Why Mark Gastineau complicates J.J. Watt's HOF case


Quick question: If J.J. Watt's career were to end today, would he be a Hall of Famer?

Some people … no, a lot of people … already have him fitted for a gold jacket, and you don’t have to be an Einstein to see why. In seven years, two of which were cut short by injuries, the Houston Texans' star has been a four-time All-Pro, three-time Defensive Player of the Year and two-time leader in sacks. Plus, he was so good in 2014 he not only was named to the All-Pro first team as a defensive end but to its second team as a defensive tackle.

What's more, that year he became the first defensive player since 2008 to gain MVP votes. He had 13.

So the resume is there, despite missing all but eight games the past two seasons. But it’s not J.J. Watt’s accomplishments that could hold him back from Canton as much as it’s the resume of another defensive end … and, Mark Gastineau, come on down.

The former New York Jets’ star was J.J. Watt before there was a J.J. Watt, and you can look it up. In his first seven seasons, he was a five-time All-Pro, a two-time NFL leader in sacks and league Defensive MVP. Moreover, in 1983 he set the NFL single-season sack record with 22, a mark that would stand for nearly two decades – or until Michael Strahan broke it in 2001.

J.J. Watt photo courtesy of the Houston Texans
J.J. Watt photo courtesy of the Houston Texans

Mark Gastineau was a force off the edge, three times producing 19 or more sacks in a season as part of the Jets' famed "Sack Exchange." According to Pro Football Journal, in 107 career starts he produced 107-1/2 sacks, or one a game, and was dominant to the very end – leading the AFC sacks in 1988 when he abruptly retired after seven games.

But because the NFL did not recognize sacks until 1982, Gastineau's legacy has been diminished, with his numbers reduced to 74 career sacks. While not bad, they're not Hall-of-Fame material for an edge pass rusher, and Hall-of-Fame voters go out of their way every year to remind Gastineau they're not.

Not only hasn’t he been a Hall-of-Fame finalist; he’s never been a semifinalist, meaning he’s never, ever, been one of 25 candidates for annual consideration. Worse, as a senior candidate, his candidacy has been placed in the witness-protection program, with Gastineau never discussed.

"I've been on the senior committee 13 years," said our Rick Gosselin, "and his name has never come up."

So riddle me this: If Mark Gastineau can’t get a sniff after all that he accomplished, how … or why … is J.J. Watt considered a virtual cinch for Canton? The reason, I suggest, is three-fold: 1) Watt does more than rush the passer, as his five TDs, four forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries in 2014 attest; 2) He's an eminently likeable figure where Gastineau was not and 3) he plays in the ESPN era, where the latest is the greatest and video replays are more available than discounted produce.

So we turn on the TV and see J.J. Watt sack the quarterback. We see him force the fumble. We see him catch the touchdown pass. And we see it over. And over. And over.

But Mark Gastineau? Uh, not so much. In fact, not at all.

Terrell Davis’ induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer opened the doors to Canton to all those who once thought longevity would keep them out -- and if J.J. Watt were not to play another down, he'd qualify. But at 28, he doesn’t seem a likely candidate … even though he will have missed 24 of his last 32 starts when this season ends.

But age is not the key. This is: Davis excelled in the playoffs, averaging 142-1/2yards rushing in eight games, scoring 12 times, winning two Super Bowls and getting named a Super Bowl MVP. Neither Watt nor Gastineau reached the Super Bowl, though Gastineau did get to the 1982 conference championship before A.J. Duhe and the Miami Dolphins stopped the Jets. He also had nine-and-a-half sacks in five playoff starts, including 4-1/2 in three postseason games in 1982 ... and two in the conference championship loss.

Nevertheless, the bottom line is this: Neither he nor Watt gained the rings that Davis has.

My point is this: J.J. Watt has done more than most in a relatively short career, and, yes, he would be a Hall-of-Fame candidate if his career were to end today. But how can he be considered a Hall-of-Fame favorite when Mark Gastineau – who produced more sacks his first seven seasons and, in fact, set the bar in that category – can’t gain the attention of voters?

And the answer is easy. He can’t.


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