ON THE BUBBLE
Running backs Marcus Allen, who is finishing his career with the Chiefs after having spent 11 seasons with the Los Angeles Raiders, and Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys appear to have enough votes to ensure induction, while Pittsburgh Steeler cornerback Rod Woodson is a near miss at this point. Allen, 35, ranks fourth on the alltime touchdown list, with 120, and needs only seven more to move into second place, behind Rice and ahead of Jim Brown, the Hall of Famer against whom all running backs are measured. Allen was MVP of Super Bowl XVIII and was the regular-season MVP in 1985. He also has the record for consecutive 100-yard games on the ground, with 11. While McDonough dismisses Allen as no better than former Baltimore Colt and Washington Redskin runner Joe Washington, a good player who received no serious Hall of Fame consideration, San Diego Union-Tribune football writer Jerry Magee calls Allen "the best player who ever played for the Raiders."
With only five NFL seasons in his ledger, Emmitt Smith's candidacy is even less developed than that of Sanders. However, he may have accomplished enough: three straight rushing titles, two Super Bowl rings, and Super Bowl and regular-season MVP honors during the 1993 campaign. An early career-ending injury seems to be his only threat to enshrinement.
Last year Woodson, now 30, was voted to the NFLs alltime 75th anniversary team—some Hall of Fame selectors were on that panel—but our poll results show he is not yet a sure thing for Canton. Says one voter, who did not want to be identified, "I don't share everybody else's idea that Woodson is the best defensive back in football. He makes a lot of big plays, but he gets beat a lot, too."
Niner quarterback Steve Young has two regular-season MVP awards and has won an unprecedented four consecutive league passing titles, all with ratings of 100 or better. His Super Bowl MVP performance last January vaulted him ahead of his Cowboy counterpart, Troy Aikman, a two-time Super Bowl winner. The 33-year-old Young got a late start—he spent two years in the USFL, another two with a dreadful Tampa Bay Buccaneer team and four as Joe Montana's backup in San Francisco—but one more big year should be enough to cement his induction.
While not as solid a choice as Sanders or Smith, Thurman Thomas, an all-around threat with 8,724 rushing yards and 3,402 receiving yards in seven seasons, is on the verge of earning Hall of Fame status. As for Jim Kelly, some voters won't even consider his two seasons of stardom with the Houston Gamblers of the USFL, during which he threw for a remarkable 9,842 yards. Then again, some will. "It's the Pro Football Hall of Fame," says Fox Sports editorial director Frank Cooney. "Those two years he was the best quarterback in football."
Jackie Slater, now entering his 20th season, is a prime example of the importance of longevity to the voters, and his seven Pro Bowl appearances are a significant factor. The road looks tougher for Bruce Matthews, a versatile 12-year veteran who also has seven Pro Bowls on his resume. Incidentally, Atlanta Falcon Clay Matthews, Bruce's older brother, who owns the record for most games played at linebacker (247), was rejected as a Hall of Famer by more than two thirds of the voters.
Of the long shots in our poll, the players most likely to enhance their chances are Aikman, Dallas wideout Michael Irvin, San Diego Charger linebacker Junior Seau and itinerant cornerback Deion Sanders. Offensive linemen Randall McDaniel of the Minnesota Vikings and Dermontti Dawson of Pittsburgh will have to grow on voters, as Slater has. Chief linebacker Derrick Thomas and Cleveland wideout Andre Rison, both 28, probably need to stay at the All-Pro level well into their 30's.
If you think two Super Bowl victories should be enough to get Aikman inducted, there is a simple, two-word rebuttal: Jim Plunkett—the quarterback who led the Raiders to two league titles, in 1981 and '84, but who, observes McDonough, "can't even get close to Canton." Aikman's career could be cut short by the concussions he has suffered, but he is willing to play through that physical trauma. "He took his lumps and stayed in there," says Zimmerman. "I equate him with [Hall of Famer] Roger Staubach."