Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Five Hall of Fame Candidates

By Brad Oremland

There are a lot of great players missing from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Some of them will be inducted in the next few years, a few will have longer waits, and many will never be enshrined, memorialized instead in the memories of fans. My next column, one week from now, will highlight deserving and borderline players who have been left out. That piece is already written, but about half the article was taken up by explanations and arguments concerning a quintet of great players: Randall Cunningham, Terrell Davis, Todd Christensen, Rich Jackson, and Kenny Easley.

Those are not the five best players missing from Canton. In fact, one of them I don't think really belongs in the Hall of Fame. But none have gotten their due, and rather than doubling the size of the other piece, I wanted to explain why I believe these players deserve more consideration than they've gotten.

Randall Cunningham

Often, Hall of Fame disagreements arise around players who passed the eye test or compiled great statistics, but not both. Cunningham did both. He was a joy to watch, a unique talent who paved the way for a generation of QBs making plays with their feet as well as their arms. He inspired a Sports Illustrated cover: "The Ultimate Weapon," they called him, and "The Quarterback for the '90s." He might have been that, if he'd stayed healthy. No one who saw Cunningham play doubted his skills.

Unfortunately, we never got to see what Cunningham, in his prime, might have done with an elite receiver. The Eagles' leading receivers, when Cunningham was the regular quarterback, were Mike Quick, Keith Jackson, Keith Byars, and Fred Barnett. That's a running back (Byars), a tight end (Jackson), an undistinguished journeyman (Barnett), and a good receiver who was basically done after Cunningham's rookie season (Quick).

The stats were limited by his poor receiving corps, but in 1988, he ranked 2nd in the NFL in net yardage (Dan Marino), and including his 6 rushing TDs, tied for 2nd in TD/INT differential (Boomer Esiason). Two years later, he passed for 3,466 yards and rushed for 942 (with an 8.0 average), scoring a combined 35 touchdowns against just 13 interceptions. Once again, he was 2nd in net yardage (Warren Moon), this time leading the NFL in TD/INT differential. When Cunningham finally got to play with top-notch talent, he led the NFL in passer rating (106.0) as a 35-year-old, helping the 1998 Vikings set a single-season scoring record. Cunningham's career statistics don't hold up to the likes of Dan Marino and John Elway, but they're very much in line with the weaker Hall of Fame QBs. Including rushing:

Chart

Simms and Warner aren't in the Hall, but the comparison is still interesting, and a very reasonable argument could be made that Cunningham has the best numbers in the whole group. Even without the rushing, he had more touchdowns (207) and fewer interceptions than Troy Aikman, actually more than three times as many TD/INT (+73 vs. +24). Cunningham was all-pro three times — as many as the other four combined — including a first-team Associated Press selection in 1998. You'd expect a sensational QB who was incredible to watch and posted good statistics in the absence of even an average receiving corps to attract more attention from the voters. I don't mind that he's not enshrined, but I'm surprised he hasn't been a stronger candidate.

Terrell Davis

For about three years, Terrell Davis was the best running back in football. He did not have a long career, but he had three 1,500-yard rushing seasons, and is the only player in history to rush for 2,000 yards and score 20 TDs in the same season. I know the PFHOF voters frown on Davis' short career (1,655 att), and people got the idea, after Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson were successful in the same system, that any running back could put up big numbers in Denver. But neither of those players did what Davis did, and the lack of interest from voters is especially surprising because Davis was perhaps the greatest postseason RB in NFL history.

In his eight postseason games, the Broncos went 7-1, and Davis averaged 5.4 yards per carry, with 142.5 yards and 1.5 TDs per game. Those are obscene numbers, projecting to 2,280 yards and 24 TDs in a 16-game season. This against playoff defenses. Davis rushed for 100 yards seven times in the postseason, tied with Emmitt Smith for the record. But Smith made more than twice as many postseason appearances (17) as Terrell (8). Davis won two Super Bowls, and he was the last running back to be named Super Bowl MVP.

In both 1997 and 1998, Davis gained over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. He is one of only five players to top 2,000 YFS twice in the 1990s. The others are Hall of Famers Marshall Faulk, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, and Thurman Thomas. Contemporary RBs who never topped 2,000 include Corey Dillon, Eddie George, Curtis Martin, Ricky Watters, and Jerome Bettis.

Each of the last two years, Bettis was a Hall of Fame finalist and Terrell Davis was not. Bettis played for 13 seasons, so his career numbers are superior, but look at the two in their primes, their four best seasons:

Chart

That's 1995-98 for Davis, while Bettis gets 1993, 1996-97, and 2000. The numbers lean heavily in TD's favor, and that chart doesn't even include the playoffs.

Chart

Bettis played forever — started at 21, played until he was almost 34 — and his career stats leave Davis in the dust. I'm not trying to down Bettis here, but these guys were contemporaries, and there was little doubt who was better. In '96, when Bettis was named one of the two all-pro RBs, he got more votes than anyone except ... Terrell Davis. The next year, when Bettis rushed for by far the highest yardage of his career (1,665), Davis out-rushed him in the regular season (1,750), scored more than twice as many touchdowns (15-7), helped knock Bettis and the Steelers out of the playoffs (24-21 in Pittsburgh; Davis had 139 yards and a touchdown), and won Super Bowl MVP. That's not even Davis' best season. I realize Bettis played a lot longer, and that should count for something, but it's preposterous to suggest that he was better than Terrell Davis.

Davis was better in 1995, better in '96, better in '97, and better in '98. Are we supposed to believe Bettis was the superior player, just because he stuck around past his prime and Davis retired early? This is both undeniably crazy and undeniably true: if Davis had played four more seasons, rushed for 700 yards a year, with a 3.5 average, he would have gone into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Four crappy seasons, as a part-time, inefficient RB. To me, four seasons like that would actually diminish TD's career, but I don't think there's any doubt that 11 years and 10,400 yards would have gotten him into Canton. The voters aren't concerned with quality, just longevity. You don't have to be any good, you just have to be out there, adding to the bottom line. In his last four seasons, Jerome Bettis rushed for 700 yards a year, with a 3.5 average. And without those four years, he wouldn't be a Hall of Fame candidate. CRAZY.

When we think about the Hall of Fame, would you rather enshrine someone who had 12 or 13 pretty good seasons, or someone who amazed you for four, who did things we didn't think were possible? Davis stood alone, a player who could do things no one else in the game was capable of. Here's a list of every 1,500-yard rushing season in the 1990s:

Emmitt Smith, 1991, 1992, 1995
Barry Sanders, 1991, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997
Barry Foster, 1992
Chris Warren, 1994
Terrell Davis, 1996, 1997, 1998
Jerome Bettis, 1997
Jamal Anderson, 1998
Garrison Hearst, 1998
Edgerrin James, 1999

1,500-yard seasons were not cheap when Davis played. Great players like Thurman Thomas, Ricky Watters, and Marshall Faulk never reached that mark. Other than Sanders and Smith, who are probably among the top 5 RBs in history, Davis is the only player with multiple 1,500-yard seasons in that decade. What if we take that list, then cut off everyone who didn't score 15 touchdowns?

Emmitt Smith, 1992, 1995
Barry Sanders, 1991
Terrell Davis, 1996, 1997, 1998
Jamal Anderson, 1998
Edgerrin James, 1999

The whole decade featured only eight 1500/15 seasons, three of them by Terrell Davis. This guy was special. I also don't buy that his career was too short. Modern Era Hall of Fame RBs with fewer regular-season carries than Davis: Tony Canadeo, Bill Dudley, Frank Gifford, Paul Hornung, John Henry Johnson, Floyd Little, Ollie Matson, George McAfee, Hugh McElhenny, Lenny Moore, Marion Motley, Gale Sayers, Charlie Trippi, Steve Van Buren, Doak Walker.

Those are older players, 12- and 14-game seasons, but their overall workloads don't approach Davis'. Even without considering his postseason contributions, Davis had more than twice as many carries as Dudley (765), McAfee (341), Trippi (687), or Walker (309), and almost twice as many as Gifford (840), Hornung (893), or Motley (828). Davis ranked among the top 10 in rushing yards four times, the same number as Hall of Famers Marcus Allen and Thurman Thomas, and only one time fewer than Earl Campbell, Bettis, and Faulk. He hit the top 10 more often than old-timers like Hornung (2), McAfee (1), and Walker (0).

Let's re-cap a few of the arguments for TD:

* Tied (with Jim Brown and LaDainian Tomlinson) for most seasons of 1,500 yards and 15 TDs
* Only player in history to rush for 2,000 yards and score 20 TDs in the same season
* Tied (with Emmitt Smith) for most 100-yard games in postseason history
* MVP of Super Bowl XXXII

I don't want to throw longevity out the window, because it does matter, but Terrell Davis gave us a very good rookie season (1995), a great follow-up (1996), and two of the finest seasons ever by a running back (1997-98). There are a dozen Hall of Fame RBs who never had a season as good as TD's third-best. It reflects poorly on the HOF selection committee that he's gotten so little support.

Todd Christensen

The 1980s featured the first receiving-specialist tight ends, guys like Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow, threats in the passing game but without the same blocking acumen as their predecessors. Of course, there were still good blockers who could catch, like Todd Christensen. He only had six years as an impact player, but what impact. Receiving leaders, 1982-87:

Chart

Christensen ranks 4th in receiving yardage, 3rd in TDs, and 1st (by a mile) in receptions. He was also the best blocker listed, a legit tight end and not just a glorified wide receiver. He led the NFL in receptions twice and had three 1,000-yard seasons, as many as Winslow and more than Newsome. I guess he hasn't been inducted because of his short career and modest overall stats, but the same criticisms largely apply to Winslow.

Tombstone Jackson

He has generated little HOF support in the past, probably because his career was so short, but the Broncos' Rich "Tombstone" Jackson might be the greatest player at any position not to have a bust in Canton. In fact, NFL Films President Steve Sabol has said exactly that (5:00 mark). Paul Zimmerman (Sports Illustrated's Dr. Z) called Tombstone "one of, if not the best DE I've seen" and named Jackson to his All-Century Team. In 2006, Al Davis called Jackson "the best player [the Broncos] ever had". Those are authoritative sources, titans of NFL history, guys who have watched a ton of football and know what great defensive linemen look like.

When Tombstone played, defensive line was a non-stat position. The league didn't record tackles or sacks, and the unofficial numbers that some teams kept are dicey. The stats that do exist certainly don't show Tombstone as a uniquely dominant force — he had double-digit sacks a couple of times, but nothing that really stands out. However, in an era when stats are of limited value, we turn to experts, people who actually watched the games and knew how to interpret them. Often, that means we consult Pro Bowl selections and the Associated Press all-pro votes.

There are two problems with that method, especially for players like Jackson who excelled in short careers. (1) Not all great seasons are created equal. There's a big difference between, say, John Abraham in 2010 and Tombstone Jackson in 1970. The record says both of them were first-team all-pro, but they aren't comparable seasons; Tombstone dominated the league. The argument for Jackson isn't about how many great seasons he had, it's about the degree of his dominance. (2) Many voters are not qualified to judge defensive line play. Analyzing defensive linemen, without the benefit of reliable and easily available statistics, requires patience, dedication, knowledge of the game, and impartiality. Both now and in the past, some voters possess all those qualities, and some of them do not. Their votes can often serve as a general guide, but not a definitive record.

In that context, the opinions of smart people we know possess superior knowledge of the game become incredibly meaningful. In the history of the human race, you would be hard-pressed to find three people whose lives have revolved more around football than Zimmerman, Sabol, and Davis. Do I believe that Rich Jackson was the equal of someone like Reggie White or Deacon Jones? No. Those guys were sensational players in full careers. But I believe Tombstone was as good as or better than recent inductees like Chris Doleman, Richard Dent, and Fred Dean. I believe he was at least the equal of HOF contemporaries like Elvin Bethea and Carl Eller.

Fans and analysts disagree on the importance of longevity, and I know some people will never support Jackson because his career was prematurely ended by injury. If there's a trend that ties together the five players highlighted here, it's their short careers. Cunningham actually played forever, but he was often injured, and most of his later years were as a backup. Terrell Davis effectively played 4½ seasons. Christensen only started for six years, two of them strike-shortened. Tombstone and Easley played seven seasons apiece.

I don't want to downplay the importance of longevity, but I'm not advocating for flukes here. In the 2001 New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranked Oscar Charleston as the 4th-best baseball player in history. In justifying the selection, he wrote:

"It's not like one person saw Oscar Charleston play and said he was the greatest player ever. Lots of people said he was the greatest player they ever saw. John McGraw, who knew something about baseball, reportedly said that ... I don't think I'm a soft touch or easily persuaded; I believe I'm fairly skeptical. I just don't see any reason not to believe that this man was as good as anybody who ever played the game."

With that in mind, this is my feeling on Tombstone Jackson:

It's not like one person saw Rich Jackson play and said he was the greatest defensive end ever. Lots of people said he was the greatest defensive end they ever saw. Paul Zimmerman, who knew something about football, said that. I don't think I'm a soft touch or easily persuaded; I believe I'm fairly skeptical. I just don't see any reason not to believe that this man was one of the very finest who ever played the position.

Kenny Easley

Of the five players profiled in this column, Kenny Easley was the best, the one I feel most strongly about. He played only seven seasons before severe kidney disease forced his retirement, but was maybe the greatest ever at his position. A three-time All-American at UCLA, Easley was the AFC's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1981, AFC Defensive Player of the Year two seasons later, and NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1984, when he intercepted 10 passes, returning two of them for touchdowns. Easley was an Ed Reed-type player, a hard-hitting strong safety who went after passes like a ball-hawking free safety. Easley intercepted 32 passes in just 89 career games, an average of 6 per 16 games. Three times he gained over 100 yards on INT returns. Former Packers GM Ron Wolf is among those who consider Easley "the best safety I've ever seen."

No one disputes that Easley was a sensation. In 1981, he won Defensive Rookie of the Year. The next season, he was selected to the Pro Bowl, and several news services named him first-team All-Pro. The next three years, he was a consensus all-pro. In '86, he missed almost half the season with injury, but still earned second-team all-conference honors. For his final season, Easley made his fifth Pro Bowl and was once again all-conference. The man was a standout every year of his career, a truly exceptional player for three of those seasons in particular.

The only argument against Easley is that he didn't play very long. But consider again the argument I made for Terrell Davis. If Easley had stuck around for another 3-5 seasons, as a mediocre journeyman, or even a backup, he'd be in Canton. That wouldn't indicate a better player, though. Seven great seasons and four undistinguished seasons don't express greatness better than seven great seasons and an early retirement. So far, the voters have really missed the ball on Easley. I'm hopeful that they'll reconsider his legacy before he's pushed to the Seniors pool.

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