Discrimination in the Pro Football Hall of Fame
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Aug 01, 2006
See the complete HOF bias chronicles, including:
- Warren Moon: 2006 poster child for HOF bias
- the evolution of HOF bias
- a list of three defenders who deserve HOF consideration
- discussion of HOF bias on Fox Sports Radio
By Cold, Hard Football Facts publisher Kerry J. Byrne
The old adage says that offense sells tickets.
It also earns you an express pass into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Throughout the history of the Hall, offensive players have entered at a rate of nearly 2-to-1 over defensive players.
As the game has opened up in favor of offense, the doors of the Hall of Fame have opened up even wider for offensive players. Among NFL performers of the past three decades, offensive players enter the Hall at a rate of nearly 3-to-1 over their defensive counterparts.
The Class of 2006 is only slightly better: it includes two players at the over-represented quarterback position (Troy Aikman and Warren Moon), offensive lineman Rayfield Wright, linebacker Harry Carson and defensive lineman Reggie White.
For the sake of all that is good and holy and just about the great American game, it's time for the Pro Football Hall of Fame to reassess the standards it applies to the players from opposite sides of the line of scrimmage.
There is one of two problems with the Hall of Fame voting process, or perhaps it is a combination of the two. Voters either:
- discriminate against deserving defensive players, or
- admit undeserving offensive players too freely.
Voters may defend the process and argue it's perfectly fair. But they're wrong. We know they're wrong, because we have indisputable evidence: We have the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
First, a little discussion of Hall of Fame history is in order.
The Hall of Fame divides players into two distinct camps: Pre-Modern Era players and Modern Era players. It's a necessary distinction, particularly for our purposes.
Pre-Modern players were essentially two-way players – guys who played fullback and middle linebacker, for example, or offensive backs before the age of the specialized quarterback who in any given game might be called upon to run, throw and catch the football. There is no set date, but the Pre-Modern Era faded out by the early 1950s.
The Modern Era essentially refers to the period of the two-platoon system. With some notable exceptions, such as Chuck Bednarik, players worked on either the offensive or defensive side of the ball. Quarterbacks of the Modern Era, meanwhile, were clearly passing specialists. Some modern-era Hall of Famers began their careers in the 1940s, but all spent the bulk of their careers playing in the 1950s or later.
For our purposes, then, we've looked only at Modern Era, two-platoon players, up to and including the five former players who enter the Hall of Fame this weekend. We found that the Hall of Fame includes:
- 104 Modern Era offensive players (32 OL, 24 RB, 23 QB, 19 WR and 6 TE)
- 62 Modern Era defensive players (28 DL, 17 LB, 17 DB)
It's a staggering disparity. For every one defensive player over the past half century who has gained entry into the Hall of Fame, 1.7 offensive players have marched in with him.
(Click here for a quick list of defenders who belong in the Hall of Fame, along with some offensive performers who do not.)
Yet that's only the start of the story.
The Modern Era itself can be divided into two distinct periods. The Cold, Hard Football Facts call these the Dead Ball and Live Ball Eras.
The Dead Ball Era was dominated by defense and reached its zenith from 1967 to 1977.
The Dead Ball Era is well-chronicled by the Cold, Hard Football Facts. Ten of the 11 stingiest defenses in modern NFL history played in this period. Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain, Minnesota's Purple People Eaters, Dallas' Doomsday Defense and the L.A. Rams' Fearsome Foursome all rose to fame in the Dead Ball Era.
The Dead Ball Era peaked in a 1977 season that featured both the stingiest defense in modern history (Atlanta, 9.2 PPG) and the most inept offense in modern history (Tampa Bay, 7.4 PPG). Three of the 11 toughest defenses in the Super Bowl Era all played in 1977. In addition to Atlanta, the Rams allowed just 10.4 PPG and the Broncos surrendered but 10.6 PPG. (For the sake of comparison, the famed 1985 Bears defense surrendered 12.4 PPG.)
Yet even in an era dominated by defense, the Hall of Fame voting process was dominated by offensive players. The Hall of Fame includes 88 members who played their entire careers in the NFL's Dead Ball Era – that is, they were Modern Era players by the Hall's definition whose careers ended by 1977. The Hall of Famers of this era include:
- 53 offensive players (15 OL, 14 RB, 11 QB, 11 WR, 2 TE)
- 35 defensive players (15 DL, 10 LB, 10 DB)
This disparity means that, even in an era dominated by defense, 1.5 offensive players entered the Hall of Fame for every one defensive player.
League-wide passer ratings in the 1960s and 1970s hovered around the mid 60s. In 1977, at the height of the Dead Ball Era, the league-wide passer rating dipped to 60.7 (in 1954, a veritable Stone Age by modern NFL standards, the league-wide passer rating mark was 61.7). Still, there are more quarterbacks from this era in the Hall of Fame than there are linebackers or defensive backs.
It's a disparity made more startling by the fact that teams routinely carry and field far more defensive backs and linebackers than they do quarterbacks.
The overwhelming dominance of defense in 1977 forced the NFL into action. The league instituted widespread changes to its rules. By the start of the 1978 season, the league had outlawed the headslap, dictated that defenders could not hit receivers beyond 5 yards from the line of scrimmage and allowed pass-blocking offensive linemen to extend their arms with open hands.
The Live Ball Era was born. Scoring went up dramatically in 1978 and has never slowed down.
The new rules (and many others favoring offense that have followed) not only stymied a defender's ability to stop an opposing player; they stifled their ability to get into the Hall of Fame.
As you might imagine, the institutional bias in the Hall of Fame toward offensive players has only grown in a Live Ball Era dominated by offense. Including the Class of 2006, the Hall of Fame now includes 22 players who joined the league in the Live Ball Era (1978 or later):
- 16 played offense (6 QB, 4 RB, 3 OL, 2 TE, 1 WR)
- 6 played defense (3 DL, 2 LB, 1 DB)
In other words, among players who have joined the league in the last 29 years, 2.7 offensive players have gained entry into the Hall of Fame for every one defensive player.
To put the discrimination against defensive players into perspective, consider that there are six Live Ball Era QBs in the Hall of Fame and six Live Ball Era defenders, period.
If you're in your mid to late 30s and began watching football as a schoolchild back in 1978, you've seen just six Hall of Fame defenders enter the NFL: Dan Hampton, Howie Long, Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, Ronnie Lott and 2006 inductee Reggie White. (Harry Carson, another 2006 inductee, was a "crossover" player whose career began in the Dead Ball Era. More on that here.)
The affinity the pigskin public and "pundits" alike have for offensive players is easy to document and extends well beyond the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Of the 52 Associated Press NFL MVP award winners since the honor was first given in 1957, 47 were running backs or quarterbacks. Just four played defense, with the last being Lawrence Taylor – 20 years ago this season.
Super Bowl MVP award voters have been slightly more egalitarian. In 40 Super Bowls, the game's MVP award has gone to an offensive player a mere 34 times.
The same disdain for defense also applies to the college game. The Heisman Trophy has been given to a player who performed on offense every single year since it was first issued in 1935. Yes, in the early day, the winners were two-way players. But they did play offense. The 1997 winner, Charles Woodson, was primarily a defensive back at Michigan. But it was his offensive and special-teams fireworks, including a key 37-yard reception and a 78-yard punt return for a TD against arch-rival Ohio State that year, that put him over the top on most Heisman ballots.
We've grown accustomed to this bias in the individual honors that are handed out each year. Most of us simply accept that it's just the way things are.
But the Cold, Hard Football Facts expect more from Hall of Fame voters. They are some of the best and the brightest on Planet Pigskin, charged with handing out football immortality and the sport's highest lifetime achievement award.
We expect them to treat defensive players and offensive players as equals.
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