Choosing the next Hall of Famers for Canton's most underrepresented franchises
As I wrote last weekend, the Cincinnati Bengals have all but been forgotten by Hall-of-Fame voters. In over five decades of play, they have one former player – tackle Anthony Munoz -- enshrined in Canton.
But they’re not alone.
While they’re the extreme case, they do have company on the Island of Lost Stars. There are 11 other teams with fewer than 10 inductees – players, coaches and owners who made their primary contributions to those franchises. Compare that to, say, Chicago’s 30 or Green Bay’s 26, and maybe you can understand why I say there’s a significant group of franchises – more than one third, in fact – underrepresented in Canton.
Of course, that might be understandable if they didn’t have Hall-of-Fame caliber candidates. But they did. And they do.
“Like who?” you ask. Good question.
Here’s your answer:
ATLANTA – OL George Kunz. Tough call. It was Nobis, Mike Kenn or Kunz. All are worthy. Nobis was one of 20 senior finalists for the Centennial Class. Kenn has been a three-time modern-era semifinalist. And Kunz? He was named to eight Pro Bowls in nine years and was a four-time All-Pro. A walk-in starter his rookie season, he was voted to the Pro Bowl his first NFL season … and for good reason: Until suffering a back injury in his 10th NFL season he was arguably the best right tackle in the game. Kunz’s eight Pro Bowls are as many as Art Shell and more than Ron Yary (7), Bob Brown (6), Dan Dierdorf (6) and Rayfield Wright (5). But they’re in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Kunz has never been a finalist or semifinalist.
BALTIMORE – Owner Art Modell. A Centennial Class contributor finalist, he’s been a modern-era finalist twice (2002, 2012) … but never came close to crossing the finish line. Reason: He’s a polarizing candidate who angered some voters by moving the Browns to Baltimore and underwhelmed others with decisions as chairman of the league’s broadcast committee. Nevertheless, the man was influential in popularizing the game through TV – with the advent of “Monday Night Football” one example – and was revolutionary in the hiring of the NFL’s the first African-American GM, Ozzie Newsome. “He was a giant of our industry,” said Newsome. Modell also helped establish NFL Films and was its first chairman. Founder Ed Sabol and his son, Steve, are in Canton. “I believe very strongly that Art Modell is one of the most important figures in the history of the NFL,” said Dick Ebersol, former head of NBC Sports. “He and Pete Rozelle developed the magic formula that married the potential of television to the game. Those funds from this marriage propelled the game into what it is today.”
CAROLINA. LB Sam Mills. He was a modern-era finalist this year for the first time, and it’s his 18th year of eligibility. Mills was a standout for the USFL Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars, where he was a two-time league champion and so good that people there insist he was one of the USFL’s two best defensive players. The other? Hall-of-Famer Reggie White. A three-time All-USFL choice and three-time All-Pro, Mills was more than an undersized linebacker who was tough, relentless and reliable. He was a team leader who helped launch the Panthers to the NFC championship game in their second year of existence. Joining Carolina in 1995, their first year of play, he made such an impression in his three years there that his number 51 jersey was retired and a statue of him erected outside the team’s Bank of America Stadium.
CINCINNATI – QB Ken Anderson. The resume, please: A four-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro, league MVP, Comeback Player of the Year, four-time leader in passer rating, three-time leader in completion percentage, two-time leader in passing yards and the first quarterback to lead the Bengals to the Super Bowl. There are a lot of people who don’t understand why he’s not in Canton, and I get it. When Anderson retired after the 1986 season he held league records for consecutive completions (20), completion percentage for a single game (20 of 22, 90.9 percent) and completion percentage for a single season (70.6), breaking Sammy Baugh’s record set in 1945. He also ranked sixth all-time in career yards when he retired. What’s more, his single-season completion percentage stood for 27 years before Drew Brees broke it in 2009. Anderson has been a modern-era finalist twice (1996, 1998) but has yet to be a senior finalist. Here’s hoping that changes.
DENVER – LB Randy Gradishar. Another Centennial Class finalist, Gradishar was a tackling machine for the Broncos’ Orange Crush defense and the league’s 1978 Defensive Player of the Year. He was named to seven Pro Bowls, was a six-time All-Pro, received Defensive Player-of-the-Year votes four times (he finished third in 1977) and was the centerpiece of Joe Collier’s 3-4 defense that led the Broncos to their first Super Bowl. In short, he checked all the boxes. Frankly, I have no idea why he wasn’t named to the Hall years ago nor why he was passed over by the Centennial committee. Former Pro Football Weekly personnel scout Joel Buchsbaum compared Gradishar to Hall-of-Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, saying that “the fact (that) he’s not in the Hall of Fame is a shame and may be attributed to the fact that he was a sure tackler and not a lights-out hitter or look-at-me type of player.” Maybe. All I know is that anyone who saw him swears he was one of the best inside linebackers ever. “Take him out of the Orange Crush,” said Buchsbaum, “and it would be the Orange Fizz.”
HOUSTON -- WR Andre Johnson. A seven-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro, Johnson led the league in receptions and in receiving yards twice. Five times he had 100 or more catches. Seven times he had 1,000 or more yards. But that's no pass for Canton, as Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne have discovered. Johnson's chances of making the Hall are remote (he becomes eligible in 2022), particularly with the Texans reaching the playoffs in only two of his nine seasons there, but he's the most eligible candidate of the league's newest franchise ... though I admit: Mario Williams was another possibility.
NEW ENGLAND – WR/K Gino Cappelletti. This was a tough choice. Take your pick: Gino or defensive tackle Richard Seymour. I had Cappelletti in a photo finish, mostly because he was the AFL’s all-time leading scorer. Of course, he was more than that. He was an accomplished wide receiver, too, ranked in the AFL’s top 10 in career receptions and yards. He was also a five-time AFL all-star and the 1964 AFL MVP. There was nothing he could not do. He returned kicks and punts, played defensive back and even threw a touchdown pass. In fact, he was just the second AFL player to have three interceptions in one game, set a league record with 28 points in a 1965 rout of Oakland and was one of only two AFL kickers to nail four field goals in three consecutive games. He also led the AFL in field-goal percentage in 1965. All you need to know about his value to the Patriots is this: His number 20 is retired.
NEW ORLEANS – LB Sam Mills. See Carolina. He was so valuable – or invaluable – to the Saints that former New Orleans GM Bill Kuharich once called him “the heart and soul” of the Saints’ “Dome Patrol” -- a defense that included Hall-of-Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson. Jackson went to six Pro Bowls; Mills went to five. Mills should be in a Hall-of-Fame conversation, and he was earlier this month. But it shouldn’t have taken him 18 years to get there.
NEW YORK JETS – DL Joe Klecko. He’s the only player in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl at three different positions on the defensive line – tackle, nose tackle and end. Part of “The New York Sack Exchange,” Klecko was so good at his job that Hall-of-Fame center Dwight Stephenson called him one of two best interior linemen he faced in his career. Hall-of-Fame tackle Anthony Munzio described him as “right there at the top of the defensive ends I had to block,” comparing him to Fred Dean, Bruce Smith and Lee Roy Selmon. All are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Klecko has never been a semifinalist. “We need to get Joe Klecko in the Hall of Fame,” said former Bills’ guard Joe DeLamielleure. Good luck.
SEATTLE – RB Ricky Watters. I’m not sure why he doesn’t get more attention from Hall voters. He’s never been a finalist and was a semifinalist for the first time only this year. Yet he was a key element to the 49ers’ championship team in 1994 and went on to produce seven 1,000-yard rushing seasons (including five years of 1,200 or more), eclipse 10,000 career rushing yards, score 91 times and total 14,891 yards from scrimmage. He played fewer years (10) than O.J. Simpson (11) and Thurman Thomas (13) but had more TDs than either. He’s also one of only two running backs to rush for 1,000 yards in a season for three teams (Willis McGahee is the other). Ricky Watters was a complete back, someone who could beat you with running the ball or catching it, and he excelled when it counted most – scoring 12 times in 11 playoff games, including three times in Super Bowl XXIX, and averaging 101.5 yards per contest.
TAMPA BAY – S John Lynch. He’s been a modern-era finalist seven straight years and a Top-10 finalist in four of them … yet he’s still not in Canton. There is nothing more that needs to be said about the guy except: When does he cash in? He was named to more Pro Bowls (9) than any pure safety outside of Hall-of-Famer Ken Houston (12) and was the quarterback of a Tampa Bay defense that delivered the Bucs their only Lombardi Trophy. Two of its members (Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks) are in Canton, and both were first-ballot choices. But Lynch? Still on call-waiting. “In my opinion,” said former quarterback Peyton Manning, a Hall-of-Fame candidate in 2021, “John Lynch was one of the greatest safeties to ever play the game.” Tell that to voters.
TENNESSEE – WR Charlie Hennigan. Before there were the Tennessee Titans there were the Houston Oilers, and Hennigan was one of their star players. In fact, he was one of the AFL’s star players. George Blanda’s favorite target, Hennigan was a two-time AFL champion, five-time AFL all-star and a premier receiver who, in 1961 set an AFL record of 1,746 yards receiving – in 14 games, no less – that stood for 34 years. But that’s not all. In that season, he had 100 or more yards in 10 of Houston’s 14 games – a league record that lasted until Michael Irvin had 11 in 1995. He also averaged 21.3 yards a catch. One year later he produced 101 receptions, a record that lasted until Art Monk caught 106 in 1984. The knock on Hennigan is that his career was short (he played seven years) and that his numbers were inflated because he played in the first years of the AFL. First of all, longevity is no longer a factor. Not since Terrell Davis and Kenny Easley were inducted in 2017. Second, I don’t care if it’s the early days of any league. Hennigan dominated in a league that was 2-2 vs. the NFL in Super Bowls.
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