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Don't forget the 'D'

Hall of Fame has significant lack of defensive players

Posted: Saturday August 4, 2007 10:38AM; Updated: Saturday August 4, 2007 10:38AM
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The six men inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame today richly deserve it. My two should-have-been-first-year-locks, Michael Irvin and Thurman Thomas, finally are bronzed, as are a deserving pair of old-timers, Cleveland guard Gene Hickerson (best blocker on the best running team of his day) and Detroit tight end Charlie Sanders (seven 30-catch seasons when tight ends didn't catch the ball). Bruce Matthews? Easy. Fourteen Pro Bowls, played every position on the line, played 296 games.

As a voter, you know the one who surprised me most when the roll of enshrinees was announced last February? Roger Wehrli, the cornerback from St. Louis whose 14-year career ended in 1982. As one of 40 selectors for the Hall, I was surprised because I'd heard Wehrli's case before (he'd been eligible since 1988), but certainly favored him. When you're All-Pro five times from a moribund franchise, and when Al Davis calls you the best cover corner of your day, those are pluses that can't be denied.

Of the six players in this Hall class, Wehrli was the only defensive player, and that continues a trend we as voters have to address. Of the last six classes of Hall of Famers, only 22 percent of the players to get in are defenders: just six of 27. My colleague Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News wrote eloquently this week about the lack of defensive players in the Hall and went further. Gosselin did the math, and it is ugly: Of the players whose careers span the last 50 years of NFL history, 58 of 164 enshrinees have been defensive players.

This is not a trend. It's an avalanche.

The preference of offense over defense is the single biggest issue the Hall voters must address, and soon. Aside from the issue of positional equality, the way football is played today demands a fairer distribution of slots in the Hall. In this century, five of the Super Bowls played have been won by a team with a head coach hired for his defensive acumen. Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher, and Bill Belichick (three times) all were defensive coordinators, and one other winner (Baltimore, 2000) won in spite of its offense with one of the best defensive seasons of all time.

We've left so many candidates at the altar in recent years: linebackers Andre Tippett of New England and Derrick Thomas of the Chiefs, pass-rushers Richard Dent, Fred Dean and Charles Haley, and old defensive backs Dick LeBeau, Lester Hayes and Emmitt Thomas. Maybe some of those men belong in the Hall of Very Good and not the Hall of Fame, but to deny them all is to say offense is 70 percent of football. Which we all know is a lie.

The memories will get hazier as the years pass. That's why this is one of the issues I'll be addressing with the group when we gather in Phoenix the day before the Super Bowl in February.

The other interesting electoral issues going forward:

• What to do at receiver. Art Monk is gaining traction, and Andre Reed -- who has the same kind of vehement support in Buffalo as Monk has inside The Beltway -- is still alive. Now Cris Carter becomes eligible, and his numbers dwarf all the others not in. He has 161 more catches than Monk, for 62 more touchdowns and five more Pro Bowls. Monk, of course, has the championships and Carter doesn't, but then you come down to the issue of how much blame do you put on Carter for Gary Anderson missing a chip shot that would have put Carter's Vikes in the Super Bowl nine years ago? Regardless, Carter's great career muddies the water for Monk.

• How to break the logjam along the defensive front seven. You see the names up above. Different sectors of the voters seem to like different guys. I'm most bullish on Tippett, who averaged 10 sacks a year playing for a bad team and playing over the tight end (Lawrence Taylor played primarily weak side), but every one of those players listed above has a good case. I hope we put three of them in next February.

Paul Tagliabue. I think he gets in, but probably not for a few years. Seems his credentials are being doubted, in part because the last labor deal he got ratified could be re-opened in 15 months by pressure from small-market owners who think the deal favors the big boys. Still, in Pete Rozelle's last seven years in office, there were two strikes. In Tagliabue's 17 years, there were none. Seems like a no-brainer to me, but I'm just one of 40.

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