By Jason Keidel
Any Hall of Fame class, by definition, is special. Indeed, it should be self-evident that the top one percent in the thin air of pro sports is a montage of greatness. But some classes just resonate louder or wider or brighter than others. Perhaps the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2017 is one of them.
Why it took so long for Davis to get in is beyond me. Perhaps the most glaring knock is longevity. Davis was not a compiler, did not pass the magic mark of 10,000 yards or 100 touchdowns. (He finished with 7,607 yards and 60 total TDs.) But he was the best player on a team that won two Super Bowls — both led by John Elway — and was the best running back in football for a few more years. Davis also touched the transcendent number of 2,000 rushing yards in 1998, with 2,008 yards on the ground, 21 rushing TDs, an absurd 5.1 yards per carry and 125.5 per game. He belongs.
Like Davis, Warner didn’t break the magic statistical membranes of his peers. He doesn’t have Brett Favre’s gaudy TD numbers, Peyton Manning’s passing yards or Tom Brady’s 25 playoff wins. But Warner did take two different teams to a Super Bowl. And neither the St Louis Rams nor the Arizona Cardinals are NFL blue bloods. The Rams won their first Super Bowl with Warner under center, and the Cardinals came within Santonio Holmes’s tiptoes of their first Super Bowl ring. (It’s still their only appearance in the big game, dating back to their days in St. Louis.)
Warner is the quintessential fairytale, Horatio Alger all the way. Outhouse to Penthouse. Warner literally went from bagging groceries to bagging NFL MVP awards. No one saw Trent Green’s gruesome knee injury in 1999 and thought the unknown Warner — who had already been cut by the Green Bay Packers — would be the Cinderella story of the century. Not only did Warner not have the chops to make an NFL roster, he had to pinball around the lower tiers to get a shot, from NFL Europe to the Arena League. And Like LaDainian Tomlinson, Warner is a nice a man, as unaffected a superstar, as you’ll ever meet. If you don’t at least appreciate Warner, then you don’t have a heart, or perhaps a pulse.
The Captain Obvious, first-ballot choice. The best player, hands down, in this class. Tomlinson was not just great, but uniquely great, for a while. He finished with 13,684 yards and 102 touchdowns (85 rushing). And, along with Marshall Faulk, Tomlinson broke the template view of the tailback. No longer were great runners restricted to lumbering between the tackles, the line plunge, the off-tackle, trap or draw. Tomlinson took it to the outside, and was sublime at catching the ball in the flat. Fans still remember that screen pass he took 90 yards to the house in the playoffs against New England 10 years ago.
Tomlinson’s apex came in 2006, when he won league MVP while toying with NFL defenses. He scored an obscene (and NFL record) 28 rushing touchdowns (31 total), and led the league with 1,815 yards on the ground, 5.2 yards per carry and 2,323 total yards. He had at least 1,100 rushing yards in eight straight seasons, and double-digit touchdowns in nine. And word is he’s an even nicer person, which is as rare as his talent.
Not so sexy to see someone who never ran, or caught, or tossed a touchdown pass make it to Canton. Nor was he a defensive stalwart, like Easley. In fact, it’s likely that you, or someone you know, at some point called him Gary Anderson. But Morten Andersen is arguably the greatest place kicker in NFL history. Kicking is the one place where compiling is allowed. And did he compile, a lot, between 1982 and 2007, a career that spans the Reagan years up to the year before Obama. The goal in any sport is to score — goals, runs or points — and no one filled up the latter like Andersen. No one in the history of pro football scored more than Andersen’s 2,544 points.
Andersen also ranks first in field goals attempted (709) and made (565). Andersen also has the most FGs of at least 50 yards, with 40. And no one kicked more 50-yard field goals in a single season than Andersen, when he clubbed eight of them, in 1995. (No one even has seven in one season.) Andersen is also one of just three kickers in NFL history to hit three 50-yard FGs in one game. If there’s a pertinent stat among kickers, Andersen’s name is among the leaders.
If there’s a bubble player, it’s Taylor. Folks argue that either you’re a Hall of Famer or you’re not, so why make anyone wait a few years to vote them in? Taylor is why. No doubt he was a divine talent for the Dolphins, a pass rusher extraordinaire, part of the new wave of long and lean defensive ends who relied on equal parts force and finesse to beguile offensive linemen. And since sacks became an official stat in the 1970s, Taylor is seventh all time, with 139.5, just two behind another Hall of Famer and current TV pitchman, Michael Strahan. But as a specialist who was redefining the position, it took awhile for the old-school writers to adjust their old-world sensibilities.
Ah. Jerry. We could take up pages, columns and archives dissecting the most mercurial and polarizing sports owner since George Steinbrenner. With all due respect to Mark Cuban, the Mavericks may play in the same city, but may as well be a galaxy away from the Cowboys. After a bumpy start, Jones and the Pokes ran off three Super Bowl rings in four years.
They haven’t come nearly as close to that standard in the 20 years hence, but the franchise has grown in value by several billion dollars, after he paid $140 million for the club in 1989. But more than money, Jones brings a flair, pizazz, personality to the team, town and sport. He also doubles as a lightning rod for the stuffy suits who run the other 31 clubs, making Jones a welcome distraction and deflection. And a welcome addition to Canton.
Kenny Easley, a stalwart safety for the Seattle Seahawks, was selected by the Senior Committee, which can only vote on players whose careers ended at least 25 years prior to induction.
Though Easley’s career was cut short by a kidney ailment, he spent his seven years in the NFL — all with the Seahawks — as arguably the best in the sport. Indeed, Easley was named NFL Rookie of the Year in 1981 and the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1984. He played in five Pro Bowls (1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988), and was named first-team All-Pro four times (1982 through 1985). Easley was also named to the 1980s All-Decade team.
While some players, like Kurt Warner, blossomed out of obscurity, Kenny Easley was hardly a secret. A standout at UCLA, Easley was the first player in Pac-10 history to earn first-team all-conference for four consecutive seasons. Easley was also a three-time consensus All-American whose jersey (No. 5) was retired by the school. To this day, he leads UCLA in career interceptions, with 19.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.