Few rose to the moment more emphatically than 2018 preliminary Hall-of-Fame nominee Willie McGinest. None sacked the quarterback more often when it counted most.
McGinest anchored two generations of New England Super Bowl defenses, first for Bill Parcells’ Super Bowl XXXI team that lost to the Green Bay Packers after a Cinderella season and then for the first three of Bill Belichick’s seven Super Bowl teams, all of which won the Lombardi Trophy in no small measure because of the McGinest contributions on defense.
In Super Bowl XXXVI, McGinest was asked to forego rushing the passer much of the game to haunt every step of St. Louis Rams’ Hall-of-Fame running back Marshall Faulk. Faulk netted only 76 yards rushing that day, and, more importantly, was not a significant factor in the passing game and failed to score.
The Patriots won, 20-17.
In Super Bowl XXXIX, McGinest was asked to move from his normal outside linebacker position to defensive end to spy on mobile Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Donovan McNabb and keep him from making plays on the move. McNabb gained one yard rushing and, by game’s end, was concussed and exhausted.
The Patriots won, 24-21.
That sort of defensive versatility was a hallmark of McGinest’s years in New England, but it did not prevent him from registering a sack in each of his first three Super Bowl appearances. Nor did it prevent him from setting a playoff record with 16 career sacks, surpassing the previous high of 14 set by Hall-of- Famer Bruce Smith. His 4.5 sacks against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 17th of his 18 career playoff games is also an NFL single-game playoff record.
Yet despite record-setting production in pro football’s biggest games, McGinest is considered a longshot for Hall-of-Fame induction, largely because of the very team-first philosophy he exhibited, an approach that has turned Belichick’s Patriots' teams into Super Bowl champions five times. Because of that, McGinest himself once suggested he and his defensive teammates on those Super Bowl champions should be viewed through a different lens when their Hall-of-Fame credentials are debated.
“We created something that wasn’t really popular,’’ McGinest told the Talk of Fame Network. “It wasn’t popular to be about team. It’s popular to be about the individual. We bought into team success. That’s what made us so special.
“That should be taken into consideration (when judging the Hall-of-Fame worthiness of those who were the defensive backbone of those first three Super Bowl championship teams in New England). I didn’t play to get to the Pro Bowl or the Hall of Fame. I played to win Super Bowls. The Hall of Fame was never in my mind.
“In our system, your role changed every week. If I was strictly a pass rusher, I would have had 125 sacks, but 25-to-30 per cent of the time the game plan dictated whether I rushed. I did what was best for my team.’’
One result of that approach was that McGinest has an impressive jewelry collection with four AFC championship rings and three Super Bowl ones. When McGinest’s 15-year career ended after the 2008 season, he also had 86 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, 17 fumble recoveries and five interceptions and was a two-time Pro Bowl selection. In 2015 he was also inducted into the Patriots’ Hall of Fame. He was a disrupter on defense.
Yet while those are admirable individual statistics, many would say they don’t equal the norm of a Hall of Famer. But take it one step farther and ask yourself: What is the real aim of every Hall of Famer and every NFL player? When you answer that question, you begin to understand what McGinest accomplished because it is to do exactly what he did, which was play critical, primary and productive roles on world championship teams.
If sacrificing individual numbers to achieve that is the price of not getting into the Hall of Fame, one begins to wonder what this game is all about. Whether he ever enters Canton or not, and there is a strong argument to be made that he played his way there, Willie McGinest will know one thing: He was a winner, and so was his team. And he was a big reason why.