Ronnie Lott is arguably the greatest safety the NFL has ever seen.
He has a bust in Canton, as does Troy Polamalu. Lott was a two-time first-team all-decade selection in the 1980s and 1990s and both Polamalu and Joey Browner were second-team choices. Browner was voted one of the 50 Greatest Minnesota Vikings and Mark Carrier, the 1990 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, was voted one of the 100 Greatest Chicago Bears. Lott went to 10 Pro Bowls, Polamalu eight and Browner and Dennis Smith six apiece.
Lott, Polamalu, Browner, Carrier and Smith were all first-round draft selections. No school has produced more NFL greatness at the safety position than Southern Cal.
Tim McDonald was a second-round draft pick out of Southern Cal and his greatness has either been forgotten or overlooked, take your pick. He played 13 seasons, went to six Pro Bowls and wears a Super Bowl ring. But his name has never come up in any Hall of Fame discussion. It should.
Strong safety historically is the physical position, free safety the finesse position. The strong safety is the hitter, the free safety the ballhawk. McDonald played all 13 of his seasons at strong safety but was a blend of both hitter and ballhawk. He retired after the 1999 season with 1,100 career tackles and 40 interceptions.
The problem with McDonald’s candidacy? He spent his first six seasons in Phoenix – the prime years of his career -- playing on a team that didn’t compete for playoff spots, didn’t win many games and rarely appeared on television.
Those Cardinals never managed a winning season playing in a division – the NFC East – that spit out Super Bowl champions like a Pez dispenser. Dallas, New York and Washington all hogged the spotlight by winning Lombardi Trophies while McDonald was languishing in the desert.
So during his first six NFL seasons McDonald wore the Harry Potter cloak of invisibility.
McDonald didn’t start until his second year, then reeled off four 100-tackle seasons over the next five years. He intercepted seven passes in 1989 and also collected a career-high 155 tackles. Those statistics are hard to overlook, which is why he was voted to his first Pro Bowl. McDonald went to two more Pro Bowls with the Cardinals before escaping the losing and the relative anonymity in free agency in 1993, signing with the San Francisco 49ers.
McDonald extended his streak of consecutive Pro Bowls to five with election to the NFL all-star game each of his first three seasons with the 49ers. He helped San Francisco reach the NFC championship game in the first two years with the 49ers claiming a Lombardi Trophy in his second season in 1994.
After hitting double-digits in losses each of his final four seasons in Phoenix, McDonald hit double-figures in wins each of his first six seasons in San Francisco. He went to the playoffs all six of those seasons and reached one more NFC championship game (1997).
In addition to his seven-interception season, McDonald picked off five passes for the Cardinals in 1991 and four for the 49ers in both 1995 and 1998. He forced four fumbles for the Cardinals in 1988 and recovered three fumbles for both Phoenix in 1992 and San Francisco in 1997.
McDonald collected a career-high four sacks for the 49ers in 1998 and also returned five career takeaways for touchdowns. His first came with the Cardinals on a 53-yard interception of a Troy Aikman pass and the other four scores all came with the 49ers.
McDonald became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2005 and is now in his 17th year of eligibility seemingly without a whiff of interest from Canton. Tim McDonald was a better player than that. A much better player.