Will Derrick Thomas Gain Hall Of Fame?

Possession of the pigskin is priority number one in the game of football. Antagonizing the one with the ball to relinquish the highest valued commodity on the field is tantamount to being offensive on defense. Derrick Thomas at 6-3 and 245 pounds, was one of the best at forcing fumbles and tormenting the other team's most important player who monopolized control of the football, the quarterback.

During Super Bowl XLII festivities in Phoenix, Arizona, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will announce the 2008 inductees as voted on by a 44-member Board of Selectors. Produced from a group of 15 modern era players and two candidates recommended by the Seniors Committee, an affirmative vote of 80 per cent is required for a finalist to be approved for enshrinement into the prestigious club of gridiron greats. Convening on Saturday morning to debate and scrutinize the candidates, the selectors will chose a minimum of four but not more than seven for induction.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2008 will be announced at a press conference from the Phoenix Convention Center, site of the Super Bowl media center,m at 2 p.m. MST Saturday.

Derrick Thomas, a fourth time finalist for the prestigious honor and former All-Pro Kansas City Chief and University of Alabama All-America linebacker, has a chance to grace the list posthumously. Suffering complications from injuries which paralyzed him in a one-vehicle accident that occurred January 23, 2000, on an icy interstate near Kansas City, Thomas expired in his home town of Miami at the Jackson Memorial Hospital on February 8, 2000.

A total of 106 offensive players from the modern era have achieved the elite status compared to only 58 defensive members. The unbalanced ratio suggests a skewed exclusion of the defenders of the game. Pass rusher supreme Derrick Thomas with his size, speed and agility embodied the classic defensive player required to contend with the fast paced aerial oriented offenses of the 1990s. Attacking from the flank, he created untenable situations for opposing offenses employing his trademark sack and strip move which accounted for 45 forced fumbles credited to him. All-time sack leader, Bruce Smith (200), playing in 279 games equaled Thomas's 45 forced fumbles but required 110 more games, the equivalent to almost seven more seasons to duplicate the Kansas City Chiefs perennial all-star's total. Hall of Fame players, Lawrence Taylor had 33 in 184 games and Reggie White had 32 in 232 games. Other notable pass rushers such as Chris Doleman forced 43 fumbles in 232 games, Rickey Jackson 41 fumbles in 227 games and Richard Dent 38 in 203 games.

Thomas's signature swiping of the football was akin to the great basketball Hall of Fame player Bill Russell's unique art of shot blocking as both moves not only disrupted the offense but sought possession of the ball. Russell's purpose of stopping the offensive player from scoring a goal along with the skill of deflecting the ball in bounds to a teammate to start the patented fast break compared to Thomas's forcing a fumble and garnering a change of possession for his team. Both defensive moves were intelligent, team oriented and beyond the normal abilities of most players. Countless athletes have blocked shots and sacked quarterbacks but only special individuals forged the two acts of defending and creating the turnover into a distinctive phase of their game.

Lawrence Taylor considered by Derrick Thomas the best to play the position is the only outside linebacker active in the 1990's selected for enshrinement thus far. Playing 13 years ('81-93) for the New York Giants, he accumulated 132.5 sacks and 11 Pro Bowl berths. Thomas's 11 seasons ('89-99) accounted for 126.5 sacks and nine Pro Bowl appearances, six straight as a starter. Thomas's propensity for creating turnovers surpasses the legendary New York Giant as he established Kansas City Chiefs records with 45 forced fumbles, 19 fumble recoveries, four TDs and three safeties during his career, compared to 33 forced fumbles, 12 fumble recoveries, two TDs and no safeties for Taylor. Those raw unbiased irrefutable numbers alone attained by Thomas place him in an exclusive royal club worthy of serious consideration for those who've crowned Taylor the finest outside linebacker in the history of the league.

Coaches always preach the sermon about winning the turnover battle and Thomas represented the symbolic biblical figure leading the defensive congregation that ravaged quarterbacks causing 34 fumbles resulting in 20 being recovered by the Kansas City Chiefs. His efforts led to Kansas City proclaiming the league's best turnover differential (+128) and the most takeaways (365) during the 1990's. Four separate years, 1990, 1992, 1995 and 1999, they led the league in the turnover differential category.

Examining the all-time sack total amongst NFL linebackers, Thomas, playing in only 169 games ranks fourth behind Kevin Greene (160), 228 games, Lawrence Taylor (132.5), 184 games and New Orleans Saints star Rickey Jackson (128), 227 games. In the 1990's where six of the current top ten all-time sack leaders competed, Thomas led that generation with a total of 116.5 sacks/153 games. Names such as Bruce Smith (113.5/145), Reggie White (111.5/143), Kevin Greene (113.5/156), Chris Doleman (107/156), John Randle (106/160) and Leslie O'Neal (103.5/158) did not equal Thomas's leading decade total.

Thomas had 10 or more sacks in a season seven times and recorded multi-sack games on 27 occasions during his career. While mounting all these qualifying statistics, game changing defenders such as Thomas constantly faced double and triple team blocking, which further enhances the numbers he achieved. Drawing extra attention from the opponent provided unforeseen opportunities for his teammates.

Besides his prolific penchant for tackling the signal caller, Thomas produced 444 quarterback pressures and 34 passes broken up. During his second season, Thomas exploded with a league leading 20 sacks highlighted by an NFL single game record seven sacks against the Seattle Seahawks on November 11, 1990.

Posing such a potential threat, opposing coordinators had to identify his location on the field as they contemplated their offensive strategies. Pro Football Hall of Fame member, QB John Elway, underscored the complexities of competing against Thomas as he said, "Derrick was a player that could dominate a game. His explosive talents were so great that he could dictate to an offense pass and run blocking schemes, as well as the plays that were called. He was such an impact player that you always had to know where he was on the field." Thomas sacked Elway 17 times, more than any other player. The ultimate compliment has been paid by Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Warren Moon who've spoken specifically about game planning to address the inevitable disruption anticipated when opposing Thomas.

Named All-Pro three times and seven times first team All-AFC, Thomas was dominant immediately as he was named the consensus NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1989. His consistent excellence was recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters earning a spot on the 1990's all-decade team. A player must be retired for five seasons to be eligible for consideration to be inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Out of seven linebackers listed on the 1980's all-decade team, four have been inducted. Twenty four players were named to the 1980's all-decade defensive team with twelve being voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, not including Bruce Smith and Andre Tippett who are on the list of this year's finalists. None of the six linebackers from the all-decade 1990's team which includes current New England Patriot Junior Seau have been selected.

For some observers, he was viewed as a one dimensional player specializing in terrorizing quarterbacks but consider the voice of one Pro Football Hall of Fame coach designated an offensive genius who acknowledged all facets of Thomas's game. "At one point in time, Derrick Thomas was the best outside linebacker in football. He combined outstanding pass rushing abilities with great overall linebacker play," stated Bill Walsh. Running sweeps to his side of the field proved futile as he hunted down the ball carrier with the same tenacity as he did quarterbacks. Running to the opposite side, he was known to pursue from behind and dislodge the football. Dispelling the myth of him being a one trick pony is the 728 career tackles he amassed as an outside linebacker. Restraining his passion for the chase would be like asking Babe Ruth to bunt, direct Robert Horry to stop shooting clutch shots at the end of the game or instruct Shaun Alexander to concentrate on blocking. What coach would propose such an inane idea?

Hall of Fame type performers raise the level of those around them. Just ask any island playing cornerback entrusted with covering the swiftest athletes on the field and they'll shout the praises of a pass rushing phenom. Kansas City had one playoff appearance since 1971 before Thomas arrived to champion the defensive surge. During his 11 year career, the Chiefs made seven playoff appearances, won three division titles and finished first or second in the AFC West ten times. Reaching the AFC Championship in 1993, Kansas City's 1990's decade of 102 wins was only exceeded by five (Elias Sports Bureau) other teams in league history while allowing the fewest points in the NFL in 1995 and 1997.

Derrick Thomas's achievements between the white lines originated with his passion as he sought possession of the pigskin by pressuring the opposition. Creating turnovers by relentlessly pursuing quarterbacks and ball carriers established him as one of the premiere impact performers of his generation. His perfected move of snatching the football while tackling the quarterback is the standard for any future pass rushing prospect. While playing on winning teams, his tenacious style warranted close examination by the opponent's offensive brain trust as they devised their game plan. Although his life ended prematurely at the young age of 33, the body of numbers he produced at his position demonstrated his unique playmaking style meriting entrance into professional football's most hallowed haven in Canton, Ohio, Saturday, August 2, 2008.

Long time NFL writer and Pro Football Hall of Fame Selector, Chick Ludwig of the Dayton Daily News feels adamant about his legacy as he stated, "Derrick was one of the most talented and explosive players I've ever seen. He had two ingredients you love in a player - unbelievable skill and incredible enthusiasm. His blend of speed, power, strength and quickness combined to make him a rare individual on the football field. Quarterbacks still have nightmares about #58. He was more than a defensive gem. He was a bona fide diamond."

Anthony Munoz, Pro Football Hall of Fame member and perhaps the best left offensive tackle the game has ever produced testified to Thomas's powerful presence on the field as he remarked, "In my 13 years playing in the National Football League, Derrick Thomas was one of the best linebackers I ever played against. He was the type of player that, by himself, could have an impact on the outcome of the game. I believe he is the type of player that belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame."

So do most people who ever witnessed Number 58 in the red and white jersey play the game of football. Let's hope Derrick Thomas's last chase for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame ends with enough of the 44 selectors in Phoenix believing he belongs too.

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