NFL Dynasties and Hall of Famers
July 10, 2012 by Brad Oremland • Print Story •
Earlier this year, while working on an article about the greatest wide receivers snubbed by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I realized that the 1990s Bills have more Hall of Famers than any of the teams that beat them in the Super Bowl. I asked readers, "How would you feel about [Andre] Reed getting elected and the Bills having twice as many HOFers as the Cowboy teams that embarrassed them in two Super Bowls?"
It got me thinking about which great teams are over- and under-represented in Canton. So below, we'll look at Hall of Famers and potential snubs for some of the most successful teams in history — including those (like the Bills) which obviously aren't true dynasties because they won few or no titles.
Lots of teams have three or four good seasons without distinguishing themselves in history, and beyond five or six years a team is seldom winning with the same players. We'll look at 39 teams who sustained success for exactly five years. The teams were selected based on a formula explained in an earlier column. In order to be listed, a player or coach must have appeared in at least 50% of the team's games.
This column will focus exclusively on Modern Era teams, 1946-present, with a couple allowances for those that began in 1945 and bled into the Modern Era. We'll go chronologically, starting in the '40s. The charts below show: team, years included, record and winning percentage, number of championships, number of championship appearances, and number of Pro Football Hall of Famers through 2012.
Early Modern Era
All of these teams are fairly well-represented in Canton, save one. The 1945-49 Rams were just as good as most of the other dynastic teams from this Pre-Lombardi, Pre-AFL Era. They never had a losing season, they won a championship, and another year they were Western Division champs but lost the title game. Despite putting together one of the finest five-year runs in NFL history, their only Hall of Famer is Bob Waterfield. The Rams of the early '50s have multiple Hall of Famers, but most of them joined the team in '48 or '49. The later team wasn't really any more successful, but it has five times as many busts in Canton. That's why we're doing this exercise.
Philadelphia Eagles, 1945-49
41-15-1 (.728), 2 championships, 3 title appearances
HOFers (4): Greasy Neale, Pete Pihos, Steve Van Buren, Alex Wojciechowicz
Potential snubs: Bucko Kilroy, Tommy Thompson, Al Wistert
Kilroy, a four-time all-pro, was infamous as the dirtiest player of his era. Sorry, Raider haters, but Jack Tatum has nothing on this guy. My four favorite quotes from the NFL Films feature "The Dirtiest Bird":
1. Teammate Vic Sears — "I don't think Bucko ever tried to be dirty, but (pause) well, I shouldn't say that."
2. Teammate Chuck Bednarik — "Bucko Kilroy was the dirtiest football player I ever saw."
3. Steelers Hall of Famer Ernie Stautner — "He was a fiendish guy."
4. Kilroy, on Art Donovan — "I was down on the ground and I kicked up. I caught him in the groin (laughs)."
Dirty or not, Kilroy was one of the premier linemen of his generation. After his playing career, he remained in the game as a consultant, assistant coach, scout, personnel director, general manager, and vice president of the Patriots. His many enemies and the objections to his playing style make Kilroy unlikely to receive serious HOF consideration, but he was a genuinely great player. It could be argued that both Kilroy and Wistert were better than Wojciechowicz. It's close; they were all outstanding players.
Cleveland/Los Angeles Rams, 1945-49
35-18-4 (.649), 1 championship, 2 title appearances
HOFers (1): Bob Waterfield
Potential snubs: Jim Benton, Fred Gehrke, Mike Lazetich, Riley Matheson
Rams owner Dan Reeves is in the Hall of Fame, and HOF GM Tex Schramm was affiliated with the Rams from 1947-56, as publicity director and later as a personnel man. But in this exercise, I'm only looking at coaches and players. Owners and general managers can play a huge role in the team's success, but they do so indirectly, by putting the right people on the field, and after that it's out of their hands.
Most of the Rams listed above excelled as two-way players, but haven't been serious candidates for the Hall of Fame because their careers were so short. Dick Huffman played just four seasons, 1947-50. Fred Naumetz was a three-time all-pro, but he only played from 1946-50. Gil Bouley and Lazetich were active from 1945-50. Among those four, only Bouley played at least 60 regular-season games. The stronger candidates, then, are Benton, Gehrke, and Matheson.
Benton twice led the NFL in receiving yardage. When he retired, Benton ranked 2nd all-time in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving TDs, trailing only the immortal Don Hutson. Benton actually had more than twice as many catches (288) and yards (4,801) as third place. Gehrke debuted in 1940, played three games, then went to war. When he returned in 1945, he led the NFL in rushing average twice in a row. Gehrke was also a fine kick returner and defensive back. Matheson starred in three professional leagues: the NFL (Rams), AAFC (49ers), and CFL (Calgary Stampeders).
I'm a long way removed from the 1940s, but based on what I know about the team and the era, I'd like to see Benton and Matheson seriously considered as Hall of Fame nominees. If one of the short-career players deserves attention from the Seniors committee, I suppose it might be Milan "Sheriff" Lazetich, a two-way guard best known for his defensive play. Health problems forced his retirement following the 1950 season. Head coach Clark Shaughnessy, with the team from 1948-49, is or should be a very serious HOF candidate, mostly based on his innovations with the T-formation.
Cleveland Browns, 1946-50
57-6-3 (.886), 5 championships, 5 title appearances
HOFers (7): Paul Brown, Frank Gatski, Otto Graham, Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley, Bill Willis
Potential snubs: Horace Gillom, Lou Rymkus, Mac Speedie
Mac Speedie has long been considered a Hall of Fame snub, and his case is discussed in depth here. Rymkus, an all-pro tackle, later coached the Houston Oilers to the inaugural championship of the American Football League, and probably should be just as serious a candidate as Speedie.
Despite my great admiration for this team, the greatest dynasty in the history of professional football, I believe it may be over-represented in Canton. Head coach Paul Brown, quarterback Otto Graham, and fullback Marion Motley were all so outstanding — perhaps the best ever at their respective positions — that they carried the team to unmatched heights with surprisingly little help. If we could go back and choose HOFers anew, I doubt Dante Lavelli would be inducted, and it might be touch-and-go for Gatski and Groza.
Los Angeles Rams, 1950-54
40-18-2 (.683), 1 championship, 2 title appearances
HOFers (5): Tom Fears, Crazy Legs Hirsch, Andy Robustelli, Norm Van Brocklin, Bob Waterfield
Potential snubs: Duane Putnam, Dan Towler, Tank Younger
Night Train Lane only played 23 games for the Rams, and Les Richter joined the team in 1954, so they're not listed here. Deacon Dan Towler and Paul "Tank" Younger comprised two-thirds of the famous Bull Elephant Backfield (along with Dick Hoerner). The three were often on the field together, and the Rams would send two of the huge fullbacks to block for the third. Defenses couldn't figure out how to stop them. In 1951, all three averaged over six yards per carry. Towler, who retired after only six seasons to join the ministry, was the standout, probably the greatest RB of the '50s until Joe Perry's emergence.
Cleveland Browns, 1951-55
48-11-1 (.808), 2 championships, 5 title appearances
HOFers (8): Paul Brown, Len Ford, Frank Gatski, Otto Graham, Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley, Bill Willis
Potential snubs: Don Colo, Abe Gibron, Horace Gillom, Warren Lahr, Mac Speedie
Cleveland's list of potential HOF snubs is longer for its NFL years than the AAFC period, but most of these players are not strong candidates for induction. Speedie probably remains the most qualified.
Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll was a player on these teams, but he's in Canton as coach of the Steelers, so he's not listed here.
Detroit Lions, 1952-56
40-19-1 (.675), 2 championships, 3 title appearances
HOFers (6): Jack Christiansen, Lou Creekmur, Yale Lary, Bobby Layne, Joe Schmidt, Doak Walker
Potential snubs: Les Bingaman, Jim David, Buddy Parker, Harley Sewell, Dick Stanfel
This is one of several dynasties with one or more title seasons omitted because of the five-year stipulation. It's not a perfect system, I know. Sewell and Stanfel were both offensive linemen. The Lions, not known as a great offensive team, already have three Hall of Famers on offense (Creekmur, Layne, and Walker). I'd rather see Bingaman or David in Canton than either of the o-linemen, or even Doak Walker, who was cited by Paul Zimmerman as the least deserving member of the Hall.
Bingaman will have a tough time because of his short career (7 seasons), and Hatchet Jim David because the voters don't want to enshrine an entire defensive backfield. Today's selectors have largely forgotten that Christiansen and Lary were at least as famous for their special teams as their defense (Lary as a punter and Christiansen as a punt returner). David, a six-time Pro Bowler, may have been the greatest pure defender in the secondary.
New York Giants, 1956-60
40-17-3 (.692), 1 championship, 3 title appearances
HOFers (7): Roosevelt Brown, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Tom Landry, Vince Lombardi, Andy Robustelli, Emlen Tunnell
Potential snubs: Charlie Conerley, Rosey Grier, Jim Katcavage, Jimmy Patton, Jack Stroud, Ray Wietecha
From 1961-63, the Giants went 33-7-1 (.838) and played in three straight NFL Championship Games, but these five years rate better because they won a title in '56. The notable additions in the '60s are Y.A. Tittle (who is in) and Erich Barnes and Del Shofner (who are not). From this era, the Giants' strongest HOF candidates not yet enshrined are probably Grier, most famous as part of the Rams' Fearsome Foursome, and DB Jimmy Patton, a five-time all-pro with 52 career interceptions.
Landry and Lombardi were assistant coaches for Jim Lee Howell, with Lombardi leaving to become head coach of the Packers in 1959 and Landry to coach the Cowboys in 1960. I don't know whether or not they should really count on the list of Giants Hall of Famers, but I doubt the team would have won a championship without them.
Baltimore Colts, 1957-61
39-23 (.629), 2 championships, 2 title appearances
HOFers (7): Raymond Berry, Art Donovan, Weeb Ewbank, Gino Marchetti, Lenny Moore, Jim Parker, Johnny Unitas
Potential snubs: Alan Ameche, Gene Lipscomb, Alex Sandusky
It is stunning that a team with all-time greats like Berry, Marchetti, and Unitas only twice finished better than 7-5. Ameche retired after the 1959 season, and the Colts traded Big Daddy Lipscomb the next season. Lipscomb, a two-time Pro Bowl MVP at a time when that meant something, stood at a terrifying 6-6, 282. His drug-related death probably has played a role in his limited support for Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Alex Sandusky is no relation to Jerry Sandusky of Penn State infamy.
I call this the Lombardi/Shula Era because from 1961-73, those coaches accounted for eight of 13 NFL titles, with Shula helming great teams in both Baltimore and Miami. The Packers were clearly the dominant team of this era, but it's a little jarring that they have as many Hall of Famers as the 1967-71 Colts and Cowboys combined. The Colts in particular have an argument that they are not fairly represented in Canton. Conversely, all the great teams of this era have done very well in the selection process, and it may be less that too few Colts are in than that too many players from the other teams have been inducted.
Green Bay Packers, 1962-66
54-13-3 (.771), 3 championships, 3 title appearances
HOFers (10): Herb Adderley, Willie Davis, Forrest Gregg, Paul Hornung, Henry Jordan, Vince Lombardi, Ray Nitschke, Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Willie Wood
Potential snubs: Jerry Kramer, Ron Kramer, Dave Robinson
This list of HOFers doesn't even include center Jim Ringo, who was traded to Philadelphia after the 1963 season. Nonetheless, Ringo played on two championship-winning teams and is clearly part of the Lombardi Dynasty. He's excluded from the list due to a quirk of the five-year rule. As successful as this team was, it is probably over-represented in Canton. The '60s Packers have more Hall of Famers than any other team in history, and one of their best players (offensive lineman Jerry Kramer) isn't even enshrined. I'll support his candidacy in the unlikely event he's ever re-nominated, but after that I'd rather start pulling Packers out of the Hall than putting them in. Robinson's case is stronger than Ron Kramer's, maybe stronger than Hornung, Jordan, and Ringo.
Cleveland Browns, 1964-68
49-20-1 (.707), 1 championship, 3 title appearances
HOFers (4): Lou Groza, Gene Hickerson, Leroy Kelly, Paul Warfield
Potential snubs: Erich Barnes, Jim Houston, Walter Johnson, Dick Schafrath
Jim Brown retired after the 1965 season, so he's not listed in this group, although he was critical to its two best seasons. This is one of very few teams not to have a coach or quarterback listed, which speaks to the talent on the rest of the roster. Among the Browns without a bust in the Hall of Fame, Barnes and Schafrath are the clear standouts. Barnes, a star DB with the Giants and Browns, played in six NFL championship games and scored 7 touchdowns on INT returns. Schafrath made six consecutive Pro Bowls and was all-pro from 1963-65.
Kansas City Chiefs, 1966-70
50-17-3 (.736), 1 championship, 2 title appearances
HOFers (7): Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan, Len Dawson, Willie Lanier, Jan Stenerud, Hank Stram, Emmitt Thomas
Potential snubs: Ed Budde, Curley Culp, Jerry Mays, Johnny Robinson, Otis Taylor, Jim Tyrer
Some Chiefs partisans might feel that Sherrill Headrick and Jim Lynch, who completed the KC linebacking corps, should also be listed as possible snubs. Both were fine players, but neither is a realistic candidate for HOF induction. The most popular candidate certainly is Otis Taylor, but I feel the strongest players omitted are Curley Culp, Johnny Robinson, and Jim Tyrer.
Culp was the first of the great modern nose tackles, and maybe the most important player in KC's Super Bowl IV victory over the Vikings. Culp dominated Minnesota's all-pro center, Mick Tingelhoff, to the extent that many fans believe that game is the only reason Tingelhoff is not in the Hall of Fame. Johnny Robinson was a six-time All-Pro who three times led the league in interceptions or INT return yardage, with two years of double-digit picks and 57 career INTs. Tyrer, maybe the best AFL player not in the Hall of Fame, played in 9 Pro Bowls and AFL All-Star Games. His death, a murder-suicide including his wife, probably has influenced the Hall of Fame voters, though it's not supposed to.
Until the election of Emmitt Thomas to the PFHOF in 2008, Robinson was usually regarded as the best of KC's defensive backs. They were both great players, but if I could choose only one, it would probably be Robinson. I might take Culp and Tyrer ahead of both, though.
Baltimore Colts, 1967-71
53-13-4 (.814), 1 championship, 2 title appearances
HOFers (4): Ted Hendricks, John Mackey, Don Shula, John Unitas
Potential snubs: Mike Curtis, Jimmy Orr, Bob Vogel
The 1968 Colts, like the 2005 USC Trojans, were regarded as the greatest team in history before they had even won a championship. Twenty-point favorites in Super Bowl III, they'd probably have twice as many Hall of Famers if they'd won. Middle linebacker Mike Curtis, for one, would have coasted into Canton simply on the team's winning aura.
Dallas Cowboys, 1967-71
53-16-1 (.764), 1 championships, 3 title appearances
HOFers (6): Mike Ditka, Bob Hayes, Tom Landry, Bob Lilly, Mel Renfro, Rayfield Wright
Potential snubs: George Andrie, Cornell Green, Chuck Howley, Lee Roy Jordan, Ralph Neely
Roger Staubach didn't become the full-time starter until 1971, so he's not listed in this group. Don't worry, he'll show up later on. As I explained in the 1945-49 Rams entry, I'm only listing players and coaches, so Tex Schramm doesn't count toward their total.
I'm on record as strongly supporting Howley's case for induction. The others listed were terrific players, but probably not at the same level.
Oakland Raiders, 1967-71
53-12-5 (.793), no championships, 1 title appearance
HOFers (7): Fred Biletnikoff, George Blanda, Willie Brown, John Madden, Jim Otto, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw
Potential snubs: Dan Conners, Daryle Lamonica
That's a lot of Hall of Famers for a team with no rings. Biletnikoff, Brown, Madden, Shell, and Upshaw did eventually win a Super Bowl with the '76 Raiders.
Miami Dolphins, 1970-74
57-12-1 (.821), 2 championships, 3 title appearances
HOFers (7): Nick Buoniconti, Larry Csonka, Bob Griese, Jim Langer, Larry Little, Don Shula, Paul Warfield
Potential snubs: Dick Anderson, Norm Evans, Bob Kuechenberg, Jake Scott, Bill Stanfill
This is an underrated dynasty, one that made three straight Super Bowls and had two of the greatest teams ever, the undefeated 1972 Dolphins and the 12-2 '73 squad they all swear was even better. Miami's offense is already well-represented in Canton, with five Hall of Famers, but the great No-Name Defense is just Buoniconti. For some reason, the selectors don't seem to appreciate strong safeties. I'd like to see Dick Anderson, the 1971 Defensive Player of the Year, join his teammates in the Hall.
The End of Dynasties
The Steel Curtain has 10 Hall of Famers. Since then, no team has more than five. There are still dynasties ... but not in the Hall of Fame. The 1970s Raiders, who went an appalling 1-5 in AFC Championship Games, have twice as many HOFers as the Raiders of the early '80s, who won two Super Bowls. The Steelers of the '70s have as many HOFers as the '80s Niners and Redskins combined. Some of that is an appropriate reaction to a changing game, but mostly it's over-inclusion of older players and a too-high bar for recent ones.
We all fall prey to this, but the voters haven't adjusted to expansion, electing more players to reflect the larger league. The third-best cornerback in a 28-team league is a better player than the third-best CB from a 12-team league in the 1950s, and sometimes that's hard to wrap our heads around. A lot of the players from the '80s and '90s whom we think of as borderline would have been first-ballot Hall of Famers if they started their careers a decade or so earlier.
Oakland Raiders, 1973-77
56-13-1 (.807), 1 championships, 1 title appearances
HOFers (8): Fred Biletnikoff, George Blanda, Willie Brown, Dave Casper, Ted Hendricks, John Madden, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw
Potential snubs: Cliff Branch, Ray Guy, Ken Stabler, Jack Tatum
I've written in the past about Branch and Stabler. Tatum was a good player, but not really a legitimate Hall of Fame possibility. That leaves Ray Guy, who is widely regarded as the greatest punter in history. But good punting is so misunderstood, and I'm not convinced Guy was the nonpareil many believe. Consider:
* Ray Guy is tied for 78th all-time in punting average. Even at the time of his retirement, he only ranked 16th.
* Guy led the NFL in punting average three times. So did Horace Gillom, Rohn Stark, and Greg Montgomery.
* Guy was famous for his hang time, but he was also criticized as a "middle-of-the-end-zone" punter who kicked too many touchbacks.
I don't dispute that Guy was a great punter, I'm just not convinced he belongs in the Hall of Fame. I'd rather recognize some of the great Raiders from the Super Bowl XV and XVIII teams than add more from this era, which already has a bloated 8:1 ratio of busts to rings.
Minnesota Vikings, 1973-77
54-15-1 (.779), no championships, 3 title appearances
HOFers (6): Carl Eller, Bud Grant, Paul Krause, Alan Page, Fran Tarkenton, Ron Yary
Potential snubs: Matt Blair, Chuck Foreman, John Gilliam, Jim Marshall, Mick Tingelhoff
Tingelhoff is by far the most compelling player in this group. It amazes me that he's still not in.
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1975-79
57-17 (.770), 3 championships, 3 title appearances
HOFers (10): Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Chuck Noll, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, Mike Webster
Potential snubs: L.C. Greenwood, Donnie Shell
This was a great team, but it already has 10 Hall of Famers. Lynn Swann is sometimes cited as the worst player in the Hall of Fame. Fans will never agree on Swann. Some say he was the most graceful receiver ever, a clutch performer who should have been a first-ballot HOFer based on quality, not quantity. Other fans believe his very short career and pedestrian regular-season statistics count for more than his performance in a handful of postseason games. Certainly he and Stallworth are the weakest HOFers from this great dynasty. It's curious that the famous Steel Curtain has more offensive HOFers (5) than defensive (4). Personally, I'd trade both receivers to get Donnie Shell inducted.
Former Steeler DB Tony Dungy might make the Hall of Fame as a coach.
Dallas Cowboys, 1975-79
56-18 (.757), 1 championships, 3 title appearances
HOFers (5): Tony Dorsett, Tom Landry, Roger Staubach, Randy White, Rayfield Wright
Potential snubs: Cliff Harris, Too Tall Jones, Harvey Martin, Ralph Neely, Drew Pearson
From 1966-85, the Cowboys never had a losing season. They were 208-79-2 (.723), played in 12 conference championship games, and won two Super Bowls. These five years fall in the heart of that success, and all the players listed above played on a lot of winning teams. The weakest Hall of Fame candidate probably is Pearson, with Harris and Neely the strongest. Paul Zimmerman called Harris "the first and the best of the killer free safeties" and named Harris as one of three safeties on his All-Century Team.
35. Los Angeles Rams, 1975-79
53-20-1 (.723), no championships, 1 title appearance
HOFers (3): Tom Mack, Jackie Slater, Jack Youngblood
Potential snubs: Chuck Knox, Harold Jackson, Isiah Robertson, Rich Saul
Two offensive linemen and a defensive lineman. Where are the big names, the glamor positions? There's Harold Jackson, whom I do believe should be in the Hall of Fame, but he was gone by the time the Rams played in Super Bowl XIV. Lawrence McCutcheon was a good running back, but no one would suggest him as a Hall of Famer, and anyway he was pretty much done after '77. In the Super Bowl year, McCutcheon rushed for 243 yards, with a 3.3 average and no touchdowns. Let's not even talk about Vince Ferragamo and Pat Haden.
Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, 1980-84
49-24 (.671), 2 championships, 2 title appearances
HOFers (4): Marcus Allen, Ted Hendricks, Howie Long, Art Shell
Potential snubs: Lyle Alzado, Cliff Branch, Todd Christensen, Tom Flores, Ray Guy, Lester Hayes
Mike Haynes was still with the Patriots for most of this time, and only played 21 regular-season games with the Raiders during these five years. Several of the possible snubs listed above, we've already discussed, and Alzado is not a strong candidate. Flores probably has almost as strong a résumé as Hall of Fame coaches Weeb Ewbank and John Madden, but those are borderline calls, too. Christensen and Hayes, however, I think both have very reasonable cases.
Todd Christensen led the NFL in receptions twice. He had more 90-catch seasons (2) than Kellen Winslow, more 80-catch seasons (4-3), more 900-yard seasons (3-2). He didn't play long and wasn't a great blocker, but he was an impact player and a legit tight end, not just a glorified wide receiver. In 1980, Hayes intercepted 13 passes and won Defensive Player of the Year. Two other years, he led the NFL in INT return TDs. Between the two, I lean more towards Christensen, but both are worthy at least of serious consideration.
I didn't forget about Jim Plunkett, he's just not a strong candidate for the Hall. The Raiders alone have three better QBs who are not in Canton (Lamonica, Stabler, Gannon).
San Francisco 49ers, 1981-85
51-22 (.699), 2 championships, 2 title appearances
HOFers (4): Fred Dean, Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana, Bill Walsh
Potential snubs: Roger Craig, Randy Cross, Keith Fahnhorst
Here's a conundrum. The wildly successful 49ers of the 1980s have very few Hall of Famers, relative to other great teams. They have a 1:1 ratio of HOFers to Super Bowls. The '70s Steelers had a 5:2 ratio. The '70s Raiders had a 8:1 ratio. Even the '80s Raiders had a 2:1 ratio. How can the 1980s Raiders have as many Hall of Famers as the 1980s 49ers? Obviously, the Niners are getting hosed.
So having established that, who are the great 49ers being unfairly omitted from Canton? I think the strongest candidates are Craig and Cross, and even they have very questionable credentials. How did this team excel with so few Hall of Fame-caliber players?
1. The Hall of Famers they did have were among the best ever. Bill Walsh and Weeb Ewbank are both in the Hall of Fame, but there's no comparison between them. Same thing for Joe Montana and Jim Kelly, or Ronnie Lott and Dick LeBeau. Guys like Walsh and Montana are probably worth two Hall of Famers.
2. San Francisco had a lot of good players, but not a lot of great players. There are plenty of guys whose names never get mentioned in the same sentence as the word Canton, but who were good players that played important roles in the team's success: Dwight Clark, Dwight Hicks, Jack Reynolds, Keena Turner, Eric Wright, etc.
3. This team overachieved in the early '80s. The 49ers went 6-10 in 1980 and 3-6 in 1982. In between, they won Super Bowl XVI. Additions like Roger Craig and Wendell Tyler (1983), Jerry Rice (1985), and Charles Haley (1986) solidified the team into a true dynasty later in the decade.
Miami Dolphins, 1981-85
56-16-1 (.774), no championships, 2 title appearances
HOFers (3): Dan Marino, Don Shula, Dwight Stephenson
Potential snubs: Bob Baumhower, Bob Kuechenberg
Three Hall of Famers seems about right for this team, especially when they include the winningest coach of all time, a man who broke every career passing record, and perhaps the finest center in history.
Washington Redskins, 1982-86
55-18 (.753), 1 championships, 2 title appearances
HOFers (5): Joe Gibbs, Darrell Green, Russ Grimm, Art Monk, John Riggins
Potential snubs: Dave Butz, Joe Jacoby, Dexter Manley, Charles Mann, Mark Moseley
After long waits for Grimm and Monk, plus Green's 20-year career, this team finally seems fairly represented in Canton. The one remaining guy I might argue for is monstrous left tackle Joe Jacoby, though I do believe the defensive ends, Manley and Mann, are both badly underrated. Manley had more sacks than HOF contemporaries Howie Long, Lee Roy Selmon, and Andre Tippett. Mann made four Pro Bowls, and had double-digit sacks two other years, including 14.5 in 1985. He played in four Super Bowls, three with Washington and one with the 49ers.
The NFC Era
Many of the players and coaches from these teams haven't been on the Hall of Fame ballot very long, and others aren't even on the ballot at all yet. What jumps out at me most is what I mentioned at the beginning of this piece: the team of this era with the most Hall of Famers is the Buffalo Bills, who lost four straight Super Bowls, three of them badly. The trend of the early '80s continues, as well: great teams now have 2-5 HOFers, compared to 4-10 for the dynasties of the '50s, '60s, and '70s.
Chicago Bears, 1984-88
62-17 (.785), 1 championship, 1 title appearance
HOFers (4): Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Walter Payton, Mike Singletary
Potential snubs: Jimbo Covert, Jay Hilgenberg, Wilber Marshall, Steve McMichael
Head coach Mike Ditka, of course, is also in the Hall of Fame. Although Ditka was enshrined as a player, his success as a coach probably is part of the reason Ditka was the first tight end elected, preceding John Mackey.
Covert and Marshall are legit candidates, but the most compelling and interesting case, in my mind, is defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who left Chicago after the '85 Super Bowl to become head coach of the Eagles. Ryan was the architect of the famous 46 defense, with a coaching tree among the best in the game today: Jeff Fisher, Leslie Frazier, Ron Rivera, Rex Ryan (obviously), and Jim Schwartz. The voters have shown no interest in enshrining coaches with limited success as HCs, but Ryan was arguably the most important individual on the team that won Super Bowl XX.
San Francisco 49ers, 1986-90
61-17-1 (.778), 2 championships, 2 title appearances
HOFers (4): Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Bill Walsh
Potential snubs: Harris Barton, Michael Carter, Roger Craig, Randy Cross, Charles Haley
Same problem here as 1981-85. Great team, multiple rings, four brilliant Hall of Famers and not a lot left over. Craig and the offensive linemen probably were the best of the snubs, though Haley has received considerably more support in the HOF balloting. He has five rings, and he had one great season, but for a guy who was basically a pass rusher, he's not really a standout other than because he played on great teams.
Haley is 25th all-time in sacks (100.5), even though they didn't become an official statistic until 1982 and he played in the Golden Age of pass rushing. Even among his contemporaries, Haley ranks about 15th in career sacks, behind guys like Jim Jeffcoat (102.5), Trace Armstrong (106.0), Greg Townsend (109.5), Sean Jones (113.0), and Clyde Simmons (121.5). Kevin Greene isn't in the HOF, and he had 160 sacks. I will grant that Haley, who had some injury issues, was better in his prime than, say, Jim Jeffcoat. But he's only a Hall of Fame nominee because he played for five Super Bowl winners, and playing on the same teams as Joe Montana and Emmitt Smith should not be enough to earn Hall of Fame induction.
New York Giants, 1986-90
55-24 (.696), 2 championships, 2 title appearances
HOFers (2): Harry Carson, Lawrence Taylor
Potential snubs: Ottis Anderson, Mark Bavaro, Bart Oates, Bill Parcells, Phil Simms
Former Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick is very likely a Hall of Famer when his head coaching career with the Patriots is over, and that probably should count as a third HOFer for the Giants, but it's stunning how few serious candidates for Canton this great team had. I guess Bavaro and Parcells are my favorites.
Washington Redskins, 1987-91
52-27 (.658), 2 championships, 2 title appearances
HOFers (4): Joe Gibbs, Darrell Green, Russ Grimm, Art Monk
Potential snubs: Gary Clark, Joe Jacoby, Jim Lachey, Charles Mann, Wilber Marshall
The only one of these players who might have a realistic shot at induction is Jacoby, who was a dominant tackle and an All-Decade selection in the 1980s. Washington from 1982-91 won three Super Bowls with three different QBs and three different running backs. The offensive line, the famous Hogs, was the unifying element of those offenses. Ever since he went on the ballot, I've been surprised at the lack of support for Jacoby, who in his prime was regarded as an elite tackle. The Dolphins, Raiders, and Rams of the '70s all have more offensive linemen in the Hall of Fame than the Hogs. Were those lines more important to their teams than Washington's?
Other than Jacoby, the strongest candidates as I see them are Gary Clark and Wilber Marshall, in that order. Brian Mitchell is not listed because he didn't begin his career until 1990.
Buffalo Bills, 1989-93
58-22 (.725), 0 championships, 4 title appearances
HOFers (5): Jim Kelly, Marv Levy, James Lofton, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas
Potential snubs: Cornelius Bennett, Kent Hull, Andre Reed, Steve Tasker
The team that inspired this exercise. Bennett, Hull, Reed, and Tasker were all great players, but doesn't it seem like we're overrating this team? The Bills dominated the AFC at a time when the NFC Championship Game was regarded as the "true" Super Bowl.
Dallas Cowboys, 1991-95
60-20 (.750), 3 championships, 3 title appearances
HOFers (3): Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith
Potential snubs: Kevin Gogan, Charles Haley, Jimmy Johnson, Daryl Johnston, Nate Newton, Jay Novacek, Mark Stepnoski, Norv Turner, Erik Williams, Darren Woodson
Guard Larry Allen is a surefire Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible, but he doesn't qualify for this timeframe because his pro career began in 1994, and he only played on one of the Cowboys' three Super Bowl teams. Similarly, Deion Sanders didn't come to Dallas until '95, and wasn't a meaningful part of the Cowboy Dynasty.
Fullback became primarily a blocking position in the 1980s, and since then, no fullbacks have been elected to the Hall of Fame. In some ways that makes sense, because modern fullbacks are part-time players who have limited impact even when they're on the field. But Moose Johnston seldom went to the sidelines, and played a vital role in Emmitt Smith's success. For all we talk about Emmitt's great offensive line, none of the linemen from his early career are headed to Canton. Stepnoski probably has the strongest case, but to my way of thinking, Johnston — the unquestioned king of fullbacks in the '90s — was as important to the team's success as any of them.
I could also be persuaded to support Darren Woodson, though he's a borderline candidate in my mind. Contemporary strong safeties LeRoy Butler and Steve Atwater were just as good, and I'd vote for both of them before Woodson. On the other hand, how does a team win three Super Bowls without any elite defensive players?
San Francisco 49ers, 1992-96
60-20 (.750), 1 championship, 1 title appearances
HOFers (2): Jerry Rice, Steve Young
Potential snubs: Harris Barton, George Seifert, Ricky Watters, Bryant Young
Ricky Watters was overshadowed by Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, and Terrell Davis. He's never gotten enough credit. Pro Football Reference lists the most comparable players to Watters as: Jim Brown, Tony Dorsett, Tiki Barber, Roger Craig, Eric Dickerson, Curtis Martin, Lenny Moore, Fred Taylor, Barry Sanders, and John L. Williams. That's six Hall of Famers, a famous snub, two guys who aren't eligible yet, and John L. Williams.
Watters is among the top-20 all-time in rushing yards, rushing TDs, and yards from scrimmage. Watters was a good ball-carrier who had six 1,000-yard rushing seasons, but he was also a valuable receiver who gained over 300 receiving yards every year until his final season, when he got injured and only played five games. Watters had more career receptions than Brian Westbrook, Edgerrin James, or Charlie Garner. He was never the best RB in the league, but like Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin, and John Riggins, he was near the top for a decade.
Green Bay Packers, 1994-98
57-23 (.713), 1 championship, 2 title appearances
HOFers (1): Reggie White
Potential HOFers: LeRoy Butler, Brett Favre, Mike Holmgren
Brett Favre obviously will be a Hall of Famer. I've been disappointed at how little interest the voters have shown in Butler, the dominant strong safety of his era and a first-team selection on the All-Decade Team of the 1990s. I hope he'll get in one day, though it doesn't seem likely. Holmgren also will be a long shot, though GM Ron Wolf might have a chance in the right year.
Many of the key components of these teams are not eligible for the Hall of Fame yet, so I've dropped the "HOF" column from the chart. The 1996-00 Broncos and 2004-08 Steelers have identical regular-season and postseason records, but Pittsburgh easily has the stronger dynasty, going 33-15 (.688) from 2009-11 and making another Super Bowl. The Broncos largely fell apart after John Elway retired and Terrell Davis got hurt.
Denver Broncos, 1996-00
56-24 (.700), 2 championships, 2 title appearances
HOFers (2): John Elway, Shannon Sharpe
Potential HOFers: Steve Atwater, Terrell Davis, Tom Nalen, Trevor Pryce, Mike Shanahan, Rod Smith
Gary Zimmerman retired following the 1997 season, so he doesn't really fit in this group even though he played for the Broncos for five seasons. I'd like to see Atwater, Davis, and Pryce enshrined in the PFHOF. Pryce played through 2010 and isn't eligible yet — though if he ever actually gets in, I will buy a hat and eat it. I'm hopeful (though not optimistic) that the voters will show more respect to Davis now that he's not competing with Marshall Faulk and Curtis Martin on the same ballot.
St. Louis Rams, 1999-03
56-24 (.700), 1 championship, 2 title appearances
HOFers (1): Marshall Faulk
Potential HOFers: Isaac Bruce, London Fletcher, Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, Kurt Warner, Aeneas Williams
Given how briefly this team was successful, it is stunning that it realistically could end up with seven Hall of Famers, more than anyone since the Steel Curtain. The issue is largely about timing and movement. Four of these players had some of their best years for others teams: Faulk (Colts), Fletcher (Washington), Warner and Williams (Cardinals). Bruce had some of his best seasons in the mid-90s, when the Rams were terrible, while Holt's best seasons came mostly after the others were gone or past their primes.
Other than Faulk, all these players are borderline HOFers, but they all should be reasonably strong candidates. Warner, who might be the weakest of the bunch — he only played 12 games or more in a season five times — is probably the only one who will go in on the first ballot.
New England Patriots, 2001-05
58-22 (.725), 3 championships, 3 title appearances
HOFers: none so far
Potential HOFers: Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Rodney Harrison, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Adam Vinatieri
From this group, Belichick, Brady, and Seymour are all likely to cruise into Canton. I would also support Harrison and Vinatieri, though they'll have a harder time. The standout linebackers (Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel) were very good, but none of them has a Hall of Fame résumé. I suspect Bruschi will garner the most support, but to me, he was about the 8th-best ILB of his generation (Ray Lewis, Zach Thomas, Brian Urlacher, London Fletcher, James Farrior, Keith Brooking, Donnie Edwards, Al Wilson), more good than exceptional.
It will be interesting to see how the voters treat Vinatieri. Recognition for special teams is at an all-time low, and Vinatieri's stats are not exceptional. If he gets in, it will be through his reputation as a big-game kicker and clutch performer. In addition to his famous field goals in the Tuck Rule game and Super Bowl XXXVI, Vinatieri holds the career record for postseason field goals, and he's the only player I've ever seen who unmistakably performed better when the stakes were highest. In the 2010-11 playoffs, Vinatieri kicked the longest field goal he'd made in two years, giving the Colts a 16-14 lead with :53 left. Vinatieri played in five Super Bowls, winning four of them.
Pittsburgh Steelers, 2004-08
56-24 (.700), 2 championships, 2 title appearances
HOFers: Dick LeBeau
Potential HOFers: Bill Cowher, Alan Faneca, James Farrior, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Hines Ward
Most of these guys probably will not get much support in the Hall of Fame voting, but I'm trying to be inclusive. It's too early to make any informed guesses about Big Ben, but I suspect Faneca, Polamalu, Ward, and one of the defensive linemen — most likely Smith — will eventually be inducted. Dick LeBeau is technically in the Hall of Fame as a cornerback for the 1960s Lions, but everyone knows his election was based at least partly on his reign as defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh.
Jerome Bettis retired in 2005 and is not part of this era of Steeler football. His last great season was 1997.
Indianapolis Colts, 2005-09
65-15 (.813), 1 championship, 2 title appearances
HOFers: none so far
Potential HOFers: Tony Dungy, Dwight Freeney, Marvin Harrison, Peyton Manning, Robert Mathis, Jeff Saturday, Adam Vinatieri, Reggie Wayne
Edgerrin James also has an outside shot at Hall of Fame induction, but '05 was his last year with the team, so he doesn't really fit in this group. James' only Super Bowl appearance, oddly enough, came with the Arizona Cardinals. Among the Colts who are listed, Manning and Harrison obviously will be elected. Mathis will need a very strong future in order to garner any momentum in the voting, and probably has the weakest case among the players listed.
I know most people still think of Vinatieri mostly as a Patriot, but he's now played six seasons with the Colts, including Super Bowl XLI. When Vinatieri tied the single-game postseason record for field goals (5), he did so as a Colt. Indianapolis is an important part of his legacy.
New England Patriots, 2007-11
64-16 (.800), no championships, 2 title appearances
HOFers: none so far
Potential HOFers: Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork
Apart from those already mentioned in the 2001-05 group, it is really too early to guess at which of these players will have a good shot at Canton. The exception is Randy Moss, who built a Hall-worthy legacy with the Vikings prior to his resurgence with the Patriots in '07. The late Junior Seau, who played for the Pats from 2006-09, didn't appear in enough games to qualify for this list, but he's obviously a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
New York Giants, 2007-11
49-31 (.613), 2 championships, 2 title appearances
HOFers: none so far
Potential HOFers: too early to tell
The 2007-11 Patriots at least have a long-standing dynasty to build on. Really, any speculation on the Giants is premature at this point. If the plane went down in preseason, none of them have done enough so far to be strong candidates for induction.
What jumps out is that older teams (basically everything before the '80s) have a lot of Hall of Famers, and the best teams since have comparatively few, even allowing for future inductions. Maybe I'm being naïve, but I see that trend reversing itself somewhat in the next 10 or 20 years. The 2005-09 Colts easily could get Tony Dungy, Dwight Freeney, Marvin Harrison, Peyton Manning, Jeff Saturday, and Adam Vinatieri into Canton.
Anyway, I really believe recent teams may finally break the "five-HOFer" barrier, but the larger issue is that older teams appear to have a couple more busts in Canton than they might deserve, while contemporary teams seem under-represented. How can the '80s Niners, '90s Cowboys, and three-time champion Joe Gibbs Dynasty combine for fewer Hall of Famers (13) than the 1973-77 Raiders and Vikings (14), who won a combined 1 Super Bowl?
Modern dynasties have just over half as many players at each position (about 60%), compared to their pre-1980 counterparts. The most notable exceptions are quarterback, offensive line, and special teams. Today's dynasties — and by "today" I really mean the last 30 years or so — get their QBs into Canton almost as often as earlier dynasties; the drop-off is less significant at that position (about 80%). It is far more significant among offensive linemen and special teamers. The pre-1980 teams enshrined almost three times as many o-linemen, and infinitely more special teamers (if Adam Vinatieri is not elected).
Does this mean the voters used to elect too many undeserving blockers and specialists, or does it mean today's voters are too stingy, or is it simply a fair and just reflection of a changing game? It seems clear to me that the voters today are electing too few players at these positions. They have made what seems to be a deliberate choice to ignore special teams, including kick return contributions from position players. As far as offensive linemen, today's voters simply don't understand line play, so they don't really know who's any good.
Consider Randy Cross, Joe Jacoby, Bob Kuechenberg, and Mark Stepnoski. All were multiple all-pros, and none would be particularly controversial selections to the Hall. Plenty of linemen still get in, just not from the top teams. The most important factor in an offensive lineman's Hall of Fame chances is his draft position. First-round draft choices, and especially top-10 choices, get voted to the Pro Bowl every year if they're even average, and the selectors mostly look at Pro Bowls when they evaluate o-linemen.
I came into this project thinking I'd find out which teams seemed to have a few extra Hall of Famers, or not quite as many as you'd expect relative to their accomplishments. It turns out that it's less about teams than it is the entire expansion era, almost exactly matched up with players and coaches who still appear on the regular ballot rather than the Seniors list.