CHFF: Defensive greats the NFL Hall of Fame overlooked
The Hall has inducted twice as many offensive players than defensive players
The Class of 2009, enshrined this weekend, will feature three defensive players
Among the defensive greats overlooked by the Hall are Richard Dent, Jake Scott
Hall of Fame voters have finally found religion.
Two years ago, with the help of several Hall of Fame voters, Cold Hard Football Facts conducted a lengthy study of the HOF voting records and it revealed a startling disparity between the rate at which offensive and defensive players are ushered into Canton. Offensive players in the two-platoon era had been inducted into the Hall at a rate of nearly two to one over defensive players. And the trend was not good: the disparity was only growing wider in the Live Ball Era (1978-present), the era defined by an institutionalized bias in favor of offensive players.
But to their credit, Hall of Fame voters studied the numbers and have begun to right their wrongs. The Class of 2008 featured four defensive players -- the largest class of defenders in all of Hall of Fame history. The Class of 2009, which will be inducted this weekend, features three defensive players -- Bills sack-master Bruce Smith, all-purpose defensive back Rod Woodson, who spent most of his career with the Steelers, and the late Kansas City linebacker Derrick Thomas -- matching the previous best before 2008.
That's seven defenders added to the Hall of Fame roster in the past two years. To put that into context, Canton had welcomed just eight defensive players in the previous eight Hall of Fame classes. The change of heart among voters is evident if one looks at the last 10 Canton classes:
Class of 2000: 1 offensive player and 3 defensive players
Class of 2001: 4 offensive players and 2 defensive players
Class of 2002: 3 offensive players and 1 defensive player
Class of 2003: 3 offensive players and 1 defensive player
Class of 2004: 3 offensive players and 1 defensive players
Class of 2005: 4 offensive players and 0 defensive players
Class of 2006: 3 offensive players and 2 defensive players
Class of 2007: 5 offensive players and 1 defensive player
Class of 2008: 2 offensive players and 4 defensive players
Class of 2009: 2 offensive players and 3 defensive players
The disparity between offensive and defensive players is still wide: 113 offensive players and 70 defenders from the two-platoon era. And among those who played in the Live Ball Era, the tally is 22 offensive players and 11 defenders. There are several notable disparities, as Hall of Fame voters have been quick to usher in marginal offensive players and dismiss some of the most dominant defenders in history. Consider the case of two rivals from the old AFC Central who battled twice a year throughout the 1970s: Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann and Bengals cornerback Ken Riley.
Swann caught just 51 TD passes in his short, nine-year career. Eighty-two players have hauled in more TD receptions. He totaled just 336 catches for 5,462 yards. But Swann, thanks to a couple of highly visible Super Bowl performances, was hustled into Canton in 2001.
Riley, meanwhile, picked off 65 passes in his 15-year career, the fifth highest total in NFL history. He can barely get his name mentioned among Hall of Fame voters. An all-time leader in touchdown catches would be a lock for the Hall of Fame. But if you're among the all-time leaders in picking off passes, Hall of Fame voters are quick to forget you.
Clearly, there's still a long way to go before equality reigns in Canton. If HOF voters want to get serious about adding defensive players, they'd be wise to start with this octet of overlooked stars. (Players listed alphabetically.)
Steve Atwater, safety
Years pro: Broncos, 1989-98; Jets, 1999. Pro Bowls: 8. All-Pro: 6. Consensus All-NFL: 1991, 1992. All-Decade team? Yes. Playoff games: 14. Super Bowl rings: 2. Avg. team defensive rank: 12.0 (out of 30-31 teams).
Cold, Hard Football Fact: In Denver's first Super Bowl win, Atwater had six tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
Offensive HOF equivalent: John Elway. Why not? Sure, Pat Bowlen said "This one's for John," but Atwater meant as much to Denver's D as Elway did to the O.
The case against: Atwater wasn't known as a great pass-defender as a safety, and the Broncos rarely had a top-flight defense during his career.
The case for: Well, eight Pro Bowls is a pretty loud statement. Not too many players with eight Pro Bowls aren't in Canton -- especially guys who helped hoist two Vince Lombardi Trophies. Also, according to Denver's official stats, he averaged more 130 total tackles per season over a decade with the Broncos.
In summary: Atwater was a feared hitter. Not quite Ronnie Lott, but pretty damn close. He won big games, he was the best at his position, he was a perennial all-leaguer -- sounds like a Hall of Famer, doesn't it?
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