CHFF: Defensive stars the NFL Hall of Fame overlooked - Sports Illustrated

CHFF: Defensive greats the NFL Hall of Fame overlooked

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Hall of Fame voters have finally found religion.

Two years ago, with the help of several Hall of Fame voters, Cold Hard Football Facts conducted a lengthy study of the HOF voting records and it revealed a startling disparity between the rate at which offensive and defensive players are ushered into Canton. Offensive players in the two-platoon era had been inducted into the Hall at a rate of nearly two to one over defensive players. And the trend was not good: the disparity was only growing wider in the Live Ball Era (1978-present), the era defined by an institutionalized bias in favor of offensive players.

But to their credit, Hall of Fame voters studied the numbers and have begun to right their wrongs. The Class of 2008 featured four defensive players -- the largest class of defenders in all of Hall of Fame history. The Class of 2009, which will be inducted this weekend, features three defensive players -- Bills sack-master Bruce Smith, all-purpose defensive back Rod Woodson, who spent most of his career with the Steelers, and the late Kansas City linebacker Derrick Thomas -- matching the previous best before 2008.

That's seven defenders added to the Hall of Fame roster in the past two years. To put that into context, Canton had welcomed just eight defensive players in the previous eight Hall of Fame classes. The change of heart among voters is evident if one looks at the last 10 Canton classes:

• Class of 2000: 1 offensive player and 3 defensive players

• Class of 2001: 4 offensive players and 2 defensive players

• Class of 2002: 3 offensive players and 1 defensive player

• Class of 2003: 3 offensive players and 1 defensive player

• Class of 2004: 3 offensive players and 1 defensive players

• Class of 2005: 4 offensive players and 0 defensive players

• Class of 2006: 3 offensive players and 2 defensive players

• Class of 2007: 5 offensive players and 1 defensive player

• Class of 2008: 2 offensive players and 4 defensive players

• Class of 2009: 2 offensive players and 3 defensive players

The disparity between offensive and defensive players is still wide: 113 offensive players and 70 defenders from the two-platoon era. And among those who played in the Live Ball Era, the tally is 22 offensive players and 11 defenders. There are several notable disparities, as Hall of Fame voters have been quick to usher in marginal offensive players and dismiss some of the most dominant defenders in history. Consider the case of two rivals from the old AFC Central who battled twice a year throughout the 1970s: Steelers wide receiver LynnSwann and Bengals cornerback Ken Riley.

Swann caught just 51 TD passes in his short, nine-year career. Eighty-two players have hauled in more TD receptions. He totaled just 336 catches for 5,462 yards. But Swann, thanks to a couple of highly visible Super Bowl performances, was hustled into Canton in 2001.

Riley, meanwhile, picked off 65 passes in his 15-year career, the fifth highest total in NFL history. He can barely get his name mentioned among Hall of Fame voters. An all-time leader in touchdown catches would be a lock for the Hall of Fame. But if you're among the all-time leaders in picking off passes, Hall of Fame voters are quick to forget you.

Clearly, there's still a long way to go before equality reigns in Canton. If HOF voters want to get serious about adding defensive players, they'd be wise to start with this octet of overlooked stars. (Players listed alphabetically.)

Years pro:Broncos, 1989-98; Jets, 1999. Pro Bowls: 8. All-Pro: 6. Consensus All-NFL: 1991, 1992. All-Decade team? Yes. Playoff games: 14. Super Bowl rings: 2. Avg. team defensive rank: 12.0 (out of 30-31 teams).

Cold, Hard Football Fact: In Denver's first Super Bowl win, Atwater had six tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.

Offensive HOF equivalent:John Elway. Why not? Sure, Pat Bowlen said "This one's for John," but Atwater meant as much to Denver's D as Elway did to the O.

The case against: Atwater wasn't known as a great pass-defender as a safety, and the Broncos rarely had a top-flight defense during his career.

The case for: Well, eight Pro Bowls is a pretty loud statement. Not too many players with eight Pro Bowls aren't in Canton -- especially guys who helped hoist two Vince Lombardi Trophies. Also, according to Denver's official stats, he averaged more 130 total tackles per season over a decade with the Broncos.

In summary: Atwater was a feared hitter. Not quite Ronnie Lott, but pretty damn close. He won big games, he was the best at his position, he was a perennial all-leaguer -- sounds like a Hall of Famer, doesn't it?

Years pro: Oilers, 1975-84; Pro Bowls: 7. All-Pro Mentions: 8. Consensus All-NFL: 1978, 1979, 1980. All-Decade team? Yes. Playoff games: 7. Super Bowl rings: 0. Avg. team defensive rank: 16.0 (out of 26-28 teams).

Cold, Hard Football Fact: Started every game of his 10-year career with the Oilers

Offensive HOF equivalent:Curtis Martin's not in yet (and could miss), but he is a good comparison for Brazile. Consistently great and reliable for a full decade.

The case against: Who? Robert Brazile? If 75 percent of NFL fans have never heard of him, how good could he have been? The Oilers never went anywhere, and their defense wasn't that good.

The case for: Seven Pro Bowls. Three consensus all-NFL nods. Eight all-Pro seasons. All-70s team. Never missed a game. Had a cool nickname, "Dr. Doom."

In summary: Brazile had a comparable career to HOFer Lee Roy Selmon of Tampa Bay -- like Selmon, Brazile came into the league flying, and stayed there for almost his entire career. Like Selmon's Bucs, Houston had sporadic success, and when Earl Campbell breezed into the Hall on his first try, the voters probably figured that the Oilers had their quota. When Houston DE ElvinBethea finally got in back in 2003 after a 15-year wait, Brazile's coffin was probably sealed. But Dr. Doom's eight All-Pro seasons should be enough in and of itself -- it's as many as unquestioned HOFers Dan Marino and Dick Butkus, among others.

Years pro:Bears, 1983-93, 1995; 49ers">49ers, 1994; Colts, 1996; Eagles, 1997. Pro Bowls: 4. All-Pro: 6. Consensus All-NFL: Never. All-Decade team? No. Playoff games: 12. Super Bowl rings: 2 (won one in San Fran despite missing almost entire season). Avg. team defensive rank: 7.8 (out of 30 teams).

Cold, Hard Football Fact: Registered 10+ sacks for five straight years in Chicago's prime (1984-88), finished with 137.5 sacks (ranked third all-time when he retired). Averaged more than 12 sacks per year with the Bears.

Offensive HOF equivalent: O.J. Simpson. A dynamic playmaker who hung around a little too long but had a heck of a peak.

The case against: The numbers don't add up. He wasn't on the all-80s team despite huge production, he made only four Pro Bowls, was never consensus all-NFL. His sack total is impressive, but it came over a long 14-year career that, on the back end, was mostly filler.

The case for: Chicago's defense from 1983-88 was as good as any in football history -- top five in scoring defense six straight years, with three No. 1s. Despite this, only Dan Hampton and Mike Singletary made the Hall of Fame -- wasn't Dent considered as great as they were? How is Hampton a slam dunk and Dent a maybe? Dent was stuck behind Reggie White and Bruce Smith his whole career, which is a good reason why he didn't make All-Pro or All-Decade teams -- Smith and White are Uber Hall of Famers, guys that deserve their own wing. That doesn't mean Dent can't enjoy the fun. And let's not forget, the man was MVP of Super Bowl XX. Only seven other defensive players in the last 41 years can make that claim.

In summary: We've already put forth the names of defensive Super Bowl MVPs Chuck Howley and Jake Scott as HOFers, now we want Dent, too. Don't worry, there's no case to be made for Larry Brown of the Cowboys or DexterJackson of the Bucs. But Dent belongs in the Hall -- and we expect he'll get there, with two appearances in the finals already.

Years pro:Steelers, 1969-81. Pro Bowls: 6. All-Pro: 6. Consensus All-NFL: 1975. All-Decade team? Yes. Playoff games: 18. Super Bowl rings: 4. Avg. defensive rank: 9.0 (out of 26-28 teams).

Cold, Hard Football Fact: Led the Steelers in sacks six times.

Offensive HOF equivalent: Franco Harris. Never the best player on the team, but a steady source of excellence on a great team for a long time.

The case against: There are already four Steeler defensive members in (Greene, Blount, Lambert, Ham) and five more on offense (that in itself is kinda odd, and another example of bias, considering the Steelers dynasty was powered by its defense). Greenwood was never the best player on the Steelers' defense, and he only had 73 ½ sacks over his career. He also tried to sign with the World Football League in 1975, but the league went down before his Steeler contract was up.

The case for: His career sack number (unofficial) of 73½ sounds like a low number, but the Steelers weren't big on sacks. And quarterbacks of the 1970s weren't big on taking them -- or passing the ball, for that matter. In 1977, for example, the Steelers led the NFL with 31 sacks in 14 games (San Diego led the NFL in 2006 with 61). In Greenwood's era, interceptions were high, sacks were low -- and the Steelers annually ranked near the top of the league in picks and sacks. That he would lead the greatest defense of our time in sacks six times is probably a better indicator than the unofficial total.

In summary: Greenwood was all-70s, played for four title teams, played 13 full seasons, and had memorable moments in the Super Bowls. Sounds like Franco Harris, doesn't it? So why isn't Greenwood in? Oh yeah, he played defense. Worse, he's already had all of his chances to make it into the Hall through the front door, and now must get in as an old-timer.

Years pro:Bears 1958-59; Cowboys 1961-73. Pro Bowls: 6. All-Pro: 7. Consensus All-NFL: 1966, 1968, 1969, 1970. All-Decade team? No. Playoff games: 15. Super Bowl rings: 1. Avg. team defensive rank: 6.3 (out of 14-26 teams).

Cold, Hard Football Fact: 25 interceptions, 17 fumble recoveries. Made the playoffs eight straight seasons.

Offensive HOF equivalent:Art Shell. A late bloomer who dominated for perennial Super Bowl contenders.

The case against: He was basically out of football after flaming out with the Bears in 1959, but resurrected his career as a street free agent. He didn't make the all-1960s team -- and three guys ahead of him at linebacker on that list are not in the Hall (Tommy Nobis, Larry Morris, Dave Robinson). He didn't become a top player until his late 20s, and played outside linebacker (not the glamour position it is today).

The case for: If Hall of Famers are judged by Super Bowl success, then Howley belongs. He won Super Bowl MVP honors of a game the Cowboys didn't even win, then came back the next year and contributed an INT and a fumble recovery to lead the Dallas to its first crown. Basically, he had a Lynn Swann postseason career, and a much better regular-season career, and didn't even get a sniff of the Hall.

In summary: If they kept tackle and sack stats in those days, Howley's numbers would surely be too much for even the tunnel-visioned Hall voters to ignore. But his postseason resume and general excellence should be enough. He has every quality a Hall of Famer is meant to have -- dominance, play for great teams, Super Bowl excellence, longevity. Everything but a flashy jersey number and a movie cameo. But that's the defenseman's plight.

Years pro:Saints, 1981-1993, Niners 1994-95. Pro Bowls: 6. All-Pro: 7. Consensus All-NFL: 1992, 1993. All-Decade team? No. Playoff games: 8. Super Bowl rings: 1. Avg. team defensive rank: 10.1 (out of 28-30 teams).

Cold, Hard Football Fact: Missed only four games during a 15-year NFL career. Had 10+ sacks and 100+ tackles each year from 1983-85. Finished his career with 128 sacks, 10th all time since he broke into the league in 1981 (sacks weren't counted until 1982). Was a consensus first-team All Pro in 1992-93, when he was in his mid-30s.

Offensive HOF equivalent: Bruce Matthews. He played at a high level for all 15 years of his career, but for a franchise that couldn't get anywhere in the postseason or with the national media.

The case against: There were a lot of good pass rushers around when Jackson played, and he was never up to the Tippett/Taylor level. Couldn't get the Saints anywhere in the postseason. Had a couple of unproductive seasons in the middle of his career.

The case for: Few players in NFL history mixed longevity and excellence like Jackson did. He was one of the best defensive players in the league for a solid decade-and-a-half, and even won a Super Bowl ring with the 49ers in 1994, starting all 16 games out of position DE for one of the most dominant teams ever. His defenses were in the top five in either yards or points in nine of his 15 years. Jackson also recovered 28 opponent fumbles in his career, one shy of the record held by Minnesota legend Jim Marshall (another defender who probably belongs in Canton).

In summary: New Orleans' defenses under Jim Mora were spectacular, but none of the great players there (Jackson, Sam Mills, Pat Swilling) have made it anywhere near Canton. If Mills was the tackler and Swilling was the homerun hitter, Jackson was both, a guy who played the run and the pass and excelled at both ends of his career. Being an all-NFL pick in his mid-30s is a hell of an achievement, especially when he had built up such a great resume as a young stud.

Years pro:Lions, 1958-62, 1964-70. Pro Bowls: 4. All-Pro: 9. Consensus All-NFL: 1961, 1962, 1965. All-Decade team? Yes. Playoff games: 1. Super Bowl rings: 0. Avg. team defensive rank: 4.5 (out of 12-16 teams).

Cold, Hard Football Fact: Missed only one game his entire active career.

Offensive HOF equivalent: Anthony Munoz. Dominant big guy on terrible teams.

The case against: Karras played in an era of great defensive tackles, and was probably a slight cut below Merlin Olsen, Bob Lilly and Buck Buchanan. Also, his involvement in a betting scandal likely took Hall support away (and a season, 1963, which he sat out). But an offensive player, Paul Hornung, was caught up in the same scandal and sat out the same 1963 season ... and he was ushered into Canton without a second thought. And of course, Karras played for the sad-sack Lions after their dynastic period of the 1950s: they didn't make the playoffs again until he was in his final season.

The case for: Three times, Karras was consensus all-NFL, beating out guys like Olsen, Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb and Roger Brown. And he was good for his entire career -- he was all-NFL in 1960, and as late as 1969 when he was 34 years old. The Lions were terrible while he played for them, but it wasn't really Karras' fault -- in the five years of his prime (1960-62, 64-65), the Lions were 3rd, 3rd, 2nd, 3rd and 5th out of 14 in defense.

In summary: Karras was a maverick who angered the NFL -- and clearly, the league has held that against him. He was a fairly easy Hall of Fame choice, but ... well, you know the rest. Lilly and Olsen got in without a problem, but Karras is on the outside looking in. Oh well. He'll always have "Webster."

Years pro:Dolphins, 1970-75; Redskins 1976-78. Pro Bowls: 5. All-Pro: 5. Consensus All-NFL: 1972, 1973, 1974. All-Decade team? No. Playoff games: 12. Super Bowl rings: 2. Team avg. defensive rank: 4.8 (out of 26-28 teams).

Cold, Hard Football Fact: Scott's teams were 94-33-1 (.738) during his career.

Offensive HOF equivalent:Troy Aikman. A key leader for a dynasty who didn't play that long but who had a huge impact.

The case against: Played only nine years, and didn't have the same success with the Redskins after leaving the Dolphins following 1975 season. Made just five Pro Bowls. Got traded out of Miami despite still playing at his peak.

The case for: In his nine years as a starter, his defenses were always in the top 10 -- and this playing for two different franchises and with 24+ teams in the league. Scott was a Super Bowl legend: he was the MVP of Super Bowl VII with the undefeated 1972 Dolphins and followed it up with another big game in Super Bowl VIII. In 12 playoff games, his teams allowed just over 16 points a game. Even after going to the Redskins at the age of 31, he had 14 INTs in his last three seasons.

In summary: If Jake Scott were an offensive player, he'd be a legend. He was a 7th-round pick who instantly clicked in the pros and helped forge a dynasty. He was brash, fast, smart and good. He returned punts and kicks, was the toughest guy on a tough team. He wore No. 13, for Chrissakes! He came up with big moments on great teams, and had a five-year peak when he was at the top of the league. Perhaps the most underappreciated player in NFL history.