It is a sad reality that I have not been doing the same for future Hall of Famer Will Shields.
Why not? Shields' retirement came as no shock on Monday. A year ago he had to be dragged back to the gridiron by Willie Roaf. Everyone expected he would hang up the cleats following 2006.
I really have no excuses. Like everyone else, I saw this coming, and yet gave it hardly a passing thought over the last four months.
I suppose that is the life of an NFL lineman. You'll never see one gracing the cover of Madden's video game. Their football cards are worthless (at least, the last time I collected any). It's rare to see a lineman's jersey in the crowd at any NFL stadium on a Sunday, and even rarer to see one on sale at the mall.
Kickers are given more notoriety on ESPN. In the world of the NFL, offensive linemen are the worker bees. All guts (pun intended), no glory.
We sat in awe as networks showed replays of Shields pancaking defenders. We took notice when listening to John Madden wax poetic about his butt sweat.
But then our attention shifted backwards to the Montanas, Allens, Gannons, Gonzalezes, Holmeses, Johnsons and, yes, even the Grbacs.
We saw Marcus Allen and Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson and Mike Cloud (occasionally) blowing through holes he cleared. And perhaps that is the best thing we can say about Will Shields. We never really noticed him. After all, when you really notice an offensive lineman, it's when they screw up and a quarterback gets killed. And lord knows there were few screw-ups in Shields' 14 seasons.
Those moments were reserved for the washouts that often lined up next to him. Trezelle Jenkins, Victory Riley, Marcus Spears, Jordan Black – take your pick.
Shields was a constant. In 14 years as a starter on the Chiefs' offensive line, he opened games alongside 24 other linemen. He protected 12 quarterbacks and blocked for countless running backs.
He fit "the system" for four different head coaches and five different offensive coordinators. The Chiefs moved from a smashmouth running game in the early 90's to a vertical passing game in the late 90's to a perimeter-based running game under Dick Vermeil and back to smashmouth a year ago.
Other players, like Grbac and wide receiver Derrick Alexander, didn't make these transitions. Shields did, and fit each system like a glove. He started games at three different offensive line positions.
Nobody ever complained about Shields' performance in the media, and Shields never threw a teammate under the bus. And lest we forget, throw in 223 consecutive starts.
Fourteen-year careers like this one are rare in the NFL. Of the 32 modern-era offensive linemen in the Pro Football Hall Of Fame, only 12 played 14 straight years or better. Shields, despite his lack of a Super Bowl ring, deserves to be in there with the Bruce Matthews, Jackie Slaters and Forrest Greggs of the world.
In fact, should he be elected, you could easily make a case that Shields might be the greatest guard in NFL history. No offensive guard in the Hall of Fame has 12 consecutive Pro Bowls to his credit.
I still remember the first NFL touchdown of Larry Johnson's life, a spectacular reverse-field run against the Chicago Bears in 2003. I often think about how great it will be to witness his entire professional career.
I missed the first great play of Shields' career (I was probably watching Joe Montana), but I'm very proud to say I've had the pleasure of watching all 14 of his NFL seasons. After moving from Scotland in 1992, I became a Chiefs fan the following year as Shields slid into the lineup because of an injury to Dave Szott in the season opener. Thanks for all the memories, Will.
FIVE SNAPSHOTS OF WILL SHIELDS' CAREER
1. Oct. 26, 2003 – The Chiefs destroy the Buffalo Bills, 38-5. On a third-and-2 play in the third quarter, Shields leads the way on a short screen pass to Priest Holmes. What is notable about this play? Nothing, other than the fact that Shields casually walks back to the huddle with his facemask bent and mangled, like a true gladiator.
2. Oct. 4, 2004 – The Chiefs beat Baltimore, 27-24. Everyone recognizes this as the game where Brian Waters, Jordan Black and Tony Richardson teed off on Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis. But the best takedown of the night belonged to Shields. On a third-and-goal play at the start of the fourth quarter, Shields pulls to his left. Priest Holmes goes over the top for a touchdown as Shields meets Lewis in the hole and flattens him. To paraphrase the Samoan offensive lineman from Necessary Roughness – "Mr. Holmes...he'll never touch you."
3. Nov. 6, 2005 – The Chiefs beat the Raiders on a last-second touchdown, 27-23. Brian Waters, Jason Dunn and Tony Richardson get most of the credit for clearing the giant hole Larry Johnson dives through, but it is Will Shields destroying Warren Sapp at the snap that makes everything possible. Because of this, there is almost no one for Richardson to block.
4. Dec. 4, 2005 – The Chiefs beat Denver, 31-27. At the end of a Dee Brown run in the fourth quarter, Broncos safety John Lynch tries to enter the pileup and give Brown some post-play business, but as he bends over, Shields comes out of nowhere and smacks Lynch in the shoulder pad, sending him pinwheeling backwards. There is no complaining to the officials from Lynch as he walks away from the play, only the red-faced grin of someone caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Note to Chiefs ball-carriers: Will Shields offers you his protection.
5. Jan. 6, 2007 – The Chiefs lose a playoff game to the Indianapolis Colts. There is 1:31 left in the game and the Chiefs are down by 15 points, with no hope of winning. On a meaningless fourth down play, Shields lines up at right guard against a little-known defensive end named Josh Thomas, who attempts a bull rush. On the final play of Shields' 14-year career, his pass protection is flawless.
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