By Jason Keidel
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When considering finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, you’d like to think the gatekeepers turn their heads away from politics, personalities, and biases.
Every time a player enters the portal of pro pigskin immortality, it’s a celebration not just of the player, or the man, but our youthful connection to him.
Yet we hear about players passed over for being rude, inelegant, or otherwise obdurate. He didn’t kiss the anointed fannies. But even if we can bury all that peripheral noise, we’re faced with a real and proper problem: how to make that paper-thin distinction between great and the greatest, between those who are the best for a time versus those who are the best of all-time.
There are 15 modern-era finalists in 2018, and up to five may be inducted. Let’s look at the five who should be enshrined this year. It’s not an indictment of the others or an argument to keep them out next year or any year after.
If Randy Moss isn’t a Hall of Fame player, then we didn’t watch the same sport since 1998. He was part of the new wave of moody, me-first ballers who even said he plays when he wants to play. But when he did, there’s only one player who did it better, and he’s the only true GOAT at his position, which he graced in San Francisco for years. That, of course, is Jerry Rice, for those born in 2005.
Moss said he’d wreck the NFL when he got here, and he did. Passed over way too many times as a problem child out of Marshall, Moss made NFL defenses pay. Only Rice has more receiving touchdowns than Moss’s 156. Only Rice and Terrell Owens racked up more than Moss’s 15,292 yards. (Larry Fitzgerald nudged past Moss since the HOF first named all their candidates.) Moss totaled at least 1,200 yards in eight seasons, and averaged at least 15 yards per catch over the same time period. The only statistical quirk in his resume is he somehow didn’t catch 1,000 passes, retiring with 982. But you could argue that makes his touchdowns and yardage even more mind-numbing.
For those of us who have been watching the NFL since the 1970s, there’s only one linebacker who was definitively better than the iconic Ravens linebacker, and that was Lawrence Taylor, who may be the greatest defensive player in the history of the sport.
Ray Lewis was part of the 2000 Baltimore behemoth that basically shut out the Giants in the Super Bowl, with Big Blue’s seven points coming on a kick return. (Lewis was also MVP of that game.) Other than the ’85 Bears and ’76 Steelers, it’s hard to think of a better unit than that Ravens defense. And Lewis was the best player, leader, and heartbeat of that club and the next dozen iterations. If you need a brief bio, Lewis started 227 games, had at least 100 tackles in eight seasons, and was selected to 13 Pro Bowls.
Lewis was so dominant, so transcendent, and has such resounding and universal respect from his peers, this argument is facile and self-evident.
There’s a happy medium between the Owens apologists who say the HOF snuff so far is a crime against humanity, and the Owens haters who say he doesn’t belong in Canton because he was such a narcissistic jerk. Neither is true, but if forced to choose, go with the former. Sure, we could have done without the holdouts, mutinies, and public crunches in his driveway, but his aesthetic, athletic splendor was so grand that you just take the gory with the glory.
The only two receivers clearly better than Owens are the two men with more receiving touchdowns than Owens’s 153: Rice and Moss. Owens had five seasons with at least 1,200 yards, is eighth all-time with 1,078 receptions, averaged an absurd 14.8 yards per catch, and only Rice has more than Owens’s 15,934 receiving yards. Just consider his 2000 season, when Owens started 13 games, caught 13 TDs, amassed 1,451 yards, and averaged 103.6 yards per game, as a wide receiver.
Many pundits feel that Owens will get one more HOF stiff-arm because Moss will make it in his first try, and you can’t have two wideouts wear that mustard-colored jacket in the same ceremony, particularly two who are so spiritually similar. Forgive me, but that just doesn’t make any sense. Either you’re that great or you’re not. Owens was.
As with most defenders, absent any obscene stats like Bruce Smith’s 200 sacks or Paul Krause’s 80 interceptions, we rely on the eye test. And for at least 10 years, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher was rather easy on the eyes.
Urlacher was a freak, absurdly fast for someone 6-foot-4 and 258 pounds, he skittered sideline-to-sideline better than anyone of his era not named Ray Lewis. A six-time Pro Bowl selection, Urlacher had 1,040 tackles, 41.5 sacks, was named 2005 Defensive Player of the Year, and was voted to the all-decade team of the 2000s.
It’s inevitable that some HOF voter will think of Urlacher as part of a glorious, Chicago linebacker lineage, which was started by Dick Butkus, and carried on by Mike Singletary, who then handed the symbolic torch to Urlacher. You could argue Urlacher finishes third in that holy trinity. But that’s still good enough for Canton, Ohio.
The least sexy picks for the Pro Football Hall of Fame are offensive linemen. They don’t post splashy stats, don’t score touchdowns, don’t intercept passes, and don’t dance over sacked quarterbacks.
But if you ask any true football architects how you win football games, they will tell you that nothing happens unless you control the line of scrimmage. And few, if any, offensive linemen did that during his time better than Alan Faneca.
Faneca played 13 years and was voted to the Pro Bowl nine times, most of them with Bill Cowher’s Pittsburgh Steelers from 1998 until 2007. This is Faneca’s third chance to get into the Hall of Fame, which speaks to the preference given skill players. Unless you’re a transcendent lineman like Anthony Munoz or Orlando Pace, you toil on the back of the HOF line. Hopefully, Faneca, who was also voted to the all-decade team of the 2000s, gets his due this year.
If you argue that fellow grunt and former Jet Kevin Mawae, who played the more critical role of center, deserves this spot, you won’t get a hard argument here.
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