Every finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a worthy candidate this year. When the inductees are announced on Saturday night, we may talk of snubs or omissions, but it will be impossible for the selection committee to really get things wrong. The 12 player-finalists were all legitimate greats, and we all know about Bill Parcells. Owners and executives are not my territory, but Art Modell and Eddie DeBartolo Jr. certainly qualify as "historically significant" individuals.
Instead of doing a pro-con on all 12 players, most of whom have very few "cons," here is an endorsement of three finalists, one a high-profile figure who has been overlooked in recent years, two of them lesser-known candidates who could get lost in the crowd. Endorsements of these three players do not imply denouncements of the others. This is just a chance to look at the cases for three very important players with some fresh eyes.
Cris Carter caught ten more passes in a single season than any other receiver in history when he caught 122 in 1994. He also pointed the way toward the future of NFL offense.
Carter had his best season in the waning days of the run 'n' shoot offense. The Oilers and Lions had already scrapped the pass-heavy system, and the Falcons were about to. The concept of "ball control passing," which Bill Walsh popularized with the West Coast Offense soon after passing rules were relaxed in 1978, appeared to peak with the run 'n' shoot: there were apparent limits to what wide receivers could provide by way of chain-moving production.
Those limits were challenged by second-generation Walsh disciples like Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green, and Brian Billick, and by wide receivers Sterling Sharpe and Cris Carter. Holmgren made Sharpe the focal point of a more downfield-oriented version of the West Coast, and Sharpe caught 108 passes in 1992 and 112 in 1993. Green and Billick began building their passing game around Carter, and Carter caught those 122 passes in 1994 and 122 more in 1995. Both Sharpe and Carter were famously effective near the goal line, erasing one of the biggest knocks against the run 'n' shoot: the pass-heavy scheme became useless when the field got short.
Sharpe's career ended suddenly, leaving Carter to act as the standard bearer for a new type of possession receiver. Carter was big at 6-foot-3, and he was one of the most notorious technicians in the NFL, particularly in the way he treated his hands the way Eric Clapton treats guitars. If Carter were an old-time player, we would have to look through yellow press clippings and microfilm to understand how he was perceived at the time: his hands, route-running style, and production made him one of the NFL's biggest stars, and his success helped a new style of offense gain acceptance after another pass-heavy scheme had gone extinct. But Carter is not an old-time player, all of this happened about 17 years ago, and we can all remember the broadcasts and the headlines if we choose to. Carter was the appealing face of all of those gaudy receiving totals: not a 5-foor-9 Smurf who took what the system offered but wilted under pressure, but a craftsman whose production sometimes looked like the output of a workhorse running back.
Consistency was Carter's calling card, and his career from 1994 through 2001 became a long blur of seven-catch, 91 yard, one touchdown games. A season or two of those games do not make a Hall of Famer. Eight of them do, especially in an era when no receivers besides Jerry Rice had that kind of sustained run of productivity.
In the great tradition of wide receiver statistics throughout history, Carter's accomplishments rapidly became overshadowed by the generation of receivers that followed him. The Hall of Fame has been struggling to respond to this sliding scale since 1978. Art Monk was overshadowed by Carter, who in turn does not look as successful compared to Marvin Harrison, whose numbers do not quite stack up to Wes Welker's. Each of those receivers blazed a trail for the next, but the slope of history makes the accomplishments of a decade ago look almost quaint. Five receivers and a tight end have over 100 receptions this season, but we cannot allow that to let us forget how amazing Carter's 122-catch seasons were at the time.
Carter belongs in the Hall of Fame because his performance not only fueled one of the best offenses of his era but paved the way for an era when possession-passing tactics would be the norm, not the exception, in the NFL. He is one of the most important links in the long chain that starts with the Bill Walsh innovations of the 1970s and still has not reached its end.
Priest Holmes rushed for 4,590 yards and 56 touchdowns between 2001 and 2003. Larry Johnson added 3,539 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2005 and 2006. Trent Green went through a four-year period in which he was sacked just 1.7 times per game, even though he led the league in pass attempts once came close two other times. The Chiefs finished in the top five in the NFL in net yardage every year from 2002 through 2006, despite the fact that their receiving corps was incredibly ordinary.
Holmes and Green were very good players. Johnson was OK when his head was on straight. The on-field strength of the 2000's Chiefs offense clearly centered around tight end Tony Gonzalez and the offensive line. Gonzalez is a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, and left tackle Willie Roaf was inducted last year. Will Shields deserves to be the third player from that Chiefs team inducted, for two reasons: 1) He was the best guard in the NFL, playing for the best offensive line in the NFL, at his peak; 2) His sustained period of excellence lasted for a decade.
The mental obstacle voters must overcome to enshrine Shields is the idea that a team that failed to win a playoff game -- and often failed to reach the playoffs -- could have three Hall of Famers on its offensive roster. (The Chiefs did win two playoff games in Shields' rookie season, but none after that). Overcoming that obstacle requires voters to recognize the Chiefs offensive line of the mid-2000s as one of the best in history. They did not win Super Bowls like the Cowboys line of the previous decade, and they did not have a cool nickname like the Hogs or the Electric Company. But with the help of Dick Vermeil and Al Saunders, they made average performers look like stars and stars look like all-time greats. Shields' case rests partly on his ten Pro Bowl selections and 223 consecutive starts, but the performances of Green, Holmes, and Johnson are what put his candidacy over the top.
Guard used to be the most underrepresented position in the Hall of Fame. Recent inductees like Russ Grimm and Randall McDaniel have improved the situation, but there is no reason for the Hall to fall behind at this position like it has at positions, like wide receiver. Both Larry Allen and Shields are over-qualified finalists. Allen has a Super Bowl ring and a Cowboys pedigree to help his cause; he is a shoo-in who will reach Canton in the next year or two. This endorsement is meant to ensure that Shields is not lost in the shuffle.
When you think of the modern nose tackle, you think of a giant blocking sled of a man who is strong enough to stand up to endless double teams yet quick enough to sometimes knife through them. The modern "one-technique" tackle in the 4-3 defense has a similar job description. These players need stamina and technical precision in addition to pure bulk; an interior defender with his hands in the wrong place can be an interior defender knocked on his butt. It's an incredibly demanding position, one that might not exist if not for Curley Culp.
Culp lined up directly over Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff in Super Bowl IV, an unusual tactic for the era. Tingelhoff could not block Culp (massive for his time at 260 pounds) one-on-one, and the resulting double-teams limited what the Vikings could do offensively while opening up opportunities for Chiefs stars like fellow tackle Buck Buchanan, who was almost always isolated against a single blocker, and linebackers Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier, and Jim Lynch, who did not have to deal with unoccupied linemen on the second level.
Culp stayed over center for the next few seasons, and when he moved from Kansas City to Houston, he became the anchor of one of the first successful 3-4 defenses in the NFL. He was again expected to tie up two blockers on snap after snap, yet he managed nine unofficial sacks for the Chiefs in 1973 and 14.5 unofficial sacks for the Oilers in 1975. Culp had a surprisingly long career at a grueling position in an era when defenses did not have multiple substitution packages which allowed breathers on the bench. He was one of the first advocates of year-round weight training in the NFL, and his regimen, coupled with his wrestling background, gave him an edge in trench warfare that lasted for years.
Culp was named to six Pro Bowl teams and was first-team All Pro in 1975. That record does not scream Hall of Fame, but Culp was saddled with the task of redefining the position of defensive tackle. He spent several seasons playing for a Chiefs team that slowly faded after Super Bowl IV, then for an Oilers team that slowly rose to prominence after years of irrelevance. The Pro Bowl selection process of the time cannot be expected to recognize exactly what Culp was achieving in his innovative role for non-limelight teams, especially in an era when there was no official sack data.
History may know Culp better than his own era did. He was simultaneously a great player and a pioneer, played for two of the AFL-NFL's storied defenses, and helped create the position of "nose guard" that evolved into the modern interior defender in most defensive schemes. He is exactly the kind of player the Senior Committee is chartered to enshrine.
Given two more votes this year, I would select Larry Allen and Michael Strahan, and I would put Jonathan Ogden on my short list for 2014. As I have written in the past, there is a backlog of qualified candidates, and it only gets worse as the current generation of stars retires while stars of the mid-1990s are still queuing up. I could be labeled a "Large Hall" advocate, because I think the Pro Football Hall of Fame should err on the side of generosity when it comes to telling the story of how the game has grown and evolved. If all 15 finalists were inducted this year, it would be fine be me: our slate would be cleaner in 2014, and we can get current greats into Canton on schedule while taking extra time to spot overlooked players of the past.