Q. Larry Allen’s recent induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame raised a question that I have pondered over the years. How many Hall of Famers from one team is too many? At what point do they become Hall of Famers simply because they played on a great team and with other Hall of Fame caliber players?
The Jimmy Johnson era Cowboys have four Hall of Fame players from their offense: Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Allen. Was Aikman really a Hall of Fame level player or did he achieve that status because he was handing off to Smith, throwing to Irvin and had Allen protecting him? Is Irvin a Hall of Famer because he had Aikman throwing to him? Is Smith a Hall of Famer because he had Allen blocking for him?
I know all of these things are interrelated and you can’t isolate individual players in football like in baseball. If I had to give an opinion, I would say Irvin was the weakest candidate of these Hall of Famers. But I’m curious to your view at what point does it become less about the players being HOF caliber and more about being a product of a great team.
- Joe Daly
A. That’s a good question, Joe. As a Hall of Fame voter, it is one of the things you have to consider in filling out the ballot. You’re right; it is easier in baseball because it is more of an individual sport. Football is a team sport. It isn’t as easy to isolate and evaluate one player apart from the whole.
As a voter, you have to evaluate each candidate and determine how he compares with other candidates, in particular those who played the same position. A player who had better coaches, better game plans and better players around him has an advantage. But that doesn’t mean other players can’t make it as well.
Consider Vikings guard Randall McDaniel, Patriots linebacker Andre Tippett, Lions tight end Charlie Sanders and Seahawks defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy. I mention them because they were voted into the Hall in the last ten years. None of them won championships or played on great teams but they were such outstanding individual performers they are now enshrined in Canton.
You mention the Dallas foursome of Aikman, Smith, Irvin and Allen (who will be inducted this year). In my mind, all four were slam dunk Hall of Famers. You question Irvin’s credentials, but I don’t. If you saw the Cowboys in those championship seasons, you saw how valuable he was. He had 11 100-yard games, an NFL record, in the 1995 season. Moreover, he was the true leader on that team, more so than even Aikman.
I think being on a great team can sometimes work against a candidate. I believe voters reach a saturation point with certain teams, for example, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s and the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s.
There are 10 Steelers from the ‘70s in the Hall, a dozen if you include the founder Art Rooney and team president Dan Rooney. There are 12 Packers from the ‘60s in the Hall. But I can think of other members of those teams – guard Jerry Kramer of the Packers and defensive end L.C. Greenwood of the Steelers – who deserve to be inducted but have yet to make it. I think some voters just decided enough already with the Packers and Steelers. Dave Robinson, a Green Bay linebacker, finally made it this year as a senior candidate.
Also, being on a great team doesn’t always equate to great stats. Aikman, for example, did not have great stats. His single season high for touchdown passes was 23. He went over the 3,000-yard mark just five times in 12 seasons. Those aren’t stats that usually put a quarterback in the Hall of Fame, but Aikman played in an offense that wasn’t designed to put up big passing numbers. When the Cowboys were close to the goal line, Aikman handed off to Smith.
But, clearly, Aikman was a great quarterback. If he had played in a different offense with a wide open passing attack, he could have put up huge stats. He wasn’t asked to do that in Dallas. It did not diminish his worthiness as a Hall of Fame candidate.
It is not easy being a Hall of Fame selector. I was the Philadelphia voter for 15 years. Paul Domowitch of the Daily News does an outstanding job in that role now. It is hard to vote no on any of the candidates because they are all good. A strong case can be made for every one. That’s why the vote can take seven or eight hours. The discussion is long and in depth. But in the end you have to decide.
I remember John Madden once saying that he never had to look at the stats to decide whether someone belonged in the Hall of Fame. “Ask yourself one question,” he said. “When you watched him play, did you think you were watching greatness?”
If the answer was yes, Madden said, vote him in.