Monday, February 26, 2024

The 1974 NFL Olympics

 By John Turney
Those who watched televised NFL games in the 1970s or read publications covering pro football would hear commentary on how great an athlete Oakland Raiders punter Ray Guy was. He was known to be someone who was more than an average punter, he could play quarterback and was said to have been able to play safety—just an all-around football player who could do a lot more than punt. 

He was also a multi-sport athlete playing basketball, baseball and track in high school and continued playing baseball in college.

Part of that legend might be from his participation in the so-called NFL Olympia.

What was that?

In March of 1974, around 50 NFL Players participated in Olymics-type events for charity at the Orange Bowl in Miami to benefit Variety Children's Hospital. It got some media attention—it was covered by CBS (for the CBS Sports Spectacular) and articles appeared in quite a few newspapers so it was not an obscure event, though it may appear so now.

Unfortunately, according to press reports after paying prize money to the players no money was left over for the charity. Less than 4,000 tickets were sold.

Well, good try.

Ray Guy won the most cash at $9,000. Alan Page was second, winning $7,000. According to the papers just under $119,000 total was paid to the participating players.

Not only did Guy win the punting competition but he also won the pentathlon event which was composed of five events—punt, pass, field goal, 50-yard scoring and broken field running.  The final two events were not defined in the articles but the broken field running—based on photos—was some sort of nonlinear running course.

Here is a clipping of the results.

Ken Anderson—Quest for Canton

 By John Turney 

Cincinnati Bengals' quarterback Ken Anderson is different than some of the players profiled in our weekly "State Your Case" column on this site. Contrary to others, we're not arguing for his inclusion as a modern-era finalist, nor are we pushing him to be one of a handful of senior semifinalists.

He's already been there.

And that's what makes Ken Anderson different.

He was a finalist as a modern candidate in 1996 and 1998, failing both times to survive the first cut. As a senior candidate, he's been a semifinalist multiple times since his modern-era eligibility ran out ... including this year ... but never voted in.

But why?

With a case built largely on statistics -- statistics that were truly ahead of their time -- Anderson never turned enough heads to garner the votes needed for a Gold Jacket. But Gold Jacket or not, those numbers were impressive.

--- Let's start with his league leadership in passer rating four times -- 1974, 1975, 1981 and 1982.  Only Hall-of-Famer Steve Young did it more often in the NFL, leading the league six times. And if you go back and apply the passer rating statistic to quarterbacks prior to 1973 (the year the NFL implemented it), Len Dawson would have led the AFL six times.

--- Though there are technicalities involving NFL passing leaders and the various systems the league used over the years, to be its top passer four times is a rare achievement. Only a handful of players have done it, and the only two who aren't in the Hall of Fame are Anderson and the still-active Aaron Rodgers.

--- Anderson led the NFL three times in completion percentage, twice in passing yards and three times in the lowest percentage of passes interceptions.

--- He retired with the ninth-best passer rating of all time, and was still 11th when he became eligible for the Hall of Fame -- or five years after retirement. That was after the NFL got deeper into the post-1978 rules to open up the passing game, and younger quarterbacks were qualified to join the all-time list (they needed 1,500 or more passing attempts).

--- And just so you don't think he could throw deep ... that his completion percentage was based largely on short or intermediate throws ... he twice led the NFL in yards per attempt. 

Critics have said Anderson was a "system" quarterback or a dink-and-dunk artist, but they fail to remember that from 1973-76 he was heaving bombs to 4.3 sprinter Isaac Curtis, who averaged 19.9 yards a reception in those four seasons. Curtis was Anderson's top receiver and one of the best in the league. From 1973-76, he ranked second in the NFL in receiving yards and in receiving touchdowns, proof that Ken Anderson not only had a strong arm but could ..., and did ... go deep.

Yes, the so-called West Coast offense began on the banks of the Ohio River with offensive assistant Bill Walsh and was designed for Anderson's predecessor, Virgil Carter. But Carter didn't have a particularly strong arm, so shorter passes became the focus. It was the way Walsh saw a path to victory.

However, the offense expanded under Anderson, who took over for Carter as the Bengals' starting quarterback, and he not only offered a more complete skill set but produced better results. In his first full season as a starter, the Bengals were 8-6. In his second -- 1973 -- they were 10-4 and in the playoffs.

A late-season slump cost them in 1974, but they were back in the Super Bowl hunt a year later in one of the toughest divisions the NFL has seen, with the 12-2 Steelers, the 11-3 Bengals and the upstart 10-4 Houston Oilers. Cincinnati lost in the divisional round of the playoffs, while the Steelers won their second straight Super Bowl. 

Then the Bengals went 10-4 in 1976 but just missed the playoffs.

From 1973-76, only Fran Tarkenton passed for more yards than Anderson ... only Ken Stabler threw for more touchdowns ... and only those two had higher passer ratings. And winning? Tarkenton, Stabler and Roger Staubach are the only three quarterbacks who won more as starting quarterbacks in those four seasons.

All are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Elite quarterback play is what Ken Anderson provided. Until he didn't. In the late 1970s, he was banged up, and the Bengals -- as well as his Hall-of-Fame candidacy -- suffered. Where Anderson had led the league in passing, winning games and having MVP-level seasons, he suddenly had trouble finishing in the top 20 in passing.

It wasn't pretty, but it also didn't last.

From 1977-80, Anderson's touchdowns declined (43, including 6 in 1980), his interceptions increased (56, including a career-high 22 in 1978) and he stopped winning more than he lost, with a 20-32 record as a starter. Result: The Bengals finished last in their division three of the four seasons.

But then came an unexpected comeback, and the old Ken Anderson was back -- and then some. In 1981, the Bengals made it to the Super Bowl, Anderson won his first MVP and third passing title and was voted the league's Offensive Player of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year. Plus, at age 32. he set his career high in rushing yards. 

He was the best quarterback in the NFL, bar none.

He was just as good the following season, though the Bengals didn't repeat as AFC champions. He set an NFL record with a 70.6 completion percentage -- a mark that stood until 2009 when Drew Brees barely broke it (70.6 percent to Anderson's 70.55). Incredibly, after all this time and all the rule changes that favor the passing game, Anderson's mark set over 40 years ago still stands as eighth-best all-time.

Talk about being ahead of your time. And remember Anderson played much of his career in what many historians call football's "Dead Ball" era-- when running the football was king and passing was considered risky. 

"Three things can happen when you pass the football," coaches would warn listeners, "and two of them are bad."

It was Anderson's job to make sure those two bad things (incompletions and interceptions) didn't happen, and he was good at his job. When he threw, good things happened more often than not, even in a run-first era. In all, Anderson was a consensus All-Pro in 1981 and second-team All-Pro in 1974 and 1975 and a four-time Pro Bowler (1975-76, 81-82). That gives him five seasons "above the line -- where he was voted some sort of "all," first-or-second-team All-Pro, All-AFC or Pro Bowl.

Those are roughly the same postseason honors of Kurt Warner, Ken Stabler, Bart Starr and Terry Bradshaw.

Of course, the knock is that he didn't have the Super Bowl win(s) or AFL titles as those Hall of Famers, but there are plenty of Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks who don't have rings -- with Warren Moon, Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts and Jim Kelly among them.

And if the other knock -- namely, the less-than-stellar seasons Anderson had in the middle of his career -- bothers you, remember: There is a precedent for that. Kurt Warner had what Hall-of-Fame voter Peter King called a "donut hole" in the middle of his career, too, yet he was enshrined in his third year of eligibility.

After a less-than-ordinary start in pro football, Warner exploded on the NFL scene and was elite for three years with the St. Louis Rams. But then he was beaten up, benched and eventually released. After struggling for a few years in New York and the Arizona desert, he flourished as a full-time starter for the Cardinals and led them to an NFC championship in 2008.

Sound familiar? That's because his story is not unlike Anderson's, give or take a few details. Maybe viewing it in that context could make a difference for voters. 

I don't know what happens when Hall-of-Fame voters meet next summer to decide the Class of 2025, but my guess is that the quarterback from tiny Augustana (Ill.) College will be a senior semifinalist again, have his case discussed as it has been in the past, and, if not elected, will move forward in the queue.

Because he should. He not only has the case to do it; he probably has the strongest one among all quarterbacks not in Canton. 

Friday, February 23, 2024

2023 Allmost All-Pro

 By John Turney 
Vinny DiTrani (l) and Larry Weisman (r)
For the fourth straight year, as an homage we've picked an "Allmost All-Joe Team".

What's that?

In a relatively new concept, the Bergen (N.J.) Record's Vinny DiTrani in 1970 picked a quasi-All-Star team to, as he wrote then, "give a little recognition to men who, for one reason or another, missed out on the real honors" ... and by "real honors," he meant Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams. 

He called it the "Allmost All-Pro Team"  -- yes with two l's -- and he continued the tradition for just over 40 years. It may have been the first of the common "snubbed" articles we see every year, and it was followed in 1992 by a similar concept initiated by NFL writer Larry Weisman of USA Today.

His team, as he put it, was composed of "(a) few players who got lost in the shuffle this season. They're just a bunch of 'guys named Joe' who did their jobs without getting accolades or who labored in the shadows of more publicized teammates."  He called it the "All-Joe Team," and he selected it for 22 seasons. 

Today, as an homage to DiTrani and Weisman, we've chosen a team of non-Pro Bowlers and non-All-Pros who deserve recognition for their work last season, and I've combined the names of their teams -- the Allmost All-Pro and the All-Joe into the "Allmost All-Joe Team" -- again with two l's.

Neither writer was picky about the size of his squads, declining to limit their choices to 22 or 25 players. If, for instance, Wesiman wanted three tight ends, he'd pick three. If he wanted two quarterbacks, he'd choose two. 

We'll do the same.

Here, then, is our 2023 Allmost All-Joe Team—


C—Mitch Morse, Bills.

A poor man's Jason Kelce. Like Kelce, he's one of the few NFL centers that can get outside and lead block. Morse did go to a Pro Bowl in 2022, but that's his only one in nine NFL seasons. He was just as good this year but didn't get the nod.

Welcome to the Allmost All-Joe. 

G—Trey Smith, Chiefs; Sam Cosmi, Commanders; Kevin Dotson, Rams and Robert Hunt, Dolphins.

All four are big-time players who can displace defensive linemen. All four are bullies. 

Trey Smith has yet another ring, while Cosmi battled in many a lost cause in the Nation's Capital.  Early in the season, the Steelers traded Dotson to the Rams where their new gap-blocking scheme suited him. Now, he's a free agent looking to cash in big on his season. Hunt was dogged by a hamstring injury this year that prevented him from getting All-Pro notice. 

All are perfect fits for this squad ... great years but not well known.

T—Rashawn Slater, Chargers; Rob Havenstein, Rams.

Both tackles played well. Slater came back from a 2022 ruptured left biceps tendon injury and looked to be back to his 2021 Pro Bowl level. Havenstein's career has ranged from average to pretty darn good, and this year it was the latter. He may never make a Pro Bowl as a right tackle, but he's what Weisman had in mind when he created "All-Joe".

TE—Jake Ferguson, Cowboys.

Actually, Ferguson did go to the Pro Bowl as a Super Bowl replacement for the 49ers'  George Kittle. However, that only happened because first-alternate T.J. Hockenson was hurt. So Ferguson filled in for him. Nevertheless, he's staying on the Allmost All-Joe team as the tight end.

WR—D.J. Moore, Bears; George Pickens, Steelers and Garrett Wilson, Jets.

Moore had the best numbers of this group with 96 receptions, 1,364 receiving yards and eight scores, but this is an era when those numbers won't guarantee a Pro Bowl invite. Also, he did all that with a quarterback still finding his way. So, by grading on a curve, Moore's year looks better than the raw numbers. 

The same logic applies to Pickens and Wilson. 

Both played on offenses that struggled (to put it kindly), yet Pickett still led the NFL in yards per catch (18.1) with 1,140 yards on 63 receptions. Somehow, Wilson caught 95 passes for over 1,000 yards with a Jets' team that went through four quarterbacks. 

True, 1,000 yards receiving in a 17-game season is not a big deal -- nor should it be -- but when you couple it with who and how the ball was being thrown, in this case it was a big deal. 

Get these men star quarterbacks, and you'll see big numbers.

QB—Jordan Love, Packers.

Love had a helluva season -- 35 total touchdowns, over 4,000 yards passing, a litany of comeback wins -- everything you want a quarterback to do.  But it wasn't until his Packers smoked the Cowboys in the playoffs that people really took notice. Talk about a legacy position -- Starr, Favre, Rodgers and now maybe Love. 

FB—Keith Smith, Falcons.

Smith is always solid, no matter whom he's blocking for in Hotlanta. But he can never beat out the 49ers' Kyle Juszczyk for a Pro Bowl nod. 

RB—Travis Etienne, Jaguars.

Compared to last year, the blocking in 2023 seemed off in Jacksonville. The line seemed to struggle, and, as a result, Etienne didn't have as many explosive plays. So he had to grind it out more. However, he was used more in the Jaguars' passing game and topped his 2022 total in yards from scrimmage.


DE—Zach Sieler, Dolphins (3-4); Jonathan Greenard, Texans (4-3).

If you compare future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer J.J. Watt's 2022 numbers to Sieler's 2023 numbers -- just the numbers -- you'd be surprised how close they are. 

No, no one is comparing his skill set with Watt's, but if a big-name player had the kind of year Sieler did his praises would have been sung nationwide. The problem is that he's not a big name, and he plays a pretty much of a grunt position of 4i/5-technique -- meaning he just does the dirty work without much acclaim. 

All that can be done is to give him a spot on the Allmost All-Joe Team. 

Even though Greenard missed a pair of games, 2023 was the healthiest he's been in his NFL career ... and he responded with his best season by producing 12-1/2 sacks and playing mentor to Defensive Rookie-of-the-Year Will Anderson. Those two should be a solid pair of bookends for DeMeco Ryans' defense for a few years -- if the Texans can keep both. 

DT—Ed Oliver, Bills; Kobie Turner, Rams and Alim McNeill, Lions (nose).

Oliver set career highs in tackles (51), sacks (9-1/2), tackles for loss (14) and quarterback hits (16). Meanwhile, All-Rookie Kobie Turner played multiple roles for the Rams. He backed up Bobby Brown III at nose tackle, starting for him when Brown was hurt, and was the shade tackle next to Aaron Donald in the Rams' nickel defense. 

The two of them worked so well together in games and stunts that Turner tied Donald's club record for sacks by a rookie.

McNeill was hurt late in the year but played hard all year defending the run and putting pressure on quarterbacks from his nose-tackle position.

LB—Jahlani Tavai, Patriots; T.J. Edwards, Bears and Bradley Chubb, Dolphins (edge).

The Patriots were bad, but their defense wasn't ... and one of the reasons was Tavai's play at linebacker. He was solid all year, as was Edwards for the Bears.

Chubb had a bad knee injury in Week 17 but still had a fine season with 73 tackles and 11 sacks. Plus, he tied for the league lead with six forced fumbles. His loss was felt by the Dolphins in the playoffs.

CB—Derek Stingley Jr., Texans; Darious Williams, Jaguars and Ja’Quan McMillian, Broncos (slot).

It wouldn't be a surprise if Stingley is a Pro Bowler next year; he's a rising star. Williams, on the other hand, is already there. His play this year was reminiscent of 2020 when he had an elite season.

McMillian began to play one week after the Broncos' 70-20 loss to Miami (he'd only played six snaps before that) and made an immediate impact. From his slot position, he pressured the quarterback, made tackles for loss, forced fumbles and just made things happen to improve what had been a lackluster defense. 

Yes, he was beaten for a few touchdowns -- he still has a ways to go -- but he should be one to watch for years to come. He's a playmaker.

S—Tashaun Gipson Sr., 49ers; Xavier McKinney, Giants.

Throughout 12 seasons, Gipson has always been steady. But he had his role change this year when Talanoa Hufanga was sidelined, and he responded with a great season -- one worthy of the Pro Bowl. But on a team of stars, someone is going to get missed ... and Gipson was that someone.

McKinney just seemed to make plays for an underwhelming Giants' team, with 116 tackles, three interceptions, a forced a fumble and two fumble recoveries. On a good team, he'd be a star.


K—Cameron Dicker, Chargers.

The NFL has a stat called "FG plus or minus" that measures a kicker's accuracy compared to the league rate at each distance. Yes, it's an analytic, but it's a good one ... and Dicker was second in the NFL. He had a very good year.

P—Cameron Johnston, Texans.

Fourth in the NFL net punting, with a  30:3 Inside-the-20-to-touchback ratio and the league's third-best NYOA (Net Yards over Average -- a good metric to measure a punter's efficiency), Johnson won just two All-Pro votes and wasn't even a Pro Bowl alternate. 

He deserved better.

Returner—Xavier Gipson, New York Jets.

Solid in both kick and punt returns, taking one punt to the house.

ST—Ameer Abdullah, Raiders.

The 30-year-old backup running back set a career-high in special teams tackles. He's found a place in the NFL ... on third down as a receiver and on special teams.  

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Should Steve Spagnuolo Receive A 2024 PFWA Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman Award?

By John Turney 
A decade ago, the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) created a lifetime achievement honor for NFL assistant coaches and named it the Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman Award, after the long-time NFL writer for the New York Post. In the past nine years, 23 assistants have won the award, and another dozen have been finalists. 

They're names you would know.

Winners include Dick LeBeau (also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in part for his success as an NFL assistant), Bud Carson, Bill Arnsparger Jim Johnson, Fritz Shurmur, Emmitt Thomas, Bobby Turner, Monte Kiffin and Wade Phillips. Basically a who's who of the assistant coaching world.

However, one name that's never been among the finalists is Kansas City Chiefs' defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and that should change. In fact, current events dictate he goes to the head of the list now.

Why? Easy.

Spagnuolo's defense was the key reason the Chiefs won this year's Super Bowl, unlike what happened in Kansas City's Super Bowl LVII win over the Eagles the season before. In that game, MVP Patrick Mahomes and the offense did the heavy lifting during the regular-season and in the NFL championship game. But this time the 64-year-old "Spags" walked off the field knowing his defense delivered all year, in the playoffs and in the ultimate game.

That's because his defense in 2023 was among the best in the NFL (2nd in fewest points allowed, 2nd in fewest yards allowed and 7th in DVOA) and his pressure concepts thwarted the Dolphins, Bills and Ravens in the AFC playoffs and allowed the Chiefs a comeback win in Super Bowl LVIII.

In the Big Game, he upped his blitzing by 10 percentage points and doubled his usage of man-to-man coverage from about 20 to 40 percent (both per Pro Football Focus). Plus, he prevented the elite 49ers' offense from getting in rhythm in key moments, forcing it to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns. 

Result: The 49ers produced just 22 points in five quarters, a significant drop from their yearly average of 29 points per game.

No Spags, no ring.

That hearkens back to 2007 when his Giants' defense beat up the then-undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII by allowing the record-setting offense just 14 points. In that game, the Giants sacked MVP Tom Brady five times, notable because he hadn't been sacked four times in a game all season, and countless pressures in addition to the sacks.

Any one of a few Giants' defenders, including Justin Tuck, could have been the Super Bowl MVP. It was a game plan for the ages, spoiling what would have been a perfect season for Brady and Patriots' coach Bill Belichick. And you just know they wanted that perfecto.

But, it didn't happen, in large part, due to Spagnuolo.

What was said then about Tuck as a possible MVP could've been said earlier this month for Chiefs' defensive tackle Chris Jones. While the 49ers were trying to defend free-running corners or linebackers, they forgot to block Jones -- and it cost them. It was an unblocked Jones who forced quarterback Brock Purdy into a hurried incompletion on a critical third-and-4 in overtime that led to a field goal.

Credit to Jones, just like it was credit to Tuck. And credit to Spaguolo. MVP performances by quarterbacks Eli Manning and Mahomes aside, defense won Super Bowls XLII and LVIII. And isn't that what makes a legacy for an assistant coach ... what makes him worthy of a career achievement award ... coaching up big in the biggest of games?

With his latest victory, Spagnuolo became the first coordinator -- offensive or defensive -- to earn four Super Bowl rings, breaking a tie with defensive coordinators Richie Petitbon (Washington) and Romeo Crennel (New England) and two assistants who coached the other side of the ball -- Charlies Weis and Josh McDaniels for the Patriots.

A year ago, Spagnuolo was the first to coordinate Super Bowl victories for two NFL franchises when he tied those four coaches with three coordinating rings. Now he stands alone, and the Chiefs' brain trust recognizes it. Less than a week after Super Bowl LVIII, it signed Spagnuolo to a contract extension.

Now it's time for the PFWA to respond.

To become a Paul Zimmerman Award winner, an assistant coach can be active or retired. Two of last year's winners, Don “Wink” Martindale and John Mitchell, were active at the time, though Mitchell retired after the season. The third winner, Bobb McKittrick, passed away in 2000.

I've advocated for several finalists who have yet to be named recipients, namely Floyd Peters and Jim Hanifan. But with the PFWA naming as many as four assistant coaches in one season, there's room for Spaguolo to be included.

We won't know who the winners are for a few months, but this is one case where "recentism" -- paying closer attention to recent events than ones in the past -- may be warranted. While I understand that recentism clouds judgment and can work against deserving players and coaches (see the Pro Football Hall of Fame), there can be ... and are ... exceptions.

Steve Spagnuolo is one of them.

Monday, February 19, 2024

The Hall-of-Fame Class of 2025 Will Have Stiff Competition It Seems

By John Turney 
Antonio Gates
When the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame's Class of 2024 was announced last week, there were some surprises, disappointments and perhaps a snub or two. Nothing new there. So relax. We get to do it all over again in 51 weeks. That's when the Class of 2025 is elected, and we opine about next year's surprises, disappointments and snubs.

But who will they be?

Obviously, it's impossible to know, but you can always try to predict ... which I intend to do here, but only with the modern-era candidates. I'll leave out the coach/contributor and senior candidates for now.

A good place to start is the finalists who survived this year's reduction cut from 15 to 10. They often are elected the following year, and, with this year's group, there's a strong possibility that at least a few -- if not more -- wind up enshrined in 2025.

Those five are tight end Antonio Gates, safety Darren Woodson, tackle Willie Anderson, receiver Torry Holt and defensive end Jared Allen. Then there are notable first-time eligible players like quarterback Eli Manning, linebacker Luke Kuechly, guard Marshall Yanda, running back Marshawn Lynch and edge rusher Terrell Suggs.

Of the five holdovers, you'd think Gates would be the leading candidate. I do. With more touchdown catches (116) than all but six receivers in NFL history, it was surprising he wasn't included in this year's class. But his eight Pro Bowls and tight-end record for touchdown receptions mean he won't wait long.

Pencil him in for next year.

After that, however, it gets complicated. Really complicated.

Former Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly will be the most decorated in terms of the "alls" -- he was a Pro Bowler every season but his rookie campaign, as well as a consensus All-Pro five times and the 2013 AP Defensive Player of the Year. But he also had his career cut short after eight seasons due to repeated concussions. So he lacks the longevity voters like in their first-ballot inductees.

His resume is similar to that of another linebacker, the 49ers' Patrick Willis, who was just elected after becoming eligible in 2020. Will Keuchly wait that long? Probably not. But he's not a lock to be chosen in his first try, either. 

Former Giants' quarterback Eli Manning will bring a serious, prolonged and, in all likelihood, impassioned discussion to the Hall-of-Fame vote. It will be the classic debate of how important "quarterback rings" are vs. career credentials. Manning's two Super Bowl wins over Tom Brady are his calling card for election (he was the game's MVP both times), but his passing statistics and honors (MVPs, All-Pros, Pro Bowls) aren't as numerous as other quarterbacks of his era. 

He was a four-time Pro Bowler but never an All-Pro.

Eventually, he'll get his bust in Canton. But I'd bet a lot of money it doesn't happen next year. The debate almost surely will be long and possibly contentious.

There's a lot of substance to guard Marshall Yanda's case, but he'd not only have to leapfrog Jahri Evans, the longtime Saints' guard who was a finalist this year but other finalists at positions not overlooked as often as guard to reach the Hall right away.

That just won't happen.

He could make the Final 15, but he doesn't have the case needed to be a first-ballot guard. The next one will be the Cowboys' Zack Martin, five years after he retires.


Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch will have supporters, as will pass rusher Terrell Suggs, but there are players at their respective positions ahead of them in the queue. 

So, back to this year's Top Ten.

Andre Johnson broke the wide-receiver logjam, so it would seem that Torry Holt ... and perhaps Reggie Wayne ... would move up. Because he was a Top Ten finalist and Wayne was not, Holt seems to have more momentum -- as of now. He's been in the Top Ten the past two years, so he's a logical guess.

Mark him down after Gates.

Like Holt, Jared Allen has been in the Top Ten the past two years, too. So, based on that, I think he'd be a reasonable pick for next year's Class.

That's three. 

Now, two more. But who? 

Darren Woodson and Willie Anderson? Or one, plus Kuechly? Or Wayne, who was in the Top Ten in 2023 but missed this year? Maybe someone else, like running back Fred Taylor? As I said, there are a lot of accomplished players in the mix for next year. All have strong cases, but each also has a box or two that isn't checked ... and that should make decisions exceptionally hard for voters.

Not for me. My final two picks are Willie Anderson and Darren Woodson, making it a clean sweep of this year's Top Ten.

While I think Kuechly was elite -- among the best ever at his position -- it seems likely he may have to wait a year to get his Gold Jacket, with the logic something like this: "Patrick Willis had to wait. Why is Kuechly's case significantly stronger?" I could just as easily be wrong, and he wins his Hall pass right away, but I don't think so. 

As you can see, it's going to be a deep group of candidates next year, and good luck to voters sorting them out. They're going to need it.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Will the Hall's Doors Open to Specialists, Pass-rush, Returners and Others?

By John Turney
Coy Bacon

Defensive end Dwight Freeney and return specialist Devin Hester are two of the seven members of a Hall-of-Fame Class of 2024 that tilts heavily to one side of the ball.

And that's defense.

Look who joins them: Defensive tackle Steve McMichael, linebackers Patrick Willis and Randy Gradishar and defensive ends Julius Peppers and Freeney. That means that wide receiver Andre Johnson is the only offensive finalist who will be enshrined in August. 

But it's not Johnson or the others who interest me. It's Hester and Freeney, and here's why: Their elections raise the possibility of other one-dimensional players reaching Canton ... with the key word there being "possibility." If nothing else, their elections offer others hope where there was little before.

With Hester, that's easy to explain. He's the first return specialist ... period ... to be inducted. Until now, there were only three specialists enshrined in Canton. Two were kickers (Jan Stenerud and Morten Andersen) and one was a punter (Ray Guy). But now that Hester's in, other dominant returners may get a shot, too, with Billy "White Shoes" Johnson and Rick Upchurch the most obvious. 

Both made all-decade teams in the 1970s and 1980s. Both were also All-Pro and Pro Bowlers multiple times, as well as league leaders in punt returns, and both are still high on all-time lists for punt return yards, touchdowns and yards per return. Plus, there were two return specialists named to the NFL's 100th anniversary team. Hester was one. Johnson was the other.

Before Hester, he and Upchurch were often considered 1A and 1B among all-time punt returners. 

Like Hester, Johnson and Upchuch also started occasionally at wide receiver (Hester played some defensive back, as well), but they are Hall-worthy because they could take punts and kicks to the house better than others in their era. Or any era, for that matter.  And isn't that what the Hall of Fame is about? Finding those who separated themselves from their peers?

Hester did. So did "White Shoes" and Upchurch.

And since we're speaking of specialists, maybe it's time to revive Steve Tasker's candidacy. He was a nine-time semifinalist as a modern-era candidate but never made it to the final 15. However, now that Canton has its first return specialist, a precedent has been set ... and that may make his case a bit stronger.

Now let's look at Freeney.

First-ballot choice Julius Peppers was a pretty complete defensive end. He wasn't the best run-stopper among Hall-of-Fame peers at his position, but he made enough plays vs. the run that no one would suggest he was a one-dimensional player. But Dwight Freeney? Not so much. 

He was always among the best pass rushers of his era ... and of all time ... but he created more than just sacks. He created tons of pressures, knocking down quarterbacks and chasing them out of the pocket. Plus, he did it with a rare skillset, exploding off the ball to make off-balance tackles. With 4.48 40 speed, he could fly around the edge and motor to the quarterback.

But if the tackle overset to the outside, then Freeney really had him with the patented counter-move --- the inside spin. No, he didn't invent the spin move. He perfected it. And his success with it caused a lot of later pass rushers to copy it. You cannot watch football on a Sunday (or Saturday for that matter) without seeing the move multiple times.

But that focus on hitting the quarterback came at a cost: It left the spinmaster vulnerable to the run. He didn't drop many running backs for losses or at the line of scrimmage, as the record book shows. In his career, Freeney was credited with 36 run stuffs -- tackles for loss on running backs. 

For a quick comparison, look at former Baltimore pass rusher Terrell Suggs, who's eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2025. He had 101. Then there's five-time Hall finalist Jared Allen. He had 69.

Freeney was a rush-first guy who performed in a scheme and an era where playing the run was less important than it had been. So what he did ...  and did superbly ... was lauded by his coaches. They let Freeney do what he did best -- namely, rush the passer -- and let others worry about the run.

That ethos was not prevalent in previous generations. Defensive linemen who didn't play the run were criticized by coaches, other players, writers and even fans -- even if it was only partially true or true for occasional seasons. But with Freeney's election, fairness dictates that those rush-first guys now get a second look.

Like who, you ask?:

-- Let's start with Mark Gastineau. In ten seasons he had 107-1/2 sacks, though some are unofficial as they happened prior to 1982. He was All-Pro in 1982-85 and second-team in 1981 and went to the Pro Bowl all five seasons. He often got dogged out in the media for not playing the run, even by other All-Pro defensive ends. But in his era, no one -- no one -- got to the quarterback or hurried him more than Mark "Conan the Barbarian" Gastineau.

Maybe now he has a shot at a Gold Jacket.

-- Then there's Al "Bubba" Baker. He exploded onto the NFL scene with 23 sacks, 16 and then 17-1/2 in his first three seasons and ended his career with 131, though, like Gastineau's some are unofficial.  He didn't have a reputation as a poor run defender but he wasn't a great one, either. He was a prototypical blind-side defensive end who was concerned about getting to the quarterback before all else. If he found a running back on his way there, all the better. And, like Freeney, Baker had a fair spin move of his own.

Baker was All-Everything as a rookie and went to three Pro Bowls. 

-- Another example was Coy Bacon, the pass-rushing gypsy. He played for the Rams, the Chargers, Bengals, Redskins and even had a stint with the USFL Washington Federals. And, at every stop, he harassed quarterbacks. Three times he was voted to the Pro Bowl and three times he was second-team All-Pro. Though he retired before sacks became official, NFL gamebooks reveal he had 130-1/2 in his career, including 21-1/2 in 1976.

Coy could bring the heat but never got a sniff of Canton. Maybe that changes now.

Time will tell.

Regardless, it does seem that the Hall-of-Fame seniors' committee will have more players on its plate in the future because cases previously closed to specialists and one-dimensional players possibly are reopened because similar players -- i.e., Hester and Freeney -- will be enshrined this summer. And what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Friday, February 2, 2024

If It Were Me

By John Turney
Writers, researchers, historians, drafniks, analytics followers, fans, you name it, enjoy playing games of "What If"... as in: What if they were the coach or GM of their favorite team? What would they do or whom would they draft? 

It's a form of second-guessing that's more a source of entertainment, and it doesn't just apply to games or draft boards. It can apply to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, too. 

And it will. Now.

As a writer, researcher and fan of pro football, I sometimes wonder: Whom would I choose if I were on the Hall's board of selectors? Not the ones I think will be elected. But the ones I thought were most deserving. What if I had that opportunity?

Well, now I do. So, I'm choosing my Class of 2024.

I'll ignore the four senior and coach/contributor nominees because I presume they all make it. It's just a "yes" or "no" vote, with 80 percent approval needed. So barring something bizarre, they should all make it. But I'll just say that if I had a vote, I'd affirm all four -- coach Buddy Parker, linebacker Randy Gradishar, defensive tackle Steve McMichael, and receiver Art Powell.

So, who would be my five modern-era candidates? 

First is Julius Peppers. Given that Jason Taylor was a first-ballot selection in 2017, there's no reason not to give Peppers the same honor. In my mind, neither matches up to the only previous first-ballot defensive ends -- the Mr. Rushmore at that position -- Gino Marchetti, Deacon Jones, Reggie White and Bruce Smith. We know them all by their first names.

But Peppers did have a career roughly the same as Taylor, enough to easily make him the top name on this year's finalist list.

Patrick Willis would be next. The 49ers' linebacker has the most first-team All-Pros among all the final 15. He was a tackling machine and did tremendous work in both the run game and coverage. In fact, coverage may have been his forte.

His career was cut short after eight seasons because of a foot injury, so his peak was not that long. But it was extremely high.

It's clear to me that Andre Johnson is the top wide receiver and one of the best five players among the finalists. He's just different than Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne.

He's a true No. 1 receiver and someone who, at his peak, was a bigger problem for defenses. Imagine what he'd have done with an elite quarterback like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady ... or even a few seasons with Kurt Warner.

Even so, he had three 1,500-yard receiving seasons, including one after the age of 30. He's ranked third in my book of these finalists.

Tight end Antonio Gates would be my fourth. Of all the pass catchers -- regardless of position -- in the final 15, Gates had the most touchdown catches (116).  Incredibly, he has more touchdown receptions than most of the Hall-of-Fame pass catchers, with only six ahead of him -- Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Cris Carter, Marvin Harrison and Larry Fitzgerald.

You may recognize those names. Pretty good work for a tight end who has to block some of the time.

While he may not fit the classic first-ballot definition, he is one of the top five on the ballot this year. His stats, plus his All-Pro resume -- a three-time All-Pro, eight-time Pro Bowler and 2004 NFL Alumni Tight End of the Year -- make him my fourth pick.

It may surprise you that Devin Hester would be my fifth.

It shouldn't. 

And yes, I know the arguments against his case: That he was a specialist and the Hall should be for position players or that a returner doesn't have enough impact on games. Okay, then take out the two kickers and punter.

The reason Hester belongs is that he's not only the G.O.A.T. at his position, but he's so far ahead of the field he's a phenom. He had 20 non-offensive touchdowns (most ever in NFL history) and combined for 19 combined kick/punt return touchdowns, also the most. His 14 punt returns are four more than the next player on the list.

He has a hold on the return record book the same way Jerry Rice has a hold on the receiving record book. Both top most of the lists.

Hester did play on some scrimmage plays at wide receiver and defensive back, but he was not quality at either. But if you kicked or punted to him, he'd make you pay big time. And, if you didn't, the Bears still gained good field position, as punts could be shortened or shanked and land out of bounds.

The same was true on kickoffs. He was avoided by squib kicks or kickoffs launched high and short to allow coverage teams to defend him. Even so, he was always a threat to take one to the house. Because of that dominance, he should get a bronze bust. In fact, if it were up to me -- which it's not -- he'd go in this year. He's one of the top five football players on the list.

But that's my opinion. We'll hear what voters have to say on Thursday, Feb. 8, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame reveals its Class of 2024 at the NFL Honors show.