Wednesday, August 8, 2007
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Biggest Snubs
An updated version of this article is available as of 2012.
Five Quick Hits
* The Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal keeps getting worse, but by now I'm used to the idea that Vick forced pit bulls to tear each other to pieces, and that he beat poor performers to death by repeatedly slamming them into the ground.
* What's upsetting me just as much at this point are the reactions of people like Clinton Portis, Emmitt Smith, and Deion Sanders, who really seem to sympathize with Vick and feel like he's being treated unfairly. How big a dog-fighting problem does the NFL have?
* Animal rights groups like PETA have been effective using Vick's dog-fighting problems to highlight this kind of atrocity, but it's time to stop going after Vick — let the league and the feds handle it from here — and focus instead on strengthening states' anti-dog-fighting laws.
* Daunte Culpepper to the Raiders: good move by Oakland, who might be getting a great QB, and at worst have picked up a reason for JaMarcus Russell to hurry up and get into camp.
* Culpepper to the Falcons made a ton of sense. I don't know why Atlanta didn't make it happen.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted six new members over the weekend, filling some noteworthy absences in Canton. Thurman Thomas, who should have gone in on the first ballot, was enshrined. Gene Hickerson, a half-century snub who should have been in ages ago, finally made it. Roger Wehrli's induction helps bring the Hall closer to giving defensive backs the credit they deserve. But there are still gaping holes in the Hall's membership. The most obvious way to find these holes is by noticing the makeup of the Hall's membership.
The PFHOF has 249 members. Of these, 47 played before the Modern Era (1946-present), on both offense and defense. Another 21 are coaches, and 17 are what the Hall calls "contributors" — mostly owners, with a few league officials and general managers thrown in. The other 164 are Modern Era players. Of these 164: 23 are quarterbacks, 25 are running backs, 18 are receivers, 7 are tight ends, 32 are offensive linemen, 25 are defensive linemen, 16 are linebackers, 17 are defensive backs, and 1 is a placekicker.
Let's start by examining offense. An NFL offense typically uses one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, and five offensive linemen. Given that QB is a uniquely important position, it seems reasonable that quarterbacks would be over-represented in Canton. Looking at the 105 Modern-Era offensive players in the Hall:
* 22% are quarterbacks
* 24% are running backs
* 17% are wide receivers
* 7% are tight ends
* 30% are linemen
Quarterbacks make up 9% of the offensive players on the field. RBs are 18%, but one of those is the fullback — for the last 25 years a blocking position, where no one has been enshrined or even gotten to the semifinals of the voting process (the last fullback voted in was either John Riggins, who retired 22 seasons ago, or John Henry Johnson, whose last season was 1966.) Wide receivers and tight ends combine for over 27% of the offense. Linemen are almost half (45.5%).
What this tells us is that running backs are over-represented in the Hall of Fame — too many are in — at the expense of receivers and linemen.
Now that Benny Friedman, Hickerson, and Thomas are in, the biggest HOF snub remaining is Art Monk. Monk is the only eligible Modern-Era player ever to hold the NFL record for career receptions who is not in the Hall of Fame. It's not just Monk who's being left out, though.
Bob Hayes was among the NFL's top ten in both receiving yards and receiving TDs six times. His 73 career TDs put him ahead of both Michael Irvin, who was enshrined over the weekend, and Monk. Hayes was the leading receiver on the Cowboys' 1970 and '71 Super Bowl teams, as well as the great Cowboy teams of the late 1960s, including the one that faced Vince Lombardi's Packers in the Ice Bowl. Hayes is in the Seniors pool now, and was voted down as a Seniors candidate in 2004, the only Seniors candidate turned away in the last ten years.
The voters just don't like enshrining receivers. Besides Monk and Hayes, consider Pittsburgh's Hall of Fame receiving duo of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, who were turned away a combined 20 times before getting in. James Lofton, who retired with the most receiving yards in league history, couldn't get in until his third season of eligibility. Henry Ellard, who is among the all-time top 15 in both receptions and receiving yards, has never made it past the first round of voting.
The recipe for the Hall to fix this problem: Cris Carter, who becomes eligible this year, should get in easily. But the voters also need to induct Monk and Hayes, with consideration of Otis Taylor, Drew Pearson, Cliff Branch, Ellard, and Andre Reed.
The Hall has done a good job recently of voting in deserving linemen. In 2000, there were only 26 offensive linemen in Canton. The top candidates for inclusion, some of whom are in the Seniors pool, should include Mick Tingelhoff (center, Vikings), Bob Kuechenberg (guard, Dolphins), Russ Grimm (guard, Washington), Joe Jacoby (tackle, Washington), and three recently eligible candidates: Dermontti Dawson (center, Steelers), Randall McDaniel (guard, Vikings), and Gary Zimmerman (tackle, Vikings and Broncos). It's a travesty that of the Hogs — the famous offensive line that led Washington to four Super Bowls in the '80s and early '90s — none have made it to Canton. Grimm seems to have more momentum right now than Jacoby, but both should be in.
Of the 164 Modern-Era players enshrined in Canton, only 58 (35%) primarily played defense. Of those players, 25 are defensive linemen, 16 are linebackers, and 17 are defensive backs. What this means, right off the bat, is that the Hall needs more linebackers and DBs. But all of those positions can be broken down further — defensive tackles and ends on the line, inside and outside linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties in the secondary. Safety can even be sub-divided into free safety and strong safety. Here's the most glaring problem: Canton only has five outside linebackers.
Outside linebackers constitute 18% of a defense. They make up 8.5% of defensive players in the Hall, and just 3% of all Modern-Era players. A list of great outside linebackers excluded from Canton includes — in alphabetical order — Maxie Baughan, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection; Joe Fortunato, who was overshadowed by Hall of Fame teammates Bill George and Dick Butkus; Kevin Greene, who ranks third all-time in sacks; Chris Hanburger, who played in nine Pro Bowls; Chuck Howley, a five-time all-pro who was the MVP of Super Bowl V; Dave Robinson, who won three NFL Championships with the Packers; Andy Russell, who went to seven Pro Bowls with the Steel Curtain; Derrick Thomas, who holds the NFL's single-game sack record; and Andre Tippett, the best 1980s OLB this side of Lawrence Taylor and Ted Hendricks. I like Fortunato, Greene, Hanburger, and Howley, but you can make an argument that all of those guys should be in.
Inside linebackers have had better luck, with 12 players in (if you count Chuck Bednarik and George Connor, both of whom also played other positions), but the leading candidate is Randy Gradishar, who anchored the "Orange Crush" defense in the late '70s and early '80s. I've expressed ambivalence about Gradishar in the past, but I do believe he should be in.
Defensive linemen fare better at selector's meetings than their other defensive teammates, but that doesn't mean they're fairly represented. Chicago's Dan Hampton is the only defensive tackle inducted in the last 12 years, and of soon-to-be-eligible DTs, only John Randle seems to have a good chance of enshrinement. The most glaring omission from the interior defensive line is Curley Culp, who effectively created the position of 3-4 nose tackle.
A number of defensive ends have been HOF finalists or semi-finalists recently, but the selectors don't seem to agree on which ones are deserving. The most successful candidates recently have been Fred Dean, the 49er Dynasty's most dynamic defensive player other than Ronnie Lott; Richard Dent, the MVP of Super Bowl XX; L.C. Greenwood, a six-time Pro Bowler for the Steel Curtain; Charles Haley, the only five-time Super Bowl winner in NFL history; and Claude Humphrey, who made six Pro Bowls with Atlanta in the 1970s. I'm not certain I would vote for any of them, but I'm least supportive of Greenwood, who already has four defensive teammates in Canton, and Haley, who was a fine player but whose main claim to fame was being on the right teams at the right times.
He has generated little support in the past, but it's worthy noting that many people — including two giants of NFL history, Steve Sabol (of NFL Films fame) and Paul Zimmerman (a.k.a. Dr. Z) — consider Rich "Tombstone" Jackson the best player at any position not to have a bust in Canton. What hurts Jackson is a short career of only seven seasons, with only three Pro Bowls and no championship appearances.
Another defensive end I support is Chris Doleman, who officially ranks fourth all-time in sacks. Doleman was a six-time all-pro and eight-time Pro Bowler who is one of only five players to record more than 20 sacks in a single season (since 1982, when the NFL began tracking the statistic). If he hadn't played at the same time as Reggie White and Bruce Smith — all three began their NFL careers in 1985 — Doleman would be considered the greatest defensive end of his era, and maybe one of the best ever.
Wehrli's induction last weekend marked the first time a defensive back has been enshrined since Ronnie Lott in 2000, and the first for a cornerback in ten years. Hopefully, Wehrli's induction will open the door for Raiders CB Lester Hayes, who made five Pro Bowls and was named Defensive Player of the Year in 1980. Darrell Green, who becomes eligible this season, should be a first-ballot cornerback entry.
Safety, and strong safety in particular, poses a larger problem. Count me among the backers of Cliff Harris, a hard-hitting free safety who played in five Pro Bowls and three Super Bowls with the Cowboys, but has now fallen into the Seniors pool, from which only two candidates per year can be enshrined. At strong safety, I support Steve Atwater, who went to eight Pro Bowls; Kenny Easley, the Seattle DB who won Defensive Player of the Year before his career was shortened by injury; and LeRoy Butler, the best strong safety of the 1990s.
Atwater and Easley have generated little support, and Butler was ignored in his first year on the ballot, but Hayes may have a chance. He'll have to contend, though, with some legendary DBs, and it's unusual for the voters to pick more than one DB per year (the last time was 1989). Green (2007), Rod Woodson (2008), Aeneas Williams (2009), and Deion Sanders (2010) all become eligible soon, and all but Williams are locks.
Even more than defense, special teams are being snubbed by Hall selectors. It wasn't always like this. Detroit safety Jack Christiansen led the NFL in interceptions twice, but he also led the league in punt return TDs four times. He's in as much for his returning as his defense. Christiansen's teammate Yale Lary recorded 50 career interceptions, but he's also one of the greatest punters ever, and probably wouldn't be in Canton without his special teams contributions. Lou "The Toe" Groza was a fine offensive tackle, but he was also an exceptional placekicker. Gale Sayers wouldn't possibly have gotten in without his returning accomplishments. The list goes on.
Today's selectors, though, ignore special team contributions. This is true both for pure special teamers such as Tommy Davis and Steve Tasker, and for great players whose contributions came partly on special teams, such as Herschel Walker, who added 5,000 return yards to his 13,000 yards from scrimmage.
And let me put in a pre-emptive complaint for Brian Mitchell, the greatest returner since Sayers, who will become eligible after next season and probably will never make it to the voting finals, as well as placekicker Gary Anderson, who has a better chance but may have to wait.
There are two glaring omissions: Clark Shaughnessy and Don Coryell. Neither had a dazzling résumé as head coach, but both were innovators who changed the game. Shaughnessy only spent two seasons as a head coach — which is why the Seniors committee never picks him — but as an assistant to George Halas, he helped frame the game of football as we know it. Coryell was an assistant on Sid Gillman's legendary Charger teams during the AFL glory years, and he amassed over 100 regular-season victories as head coach of the Rams and Chargers. More than the wins, though, Coryell's contribution was to revolutionize passing offense. The "Air Coryell" Chargers, as they were known, led the NFL in passing offense four seasons in a row, an accomplishment never equaled in the Modern Era.
Another category of snubbed players is those from bad teams. Winners are over-represented in Canton. It's appropriate for dynasties to be well-represented, but probably not to the extent that Lombardi's Packers should have 11 Hall of Famers, with three others — Jerry Kramer, Ron Kramer, and Dave Robinson — sometimes mentioned as snubs. The Steel Curtain already has 10 HOF members, not including L.C. Greenwood and Donnie Shell, both of whom have been finalists.
Good players on great teams have a better chance of being enshrined than great players from bad teams, and while winning is the goal of the sport, Hall induction is an individual honor. Over-inclusion of certain teams and positions is part of what keeps deserving players out, and the selectors need to be aware of the biases they and their predecessors have shown. Having said that, recent dynasties have been more moderately represented in Canton.
One player from a recent dynasty who should be in is Daryl "Moose" Johnston. Unquestionably the finest fullback of his era, Johnston has gotten no support from the Hall voters, but his lead blocks were just as important to Emmitt Smith's success as were those of the offensive line. No position should be ignored by the voters — especially one as critical as fullback was for the 1990s Cowboys.
The All-Snub Team
Having acknowledged that some positions actually have too many members in the Canton, here is my All-Snub Team, listing the best eligible player not in the Hall of Fame at every position.
QB Ken Anderson
RB Terrell Davis
FB Daryl Johnston
WR Art Monk
WR Bob Hayes
TE Todd Christensen
C Dermontti Dawson
G Russ Grimm
G Jerry Kramer
OT Gary Zimmerman
OT Joe Jacoby
DT Curley Culp
DT Alex Karras
DE Rich Jackson
DE Chris Doleman
OLB Chuck Howley
OLB Chris Hanburger
ILB Randy Gradishar
CB Lester Hayes
CB Lemar Parrish
FS Cliff Harris
SS Kenny Easley
K Mark Moseley
P Tommy Davis
ST Steve Tasker
Coach Clark Shaughnessy