This weekend, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will enshrine the Class of 2017 in Canton, Ohio. Who should earn this honor next year? What about in 2022? Elliot Harrison looks ahead and shares who he would put on his ballot for the next five classes of Hall of Famers.
Great … dominant … elite … All-Pro … Pro Bowler … winner. These are the words we use so often to describe Hall of Famers. With Ware, you get all of those, plus two that are so important to the game today: consistency and class. Ware was always productive, never average, thus making him one of the most consistent pass rushers in NFL history. Consider his season-by-season sack numbers from his first decade in the league: 8, 11.5, 14, 20, 11, 15.5, 19.5, 11.5, 6, 10. Of those two single-digit years, one was his rookie campaign (Lawrence Taylor, Derrick Thomas and many of the greatest 3-4 OLBs failed to get 10 sacks their first year), and the other came during an injury-plagued season. Ware recorded 127 sacks in his first 10 years and 138.5 (eighth all-time) for his career. In eight career postseason games, he put up 7.5 more. Through it all, Ware carried himself with class. He earned respect all around the league and, most importantly, from the Cowboys and Broncos organizations for which he starred.
Another deserving pass rusher who, like Ware, was remarkably steady. Also like Ware, Allen posted double-digit sack totals in eight of his first 10 seasons in the league. In 2011, he almost set a new single-season record with 22 — if only he’d had help from Brett Favre. Speaking of, Favre got the 2009 Vikings to the NFC Championship Game, the closest Allen ever came to winning a ring as a starter. Allen did play in a Super Bowl in his final stop, at Carolina, but by that time, the outdoorsmen was thinking about hanging ’em up. Allen had already racked up 136 sacks (11th), five Pro Bowls and four first-team All-Pro nods. What more did he need to accomplish individually? More than that, Allen’s high motor is damn near legendary. The guy was all heart, with a perfect blend of lightheartedness.
When Johnson’s name comes up in the voters’ room in 2021, I can guarantee you there will be plenty of debate. Getting through the but-he-doesn’t-rank-high-in-any-career-categories force field will be like what Bill Pullman faced in “Independence Day” (you know, the “Independence Day” movie that was actually watchable). So who will be Megatron‘s Jeff Goldblum? The statheads will always lose, at least on my ballot, to a simple point: If you were the top player at your position for three years running, you are a Hall of Fame player. Johnson was the best wide receiver in football for three straight years. He was unstoppable, the focal point of every defensive coordinator who faced the Lions. And if you get all hot and bothered over stats, consider that Johnson averaged 111.7 yards per game and 11 touchdowns per year during that impressive stretch. That’s with no Reggie Wayne, Torry Holt or Keenan McCardell complementing him as his WR2, either. Megatron was often all Detroit had, and still he scared opponents more than any player in the NFL during his prime.
Nowadays, if a running back approaches 20 carries in a game or 300 touches in a season, coaches worry about him wearing down. Commentators have fallen in love with the term running back by committee. Former Colts head coach Jim Mora wasn’t even in like with the idea. Not when his general manager, Bill Polian, provided him with the running back gift that kept on giving. James wasn’t just a workhorse, he was like the teams of Clydesdales tromping in the snow in those 1980s beer commercials. In his first two seasons, James racked up 881 — 881! — touches. He led the NFL in rushing in each of his first two seasons. Here’s your short list of the other dudes who’ve pulled that feat off: Jim Brown, Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson. All are in the Hall of Fame, and all entered in their first year of eligibility. It’s not like James stopped running after two years, either. He eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards five more times, including two seasons of over 1,500. Think I’ll stop there.
When you think of the ’90s, you probably drift from Screech to Green Day to Bruce Willis drilling on an asteroid with an out-of-his-mind Steve Buscemi watching the end of the world. Or you might think of Atwater kicking off the decade by destroying Christian Okoye on “Monday Night Football.” This guy was a tackling machine, the Ronnie Lott of the AFC. Unfortunately, Lott, as well as several players from Atwater’s draft class in ’89 (Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Deion Sanders, the late, great Derrick Thomas) come up before Atwater during barstool chats. Fine, but Atwater deserves a bust in Canton because he was better than nearly all those guys (not Barry) as a rookie and maintained that high level of play for more than a decade in the NFL. Atwater averaged nearly 150 tackles per season from 1989 to 1993, while making the Pro Bowl or All-Pro from Years 2 to 8. He would receive another Pro Bowl invite in 1998 — his 10th season — after winning his second straight Super Bowl ring. The Hall of Fame voters have de-emphasized the safety position. I haven’t.
Another safety whose name should have been called long before Atwater’s (and those of a few other guys) is former Dallas Cowboy Cliff Harris. Make that first-team All-Decade of the ’70s, Cliff Harris. “Captain Crash,” as he was known, could hit like Atwater and was probably a bit better in coverage. Despite his penchant for delivering the big hit first annnnnnnd then maybe trying to intercept the pass later, Harris managed to steal about three passes per year in mostly 14-game seasons (the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978). Perhaps the most incredible aspect of Harris’ career is that he started in five Super Bowls during his 10 years in the league. He is also the only first-team defensive player on that All-Decade team to not yet have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Randy Gradishar played against Harris’ Cowboys in Super Bowl XII, which marked the Broncos’ first Super Bowl appearance. Although Denver fell short that day, don’t blame the defense. Gradishar manned the MLB spot on one of the best units of the 1970s. The “Orange Crush” allowed all of 10.6 points per game that 1977 season, followed by 12.4 the next. Gradishar called the signals and beat out strong contemporaries at the Mike, like Jack Lambert, Harry Carson and Bill Bergey, for first-team All-Pro status. In fact, he was named Defensive Player of the Year in 1978. In 10 seasons, Gradishar missed out on the Pro Bowl just three times. Worth mentioning: In two of those years, he received honors from the national media (UPI, Sporting News). Gradishar, like Harris, rode off while still considered a premier player at his position. His last professional game was a Pro Bowl. How often does that happen?
Steve Sabol. Finding a spot for Steve Sabol should be a slam dunk. Or, given the sport Mr. Sabol loved, a quarterback sneak from the one-inch line. Unfortunately, his name will have to be snuck onto a ballot through the “Contributor” category. Despite his enormous impact on the NFL from an entertainment angle, Sabol won’t go in on the normal vote. Because he’ll have to be considered as a contributor, Sabol’s legacy will be compared with so many names — with, unfortunately, so few spots to fill. The contributor committee nominates a maximum of two candidates, although it alternates between one and two (after suggesting Jerry Jones and Paul Tagliabue in 2017, the group will only produce a single name in 2018). All that aside, how do you quantify Sabol’s influence on both the league and its fans? Pre-internet, pre-nonstop talk radio, kids like the one writing this article lived for Sabol’s “NFL Films Presents” and so many others. He explained the game from a historical angle, using an artist’s bent and storytelling worthy of legendary folk singers. Sabol made his life making the NFL ours.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.