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Debating Hall of Fame candidates with a true football historian

I have, sent by the Hall of Fame, a gigantic roster of names marked CONFIDENTIAL, which means that I can't wait to tell you about it.

Oh, I've gone through this drill before -- once I believe. It involves sorting through something they call a Preliminary List, which means names that snuck in through leaks in the pipes, cracks in the wall, windows when no one was looking ... all sorts of creative ways ... 113 names, total.

Once upon a time I found it amusing to focus on the more obscure names, but no longer.

I've grown up now. Matured, in other words. So when I tell you that this list of folks in all walks of former NFL life will be further subjected to the addition of any favorites we feel the Hall has missed (actually it's the Hall's VP Joe Horrigan who compiled it), and then will be superseded by a Second Preliminary List, I am deadly serious. Then we come to a Third Preliminary List of 25, which will be October's harvest, followed by the Final Preliminary List, which will be reduced to the 15 modern and two Senior candidates we will take with us into the selection meeting the day before the Super Bowl.

Now normally I kind of like all this list-making-and-breaking, but something from the last Selection meeting stayed in my mind and then rang the gong for a Future Column. Green Bay's Cliff Christl brought in a set of capsule comments from Ron Wolf, the retired Packer GM and himself a Hall of Fame candidate, at least on the preliminary undercard. His remarks were acute and at times merciless, with those he felt had no business being among the nominees. His point was that very few people are worthy.

It got me thinking, which is a major achievement. Why not run the whole preliminary list by Ron when I get it? The answer is: who has that much time? Well, I do, especially in the offseason, and it turned out that Wolf did, too. It's what happens when a pair of ancients get together and start reminiscing about the great old players they'd seen, great moments, great games -- anything great, as long as it was in the thick mists of long ago.

So as we head into the month that really defines the offseason, June, here is my attempt to get one of the game's most revered chroniclers to cast some light on the current roster of future immortals. I can't list every name, so you're going to trust my judgment on those I consider the stickouts. First a general question to Ron Wolf. What constitutes a Hall of Famer?

"A guy who has made a difference," he said. "A unique performer during his time in the game. A person who dominated."

Let's look at our initial category, First-time eligibles. Forty strong. Shannon Sharpe, the tight end, is the name that jumps out among the pass-catchers.

"Well, he made the tight end position more of a receiving position," Wolf said. "Performed well in big games. For what he accomplished, I guess you'd have to say he was a game-changer. I think he belongs."

I didn't see any other offensive players who thrilled me, but here's a name, Vikings DT John Randle, who was a constant annoyance to Wolf's Packers -- two times a year. "Yes! Dominated his division for a long time," Wolf said. "I know he gave us all kinds of trouble."

I've argued this one for almost 15 years. Dynamite inside pass rusher, agreed, but so unsound against the run that he'd cause problems for those around him. I have yet to find one person who agrees with me. "Old-fashioned, leather-helmet thinking," Mike Giddings, the super scout has told me a million times. "He's only one of the most dynamic inside rushers in history, and that's what the game is all about, or haven't you heard?"

Yeah, I've heard already. Let's move on. Bruce Smith is up for the first time. Another great rusher, this time from the edge. "Oh yes," Wolf said. "I'd be very surprised if he's not a first-ballot choice. You know, it's a simple game. You take advantage of a guy's skill and ability, and he was one of the great wide rushers in history. You don't ask someone to do what he can't do."

John Mobley and Bill Romanowski are the more interesting LB names, a pair of Woodsons, Rod and Darren lead the DB's. "Mobley's effective career was too short," Wolf said. "I'd call him an 'almost.' Romo? Well, you had all the steroid charges. He helped every team he was on, but were you seeing the real Romanowski out there?

"I have no trouble with either defensive back, though. Rod Woodson certainly deserves it. Darren? Played a unique position for the Cowboys. Did everything a safetyman had to do, strongside or weak. Hell of a special teamer, too. Yes, a terrific player, a Hall of Famer."

Wait a minute. Wolf is supposed to be a tough grader, and that's five names he's already approved. And we're not even out of the new entries yet. And two Seniors still must make it. See how tough it is? Every year. Same problem.

On we go to the 38 players who were up in previous years and never made it. QBs are strong. Esiason, Plunkett, Simms, Stabler and Ken Anderson, who has always been a personal favorite, if only for the way he carried himself on the field. There was a kind of majesty about him.

"It's the grey area," Wolf said. "Good players, all of them good enough to win, but Hall of Famers? I don't think so. You could add Dan Fouts to that list. I know he's in already, but we played him enough times, when I was with the Raiders. But I never had the feeling that, OK, we're paying the Chargers now -- the one guy we have to worry about is the one throwing the ball."

Back comes Terrell Davis to light the fires of controversy once again. "Too short a career," said the negative voices. "Seven years, total, and only four of them were effective."

I was on the opposing side of that argument on this one. Yes, but those four years were sensational, and in two of them the Broncos rode his shirttails to Super Bowl triumphs.

"Four good years -- I don't think that's enough," Wolf said. Fine, but I think I have the clinching argument here. It's a two-word argument, a player both Wolf and I respect above almost anyone else. Orban "Spec" Sanders. Make that a three-word argument.

"Oh, man," Wolf said. "Ran back kicks and punts, passed, ran, punted, and then in his last year played defensive back."

A phenom for the rival All-America Football Conference, which had as many superstars as the NFL did, don't let anyone tell you different (not that anyone who is sane would hold such a conversation 60 years later). Single-wing tailback for the New York Yankees, and many a Sunday did I sit in the Stadium, yelling my lungs out for Spec and little Buddy Young, and Marion Motley, when the Browns came to town. Ran for 1,432 yards the same year Steve Van Buren set the NFL rushing record of 1,008.

His knees were shot in 1949, and he was out of the game, but in 1950 the Yankees were absorbed into the NFL and Spec came back as a defensive halfback -- they didn't call them cornerbacks then. His 13 interceptions were a league record, topped only by "Night Train" Lane's 14 two years later. Tell me, Ron, was Spec a Hall of Famer?

"Damn right he was," Wolf said. "Nobody ever did the things he did."

Well, ahem, three years in the AAFC, one in the NFL. Is Terrell Davis a Hall of Famer?

"You've given me something to think about," he said.

We move on, through a strong field of tight ends, Ben Coates, Mark Bavaro, the demon blocker, Todd Christensen, a personal favorite. "A hell of a list," he said. "If I had to take one of them, I'd take Bavaro, if only because of what he did for that offense. He made the Giants into a Super Bowl team."

How about the wideouts? Andre Reed. Made it to the round of 15.

"A lot of catches," Wolf said, "but did he dominate?"

Cris Carter, made it to the final 10 last time, lost out to Art Monk.

"Monk wouldn't be a choice of mine," Wolf said. "Did people say, when they played the Redskins, 'We've got to stop Art Monk?'

"Same thing with Carter. Who was the guy who worried you on that team? The speed guy on the other side, Randy Moss."

A pause for reflection. Cris Carter on the goal line, Carter against coverage on the sideline. Better think it through.

"Yeah, when they got in close, it was Carter you had to worry about," Wolf said. "When they needed the key first down, who did they go to? Moss? No, it was Carter. Plus he was an S.O.B. to cover. Now look what happened. Initially I dinged Carter, but when all is said and done, he really is deserving."

So how many has he put in the Hall already? Seven? Eight? And we still have the linemen who lost out last time, plus the defensive players.

Tony Boselli? "No. Better when he was younger."

Dermontti Dawson. "The best center's already in, and his name is Stephenson."

Bob Kuechenberg, whom I've been plugging for as long as I can remember? Jim Lachey? Steve Wisniewski? "No, no and no." Randall McDaniel? "More Pro Bowls than almost anybody," Wolf said, and I think he was beginning to wear out at this point. "I guess he belongs."

I told him I'd always been in ex-Falcon Mike Kenn's corner. As technically correct a tackle as the modern era has produced. "Oh yes," Wolf said. "And he did it for a long, long time, on some bad teams."

The name of Kenn reminded me of Winston Hill of the Super Bowl Jets. A smooth, stylish left tackle, a great raconteur, a fine wit.

"Of all the names I could have had that would have inspired fear," he used to say. "Rocky. Bruiser. My parents had to name me Winston ... Winnie to everyone. I mean could you see a defensive lineman terrified because he had to go up against a Winnie?"

"So graceful, so beautiful to watch," Matt Snell, the fullback, used to say. "Took them just where he wanted them to go. Never seemed like he was exerting himself that much. Tell me, did you ever seen Winnie sweat?"

"That's my man, bingo!" Wolf said. "You talk about a guy whose name you never hear now, that's him. I'd love to see the Seniors Committee propose him."

We all have our own favorites, players you could almost consider personal quirks. Hill is one of Ron Wolf's. So is defensive back Otto Schnellbacher, New York Yankees, New York Giants, a mainstay in Steve Owen's original Umbrella Defense, Otto Graham's persistent tormenter. Oh sure, I've got mine, too. Richie Jackson, the Broncos' great pass-rushing end, "Tombstone," they called him.

"Drove an old jalopy over the mountains after we'd traded with Oakland for him, and arrived in camp in the evening, just as it was getting dark," Stan Jones, the Denver line coach once told me. "He said, 'I've gone as far as I'm going. This is where I make my stand.' "

Here's another longshot, ex-49er Tommy Davis, a rocket punter who tamed the wicked winds of Kezar. Will the Seniors Committee ever find them? Probably not.

"Sometimes one particular talent stays with you," Wolf says. "Take George Buehler, our right guard with the Raiders. No one ever handled Joe Greene better than Buehler did. George was a different kind of guy, though. Kind of spacy.

"He would say to Gene Upshaw, our left guard, 'Eugene' ... he always called him Eugene ... 'who are we paying today?' And Gene would say, 'The Pittsburgh Steelers, George.'

'And Eugene, who will I be playing against?'

'Joe Greene, George.'

'Thank you, Eugene.' "

From an impressive list of linebackers, Wolf selected Clay Matthews, who played for 19 seasons, "with very little dropoff in effectiveness," as his man.

"Every time the Broncos come up, they're always pushing Karl Mecklenburg or Randy Gradishar. Both good players, but to me, Tommy Jackson is the Hall of Famer in that group. Very fast, very productive." Yep, Jackson is right up there, but I have also been in Sam Mills' corner for quite a while, but that's horse racing.

Cortez Kennedy is Wolf's favorite defensive lineman of the six in the group. I've been wearing myself out for years, trying to get Joe Klecko some notice.

"Old-time payer, lunch pail guy," Wolf says. Yes, but he also had 20 ½ sacks one year. Unfortunately that was the year before sacks became an official statistic.

"Tom Sestak, Arnie Weinmeister, great players ... who ever heard of them?" Wolf said.

Are you counting how many players we have already put in the Hall between us? And Wolf is supposed to be a hard guy, right? I told him to fasten his seat belt because the list of defensive backs from this category -- considered but not enshrined -- would blow him away. And it did.

Eric Allen, Eagles. Steve Atwater and Louie Wright, Broncos. LeRoy Butler, Packers. Kenny Easley, Seahawks. Lester Hayes, Raiders. Donnie Shell, Steelers. Albert Lewis, Chiefs and Raiders, Ken Riley ("The Rattler"), Bengals.

"My God, what a group" Wolf said. "A stunning group. I can think of seven who deserve it."

Which two don't?

"Atwater and Allen."

How about the others?

"Well, if I were drafting them, this is the order in which I'd pick them. No.1 Easley. The best safety I've ever seen. The crème de la crème. Unfortunately, he got hurt. Plus he played in Vladivostok, where nobody ever heard of him.

"No. 2, Hayes. Why isn't he in the Hall of Fame? Then Lewis, really smooth, almost a perfect cornerback. Then Butler, who I really have a special affinity for. As a strong safety, he and Darren Woodson were players who dominated. Could play the run, play the pass, really good tackler, effective blitzer, could set the defenses. Those Packer teams were really his teams.

"Finally, Wright, Riley and Shell, but they're all such great players."

Ray Guy is the only punter seriously proposed and he gets dinged every year. Now I know for a fact that as an ex-Raider, he will fit right into Wolf's comfort zone.

"All I can tell you is that we went from a team that kept giving up field position, because of our punter, to one that forced the other team to have to go 78 or 80 yards."

Last area, coaches and contributors. I told Wolf that I had tried to get Shaughnessy, the father of the modern T-formation, nominated by the Seniors Committee and had failed.

"Just look at the impact this guy had on the game," Wolf said. "You know he coached the Bears' defense for a while, too. My second year as GM of the Packers, I'm in Minneapolis for the Super Bowl -- Washington against Buffalo. Richie Petitbon, who played safety for the Bears when Shaughnessy coached the defense, was coaching the Redskins' defense. And what I was looking at in that game was Shaughnessy's defense, 30 years after he'd been at Chicago.

"In 1962, I was a 23-year-old, working for Pro Football Illustrated in Chicago, just a gofer, my first job. Every morning I had to meet with George Allen of the Bears' staff. I'd bring him a prune Danish and coffee. He said that the defense was Shaughnessy's, but George Halas wouldn't let him in the office. That's how jealous he was."

Well, we've almost come to the end of the line. How about the person, whose name is on the list as a "contributor," and who had just selected about 40 Hall of Famers for the Class of '09? Wolf has no illusions about being selected for enshrinement, but you never know.

This is the history. Vince Lombardi never had a losing season. Then there followed 24 seasons with only five winning records. Then Wolf was hired from the Raiders. What he brought to Green Bay in his nine years were nine winning seasons, a Super Bowl victory, and Brett Favre, stolen from Atlanta on a trade.

Not a bad way to wrap up a career.