August 17, 2017

Tim Brown and Brian Mitchell: All-Purpose Snubs?

The NFL’s top ten list in career all-purpose yards contains eight Hall of Famers. The two who are not enshrined in Canton are Tim Brown, who is fifth on the list, and Brian Mitchell, who is second.

Brown compiled 19,679 all-purpose yards during 16 seasons with the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders and one final season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before retiring after the 2004 season. He was a receiver and a kick returner and made the Pro Bowl nine times. He is tied for 104th on Pro Football-Reference’s Career Approximate Value leaders list ahead of Hall of Famers Steve Largent, Marcus Allen, Jim Kelly, Franco Harris, Frank Gifford and Curtis Martin.

He played in one Super Bowl, with the Raiders after the 2002 season, and lost.

He likes cars.

What gives?

Brian Mitchell is second on the list with an eye-popping 23,316 all-purpose yards, just 230 behind the all-time leader, Jerry Rice, yet Mitchell played in only 223 career games. Rice played in 303.

Mitchell returned kicks, ran the ball, caught passes and frustrated the heck out of other teams while playing for the Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants from 1990 to 2003. He had 13 career returns for scores and 29 career TDs in all.

Mitchell even, in his final year, threw a touchdown pass.

He helped the Redskins win Super Bowl XXVI.

Should he get to wear a yellow blazer in August?

In the NFL all-purpose yardage guys are treated like solid utility players in baseball.  Coaches love them, fans appreciate them, but the only girl who will dance with them picks her nose and wears falsies.

This season the league’s leader in all-purpose yards is Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, a great player who could one day be in Canton. But look back at the all-purpose leaders over the past few years and you find, counting backwards, Randall Cobb, Darren Sproles, Danny Amendola, Fred Jackson, Leon Washington and Josh Cribbs. You have to go back to 2006 to find a genuine “superstar,” when Steven Jackson took the crown.

Numbers (don’t tell anyone) can sometimes call for further explanation. Mitchell led the season all-purpose yardage list four times in the 90s but back in that era some of the other leaders included Marshall Faulk, Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas and Eric Dickerson. Running backs used to be bigger stars and carry a greater load so they ate up more of the yards. Now, in the pass-happy NFL, guys like McCoy harken back to Faulk and Thomas, players who were just as much of a threat catching as running and it would appear the future of the game belongs to those who do both.

But what about returning?

The NFL has been watering down kick and punt returns by trying to make them safer and there has even been talk of getting rid of them. Players like Chicago Bears specialist Devin Hester, who holds the league record for career kick return TDs, could be a vanishing breed. There has been serious talk, at least in Chicago, that Hester will one day be in the Hall of Fame. He has 33 career touchdowns, 19 of them on returns. Tim Brown had 105 career scores.

It’s easy to just add up numbers and make proclamations. That’s why we’re doing it.  But don’t all-purpose guys define what football really is?  Isn’t the game at its most fun when guys strap on the helmet for as many plays as possible?

Certainly, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson would have impressive return yardage if the Vikes were crazy enough to let him return kicks. Ditto, years ago, for Detroit Lions Hall of Famer Barry Sanders and, of course, Jerry Rice. So maybe Brown and Mitchell’s numbers don’t mean they were so great but just, perhaps, a little more expendable.

But was Walter Payton expendable?

The Bears Hall of Famer retired after the 1987 season as the league’s all-time leading rusher and has since been surpassed by Emmitt Smith, but Payton is third, one spot ahead of Smith, on the career APY list. This is, in part, because Payton had 539 career yards as a kick returner, with nearly all of them coming in his rookie year of 1975.

Payton also threw eight career touchdown passes. That’s right; eight TD passes as a running back. That’s more than Emmitt (1), Jim Brown (3), Barry Sanders (0), Tony Dorsett (0), Dickerson (1) and O.J. Simpson (1) combined.

We have taken the liberty of omitting Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen from this list because he, inconveniently from our point of view, had six career TD passes. Not as many as Walter, but in his territory.

In 1983 Payton had three TD passes, so did Allen. They were ballers who lined up and got it done. Imagine them on a team with Tim Brown and Brian Mitchell. Think of a sport worried about concussions and lawsuits coming up with ways to showcase athleticism, versatility and creativity over violence. It’s football with a rugby/basketball/hockey future. No more 300 pounders and a lot fewer broken bones. A game of all-purpose players catching, running, passing and sprinting.

A backyard league of legends.

Charlie Hennigan Deserves a Call to Canton

On February 4, 2012, in Indianapolis, the site of this year’s Super Bowl, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will announce the inductees for 2012. The two senior nominees for this year, Jack Butler and Dick Stanfel, are both deserving of induction in Canton, but again many stars from the American Football League have been forgotten. The “Mickey Mouse League”, which the AFL was called by the powers that be in the more established NFL right up until the New York Jets defeated the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, brought fans of professional football some of the greatest players ever to grace the gridiron. Unfortunately, despite the depth of talent in the AFL, only one player that played exclusively in the AFL, Billy Shaw of the Buffalo Bills, is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There are several players from the AFL that fans of professional football have campaigned for their induction into Canton. Some of the players on that list have included the following names, among others: Cookie Gilchrist, Johnny Robinson, Paul Lowe, Jack Kemp, Abner Haynes, Lionel Taylor, John Hadl, Winston Hill, Otis Taylor and Charlie Hennigan. All of the players on this list have excelled in professional football and have strong arguments for induction into Canton, but the one player on the list that stacks up extremely well with already inducted members of the HOF, at the same position, is former Houston Oilers receiver Charlie Hennigan.

Before providing a statistical comparison of how Hennigan stacks up with other receivers in the HOF, a little background into how he came to play professional football will make his accomplishments all that more impressive.

Charlie Hennigan attended LSU as a track star, which was a miracle considering as a child he was afflicted with an extended illness thought at the time to be tuberculosis and his parents were told that he would have difficulty with just walking. Hennigan overcame his childhood illness and this was the first sign that he would not let any obstacles stand in his way. While at LSU, Hennigan decided to pursue playing football and transferred to Northwestern State University where he became the star of the team. Upon graduation, no NFL teams came calling and Hennigan became a high school biology teacher in his home state of Louisiana.

Then a glimmer of hope opened when the American Football League announced that they would begin operation in 1960. Hennigan drove to Houston to try out for the Oilers and motivated himself by taping the pay stub from his meager teaching salary to the inside of his helmet. The head coach for the Oilers in 1960 was Lou Rymkus, who was less than impressed by Hennigan, but he caught the eye of the receiver coach, Mac Speedie. Speedie was a star receiver for the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s and knew talent at the receiver position when he saw it. Speedie campaigned on the last day of cuts to keep Hennigan on the team and even threatened to quit if Hennigan was dismissed from the team.

Luckily for the Oilers and fans of the AFL, Mac Speedie was correct in his assessment of Hennigan’s football skills. Hennigan teamed with quarterback George Blanda, receiver Billy Groman, and running back Billy Cannon to form the high-powered offense that won the first two AFL Championships in 1960 and 1961. The Oilers came close to winning a third championship in 1962 when they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in double overtime of the AFL title game.

In addition to having team success, Hennigan had become a star receiver in the AFL. In his second season (1961), he amassed a record 1,746 receiving yards on 82 receptions for a 21.3 yards per reception average. Hennigan compiled those statistics over a 14-game schedule and surpassed the prior record holder, Crazy Legs Hirsch, who had compiled 1,495 yards in a 12-game season. As a matter of personal pride, Hennigan, who was playing a 14-game schedule, made sure he surpassed Hirsch’s total within the first twelve games of the season to make sure he fairly eclipsed Hirsch’s record in the same number of games. Hennigan’s receiving record stood for 34 years and was broken in 1995 by Jerry Rice and Isaac Bruce, both of whom played a 16-game schedule. Now fifty years later, despite the changes made by the league to increase scoring and limiting defensive player contact, Hennigan is still ranked third on the all-time receiving list for yards in a season, only trailing Rice and Bruce.

From 1961-1965, Hennigan was an AFL All-Star and a perennial league leader in receiving. In 1964, he set another record when he became the first receiver to surpass 100 receptions in a season when he finished the season with 101 receptions for 1,546 yards. He also became the first receiver to have two 1,500-yard receiving seasons in a career. Unfortunately, the record-setting season for Hennigan was the last great season he would have due to knee injuries and the repeated concussions he suffered.

Hennigan called it a career following the 1966 season when he could no longer take the punishment his body had put up with and finished his seven-year pro career with 6,823 receiving yards on 410 receptions while scoring 51 touchdowns in 95 games. While not eye-popping statistics in today’s pass happy NFL, Hennigan’s statistics compared favorably to many of his peers already enshrined in Canton. Hennigan had four career 200-yard receiving games, including the AFL record 272 yards receiving he had against the Patriots in 1961. Only HOF members Jerry Rice and Lance Alworth, with five career 200-yard receiving games, surpassed Hennigan’s record and they required 303 and 136 career games respectively to compile those statistics compared to Hennigan’s 95 games played.

Despite his records and personal statistics, Hennigan has two major obstacles in his pursuit of enshrinement into Canton. The first being that he was an AFL only player and the second being that his career only lasted seven years. Many of the sportswriters that hold votes for the HOF say that the AFL was an inferior league or that a player really needed a longer career of at least ten years to be considered for enshrinement. In reality, it all comes up to a popularity contest and a writer’s personal opinion of a player. Gale Sayers played only five complete seasons in the NFL, yet was enshrined immediately after he became eligible for the honor. It did not hurt Sayers’ cause that “Papa Bear” George Halas personally pushed for Sayers’ enshrinement.

A website campaigning for Charlie Hennigan as a candidate for the Hall of Fame, www.henniganforthehall.com, was started two years ago and compares his statistics to other HOF members – you will be more than surprised how well he stacks up. Several HOF members including Don Maynard, Jackie Smith and Lance Alworth have written letters of support for Hennigan’s campaign stating that he is more than deserving of a bust in Canton, Ohio. Alworth and Smith even added in their letters of support that they studied Hennigan’s route running to perfect their own games, which led them to football immortality. But, Hennigan is still on the outside looking in. Apparently, all of the statistics and letters of support from a player’s peers mean nothing when it comes to the HOF vote. Don Maynard said it best when asked about his support of Hennigan. “I believe Charlie and several other player’s belong in the Hall of Fame, but it falls on deaf ears with the sports writers that vote for the Hall. It’s like having a bunch of plumbers vote for the best electrician.” Hopefully, the sports writers will take up the campaign for Hennigan and other forgotten players of the AFL, who rightfully deserve to be in Canton. Remember it’s not the NFL Hall of Fame; it’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Too bad many of the writers on the selection committee forget that.