Clem Murray/Associated Press
The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced last week the enshrinement of a one-time-only 15-person Centennial class of players, coaches and contributors of the last 100 years, and it left fans with a lot of questions. Like, who are these guys? And why were they selected over the many, many eligible players who fans under the age of 60 can remember?
Gridiron Digest is here with profiles, explanations, quibbles and complaints about the latest crop of Hall of Famers.
Harold Carmichael (wide receiver, 1971-1984)
A favorite here at Gridiron Digest headquarters, which are located just across the river from the site of old Veterans Stadium. The 6’8″ Carmichael’s best seasons came in the mid-1970s, which were the Dark Ages for NFL offenses, so his stats don’t match his impact. That said, if forced to cast the deciding vote, we would have given this receiver slot to Cliff Branch or Drew Pearson.
Jimbo Covert (offensive tackle, 1983-1990) and Winston Hill (offensive tackle, 1963-1977)
Covert was a great left tackle for the legendary 1985 Bears with a truncated career. Hill was Joe Namath’s left tackle for the Super Bowl III Jets, and his long career spanned both the NFL and AFL. Both are fine inductees, but Covert is basically Tony Boselli with a ring, while Hill is only a better candidate than Alan Faneca and Steve Hutchinson if you give lots of bonus points for famous teammates and for playing left tackle (which didn’t have the importance or cachet then that it has now). Boselli, Faneca and Hutchinson have all been stuck in Hall of Fame finalist purgatory for years and are hoping to get in on next week’s vote by the standard committee.
Bill Cowher (head coach, 1992-2006) and Jimmy Johnson (head coach, 1989-1993, 1996-1999)
Here are the head coaching records of Cowher and Johnson, stacked up against longtime Raiders coach Tom Flores, who did not get in:
• Cowher: 149-90-1 (.623) regular season, 12-9 postseason, one Super Bowl win
• Johnson: 80-64 (.556) regular season, 9-4 postseason, two Super Bowl wins
• Flores: 97-87 (.527, .610 with the Raiders), 8-3 postseason, two Super Bowl wins
All three took over directly for Hall of Fame coaches. Johnson created the template for the modern rebuilding program with the Cowboys of the late 1980s. Flores was the first minority head coach to win a Super Bowl; his career record is marred by a few miserable late seasons with the mismanaged Seahawks of the early 1990s. Cowher coached forever and eventually got over the hump in the playoffs. All three remained active in the media—Cowher and Johnson on national pregame shows and Flores as the Raiders’ radio color commentator.
It’s hard to comprehend why two of these coaches were enshrined and the third was not.
Bobby Dillon (safety, 1952-1959) and Ed Sprinkle (defensive end, 1944-1955)
Dillon was an All-Pro interception machine for the 1950s Packers who died in August. Sprinkle was a tough-guy defensive end (among other positions) for the Bears in the post-World War II era who also starred at the Naval Academy.
There are about as many Hall of Famers representing the 13-team NFL of the 1950s as there are representing the recognizably modern 26- to 28-team NFL of the 1970s and early 1980s. Depending on how you look at it, this is either an appropriate way to honor forgotten pioneers or a bias in favor of guys who exist mostly as press clippings and glowing memories of the mentors of current coaches and against players who played recently enough to be remembered as real human beings, not folk heroes.
Cliff Harris (safety, 1970-1979) and Donnie Shell (safety, 1974-1987)
Harris and Shell were All-Pros from the 1970s Cowboys and Steelers, respectively: two teams that have plenty of Hall of Fame representation already. It’s odd that Hall of Fame committees think that so many defensive backs from the era—where they could bring medieval weapons onto the field (or from the 1950s era of playground passing games)—are worthy of enshrinement, while modern safeties like Steve Atwater and John Lynch, who had to play chess with Peyton Manning or Dan Marino while covering Marvin Harrison or the Marks Brothers without using their hands, get trapped on the finalist treadmill forever.
Harris’ enshrinement also probably closes the door on Cowboys wide receiver Drew Pearson; the committee certainly did not want to induct two players from the same team and era. Pearson made no secret of his frustration.
Alex Karras (defensive tackle, 1958-1970)
A one-year gambling suspension and a reputation for butting heads with coaches kept Karras out of the Hall of Fame for decades, even though the details of those scandals were long forgotten by the time he appeared in Mel Brooks movies or as the gruff-but-lovable foster father of TV’s Webster. He’s a worthy Hall of Famer if you can look past his admission that he bet on NFL games, which remains an awfully large thing to look past when honoring someone for their contribution to pro football, especially when there were many other worthy candidates on the docket.
Steve Sabol (former president of NFL Films)
Sabol’s contribution to the NFL as a filmmaker cannot be overstated. In the pre-cable and pre-internet era, NFL Films programs defined the iconography of pro football and made the NFL look more important and prestigious than other sports to those of us lying on the carpet in front of the rabbit-eared television on Sunday mornings. It’s not an overstatement to say that he is a big reason that the NFL is more of a cultural obsession than just a pastime.
Duke Slater (tackle, 1922-1931)
An African American pioneer of pro football’s early days, a teammate of everyone from Fritz Pollard to Jim Thorpe to Paul Robeson, and later a lawyer and municipal judge in Chicago. He may be obscure to modern fans, but he passes one all-important test: You cannot tell the story of professional football in America without him.
Mac Speedie (receiver, 1946-1952)
Speedie was Otto Graham’s top target for the great Browns teams of the AAFC and, later, the NFL. His best seasons came in a league where he faced teams named the Chicago Hornets and Los Angeles Dons. His numbers are as spectacular as Julian Edelman’s would be if he played a full schedule against the AFC East with some XFL teams sprinkled in during his prime seasons.
Speedie left the Browns when the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders offered him more money in the early 1950s, and influential Browns czar Paul Brown is said to have held a long grudge, refusing to give Speedie an endorsement. Powerful, venerable coaches hold tremendous sway with Hall of Fame committees, even when they don’t sit directly on them. Many of the Hall’s least popular recent decisions can be traced back to them. At any rate, Speedie’s CFL stats look similar to his AAFC stats, underscoring the fact that he played exactly three seasons against true NFL competition 70 years ago.
Branch and/or Pearson would have been better selections.
George Young (executive)
Young’s career as a team and league executive spanned the Johnny Unitas Colts, Don Shula Dolphins, Bill Parcells Giants and NFL headquarters through the relative peace and prosperity of the late 1990s and 2000s.
Paul Tagliabue (former commissioner)
Powerful individuals take care of their own and overlook what they choose to overlook.