Thursday, July 4, 2019

Deep Dive into the Hall of Fame Credentials of Ken Riley and Lemar Parrish

By John Turney
Though not scientific when we see advocacy pieces online for the Hall of Fame it seems longtime Bengal Ken Riley has more juice than fellow Bengal Lemar Parrish. We were told years ago that a writer called the Bengals front office to gain insight into the two and they were definitely steered toward Riley over Parrish.

This happens sometimes. There could one multiple HOF-worthy players on a team and the current regime plays favorites. We've confirmed that this is the general kind of thing has happened more than once viz-a-vis Riley vs. Parrish.

The Bengals have every right to do so, and we get it. Riley spent his whole career with the Bengals and by all accounts is a great guy who was a fine coach in college after his playing career. Parrish, like many players, struggled with addiction for a time late in his career and just after, but then got clean and also became a college head coach.

Additionally, Riley was a great leader and never complained about his contract as far as we can find. Parrish did, in a big way. He felt he was a top cornerback and wanted to be paid as such and said so publicly. Parrish wanted $100,000 a year, which was more than double what the average NFL corner was making at the time and the Bengals were not about to pay that. Eventually, that led to the trade of Coy Bacon and Parrish to Washington.

In 1979 Parrish again went public and verbally blasted the Bengals leadership in the papers. That cannot help ingratiate one to the Bengals front office. Parrish said that he felt bad for players like Riley and old teammates like Vern Holland, "Shoot man, they are good players and they deserve more". Is that criticism a factor as to why the Bengals brass favors Riley? Unknown. But it's a fair question to ask and we'd love to get the answer to it.

But the real question we asked recently was the Hall of Fame lacking because either player is missing? Or is the advocacy we see for Riley a more parochial concern for Bengals fans? Or put more simply—who was the better NFL player?

Well, there are several measures we've identified (though there could be more) that usually come up when we read about the candidacy of a player. Often the All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections, the "honors" comes up the first paragraph, if the player had substantial honors. Then, perhaps, statistics would come next. Sometimes team success ("rings") plays a big part if the player had one or two.

What we call "testimonials" or endorsements of opponents are also key information. We enjoy thos especially if they are ahistorical (from the time the player was in the NFL or shortly after) as opposed to recent quotes that can be contrived or revisionist in nature.  We also prefer testimonials from opponents over a player's own coach or teammates.

Although they have some value too often we see things like this:

Or this:
So, we don't fault or criticize Dungy or Munoz for their advocacy. It's certainly noble to push for your teammates to be in the same fraternity you are in if you think they are worthy. It's just that these kinds of things are pretty easy to garner. You could find lots of teammates willing to speak up for buddies. It's human nature but we'd prefer they be discount to some degree and not used as unbiased information.

Lastly, there could be some intangibles, things that cannot be measured but anecdotally say something about a player's impact. Maybe it's leadership, maybe it's a legitimate "he changed the game" testimonial (but don't get us started on that oft-used cliche that is rarely true). Maybe it's toughness or courage. Just anything that is, well, not measurable.

So, in the case of these two, how do all those factors shake out?

First, look at their career stats—


The first thing we can see is the Pro Bowls. Parrish went to seven and Riley never went to one. Parrish also went to an eight as a punt returner, but in terms of Pro Bowls, we think that should be called seven to zero. Now the big caveat would be if there could have been mistakes in the Pro Bowl teams. Sure, were and still all. That is why we look at Pro Bowls but also look at All-Conference teams and then the All-Pros and so on. Pro Bowls are but one data point and nothing as weighty as the Hall of Fame should be decided on the basis of a single data point in our view.

Riley sure felt like there were mistakes and said so a couple of times in the mid-1970s and still does to this day, telling the National Football Post, "The system is all screwed up. A lot of times, there were guys who made the Pro Bowl based on what they did the previous year."

So, in terms of mistakes, let's assume that Riley should have gone to the Pro Bowl in 1975 and 1976 and let's put him in the place of Parrish for both seasons. That would make the Pro Bowl tally five to two. Let's even give him one in 1983 to make it closer, five to three. Would three be enough?

In the literature of the day, we found nothing to suggest Riley got snubbed in the 1977-80 seasons. In the meantime, Parrish was rebounding from being nicked in 1977-78 to being a Pro Bowler with the Redskins. 

Next, we look at First- or Second-team All-Pro selections it's five for Parrish to three for Riley. And in the highest honor First-team All-Pro it is three for Parrish to one for Riley.

So, in the "honors" standard it's pretty clear Parrish, in his time with Bengals and Redskins, was recognized as the better player among the coaches, players, and writers than was Riley. We all of them wrong?

Looking at statistics, namely interceptions, Ken Riley has a decent-sized advantage 65 picks to 47 four Parrish. On defensive scores, Parrish has seven and Riley five. Interceptions are tricky. They are, of course, a key play, and defensive coaches love them. Turnovers, especially those that give a team a quick touchdown, are huge in terms of wins and losses. 

The key thing you will read when cases are made for Riley is his rank in interceptions. It begs the question though, does that make him HOF worthy if his "honors" are light by Hall of Fame standards? Were teams throwing away from Parrish and therefore giving Riley more opportunities?

Coach TJ Troup thinks that is some of the of what going on at the time. Troup thinks highly of both players but has said that of the two Parrish was the better all-around corner and in his film study teams avoided Parrish more than Riley when they played together.

But the bottom line on the statistics category is Riley had more interceptions and is fifth all-time and was second in the NFL in picks three times all fine credentials. Parrish with his 47 is oddly 47th all-time (ahead of Mike Haynes and Roger Wehrli among others) and was second in the NFL in picks once.

However, it does seem some (many) of his supporters the interceptions to be the single data point considered for his candidacy and we'd disagree on the appropriateness of that. We think it should be a part, a major part, of the 'resume'. But like with Pro Bowl, Riley lack of Pro Bowls and All-Pros shouldn't nix his candidacy but the interceptions alone shouldn't put him over the top, either. Maybe many Riley backers will disagree, but to be fair to all players, you have to look are more than just stats. 

Moving to the "What they said about ..." phase we can review the objective grades of Proscout, Inc., the scouting firm founded in the mid-1970s that evaluates all aspects of all NFL players, they don't just "grade". They have their own set of criteria that goes into their evaluations and then give a report to the NFL teams that subscribe. 

Parrish was a "high blue" in 1976, 1977,  (we do not have pre-1976 grades) and a high red in 1978 and 1979 and low red in 1980. In 1981 he was 43rd and there is no rank for 1982.

In contrast, Riley's scores were much lower. He was low red in 1976-78. In 1979 he was high orange (blue is highest, then red, then orange) and he was orange though 1982 and bumped up to red in 1983. Even assuming 1975 would have been "blue" that would have been his only season as a top player. Whereas Parrish was 'tops' several times and if you add in pre-1976 stuff it again tips the scale far to Parrish's side.

One other data point is George Allen's grades for defensive backs in the 1970s. His scores go from 9 (highest) to 1 (lowest). In 1976, Ken Riley's best season, arguably anyway, he gave Riley a "6+", a very good grade, good for about 14th-17th in the NFL for that season. Parrish was a "9" which made him one of the top two. 

In 1973 (we only have data from 1973 and 1976) Parrish is graded by Allen as the third-best in the NFL with a 1.7 grade—the grading system for that season was 1.0 is the lowest (excellent), 2.0 (good), 3.0 (average), 4.0 (below average), 5.0 (poor) so the lower the score the better. He is in the same range as Mel Renfro, Lem Barney, Willie Brown, and the names you'd expect.

Riley has a score of 2.8 (between good and average) and is tied for 28th in the NFL among corners. 
Again it seems Parrish was scoring better by film graders. 

Did these evaluators like Mike Giddings and Geoge Allen have something against Riley? Of course mot. Allen's evaluations were internal and ProScout's evaluations were for his subscribers only. It's simply the case that like the players who voted for the Pro Bowl and the NEA All-Pro team and the writers who voted for the other All-Pro teams they though Parrish was simply better than Riley.

It goes on.

About Parrish, Gannett News Service's Joel Buchsbaum wrote in 1979, "Superb pass defender with remarkable quickness and acceleration and agility but is not known for run support". Buchsbaum didn't write much about Riley due to the fact he only wrote blurbs about top-5 or top-10 corners. Perhaps he had data that he didn't publish in that era. (Oh, how I wonder what happened to his files after his tragic passing)

Don Heinrich's Pro Preview magazines were another of the truly great pieces of NFL literature in terms of giving real information on players. For Parrish, they simply echoed Buchsbaum—excellent cover corner, not a hitter. 

For Riley, they said, "He gets by on strictly on smarts and savvy and can no longer run with the James Loftons or Jerry Butlers. As a result, he has to play soft and give up some short stuff. Still, his anticipation and reactions allow him to pick off passes." And "Riley is still a quality corner. Alert and smart with great anticipation".

Additionally, in that era, there was a yearly column of what amounted to Pro Bowl "snubs" done by the Bergen Record's Vinny DiTrani that listed players who should have made the Pro Bowl or All-Pro team but didn't for whatever reasons. These days columns like that are common but then DiTrani's was one of the few (along with Buchsbaum's). In reviewing all of those, Riley was never mentioned. So not only was he not making Pro bowls, he wasn't making many (or any) "snub" articles, either. 

In all honesty, in the late 1970s-early 1980s you didn't find Ken Riley's names on "top" lists and you did find Parrish's. There are simply no data points that show anything but Parrish being more highly rated than Riley.

In other testimonials, we find a couple but both are from less than unbiased sources— "Fred O' Conner, his defensive backs coach with the Redskins, "I cannot imagine how good the corner would be who is better than Lamar. He's as good as any who ever played the game." Jack Pardee said, "Lemar occupies a lonely island every week".

Riley’s teammate, defensive end Ken Johnson. “He was probably one of the best cornerbacks in the league in terms of his durability and his ability to read offenses and kind of know what was coming at him.”

Of course, there could be some testimonials we have not located espousing the all-time greatness of these two corners but so far, the edge is again with Parrish.

In what we call "intangibles" could perhaps be called in favor of Parrish in terms of special teams because he was a fine punt returner, and as we mentioned he was the AFC punt returner for the Pro Bowl in 1970. But Riley is not blown out in this category, he blocked three kicks early in his career. He wasn't as successful a kick blocker as say Gary Green or Pat Thomas or some other of the era, but he was someone you had to make sure was blocked or he'd ruin your kicking game for the day.

Riley's longevity does edge Parrish, fifteen seasons to thirteen but while that used to be a big deal, seemingly, for the HOF committee it seems less important these days with players like Terrell Davis and Ken Easley and Robert Brazile getting in and Tony Boselli likely to get in soon. Nonetheless, Riley did play longer.

In a way, this comparison we chose reminds us of the Carl Eller-Jim Marshall situation when both were in the Final 15 around fifteen years ago. Both were great, both had good resumes but any objective analysis would conclude that Eller's resume was superior to Marshall's. Marshall had three consecutive game streak and the longevity (twenty seasons) but Eller was All-Pro multiple times, Marshall none.

Eller went to six Pro Bowls and Marshall had two. Even if one did the same thing concerning the Pro Bowls we did with Parrish and Riley (give Marshall a couple extra) it's really not that close. Eller averaged 8½ sacks a season and Marshall about 6½ and that was known at the time, perhaps it wasn't earlier.

As a result, the voters chose Eller over Marshall that year, and in our view, rightly so. Nothing against Marshall and nothing against Riley (we're not worthy to hold the jock of either one) but we feel the obligation for voters is to put the best possible players in first and it perhaps means looking at more than just stats, it means looking at credentials in total. We'd sure be sad if some poor deceased five-time All-Pro who played prior to World War II didn't get in the Hall of Fame in the 2020 Centennial Class and a there are players with one or no All-Pros who did get in.

So, we don't know who might get in the Hall of Fame we saw a post about Riley possibly being among the favorites for the Centennial Class and Parrish was not mentioned. So we chose to do the compare and contrast post you are now reading about those two. It could have been a couple others mentioned.

Again, if Riley (or Marshall for that matter) gets in the HOF we'd be happy for them personally, there have been lesser resumes elected. We would, however, in our capacity as a fan who evaluates these kinds of things, know that he got in because of just one thing—his picks. 

And we'd think the same for Marshall who was an amazing, incredible iron man but not a really productive player for all of his twenty seasons. He was great in 1969 and good in a couple of other years but "just a guy" all too often. We hope the standards stay high and there are some great players that would fill that bill.

We will read your comments below:


  1. As a lifelong Bengals fan have to agree Parrish was better but Riley was there his whole career and so its easy to develop a deeper affection for him. Its the other Ken (Anderson) that's gotten screwed over. He clearly was better than Griese or Stabler or Bradshaw but his teammates weren't so he pays the price

    1. I think Anderson not winning SB does hurt him a lot. But also having poor seasons in his prime (1977-80) also hurts. Then he had a comeback (1981-82) then tailed off. So both things have slowed his getting in.

      Not sure Anderson more deserving than Theismann, Brodie, Gabriel, Simms, other QBs with MVPs

  2. You cannot stop whats coming, Ken Riley is 4th all time in interceptions and DESERVES to be in the Hall. Don't care what your "expert" scouts say or what the stupid Pro Bowl voters say, the fans vote for a big chunk of that anyway. If Mike Brown says he's belongs then he belongs.

  3. Great article about two backs who deserve HOF consideration. Anderson deserves consideration as well, but he wasn't the winner Griese and Stabler were, percentage wise...He had great talent around him as well, but couldn't win enough big games except his one AFC Championship.

  4. i think riley should be in. He seemed great playing the ball deep in solo coverage.

  5. If Terrell Davis is in, then Ken Riley, Lemar Parrish, Ken Anderson, and Jim Marshall all ought to be in. If they weren't good players they would not have lasted as long as they did. Carl Eller should have been in the Hall of Fame the first year he was eligible in 1985. --

    1. I get your point but good players can last, but the question is if Marshall was great or good? Data suggests he was very good and not great.

  6. Ken Riley was a beast and if Bengals and Mike Brown want him in out the man in the Hall of Fame