tackle Ron Mix at Sweeney's side throughout the glory years. Sweeney was fierce and a little reckless on the field but a great teammate off it, a popular player in his region and era.
Sweeney also became a drug addict. He blamed football for his addictions, and anyone who studies Woodstock-era football knows that uppers and painkillers were practically set out in candy dishes in locker rooms. Leigh Montville wrote of Sweeney's struggles for Sports on Earth when the Chargers great died a few years ago. Montville told the story of a disillusioned, broken man trying to pull his life back together while growing increasingly resentful of the sport that gave him fame and money but took much more away.
Sweeney fought for two years to get the NFL's pension trustees to acknowledge that his drug-related health problems were the league's fault, eventually winning a $1.8 million settlement. That decision was later overturned. Sweeney had 25 knee surgeries after his career, including a few replacements. He rehabbed and lapsed. He collaborated on a biography titled "Off Guard," which is full of harrowing tales of team trainers handing out steroids like they were breath mints, stories corroborated by teammates like Mix and just about everyone who was in an NFL or AFL locker room in those days.
Between the drug abuse—a much more controversial issue in the '70s and '80s than it is now—and his harsh criticism and litigation against the NFL, Sweeney was kept at arm's length by Hall of Fame voters. Alworth and Mix were stronger candidates, anyway. By the time Sweeney reached the Seniors Committee, there were dozens of candidates to select who weren't going to raise eyebrows by talking about methamphetamine, steroids and battles with the league that proved far tougher than battles with Merlin Olsen.
So committees of the past didn't want to make waves: Fair enough, it was a different era. After the Seau selection and the Hall's shifty nervousness about letting Seau's daughter speak—initially denied, Sydney Seau will now get to speak, but only in an interview format—we need all the waves we can get. Sweeney has Hall of Fame credentials, and the Hall needs his story to balance all of the tough-guy, light-of-the-jukebox balderdash we've heard from the Hall's podium over the years. The tough and lovable guys often didn't have happy endings, and pro football is often the primary reason for that. Pretending it ain't so only makes matters worse.
San Francisco 49ers: Patrick Willis, Linebacker
How will the Jim Harbaugh 49ers be remembered 20 years from now? A lot of that depends on how the team does under new coach Jim Tomsula and the seven or eight guys left who filled out their retirement paperwork incorrectly. Unless Tomsula leads the straggling leftovers (leftover stragglers?) to multiple Super Bowls, we will be left with a legacy that doesn't fit any neat archetypes.
Or maybe it does. Harbaugh's 49ers may be remembered the way we remember the Bum Phillips Oilers or Buddy Ryan Eagles, a pair of teams which:
- Took their cues and personality from an irreverent head coach who left or was fired while the team was still playoff-caliber;
- Had a great deal of regular-season success and participated in several memorable playoff games but never won a Super Bowl;
- Were defense-oriented, sometimes to a fault; and
- Spent several seasons seeking a new identity after those irreverent coaches left.
The good news about those old Bum and Buddy teams is that they are remembered at all, and the coach-versus-the-establishment narrative takes some of the retrospective sting out their playoff exits. No one blames Earl Campbell or Reggie White for the failure of the Oilers or Eagles to win a Super Bowl: They were great players on zany thrill rides that ended a little too soon.
So when Willis applies to the Hall of Fame in five years, chances are we will already be looking back fondly on those crazy Harbaugh years. The longer Willis waits (he won't be a first-ballot selection; the committee might still be getting to Kurt Warner when he hits the docket) the more the Harbaugh Niners may start to feel like a crazy fever dream of basketball-like playoff victories over the Saints, near-miss Super Bowl losses to the Ravens and epic defensive duels with the Seahawks.
Those fond memories will only help Willis, a five-time All-Pro who has a highly worthy Hall of Fame peak but chose to skip the third act of his career. Voters are generally sympathetic to outstanding short-career players, from Gale Sayers through Lee Roy Selmon. They just have to remember those players.
Willis and Harbaugh made the 49ers both great and memorable, so Willis won't get swept under the Randy Gradishar carpet. Willis will represent an era of 49ers football that burned too brightly and flamed out too soon but was a blast while it lasted.
Seattle Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch, Running Back
Several of the Seahawks experts on my Christmas card list suggested Kenny Easley for a Hall of Fame argument. Easley is a great choice: a five-time Pro Bowler and innovator at the safety position who was among the best defenders in the NFL from 1982 through 1987. But this slideshow cannot be allowed to descend any further into "old guy picks his favorites from childhood" territory than it already has. Let's embrace a more controversial debate: What does Marshawn Lynch have to do to reach the Hall of Fame?
Lynch already has most of the components of a strong Hall of Fame argument:
- Six 1,000-yard-plus seasons and five Pro Bowl appearances.
- Major contributions to a Super Bowl champion and to an NFC champion that lost a memorable Super Bowl.
- Signature playoff performances, including his two-touchdown game against the Saints in the 2013 playoffs (including a highlight-worthy run in which he shed eight tacklers) and his major role in last year's victory over the Packers. The Seahawks' goal-line interception in the Super Bowl even works in Lynch's favor from the standpoint of history: Marshawn Lynch would have won that game is the kind of meme that grows into mythology.
- A tackle-breaking rushing style that created a whole NFL Films Presents episode's worth of memorable highlights. Lynch is going to stick permanently in our memories.
On the flip side, Lynch has done one thing that jeopardizes nearly all of the other Hall of Fame arguments:
- Ticking off a large percentage of my colleagues, including many of the most influential ones (the ones likely to make up a selection committee in about eight years), by aggressively thumbing his nose at the whole concept of media availability.
If you compare Lynch to Jerome Bettis, you realize they have similar overall resumes. Both are power runners who changed teams early in their careers, getting most of their Hall of Fame juice from their second teams. Both had a string of 1,000-yard seasons and Pro Bowl appearances; Bettis' was longer, but Lynch is not finished yet, and his best seasons are stronger than Bettis' best seasons. Both won Super Bowls and made the playoffs a bunch of times; Lynch was the better playoff performer, as Bettis had become a committee back by the time the Steelers won the Super Bowl.
Lynch's Hall of Fame credentials are better than Bettis' in many ways, and if he plays for two more years, adds more playoff performances and pushes past 10,000 rushing yards, Lynch will clearly have the superior resume. But Bettis was bubbly and lovable, while Lynch is a prickly pill. Lynch doesn't only have to be as good as Bettis to reach the Hall of Fame: He must be about 20-to-75 percent better.
We could also compare Lynch to John Riggins favorably: power runner, two franchises, late-career Super Bowl glory, lots of contract squabbles and zero points for congeniality. Riggins' antics were retconned from "obnoxious" to "charming" in the years after his retirement, and the same might happen for Lynch. For every two or three media members he has infuriated, there's one (often younger) reporter chuckling at his Kabuki press conferences. If time ages Lynch from guy who made my job harder into cool rebel, he is about one signature season away from becoming a serious Hall of Fame candidate.
St. Louis Rams: Kevin Greene, Linebacker
Ironically, if Greene had zero official sacks because he played in the 1970s, he'd have already been carried into the Hall of Fame on a velvet pillow. A Rams and Steelers star with a wild man reputation, Lynyrd Skynyrd-roadie hair, and a long post-playing career as an approachable and agreeable assistant coach? Voters would write sonnets about how fearsome and disruptive Greene was, his intensity on the field and (yep) his lunch pail attitude off it.
Hall of Fame voters used to view the all-time sack leaderboard with more suspicion than they usually had when looking at tables of numbers. Sacks only became official stats in 1982, and it was not that long ago that good-not-great defenders like Clyde Simmons and Sean Jones were hanging around the top 10, with Deacon Jones and Buck Buchanan stuck forever at zero. But the leaderboard has stabilized.
Greene is third on the all-time sack list, and there is no one within more than 60 sacks of him under the age of 32, so he is going to stay in the top five for many years.
The two players ahead of him (Bruce Smith and Reggie White) are Hall of Famers, as are seven of the next nine players who are not still active. But in the same way Cris Carter had to overcome the notion that all he did was catch touchdowns, we need to see that Green was more than just a one-dimensional sack specialist.
Anyway, I scoured some Football Outsiders play-by-plays for reliable Greene stats a few years ago. Did you know that Greene recorded 35 tackles on running plays for 1.79 yards per run in 1989? By contrast, Lawrence Taylor recorded 31 run tackles for 3.25 yards per run that year. I have a lot of data like that: Greene performing comparably to Taylor (or better than him) against the run, Greene defending passes and tackling tight ends after the catch, general evidence that a 16-game starter who recorded double-digit sacks 10 times in his career didn't spend rushing downs at the Gatorade table.
None of this should matter, because the argument is silly. The real reasons Greene has been stuck at the finalist stage for four years are:
- There's a backlog, so everybody has to wait.
- Greene played several signature seasons for the Los Angeles Rams, which no longer exist, at least as of press time, so it is hard to mount a local groundswell campaign.
- Those Rams are remembered as playoff stumblebums. We don't remember Greene sacking Randall Cunningham twice in the playoffs in 1989. (Well, I sure as heck do, but never mind.) We don't remember Greene's sack to help lift the Rams above Bill Parcells' Giants. What we remember is Jim Everett crumpling into a tiny ball in a 30-3 loss to the 49ers. Those Rams rubbed off on Greene's reputation.
- Pro Bowl Counters (folks who start all Hall of Fame discussions by listing a player's All-Pro or Pro Bowl selections) scoff at Greene's five selections without recognizing that Taylor soaked up near-universal acclaim in Greene's best Rams seasons, leaving Greene, Charles Haley, Pat Swilling and a few others to compete for second place every year. Greene's 16.5 sacks failed to earn him a Pro Bowl slot in 1988 because 4.5 of them came in the season finale, a win against the 49ers to launch the Rams into the playoffs. So Greene terrorized Joe Montana and Steve Young for an afternoon and pushed his team into the postseason, but ballots were already being counted, so 30 years later we load up Pro Football Reference and say: "no Pro Bowl, tut-tut."
- Greene's Steelers lost their one Super Bowl and suffer from comparisons to the 1970s Steelers and the 2000s Steelers.
- Rams and Steelers voters sympathetic to Greene's cause are also busy trying to wave the Greatest Show on Turf Rams and Steelers like Jerome Bettis through without too much of a wait. Greene is not a top priority for either voting bloc, and even I would try to vote Orlando Pace and Kurt Warner through before banging a table for Greene.
- Greene's All-Pro season for the 1996 Panthers, who played in the NFC Championship Game, was undercut by his sudden defection to the 49ers the following year. His late-career contract disputes are fresh in many minds; committee members don't often jump at the chance to vote for a mercenary-for-hire who walked away from a playoff team.
So Greene is a guy who lacks a Super Bowl ring, a dynasty and the other things that are beyond a linebacker's control.
All he has are the things that were within his control: 160 sacks, five Pro Bowl appearances, three safeties and more than a decade as one of the NFL's most disruptive defenders, against the run and the pass.
If you are looking for something else, you may be looking at the wrong things.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ronde Barber, Cornerback.
The folks at Pro Football Reference have a fun little gadget that allows them to compare "Similar Players" across multiple eras. The math may be fiendish, but the concept is simple: line up a player's career statistics and shape with all the other players in the database, let the computer perform a few thousand calculations and comparisons, then play matchmaker.
- Ronnie Lott
- Champ Bailey
- Aeneas Williams
- Brian Dawkins
- Willie Brown
- Charles Woodson
- Paul Krause
- Eric Allen
- Troy Vincent
- Ty Law
There are four Hall of Famers on that list, plus three other defensive backs—Woodson, Dawkins and Bailey—who are almost certain to reach the Hall. Ty Law has a decent shot as well. It's an impressive list, and it's also an accurate one. Barber is in the company of other defensive backs with long careers, high interception totals, big-play capabilities and, in most cases, reputations for being outstanding run defenders, not just interception cherry pickers.
Barber's credentials go beyond the spreadsheets. He was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame's All-2000s team along with Woodson, Bailey, Law and Dawkins. He was a three-time All-Pro. He has a Super Bowl ring, and his pick-six against the Eagles in the 2002 NFC Championship Game qualifies as a Hall of Fame "signature moment." Ronde and Tiki were the greatest twins in pro football history, and while Tiki didn't become the most popular guy in the football world after his retirement, Ronde stuck around as a distinguished elder statesmen. The Barber twins were among the NFL's most recognizable personalities a decade ago.
We should probably bring up two-time Hall of Fame finalist John Lynch here. Lynch has a fine resume: nine Pro Bowls, two All-Pro selections, the same Super Bowl glory that Barber enjoyed. Lynch also has 26 career interceptions to Barber's 47, zero career touchdowns to Barber's 14, and 13 career sacks to Barber's 28; a safety should probably have more career sacks than a cornerback.
Lynch also enjoyed a bunch of Pro Bowl selections at the end of his career in Denver when he was in his late 30s, intercepted zero passes in some seasons, and had low tackle totals. Those "reputation" Pro Bowls shouldn't be dismissed, because they are often telling you things the stats don't tell you—that Lynch was a respected leader and enforcer in those years. But when a player's Hall of Fame resume starts with his perennial Pro Bowl status, it begs us to take a second look at those Pro Bowl seasons.
Given two votes, I'd select Barber and Lynch, but given just one, I would select Barber without hesitation.
This shouldn't be about Lynch versus Barber. But in a way it is. The local representative on the selection committee can really only put his muscle behind one candidate at a time. So here's an idea: Let's vote Lynch in next year. That way, when Barber hits the ticket in 2017, there are fewer obstacles standing between a player with Ronnie Lott-like measurables and a bust in Canton.
Tennessee Titans: Kevin Mawae, Center
This is a cop-out, of course. Mawae had a handful of excellent seasons for the Titans late in his career, but if he reaches the Hall of Fame (Mawae was a semifinalist in 2015), it will be as a member of the New York Jets. Mawae made six Pro Bowls with the Jets and has Bill Parcells-Curtis Martin connections to help his cause. Mawae made the Pro Bowl the year Chris Johnson rushed for 2,000 yards, so there is some legitimate Titans glory on his resume. But his Titans career is the gravy, not the steak. The Titans just haven't produced any real Hall of Fame candidates since moving away from Houston.
Eddie George had four great seasons and an outstanding playoff run in 1999. Perhaps if Kevin Dyson stretched a few more feet in the Super Bowl George would have a better case: seven 1,000-yard seasons, 10,000 yards and a Super Bowl ring are enough to start a Hall of Fame conversation. But those accomplishments are not enough to finish one: Jamal Lewis, Ricky Watters, Ottis Anderson and Corey Dillon all have 10,000 yards and at least one ring on their resumes but not much of a Hall of Fame bandwagon. George is in good company among them (as well as Warrick Dunn and other contemporaries who cracked 10,000 yards). It's just not Hall of Fame company.
Steve McNair reached three Pro Bowls and, like George, played in one of the most unforgettable Super Bowls ever. He notched an MVP award and a few other Hall of Fame trappings during his career. McNair was a heck of a quarterback, but his playoff record (including six touchdowns and 11 interceptions) isn't great, and his stats won't win any arguments. McNair is a great Ring of Honor candidate but not a serious Hall of Fame candidate.
You get the idea. Jevon Kearse looked like a Hall of Famer for a few years, then slowly faded into a one-dimensional role player. Albert Haynesworth looked like a Hall of Famer for two years, then fell asleep atop a pile of Dan Snyder's money. Chris Johnson burned brightly. The Jeff Fisher Titans were great but not excellent, and they were filled with great-not-excellent players.
I could have dredged up some old Oilers, but the Oilers did very well for themselves in Hall of Fame balloting over the years; Bruce Matthews, who made the move from Houston, will have to carry the flag for those 1999 Titans. We could bring up Robert Brazile, a fine candidate from the Bum Phillips years, or pretend we know anything about AFL lineman Bob Talamini, but all of the best Oilers are in, and Houston has a new team to root for. Mawae, with CJ2K's great season tucked under his arm, will have to do for Tennessee Titans fans, at least until Marcus Mariota makes his case in 20 years.
Washington Redskins: Joe Jacoby, Tackle
There have been some tough Hall of Fame arguments throughout this slideshow, plus a few loopy ones, so I decided to take it easy for the Redskins. Jacoby has been a Hall semifinalist for three straight years, putting him squarely on the radar and in the committee's queue. His bona fides are easy to summarize: three Super Bowl rings, charter membership in the most famous offensive line in football history, four Pro Bowl seasons and lots of great years indistinguishable from those Pro Bowl seasons.
Here's a philosophical question for you: How many members of a famous offensive line should be enshrined in the Hall of Fame? It varies from line to line, of course, but Russ Grimm is currently the only member of the Hogs in Canton.
One problem was that the Hogs stopped getting Pro Bowl notice after John Riggins and Joe Theismann got hurt, as if somehow blocking Jay Schroeder, Doug Williams, Timmy Smith, Mark Rypien and Earnest Byner to championships was less worthy of Pro Bowl consideration. The Pro Bowl and All-Pro ballots show the Hogs peaking from 1983 through 1985, then fading behind more faddish choices like Eric Dickerson's Rams line.
There's a second problem: Hogs membership changed over the course of a decade, with Mark May, Grimm and George Starke giving way to Mark Schlereth, Raleigh McKenzie and Jim Lachey. Jacoby and center Jeff Bostic were the only constants, and even Jacoby moved from left to right tackle by the final Super Bowl.
But still: one member of the Hogs in the Hall of Fame? Only one member of O.J. Simpson's Electric Company (Joe DeLamielleure) is in the Hall, but the Electric Company only had enough juice for a few seasons and never came within charging distance of a Super Bowl, let alone three of them. Two of Jim Brown's blockers (Gene Hickerson and Mike McCormack) are in Canton. Jim Langer and Larry Little blocked for the undefeated Dolphins to get in Canton, Forrest Gregg and Jim Ringo for the Lombardi Packers, and (now) Will Shields joins Willie Roaf for a Chiefs team that will be remembered 25 years from now as having never reached the Super Bowl despite having Will Shields and Willie Roaf (and Tony Gonzalez).
Under those circumstances, there would appear to be room for a second Hog in Canton. Jacoby is that Hog.