January 20, 2018

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.

The High-Rise and the Slurpee Cup: An Appreciation of Larry Brown

Where the NFL Hall of Fame is concerned, the past 40 years have been good times for the Washington Redskins. Over the past five years, Chris Hanburger, Russ Grimm, Darrell Green and Art Monk have been enshrined. George Allen was finally elected in 2002; Joe Gibbs in 1999; and “The Diesel”, John Riggins, in 1992. Before that, Charley Taylor was inducted in 1984, and both Sonny Jurgensen and Bobby Mitchell were honored in 1983. That’s a sizable chunk of the greatest ‘Skins of my lifetime. If I have fond memories of each, though (okay, at 50, I have a hard time conjuring images of Bobby Mitchell), none of them evokes the same childhood passion as one who’s not in the Hall, my favorite Redskin of all-time, Larry Brown.

I’m not advocating for Brown’s enshrinement in Canton; I understand that next to the greatest running backs in the game’s history, his totals pale by comparison. And anyway, I don’t really care that he’s not in the Hall of Fame, nor was ever a finalist. His body of work, as they say, was relatively brief, just five productive years, so it makes sense that he wasn’t ever considered one of the greats (although during the same comparative span, over their respective first five years, Brown actually amassed more yardage than did Gale Sayers, whose career was almost identical to Brown’s career). It’s enough that Brown is in the Redskins Ring of Fame, because it’s difficult to imagine any player ever meant more to his team than did number 43.

It may be that my favoritism came from proximity. When I was a kid growing up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., we lived not far from The Chateau, the high-rise apartment building where Brown lived, right next to the Beltway. Every time I’d pass by the place I’d imagine him inside his apartment; how he lived; the route he’d take on game days to RFK Stadium in the District, where the ‘Skins then played; even envision him at the local Safeway, where I was sure we both shopped. I once saw pictures of his living room in a magazine, with the shag carpets that were so prevalent in a bachelor pad of that era. I remember thinking it must have been cool to be Larry Brown.

I didn’t learn until years later, of course, how Vince Lombardi installed a hearing aid in Brown’s helmet after discovering that the running back, whom Lombardi had drafted in the eighth round of the ’69 draft, the 191st player taken, was hard of hearing. But as I rooted for the Allen-era Redskins (after Lombardi’s death, Bill Austin led the team to one sub-.500 season, then Allen began his legendary run), Brown’s toughness and running style came to symbolize the kind of team those Allen ‘Skins were: tenacious, resilient and tough, just so gosh darn tough. Watching Brown take a beating game after game, it was fitting that he later titled his autobiography, “I’ll Always Get Up.” He always did.

For those five years, Brown was one of football’s best runners. Beginning in his rookie season, 1969, he was named to four consecutive Pro Bowls; twice during that span he was also named First Team All-Pro. As a measure of his durability, Brown never finished worse than fourth in the league in carries, and among his two 1,000-yard seasons, he finished first in the league in 1970 and second two years later, when he rushed for a career-high 1,216 yards. The 1972 season was magical. Individually, in addition to the high-water mark in yards gained, Brown also led the league in both yards per game and yards from scrimmage, and his performance garnered a host of post-season awards, among them the Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year and MVP, and the Bert Bell Award as the Player of the Year. Collectively, the ‘Skins finished 11-3 but lost to Miami in Super Bowl VII, although Brown ran as hard as ever in that game, finishing with 72 yards on 22 carries. That season was the pinnacle of Brown’s and Allen’s careers.

That’s probably the year I got the Slurpee cup. Just as with the excitement of finding my favorite baseball player in a package of Topps baseball cards, I remember the same feeling when my local 7-Eleven finally brought out Brown’s cup among the Redskins’ series. I’m sure I filled it with the Coke flavor Slurpee, because that’s just about the only kind I ever gulped. That cup sat on my dresser for years. Eventually, I filled it with pennies. I’m not sure whatever happened to it; for nostalgia’s sake, I wish I still had it.

By 1973, Brown was for all intents and purposes finished. Although he gained 860 yards that season, he only averaged 3.2 yards per carry. He couldn’t overcome debilitating knee injuries after that, and carried his final twenty times in 1976. Then he retired. Allen wore him out.

Man, was Brown tough.

Thanks for the memories, Larry.


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.


Long Snapper, Long Life

Do you want your child to have a long, productive and safe career?  Then don’t send them to law school, medical school or charm school.  No.  Drag that kid into the backyard, make them turn away from you, back up 15 yards and tell them to hike a football to you.  Do this a thousand times a day, every day, for 22 years until the kid’s fingers bleed, the neighbors call the police or “Silent Library” starts because long snapping is about the best job a young American can get in these troubling times.

The truth of this is seen in Patrick Mannelly who is now in his fourteenth season with the Chicago Bears and has gotten more work in a Bears jersey than Walter Payton, Sid Luckman, Brian Urlacher or George Wendt.  And it’s all because Mr. Mannelly is a long snapper.  He snaps the ball on punts, field goals and…no, that’s it.

Mannelly has played 206 games for the Bears and shows no signs of slowing down.  In fact, staying close to the ground and propelling things in the wrong direction sounds like something we’d get better at in our later years rather than a skill that would decline, doesn’t it?  Mannelly even has his own website.  It’s called manigotacooleasyjob.com.  Just kidding.  It’s called Longsnapper.com which sounds like it should also be hawking fishing gear.

Mannelly went to Duke which usually means two things:  1) You’re smart.  2) You’re not good at football.  Obviously, Patrick defied the odds and he continues to jettison the pigskin through his legs for long distances on Sundays just as he began doing back when Bill Clinton was President and Cher still had a daughter.

Long snappers, like left-handed pitchers and Baldwin brothers, seem to have lifetime employment.  Cardinals long snapper Mike Leach is in his twelfth year.  Falcons long snapper Joe Zelenka is in his thirteenth year.  Browns long snapper Ryan Pontbriand has been around for nine years.  L.P. LaDouceur of the Cowboys has been chuckin’ it backwards for seven years now.  Punters and kickers have employed Denver’s Lonnie Paxton for a dozen years.  Detroit’s Don Mulbach is in his eighth year.  Colts LS Justin Snow has been around nearly as long as Peyton Manning and is in his twelfth year.  Miami’s John Denny is starting his seventh year.  The Vikings’ Cullen Loeffler is in his eighth year.  John Condo of the Raiders is in his sixth year.  It’s now the ninth NFL campaign for Eagles LS Jon Dorenbos.  Greg Warren of the Steelers has been around for seven years.  The 49ers’ Brian Jennings is in his twelfth year and Tennessee’s Ken Amato is in his ninth year.

So, nearly have of the league’s long snappers are not only members of the NFLPA but also the AARP.

Are there any long snappers in the Hall of Fame?  No.  But there are no punters in Canton either, so what the heck do the voters know?  If punters have a crown prince who should be in the Hall it’s Ray Guy who was so good that Raiders fans liked it when their team failed to score just so they could watch Guy punt.  Guy’s career in Oakland overlapped by two seasons with the man who, if he doesn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame definitely should be on the Postal Service’s first commemorative long snapper stamp: Trey Junkin.

Junkin was, like all long snappers, trained initially in football’s other arts, specifically tight end and linebacker, but parlayed his ability to snap the ball accurately over long distances into an NFL career that lasted from 1983 to 2002.  Unjustly, Abner Kirk Junkin (now you know why they called him Trey) is most often remembered, if he’s remembered at all, by one game, the final game, of his career.  Long snappers, like officials, umpires or cue card holders, are remembered only when they screw up, and in 2002 the New York Giants coaxed Junkin out of retirement for one playoff game and in the final seconds he launched a bad snap, not a terrible one, but bad enough, and the Giants missed out on a chance for a game-winning field goal and lost to the San Francisco 49ers.  Ouch.

Life is long for long snappers but even they, like the rest of us, have moments when it feels nasty, brutish and short.

All-Time Great Receiver Pete Pihos Passes

Pete Pihos, a College and Pro Football Hall of Famer, died early today in a nursing home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina at the age of 87. It has been a tough year for Pro Football Hall of Famers with the deaths of many all-time greats, including John Henry Johnson, John Mackey, Ollie Matson, Joe Perry and Andy Robustelli. 

Pihos was an All-American at Indiana and a veteran of World War II. He was a 6-time Pro Bowler and 5-time First Team All-Pro in nine professional seasons, all with the Philadelphia Eagles. He led the NFL in receptions for three consecutive seasons (1953-55), receiving yardage twice and once in receiving touchdowns.

Pihos was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1966 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970.

When his career ended after the 1955 season, “The Golden Greek” ranked third all-time in receptions, fourth in receiving yardage, and tied for second in receiving TDs.

Here is a listing of the top ten receivers in history after the 1955 season:

DON HUTSON        116    488   7,991  16.4   99  1935-45
TOM FEARS          85    395   5,348  13.5   38  1948-55
PETE PIHOS        107    373   5,619  15.1   61  1947-55
DANTE LAVELLI     112    366   6,144  16.8   61  1946-55
Mac Speedie        86    349   5,602  16.1   33  1946-52
ELROY HIRSCH      103    320   5,949  18.6   48  1946-55
Elbie Nickel      107    292   4,640  15.9   31  1947-55
Jim Benton         91    288   4,801  16.7   45  1938-40,42-47
Hugh Taylor        94    272   5,233  19.2   58  1947-54
Dan Edwards        70    234   2,898  12.4   16  1948-54


NOTE: ALL CAPS = Pro Football Hall of Famer
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com


Enter Dent

Richard Dent was the Pontiac of football players: a little flashy, very reliable and capable of coolness along with handfuls of greatness.

Dent was not a Cadillac like Dan Hampton or a Hummer like Reggie White or a likely-stolen Porsche like Lawrence Taylor. Pontiacs normally don’t make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  However, when Oldsmobiles like Andre Tippett, Fred Dean and Rickey Jackson start getting in, then you hop in the Sunfire, Trans-Am, or GTO and drive to Canton, Ohio wearing your #95 jersey and welcome in “The Colonel.”

Dent became the fourth player from those great Chicago Bears teams of the 1980s to be enshrined at Canton; joining Hampton, Walter Payton and Mike Singletary.  The coach of that Bears team, Mike Ditka, is also in the Hall, but as a player.

Payton was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  He was likely the best all-around running back, and perhaps the most gracious gentleman, in NFL history.  It’s still wounding that he’s gone.

Like Dent, Hampton didn’t get in until several years after first eligible; as he seemed to be overshadowed by other players and personalities from those Bears teams.  But Hampton was the best player on those Bears defenses and probably the NFL’s best overall defensive lineman of the 1980s.  It’s not all about sacks.  It’s also about knocking down passes, chasing guys downfield and treating every play like it’s your last with love, death, wealth and happiness riding on the outcome.  How often do you see defensive linemen make tackles in the secondary?  Dan Hampton did that.

Hampton got in the Hall four years after Singletary, who was the most overrated player on those Bears teams and possibly Chicago’s third best linebacker in 1985.  Singletary was great and the Bears wouldn’t have been as good without him.  But at their peak, Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson were better.  Also, Dent, Hampton, Steve McMichael and Gary Fencik were always better than Singletary, who was fortunate enough to be the platoon leader of a gang of balls-out, blood-seeking maniacs.  Singletary was good, but not as good as everyone, especially in Chicago, likes to think.

Dent admirably said one of the many people who deserve credit for his great career is Jimbo Covert, the Bears’ left tackle from 1983 to 1990 who sparred with Dent at practice.  I agree with Dent when he says Covert also belongs in Canton as he surely was one of the best tackles to ever play as evidenced by his seven Pro Bowl appearances…but wait.  My Bear-loving memory is fading.  A reference check rudely informed me that Jimbo actually only made the Pro Bowl twice and and was All-Pro twice, as well.  I could have sworn Covert was a Honolulu regular for nearly all the Reagan years.  I was wrong.

Does anyone else from those 1985 Bears deserve to be in the Hall?  Seven-time Pro Bowl center Jay Hilgenberg?  Maybe.  And if Fencik, Marshall, McMichael and Wilson were better than Singletary, then certainly they should all….nah.  It’s tough to put in a bunch of guys from a team that only won one Super Bowl.  Everyone on Earth knows those Bears teams of the 1980s should have won more.  They didn’t.  And Canton owes them nothing.

Who among the current crop of Bears might one day be bronzed?  Brian Urlacher is a shoo-in.  He has made the Pro Bowl seven times, first team All-Pro four times and — listen up kids! — he’s Brian Urlacher!  Urlacher is one of those guys who’s so overrated he actually has become underrated.  Playing linebacker for the Chicago Bears is like playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, centerfield for the New York Yankees or James Bond.  You get far more attention than you deserve and everyone expects to you to be damn good and really cool.  Among contemporaries, Urlacher is nothing close to Ray Lewis and probably wasn’t even as good as Zach Thomas.  But Urlacher is good. Very good.  He’s a better athlete than either of those other guys. If he had played with Dent and Hampton in front of him and Wilson and Marshall beside him, he’d be illegal.

What about Lance Briggs?  He’s in Urlacher territory with six Pro Bowl nods and one All-Pro selection and he’s a very, very good football player.  But Hall of Fame?  Let’s watch him decapitate Aaron Rodgers in this season’s NFC title game and then intercept a pass and bring it into the end zone in a Super Bowl win over the Patriots.  Then, yes, Lance gets in.

Devin Hester is the most exciting NFL player since Deion Sanders, who was among those who went into the Hall along with Dent this past weekend.  Hester holds the NFL record for most career kick and punt returns for touchdowns with a total of 14 and is a serviceable receiver.  But has his career been one for the Bronze Age?  Hester has those 14 TDs (not including one from Super Bowl XLI and a returned missed field goal from the 2006 season) on 291 career returns.  The man whose return record he broke, Brian Mitchell, had 13 career scores on 1,070 returns.  So Hester takes about one of every 20 returns to the house whereas Mitchell took back only about one of every 80.  Mitchell also scored 12 TDs rushing and ran for 1,967 career yards with four TDs and 2,336 yard receiving.  But Hester already has more receiving TDs – 12 – and nearly as much receiving yardage – 2,196 –  and has only played five seasons.  Mitchell played 14.

Certainly Hester’s top return years are behind him, therefore his eye-popping TD-per-return ratio will likely diminish significantly.  But it’s not crazy to project he will retire with 15 career return scores, 25 TD receptions and maybe more exciting moments than any other player in NFL history.  He won’t be a first ballot guy because some will say special teamers should wait in line.  But sometime around 2022 or 2023 his phone will ring.  And the Bears will have another trophy.

The Bears lead the NFL with 27 Hall of Famers and, especially with Dent’s enshrinement this year, it’s only fitting that Chicago was to be playing in the Hall of Fame Game.   That game was cancelled a few weeks ago because the lockout wasn’t over.  Then on Friday, the Bears were to be holding their annual Family Night at Soldier Field, but it was cancelled because the grass was falling apart.  Then on Wednesday night, the lights went out on the Bears’ practice field in Bourbonnais, Illinois.  So the Bears have yet to be seen by the public at large and we hope that’s a bad thing.  It’s a bit of an embarrassment that the Bears play at Soldier Field, which is run by the Chicago Park District, and seems to be treated like any of the other random softball diamonds or tennis courts in the city.  Do things like this happen in other cities?  Bears players, including Urlacher, say Soldier Field should use FieldTurf which is not real grass but far closer to it than artificial turf’s green concrete ancestors.  The Bears would be better on a synthetic surface because they’re a team built on speed and far, far less maintenance would be needed on the fake stuff.

However, many want Soldier Field to remain au naturel.  Fine.  The greatest green grass guy in the world works just a few miles away for the Chicago White Sox.  His name is Roger Bossard, “The Sodfather” and his innovative drainage and irrigation system has been used by the  Sox since the 1960s.  He has also overseen the installation of fields at Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, Busch Stadium and at several other major league ballparks.  The man knows his grass. He even has his own bobblehead.  The White Sox, likely, won’t be playing in October and the Bears will be away from Soldier Field for three weeks, so give the Sodfather the keys.  Give the NFL’s charter franchise a respectable field.  We won’t care what the field is made of in January when it’s covered in snow and the Bears are taking apart other members of the NFC on their way to the Super Bowl (Oh, yes..).  But for now, let’s make it pretty.  Let’s keep it safe.  All Bears deserve a pristine playground upon which to do their savagery.

Ed Sabol is now in the Hall of Fame and thank goodness football did the right thing by getting him there.  Sabol is 94, a World War II veteran and is the one who started NFL Films.  One of the many reasons the NFL is America’s favorite sport is that Sabol built such drama around it.  He and his son Steve have spent decades turning the league’s great games into timeless dramas.  NFL Films could make the assembly of a bologna sandwich feel like Superman conquering the dinosaurs.  It’s just a shame that the original voice of NFL Films, John Facenda, is no longer around.  He died in 1984 but his stentorian narrations live on and, thanks to Ed Sabol, every NFL game will always, at least in retrospect, have the look and feel of a timeless struggle between angry men embedded in mud and blood.

Pro Football’s Hall of Very Good

Pro football historians are constantly arguing over whether a player belongs in the Hall of Fame. Usually, the discussion involves some variance on the following statement, “That player belongs in the Hall of Very Good, not the Hall of Fame.” Well, did you know that the Hall of Very Good actually exists? It does and it is run by the Professional Football Researchers Association (PFRA).

The Professional Football Researchers Association was founded in 1979 as a 501(c)(3) educational organization dedicated to research into and the preservation of the history of pro football. Membership includes many of the foremost football historians and authors. The PFRA publishes a magazine, “The Coffin Corner,” six times each year.

Begun in 2003, the Hall of Very Good seeks to honor outstanding players and coaches who are not in the Hall of Fame and have been retired for at least 25 years. The PFRA does not promote any of the electees for the Hall of Fame nor does it view the Hall of Very Good as a springboard for the Hall of Fame. They simply recognize that there are many players and coaches who had great careers who deserve to be recognized.

In June, the PFRA announced the finalists for the Hall of Very Good Class of 2011. The members of the PFRA were asked to select five players whom they felt were deserving of the honor. A committee of nine then ranked the players to determine the top twenty candidates. Those twenty candidates are the finalists, and for the Class of 2011, they are (in alphabetical order):

Ken Anderson
Position: Quarterback
Teams: Cincinnati Bengals 1971-86

Bill Bergey
Position: Linebacker
Teams: Cincinnati Bengals 1969-1973, Philadelphia Eagles 1974-1980

Cliff Branch
Position: Wide Receiver
Teams: Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders 1972-1985

Ray Bray
Position: Guard
Teams: Chicago Bears 1939-42 and 1946-51, Green Bay Packers 1952

Charley Brock
Position: Center-Halfback-Fullback
Teams: Green Bay Packers 1939-47

Bobby Dillon
Position: Defensive Back
Teams: Green Bay Packers 1952-1959

Ken Gray
Position: Guard
Teams: 1958-1969 St. Louis/Chicago Cardinals, 1970 Houston Oilers

Cliff Harris
Positions: Free Safety
Teams: Dallas Cowboys 1970-1979

Harold Jackson
Position: Wide Receiver
Teams: Los Angeles Rams 1968, Philadelphia Eagles 1969-1972, Los Angeles Rams 1973-1977, New England Patriots 1978-1981, Minnesota Vikings 1982, Seattle Seahawks 1983

George Kunz
Position: Tackle
Teams: Atlanta Falcons 1969-1974, Baltimore Colts 1975-1978, 1980

Paul Lowe
Position: Halfback
Teams: Los Angeles Chargers 1960, San Diego Chargers 1961-1968, Kansas City Chiefs 1968-1969

Harvey Martin
Positions: Defensive End
Teams: Dallas Cowboys 1973-83

Eddie Meador
Position: Defensive Back
Teams: Los Angeles Rams 1959-70

Lydell Mitchell
Position: Running Back
Teams: Baltimore Colts 1972-77, San Diego Chargers 1978-79, Los Angeles Rams 1980

Ted Nesser
Position: Tackle-Center-Head Coach
Teams: Columbus Panhandles 1920-21

Andy Russell
Positions: Linebacker
Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers 1963-76

Lou Saban
Position: Head Coach
Teams: Boston Patriots 1960-1961, Buffalo Bills 1962-1965, Denver Broncos 1967-1971, Buffalo Bills 1972-1976

Tom Sestak
Position: Defensive Tackle
Teams: Buffalo Bills 1962-1968

Jerry Smith
Position: Tight End
Teams: Washington Redskins 1965-1977

Buddy Young
Position: Halfback-Fullback-Defensive Back
Teams: New York Yankees 1947-49, New York Yanks 1950-51, Dallas Texans 1952, Baltimore Colts 1953-55


The Class of 2011 will be announced by the end of the year.           

Previous Hall of Very Good enshrines are:

Class of 2010
Robert Brazile, 1975-84 – LB 
Ed Budde, 1963-76 – G
Don Coryell, 1972-86 – Head Coach
Ox Emerson, 1931-38 – G, C, LB
Chuck Foreman, 1973-80 – RB
Bob Gain, 1952, 1954-64 – T, MG, E
Riley Matheson, 1939-48 – G, LB
Jimmy Patton, 1955-66 – DB
Drew Pearson, 1973-83 – WR
Ken Riley, 1969-83 – CB

Class of 2009
Bruno Banducci, 1944-54 – G 
Harold Carmichael, 1971-84 – WR
Blanton Collier, Browns assistant coach 1946-53 and 1962 and head coach 1963-70
Boyd Dowler, 1959-69, 71 – WR
Claude Humphrey, 1968-74, 1976-81 – DE
Ken Kavanaugh, 1940-41, 1945-50 – E
Verne Lewellen, 1924-32 – HB
Walt Sweeney, 1963-75 – G

Class of 2008
Dick Barwegen, 1947-54 – G
Randy Gradishar, 1974-83 – LB
Bob Hoernschmeyer, 1946-55 – HB
Cecil Isbell, 1938-42 – TB
Buddy Parker, 1951-64 – Coach
Spec Sanders, 1946-50 – TB
Jim Ray Smith, 1956-64 – G
Billy Wilson, 1951-60 – WR

Class of 2007:
Frankie Albert, 1946-1952 – QB
Roger Brown, 1960-1969 – DT
Timmy Brown, 1959-1968 – RB
Marshall Goldberg, 1939-1948 – B
Jim Lee Howell, 1937-1947, 1954-1960 – E
Glenn Presnell, 1931-1936 – B
Dick Schafrath, 1959-1971 – T
Jake Scott, 1970-1978 – DB
Ed Sprinkle, 1944-1955 – DE
Tank Younger, 1949-1958 – HB-FB

Class of 2006:
Charley Conerly, 1948-1961 – QB
John Hadl, 1962-1977 – QB
Chuck Howley, 1958-1973 – LB
Alex Karras, 1958-1970 – DT
Eugene Lipscomb, 1953-1962 – DT
Kyle Rote, 1951-1961 – E-HB
Dick Stanfel, 1952-1958 – G
Otis Taylor, 1965-1975 – WR
Fuzzy Thurston, 1958-1967 – G
Deacon Dan Towler, 1950-1955 – FB

Class of 2005:
Maxie Baughan, 1960-1974 – LB
Jim Benton, 1938-1947 – E
Lavvie Dilweg, 1926-1934 – E
Pat Harder, 1946-1953 – FB
Floyd Little*, 1967-1975 – RB
Tommy Nobis, 1966-1976 – LB
Pete Retzlaff, 1956-1966 – HB-E
Tobin Rote, 1950-1966 – QB
Lou Rymkus, 1943, 1946-1951 – T
Del Shofner, 1957-1967 – E

Class of 2004:
Gene Brito, 1951-1960 – DE
John Brodie, 1957-1973 – QB
Jack Butler, 1951-1959 – DB
Chris Hanburger*, 1965-1978 – LB
Bob Hayes*, 1965-1975 – SE-WR
Billy Howton, 1952-1963 – E
Jim Marshall, 1960-1979 – DE
Al Nesser, 1920-1928, 1931 – G
Dave Robinson, 1963-1974 – LB
Duke Slater, 1922-1931 – T

Class of 2003:
Gino Cappelletti, 1960-1970 – E-K
Carl Eller*, 1964-1979 – DE
Pat Fischer, 1961-1977 – DB
Benny Friedman*, 1927-1934 – TB
Gene Hickerson*, 1958-1973 – G
Jerry Kramer, 1958-1968 – G
Johnny Robinson, 1960-1971 – DB
Mac Speedie, 1946-1952 – E
Mick Tingelhoff, 1962-1978 – C
Al Wistert, 1943-1951 – T

*Voted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame after induction into the Hall of Very Good.

John Mackey RIP!

Baltimore Colts legend John Mackey passed away yesterday at the age of 69. A powerful and speedy tight end, Mackey helped revolutionize the position from mostly a blocking position to another passing option downfield with the possibility of breaking it for the end zone. His 15.8 yards per catch average ranks high among all tight ends in history. In 1992, Mackey was the second tight end, after Mike Ditka, to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In tribute to the pioneering tight end, below is a listing of all players who primarily played tight end during their career and had at least 200 career receptions:

Tony Gonzalez     222   1,069  12,463   11.7   88  1997-2010
SHANNON SHARPE    204     815  10,060   12.3   62  1990-2003
OZZIE NEWSOME     198     662   7,980   12.1   47  1978-90
Jason Witten      127     617   6,967   11.3   36  2003-10
KELLEN WINSLOW    109     541   6,741   12.5   45  1979-87
Antonio Gates     119     529   7,005   13.2   69  2003-10
Jeremy Shockey    121     510   5,688   11.2   33  2002-10
Frank Wycheck     155     505   5,126   10.2   28  1993-2003
Ben Coates        158     499   5,555   11.1   50  1991-2000
Steve Jordan      176     498   6,307   12.7   28  1982-94
JACKIE SMITH      210     480   7,918   16.5   40  1963-78
Todd Heap         133     467   5,492   11.8   41  2001-10
Mickey Shuler     180     462   5,100   11.0   37  1978-91
Todd Christensen  137     461   5,872   12.7   41  1979-88
Pete Retzlaff     132     452   7,412   16.4   47  1956-66*
Wesley Walls      196     450   5,291   11.8   54  1989-91,93-2003
Keith Jackson     129     441   5,283   12.0   49  1988-96
MIKE DITKA        158     427   5,812   13.6   43  1961-72
Bob Tucker        156     422   5,421   12.8   27  1970-80
Jay Novacek       158     422   4,630   11.0   30  1985-95
Jerry Smith       168     421   5,496   13.1   60  1965-77
Chris Cooley      103     420   4,638   11.0   33  2004-10
Charle Young      187     418   5,106   12.2   27  1973-85
Brent Jones       143     417   5,195   12.5   33  1987-97
Freddie Jones     123     404   4,232   10.5   22  1997-2004
Riley Odoms       153     396   5,755   14.5   41  1972-83
Russ Francis      167     393   5,262   13.4   40  1975-80,82-88
Dallas Clark      104     393   4,535   11.5   44  2003-10
Jackie Harris     167     393   4,410   11.2   25  1990-2001
Randy McMichael   132     387   4,217   10.9   24  2002-10
Pete Metzelaars   235     383   3,686    9.6   29  1982-97
DAVE CASPER       147     378   5,216   13.8   52  1974-84
Alge Crumpler     155     373   4,743   12.7   39  2001-10
Rodney Holman     212     365   4,771   13.1   36  1982-95
Raymond Chester   172     364   5,013   13.8   48  1970-81
Pete Holohan      163     363   3,981   11.0   16  1981-92
Eric Green        120     362   4,390   12.1   36  1990-99
Kellen Winslow     76     362   4,073   11.3   21  2004,06-10
Dave Parks        118     360   5,619   15.6   44  1964-73*
David Hill        176     358   4,212   11.8   28  1976-87
Ken Dilger        156     356   4,099   11.5   24  1995-2004
Mark Bavaro       126     351   4,733   13.5   39  1985-90,92-94
Jimmie Giles      188     350   5,084   14.5   41  1977-89
Marcus Pollard    192     349   4,280   12.3   40  1995-2008
Kyle Brady        197     343   3,519   10.3   25  1995-2007
Paul Coffman      154     339   4,340   12.8   42  1978-88
CHARLIE SANDERS   128     336   4,817   14.3   31  1968-77
JOHN MACKEY       139     331   5,236   15.8   38  1963-72
Jerome Barkum     158     326   4,789   14.7   40  1972-83*
Desmond Clark     162     323   3,591   11.1   27  1999-2010
Rich Caster       161     322   5,515   17.1   45  1970-82*
Tony McGee        156     322   4,089   12.7   21  1993-2003
Preston Carpenter 149     305   4,457   14.6   23  1956-67*
Jim Mitchell      155     305   4,358   14.3   28  1969-79
Doug Cosbie       144     300   3,728   12.4   30  1979-88
Bob Trumpy        128     298   4,600   15.4   35  1968-77
Dan Ross          104     290   3,419   11.8   19  1979-83,85-86
Jim Gibbons       140     287   3,561   12.4   20  1958-68
Heath Miller       92     286   3,233   11.3   29  2005-10
Pete Mitchell     114     279   2,885   10.3   15  1995-2002
Milt Morin        129     271   4,208   15.5   16  1966-75
Hoby Brenner      175     267   3,849   14.4   21  1981-93
Billy Joe DuPree  159     267   3,565   13.4   41  1973-83
John Spagnola     133     263   2,886   11.0   15  1979-82,84-89
Aaron Thomas      133     262   4,554   17.4   37  1961-70*
Bubba Franks      122     262   2,347    9.0   32  2000-08
Marv Cook         112     257   2,190    8.5   13  1989-95
Bruce Hardy       151     256   2,455    9.6   25  1978-89
Christian Fauria  191     252   2,529   10.0   22  1995-2007
Bo Scaife          90     251   2,383    9.5   12  2005-10
Dave Kocourek     115     249   4,090   16.4   24  1960-68
Stephen Alexander 118     247   2,519   10.2   14  1998-2006
Owen Daniels       65     245   2,972   12.1   17  2006-10
Don Warren        193     244   2,536   10.4    7  1979-92
Troy Drayton      122     243   2,645   10.9   24  1993-2000
Eric Johnson       71     240   2,178    9.1    9  2001-02,04,06-07
Tom Mitchell      145     239   3,181   13.3   24  1966,68-77
Vernon Davis       72     237   3,011   12.7   29  2006-10
Ed West           211     237   2,665   11.2   27  1984-97
Jermaine Wiggins  107     236   2,141    9.1   14  2000-06
Benjamin Watson    87     235   2,865   12.2   23  2004-10
L.J. Smith         98     233   2,556   11.0   18  2003-09
Ron Hall          119     230   2,609   11.3   10  1987-95
Ron Kramer        128     229   3,272   14.3   16  1957,59-67
Chad Lewis        116     229   2,361   10.3   23  1997-2005
Zach Miller        62     226   2,712   12.0   12  2007-10
Emery Moorehead   158     224   2,980   13.3   15  1977-88
Henry Childs      103     223   3,401   15.3   28  1974-81,84
Monty Stickles    115     222   3,199   14.4   16  1960-68
Mike Barber       129     222   2,788   12.6   17  1976-85
Daniel Graham     126     222   2,465   11.1   24  2002-10
Rickey Dudley     108     221   3,024   13.7   33  1996-2004
Jay Riemersma     112     221   2,524   11.4   23  1997-2004
Bob Klein         145     219   2,687   12.3   23  1969-79
Alvin Reed        116     214   2,983   13.9   14  1967-75
Eric Sievers      122     214   2,485   11.6   16  1981-90
Ethan Horton      116     212   2,360   11.1   17  1985,87,89-94
Willie Frazier    121     211   3,111   14.7   36  1964-72,75
Andrew Glover     153     208   2,478   11.9   24  1991-2000
Visanthe Shiancoe 128     207   2,268   11.0   24  2003-10
Dave Moore        220     207   2,028    9.8   28  1992-2006
Willard Dewveall   72     204   3,304   16.2   27  1959-64
Ernie Conwell     125     203   2,188   10.8   15  1996-2006
Bennie Cunningham 118     202   2,879   14.3   20  1976-85
Jerramy Stevens   121     202   2,217   11.0   22  2002-10
Howard Cross      207     201   2,194   10.9   17  1989-2001
Steve Heiden      148     201   1,689    8.4   14  1999-2009
Billy Miller      114     200   2,248   11.2   10  1999-2000,02-08
Fred Arbanas      118     198   3,101   15.7   34  1962-70
Jim Whalen         89     197   3,155   16.0   20  1965-71
Joe Senser         49     165   1,822   11.0   16  1980-82,84

Notes: Arbanas and Whalen are the only tight ends to have 3,000 yards receiving and not catch 200 balls.
Senser is the only tight end to have 1,000 yards receiving in a season and not catch 200 balls.
Players in ALL CAPS are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
*Played significant time at Offensive End or Wide Receiver.