Where are the Hall of Fame defenders?

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 30, 2005



Is there a bias in the Pro Football Hall of Fame against interior defensive linemen?
 
It's a curious but rather interesting question that has been asked here in the seedy underworld of online pigskin punditry in recent weeks.
 
However, it's a question that misses the bigger picture. The Hall of Fame is not biased against interior defensive linemen. It is, however, biased against ALL defensive players.
 
The Cold, Hard Football Facts dug deep into the Hall of Fame archives this week. We discovered that the Pro Football Hall of Fame has historically favored offensive players over defensive players. And, as the league has continued to place more emphasis on offense in recent years, the gap in the Hall of Fame is only getting wider.
 
Today, offensive players are being inducted into the Hall of Fame at a rate of nearly 3-to-1 over defensive players. Since the NFL opened up the passing game in the late 1970s, just five defenders have earned entry into the Hall of Fame. Fourteen offensive players have entered the HOF over the same period.
 
Here, then, is the sad, ugly and offensive story about how the Pro Football Hall of Fame fails to equally honor the game's greatest defensive players.
 
***
Essentially, "pundits" and football-loving trolls here on this site and elsewhere in recent months have been asking why so few interior defensive linemen have made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In particular, they've noted the lack of nose tackles.
 
There is, in fact, just one nose tackle in the Hall of Fame. Bill Willis (pictured here) wasn't even a nose tackle as we know it today. He played for Cleveland from 1946-53, the glory era of the franchise and the height of the greatest dynasty in NFL history. He's listed on the Hall of Fame register as a middle guard and played front and center for Cleveland's five-man defensive line – the kind of defense you might remember from your days in Pop Warner or high school football.
 
In cities like Buffalo and Boston, meanwhile, five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Fred Smerlas has been held up as someone who deserves Hall of Fame consideration. Smerlas played 11 of his 14 NFL seasons in Buffalo and was raised in Boston, where he's an entertaining and well-known football commentator today. He was one of the players who defined the modern nose tackle position, gumming up offenses by overpowering interior offensive linemen, even if his impact didn't always show on a stat sheet. But there are no signs Smerlas will get into the Hall of Fame anytime soon unless he's buying a ticket.
 
This situation has created something of a philosophical debate. Some would argue that modern defensive strategy is to blame for the lack of interior linemen in the Hall of Fame. It's an argument that has some merit. After all, modern defense puts a premium on outside pressure from defensive ends and linebackers and on big plays from cover cornerbacks. And the modern 3-4 defense, which came into its own in the 1980s, treats defensive linemen like cannon fodder, asking them simply to clog up the offensive line while linebackers sweep in for stat-padding tackles, sacks and eternal glory.
 
The debate seems to have begun with the announcement last month of the 22 players who are semifinalists for induction into the Hall of Fame in 2006 (between three and six players, coaches or league "contributors" are inducted each season). Not a single interior defensive lineman is among the 22, except for Reggie White. But White was a two-position player at defensive tackle and at defensive end while playing for traditional 4-3 defenses. It was in the latter position that he picked up most of his sacks and most of his fame. In addition to White, the 2006 Hall of Fame nominee list of 22 includes four other defensive ends.
 
As we said, it's an interesting philosophical discussion and one with some merit. But it's one that completely misses the bigger picture.
 
The old adage says that offense sells tickets. Well, it also earns you an easier road to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
 
***
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, like 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 players. We found that the Hall of Fame includes:
  • 101 Modern Era offensive players (31 OL, 24 RB, 21 QB, 19 WR and 6 TE)
  • 60 Modern Era defensive players (27 DL, 16 LB, 17 DB)
It's a staggering disparity. For every one defensive player who gains entry into the Hall of Fame, 1.7 offensive players march in with them.
 
***
Yet that's only the start of the story.
 
The Modern Era itself can be divided into two distinct periods. For our purposes, we'll call these the Dead Ball Era and Live Ball Era.
 
The Dead Ball Era was dominated by defense and reached its height from 1968-77 (we've chronicled the Dead Ball Era throughout the 2005 season).
 
Ten of the 11 stingiest defenses in modern NFL history played in this 10-year 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 surrendered 12.4 PPG.)
 
Yet even in the Dead Ball Era, the Hall of Fame voting process remained biased toward offensive players. The Hall of Fame includes 88 members who played in the NFL's Dead Ball Era – that is, they were Modern Era players by the Hall's definition whose careers ended by 1977.
  • 53 played offense (15 OL, 14 RB, 11 QB, 11 WR, 2 TE)
  • 35 played defense (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
 
***
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 which favored offense that 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. The Hall of Fame currently includes 19 players who joined the league in the Live Ball Era (1978 or later):
  • 14 played offense (four RBs, four QBs, 3 OL, 2 TE, 1 WR)
  • 5 played defense (2 DL, 2 LB, 1 DB)
In other words, among players who have joined the league in the last 28 years, 2.8 offensive players have gained entry into the Hall of Fame for every one defensive player.
 
If you're in your mid to late 30s and began watching football 28 years ago, you've seen just five Hall of Fame defensive players: Dan Hampton, Howie Long, Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary and Ronnie Lott (pictured here).
 
Sure, more defenders will be added in coming years. But, to this point, that's it for Hall of Fame defenders over nearly three decades of play.
 
***
Here, then, is a quick overview of the Hall of Fame bias toward offensive players and how it has evolved over the years.
 
Modern NFL (1950s to present)
101 offensive players
60 defensive players
1.7 offensive players for every 1 defensive player
 
Dead Ball Era (1950s to 1977)
53 offensive players
35 defensive players
1.5 offensive players for every 1 defensive player
 
Crossover Players (careers cross the Dead Ball and Live Ball Eras)
34 offensive players
20 defensive players
1.7 offensive players for every 1 defensive player
 
Live Ball Era (1978 to present)
14 offensive players
5 defensive players
2.8 offensive players for every 1 defensive player
 
***
We've always marveled at how fans and "pundits" alike are intoxicated by offensive fireworks, routinely equating a great offensive team with a great team. The 2004 NFL season provided a perfect case study. Fans last year were so overwhelmed by Indy's prolfic offense (32.6 PPG) that some 75 percent of the betting public laid its money on the Colts in their playoff showdown at New England. They ignored the fact that New England was a far superior defensive team, was the defending Super Bowl champion, had not lost to the Colts at home since 1995 and had not lost to anyone at home in two entire seasons. All they saw was that gaudy Indy offense. So they poured so much money in on the Colts that it drove the spread down from New England -3 to a toss-up game.
 
New England destroyed the Colts, 20-3.
 
We've seen it again in college football this year. The USC Trojans are led by two of the best offensive players in football and are prohibitive favorites to beat Texas in the Rose Bowl Wednesday night. Ignored by virtually everyone is the fact that the Longhorns are a far superior defensive team. Well, as we see time and time again, defense does not make for good copy.
 
The 2004 Colts featured one of the top scoring offenses in NFL history and posted a 12-4 record. The 2005 Bears feature one of the top scoring defenses in NFL history and have an 11-4 record entering the final week of the season. The 2005 Bears defense is, in fact, better by historical standards than the 2004 Colts offense. But guess which team garnered all the headlines and honors and enticed football fans to blindly throw away their money? That's right. The team with the great offense.
 
The bias toward offense extends to the "pundits" who dish out individual awards.
 
The Heisman Trophy is the nation's most famous football award – it's voted on by a nationwide panel of "experts" and is allegedly given to the best player in college football each season. But all 70 recipients (including one player who's won it twice) have played a skill position on offense. 
 
The Associated Press has honored an NFL Most Valuable Player (or players) every year since 1957. Only three defenders have been singular recipients of the award: Baltimore's Gino Marchetti (1958), Minnesota's Alan Page (1971) and N.Y. Giants' Lawrence Taylor (1986). Detroit linebacker Joe Schmidt shared the honor with Philly quarterback Norm Van Brocklin in 1960. Every other NFL MVP, with the exception of Washington kicker Mark Mosely in the strike-shortened, nine-game 1982 season, has played offense.
 
And, in 39 Super Bowls, the game's MVP award has gone to an offensive player 33 times.
 
But we expect casual fans and foolish "pundits" to be blinded by offensive fireworks. We do not expect this from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the institution that's charged with handing out eternal glory to the game's greatest players.
 
But the Cold, Hard Football Facts show us that even the Hall of Fame is more impressed by offensive play than defensive play.
 
And that's offensive to those who truly love the game.

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