(EDITOR'S NOTE: To access the Matt Maiocco interview, click on the following attachment: Ep 39: NFL Draft, Jimmy G, Patrick Willis, and the 49ers With Matt Maiocco | Spreaker)
When this year’s Pro Football Hall-of-Fame finalists were announced, I was surprised – no, shocked – that former San Francisco 49ers’ defensive lineman Bryant Young didn’t make the cut.
He was the only finalist from 2020 who didn’t return, and, sorry, but I don’t get it. Simply stated, Bryant Young was a magnificent football player.
But so who was one of his teammates who didn’t reach the final 15.
I’m talking about linebacker Patrick Willis, a two-time semifinalist since he’s been eligible but who is still waiting to have his case discussed. Now, full disclosure: Willis has only been eligible two years and should become a finalist soon. But I’m not sure why it hasn’t already happened, and I’m not alone.
Hall-of-Fame voter Matt Maiocco of NBCSportsBayArea, a guy who covered the 49ers the past two-and-a-half decades, doesn’t understand what’s happening … or not happening … with Willis’ candidacy, either.
“I thought Year One (2020), it was kind of a slam dunk that he would be a finalist,” he said on a recent “Eye Test for Two” podcast on fullpressradio.com. “I didn’t expect him to go in Year One because I thought the conversation would be very much like the conversation that it seems we have on a yearly basis with Tony Boselli or Terrell Davis or Calvin Johnson (because of shortened careers).
“And I would compare – obviously different positions – but I would compare Patrick Willis to Calvin Johnson. I think those guys are very similar as far as their resumes go in their candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
I would, too. Willis played eight years. Johnson played nine. Willis was a six-time All-Pro, including five years as a first-team choice. Johnson was a four-time All-Pro, including three first-team selections. Willis was named to the all-decade team. So was Johnson. Willis was a Defensive Rookie of the Year and had six seasons with 100 or more tackles, including 2007 and 2009 when he led the NFL. Johnson led the league in receiving yards twice, was its receptions leader once and tied for the single-season high in receiving TDs in 2008.
So there’s not a lot to separate them. Except this: Megatron this year became a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Patrick Willis is still waiting to have his candidacy aired. As I said, he’s been eligible only two years, but in this era of first-ballot mania I’m not sure why he hasn’t at least been discussed.
“Patrick Willis,” Maiocco said, “was a dominant, eye-popping, sideline-to-sideline (player). He would do everything for that defense. That included when (then defensive coordinator) Vic Fangio came to the 49ers in 2011 (when he said): ‘You know what? He’s our best cover guy, too. So let’s put him on the opposition’s tight end.’ And he did a really good job in that role.”
If there’s a closer comparison to Willis than Calvin Johnson, maybe it’s Panthers’ linebacker Luke Kuechly who, like Willis, retired early because of injury concerns. He also played eight seasons and was an All-Pro for seven of them, with five first-ballot selections. Kuechly was also a seven-time Pro Bowler, all-decade choice and, like Willis, played in a Super Bowl that his team lost.
But he was a Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, too. And that has some voters thinking he could be a first-ballot choice when he’s eligible for Canton in 2025. He almost surely will be a first-ballot finalist.
“I think what people will say,” said Maiocco, “is that, ‘Well, Luke Kuechly was a Defensive Player of the Year.’ I would say there were two or three seasons where Patrick Willis could have been … or maybe should have been Defensive Player of the Year. He was a dominant player and just a remarkably talented guy.”
Yet he’s waiting to hear his name called as a finalist. My guess? Next year could be that time, with his election not all that far off in the future. If so, here’s hoping it coincides with something similar for Bryant Young.