I've been given a list of 76 of the greatest players in pro football history. From this I must, as a Hall of Fame selector, choose 12 who will appear before the selection committee in January. In other words, I have to make 64 cuts. People such as Archie Manning, Roger Craig, Russ Grimm, Art Monk, Randy Gradishar—how many of these stars can you decide are not good enough, without losing your sanity?
It's a fearsome job. I agonize. I run past the deadline the Hall has given us, and I always get that phone call that begins, "Look, we need your picks now!"
I can't give you my final choices, but topping my list, and the guy I will lobby hardest for, is Dave Casper, the old Raiders tight end. People forget how good he was. I don't know how to say this more plainly: He was the best tight end I ever saw. He played part of his career under the old rules, which allowed defenders to mug receivers all over the field. How many times did I train my binocs on Casper, fighting his way through the carnage and reaching at the last minute to make one of his patented one-handed catches? He simply didn't drop the ball.
Blocking? Well, Casper spent time as a tackle at Notre Dame. He might have been the best blocking tight end of all time. If you've got a picture in your mind of him as a slow former tackle, forget it. He averaged 13.8 yards a catch, two-plus yards more than the average of the current No. 1 at the position, the Chiefs' Tony Gonzalez; better than the career average of any Pro Bowl tight end from last year; better than the average of the Ravens' Shannon Sharpe, the best deep threat at the position.
The quarterback competition is a tough call. Ditto the race among running backs and wideouts once you get past graceful, acrobatic Steeler Lynn Swann. Among the offensive linemen, I've got strong feelings for Bob Kuechenberg, the left guard and spearhead of the mighty Dolphins running attacks of the early '70s, and Jackie Slater, the Rams right tackle who performed with great class and dignity for 20 years, count 'em.
It broke my heart last year when the Rams' Jack Youngblood didn't make it. Who could turn thumbs down on this fierce, talented competitor? But another name jumps out from the nine remaining defensive linemen on the list, and this will come as a surprise: Elvin Bethea, DE, Oilers.
A talented sacker (14� in 1976, four in a single game), Bethea became the prototypical run-stuffing end in Bum Phillips's early 3-4, sacrificing sacks for power. I'd say that Bethea and the Bucs' Lee Roy Selmon were the best 3-4 ends I've ever seen.
Still on the defensive line, I know that Dan Hampton, the heart and muscle of Buddy Ryan's ferocious Bears defenses, will be one of my dozen choices. The Giants' Harry Carson, one of the alltime great goal-line defenders—he had a knack for knowing where the thrust was coming from—is my top candidate among the linebackers.
Former Cowboy Cliff Harris leads my defensive-backs list. If I had to pick an alltime free safety, I'd split the position into two categories. There was the rangy type, the swooping interceptor, and Willie Wood was the best I've seen in that style, with Paul Krause close behind. (Both are in the Hall of Fame.) Then there was the killer type, the "obstructionist," as Al Davis liked to refer to such players. Come into my area and you take your life in your hands. Two candidates pop up, Harris and Jack Tatum, but Tatum never had Harris's coverage instincts.
In addition to the 76 candidates on the list, there are three other players to consider. As finalists last year, Swann and Youngblood will be automatically added to the January ballot, and both will again get my vote. Nick Buoniconti, who is this year's Seniors candidate, also deserves a choice.