By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts defender of defenders
Pro Football Hall of Fame voters have long treated NFL defenders the same way Patton's 3rd Army treated German defenders in World War II.
Both encounters were crushing, one-sided bloodbaths. In the case of Hall of Fame voters, they've routinely steam-rolled the legacies of many of the game's greatest defenders – or just simply ignored them – while hastily ushering into the Hall marginal offensive performers (Hello, Lynn Swann and Warren Moon!).
Swann, for example, caught just 51 TD passes in his short, nine-year career. Eighty-two players have hauled in more TD receptions. But Swann, thanks to a couple of highly visible Super Bowl performances, was hustled into Canton in 2001. Former Cincinnati cornerback Ken Riley, meanwhile, faced Swann twice each year and 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. (Click here to see our list of eight "defenders who belong" in Canton
But finally, after years of effort by the Cold, Hard Football Facts, and the concern of a small cadre of Hall of Fame voters
such as Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News and Peter King of Sports Illustrated, the battle has started to turn: Canton's Class of 2008, which will be inducted this weekend, features the largest group of defenders (four) in HOF history: defensive end Fred Dean, cornerbacks Darrell Green and Emmitt Thomas, and linebacker Andre Tippett.
The attention for defenders is long overdue. After all, even with this year's class of four defenders, there are just 67 Modern Era (two-platoon era) defensive players who boast a bust in Canton. There are 111 Modern Era offensive players who can make the same claim.
And the disparity has only been getting worse in recent years. Among players who entered the NFL in the Live Ball Era (since 1978), a period marked by a frenzy of offensive fireworks, there are now 21 offensive players and eight defensive players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And the past five years, before the Class of 2008, have been nothing short of a shameful embarrassment for Hall of Fame voters and a indictment of the secretive and tightly controlled HOF voting process.
- The Class of 2003 included 3 offensive players and 1 defensive player
- The Class of 2004 included 3 offensive players and 1 defensive players
- The Class of 2005 included 4 offensive players and 0 defensive players
- The Class of 2006 included 3 offensive players and 2 defensive players
- The Class of 2007 included 5 offensive players and 1 defensive player
For those of you keeping score at home, that's a total of 18 offensive players and five defensive players – a ratio of nearly 4 to 1 – who entered the Hall of Fame over the previous five years. (For the record, two members of the Class of 2005, Fritz Pollard and Benny Friedman, played back in the one-platoon era, but both are listed only has offensive players in their Hall of Fame biographies).
The treatment of defenders by HOF voters, especially as offense has come to dominate the game, is nothing short of shocking. Consider these seven Cold, Hard Football Facts:
ONE- There is just one nose tackle in the Hall of Fame – and Bill Willis last played in 1953, at the center of Cleveland's prehistoric five-man defensive line.
TWO - Darrell Green, a member of the Class of 2008, is just the second defensive back in the Hall of Fame among players who entered the league in the Live Ball Era (1978-present). The other is Ronnie Lott.
THREE - There are zero Live Ball Era safeties in the Hall of Fame (Lott is best known as a safety, but spent much of his career playing cornerback)
FOUR - Of all the players who have entered the NFL since 1971, Green is just the third defensive back voted into the Hall of Fame. The others are Lott and Mike Haynes. To put that dearth of DBs into perspective, if you're a 50-year-old man who began watching football as a young teen in 1971, you've seen just three HOF defensive backs enter the league in your football-viewing lifetime.
FIVE - There are 48 Modern Era running backs and quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame, compared with a grand total of 67 defensive players at all positions.
SIX - There are seven Hall of Fame quarterbacks who entered the league in the Live Ball Era. There are just eight Hall of Fame defenders, period, who entered the league in the Live Ball Era.
SEVEN - The Steelers of the 1970s are the poster children for the bias against defensive players that has plagued the Hall of Fame voting process: they boasted perhaps the greatest defensive unit in history. Still, the 1970s Steelers have sent more offensive players into Canton (five) than defensive players (four).
If we're being very blunt here, and blunt is something of a Cold, Hard Football Facts speciality, Hall of Fame voters should be ashamed of themselves. We know football fans are blinded by offensive fireworks. We know Heisman Trophy voters don't even know defense exists. We know just four defensive players have won NFL MVP honors since the award was first given in 1957 (and two of those four defensive players earned the honors by 1960).
Of course, we've grown to expect that kind of bias from the apparently ignorant folks who vote for Heismans and MVPs. We expect a little more out Hall of Fame voters, those folks charged with handing out football immortality. We expect them to treat all players equally. We don't expect them to gaze in starry-eyed wonders at offensive stats, like some sort of fantasy football geek who knows nothing about the actual real-life football played on the field.
Maybe here in 2008, defensive players are finally getting the respect they deserve from the Hall of Fame. But we're not holding our breath, either.