Former Cincinnati cornerback Ken Riley never understood why he wasn’t a finalist or semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Now he never will.
Riley died Sunday in his home at Bartow, Fla., at the age of 72.
His death was announced by Florida A&M, where he was a star quarterback and, later, head football coach and the school’s athletic director. What Riley wasn’t was a Hall-of-Fame factor, never discussed by the Hall’s board of selectors despite 65 career interceptions in his 15 years with Cincinnati (1969-83).
“I’ve done everything I was supposed to do,” Riley said on a Talk of Fame Network broadcast in June, 2019. “So it’s out of my control. You can’t worry about it.”
Maybe not. But you can question it.
When the Hall last year announced a plan to produce a Centennial Class for 2020 to celebrate the NFL’s 100th anniversary, it was thought that Riley might finally gain the recognition he deserved; that, at the very least, he would be a finalist and maybe, just maybe, one of the 10 inductees.
It never happened. He missed on both scores, and that’s hard to explain.
Because Riley’s 65 interceptions rank fifth among the NFL’s all-time leaders, tied with Charles Woodson. The four players ahead of him (Paul Krause, Emlen Tunnell, Rod Woodson and Dick “Night Train” Lane) are all in the Hall of Fame. So is Ed Reed, who ranks seventh with 64 and Ronnie Lott, tied for eighth with Darren Sharper.
And Woodson? He’s expected to be a first-ballot choice in 2021.
Riley, on the other hand, never had his candidacy debated. Yeah, I know, the guy wasn't chosen to a single Pro Bowl when that meant something, and that’s another riddle difficult to solve. Yet he was named to three All-Pro teams.
His best season was 1976 when he had a career-best nine interceptions – including the last two of Joe Namath’s career with the New York Jets. Yet he wasn’t named to the Pro Bowl. Teammate Lamar Parrish, however, was, and get this: He not only had two interceptions that year but missed half the season.
“It’s a mystery to me,” Riley said on the Talk of Fame Network broadcast. “That’s out of my control. The only thing I can do is be solid and go out and be consistent. And I was consistent every Sunday when I played football. And I played in more games than anybody in Cincinnati. I was durable.”
Riley played in 214 career games (including the playoffs) and didn’t miss one in 11 of his 15 seasons there.
Now, dig a little farther, and you find his impact everywhere. He had the 65 interceptions for 596 return yards, five TDS, 18 fumble recoveries, 96 yards off fumble returns, 334 kickoff return yards and 15 yards receiving. His interceptions, interception-by-return yards and touchdowns via interceptions are all Bengals’ records.
Yet the Hall hasn’t noticed, and maybe that’s where the mystery gets solved. Because it’s not just Riley who hasn’t gained the attention of Canton; it’s the entire Bengals’ franchise. In the 52 years of the Bengals’ existence, there is only one – one – player enshrined who spent the bulk of his career in Cincinnati, and that’s Anthony Munoz, perhaps the greatest tackle of all time.
Beyond that? Nada.
For years, Denver fans charged that the Hall had a bias against the Broncos, and they pointed to Denver’s Super Bowl appearances as evidence. At one point, the Broncos had twice as many as they had individuals in Canton. But not anymore. With the election this year of safety Steve Atwater, the Broncos have seven former players enshrined … or six more than Cincinnati.
What’s more, they’ve had six individuals with ties to the organization – including former owner Pat Bowlen and defensive backs Ty Law (2009) and Brian Dawkins (2009-11) – inducted the past four years.
Cincinnati has Hall-of-Fame worthy individuals – guys like quarterback Ken Anderson, tackle Willie Anderson and Parrish -- but Ken Riley is front and center. And his passing is another example of a Hall-of-Fame worthy candidate who died before he gained the recognition he merited.
“If you could stand in front of the board,” we asked him on last year’s broadcast, “and make your case, what would you say?”
“My record speaks for itself,” Riley answered. “It’s just a matter of whether or not someone will take that chance. And I say, ‘Take that chance and do the right thing.’
“Just look at my numbers … look at what I have accomplished over the past years … and, hopefully, you will make the right decision and give me that opportunity.”