Suddenly, the Hall of Fame values the safety position
The Pro Football Hall of Fame opened its doors in 1963 but had always been reluctant to recognize safeties.
The position had to wait eight years for its first inductee – Jack Christiansen of the Detroit Lions in 1970. Emlen Tunnell, who retired as the NFL’s all-time leading interceptor with 59, had to wait five years for his bust in 1974. Paul Krause, who broke Tunnell’s record with 81 interceptions, had to wait 14 years for his bust in 1998.
Krause became only the seventh pure safety inducted in the Hall’s first 36 years – and it would be another 19 years before Canton would welcome another safety. The induction of Kenny Easley as a senior candidate after a 24-year wait in 2017 seemed to open the eyes of the Hall’s selection committee.
Counting Easley, Canton has now welcomed seven safeties in the last four classes – that’s as many as the Hall inducted in the first 54 years of its existence. And there’s a chance for even more in 2020.
A special blue-ribbon committee was empaneled to select a 15-member Centennial Class in 2020 in honor of the NFL’s 100th anniversary. Of the 10 players elected this month, three were safeties – Bobby Dillon of the Packers, Cliff Harris of the Cowboys and Donnie Shell of the Steelers. All enter the Hall, like Easley, as senior candidates. Dillon waited 55 years, Harris 45 and Shell 27 for this honor. Dillon has since passed away.
In the continuing effort to catch up at the safety position, Johnny Robinson of the Kansas City Chiefs was elected as a senior candidate in 2019. Even though he was a first-team all-decade selection for the 1960s, Robinson had to wait 42 years for his bust. Easley also was a first-team all-decade selection but that didn’t speed up his wait.
In addition, Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens became the first-ever first-ballot Hall-of-Fame safety in 2019, and Brian Dawkins became a second-ballot selection in 2018. Both were first-team all-decade selections in the 2000s. If you’re keeping score, that’s 14 safeties now and counting in Canton, including five elected in the last four years as senior candidates.
There will be five modern-era candidates elected to join the centennial selections in the Class of 2020 – and that 15-member ballot includes four more safeties: Steve Atwater, LeRoy Butler, John Lynch and Troy Polamalu.
There have been 145 position players selected first-team all-decade in NFL history and 95 percent of them have now been enshrined in Canton. That bodes well for Atwater and Butler. Both were the first-team all-decade safeties in the 1990s. Polamalu was a second-team selection in the 2000s. Lynch was not an all-decade selection in either the 1990s or 2000s, but his nine Pro Bowls are tops among the nine defensive candidates on the slate for the Class of 2020.
But there is still plenty of unfinished business at a position that was neglected during the first five decades of the Hall. Three-time Super Bowl champion Darren Woodson of the Cowboys was eliminated for consideration in the Class of 2020 in the cutdown from 25 to 15 and second-team all-decade safeties Eddie Meador of the Rams (1960s) and Dick Anderson of the Dolphins (1970s) continue to languish in the senior pool.
Meador remains the franchise record-holder for the Rams in career interceptions and blocked kicks. Anderson was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1973. The “No-Name” defense that helped the Miami Dolphins win back-to-back Super Bowls in 1972-73 has only one member in the Hall of Fame – middle linebacker Nick Buoniconti. That seems a bit light.
In addition, modern-era safety candidates Joey Browner, Deron Cherry and Nolan Cromwell were second-team selections to the 1980s all-decade team. None has ever been a finalist for their careers to be discussed and debated by the Hall’s selection committee. All deserve that.
The Hall of Fame has done a terrific job catching up on worthy safeties in recent years. But let’s not kid ourselves -- there is still plenty of work that needs to be done at a position that had been so wronged by the Hall for decades.