Thanks to the recent retirement — for now, at least — of New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, there are six players who should have private jets sent to their homes to whisk them to Canton, Ohio, for absolute no-brainer first-ballot enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame's class of 2012: Strahan, quarterback Brett Favre, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, linebacker Junior Seau, defensive tackle Warren Sapp and former Cowboys guard Larry Allen. It's possible that one or more of these players could play again, but at least for now, none is suiting up with a team.
One problem: a new NFL rule says that no more than five players can be enshrined in a single season (plus two Seniors Committee nominees). So who gets left out?
All six deserve immediate enshrinement, and all six will get to Canton within a couple of years of eligibility — five in 2012, with the other joining them the following summer. But unless the rules change between now and then, the fans of one will be screaming about the injustice of the voting process. The guess here is that it will be Allen, and don't start with that "NFL bias against the Cowboys" — it couldn't be farther from the truth. The league makes more money when its most popular team wins and enjoys the national spotlight. The league wants — quietly, of course — for the Cowboys to go deep in the playoffs and to Super Bowls, and for Dallas to field a team of megastars who end up in Canton.
But assuming all six are done playing and are eligible for the Hall's class of 2012, it's very possible that Allen will be on the outside looking in, at least for a year.
Think about it. If the NFL could change its name to the National Favre League without appearing to be too biased, it would, or at least that's how it felt when the brilliant gunslinger called it a career. His retirement was treated as if Elvis had died again, or Wayne Gretzky had been traded out of Canada (gasp!) or a network had created yet another stupid reality TV show: absolute shock and dismay. To say that Favre is in is like predicting the sun will rise tomorrow. If ever there was a guaranteed first-ballot enshrinement, he's it.
The league and the Hall's voters will want Favre and Sapp to go in together, in part because they had so many battles on the field, but also because of their "friendly enemy" act that endeared themselves to so many: Sapp would clobber Favre — either before or after he released a pass — and then they would jaw at each other and pat each other on the helmet with a "you got me that time, let's go again" smile. But beyond the buddy act that many would like to see, the fact is that Sapp revolutionized the position. He was the first short, fat guy to succeed inside with speed and quickness not seen before in a player his size … or shape. He epitomized the high-motor, trash-talking, 100-miles-an-hour style that teams soon coveted in their interior linemen, as each looked for "the next Warren Sapp."
Ogden is an interesting candidate. The 6-foot-9-inch Ogden has spent the last dozen years protecting his quarterback's blind side and opening running lanes, ending 11 of his 12 seasons with a spot in the Pro Bowl. During that time, he has been arguably the NFL's best player at the position that has become the glamour spot on the offensive line. He played in an era during which tackles began to collect enormous contracts because teams placed a premium on quarterback protection, and Ogden led the way.
Seau, like Sapp, benefits from the fact that he played gallantly on a bad team for years, and also from his post-tackle theatrics, when he would dance and stomp and scream after stopping opposing ball carriers, gyrations that earned Seau the nickname "The Tasmanian Devil." Considered one of the best players to never win a Super Bowl, Seau earned 12 Pro Bowl invitations, and the media flocked to the former San Diego star because of his dominance on the field and his charm on camera.
Strahan really shouldn't get in on the first ballot, as a matter of principle. He holds the NFL record for sacks in a single season, with 22 ½, a mark that always will be remembered for the way Favre (coincidentally) nearly laid down in front of Strahan in the 2001 regular-season finale. He earned the AP Defensive Player of the Year award that year, but after he talked with Favre right before the play, there were few who thought Favre hadn't volunteered to "give" Strahan the record. For that reason alone, he shouldn't get in on the first ballot. But he also is No. 5 on the all-time NFL sacks list (behind Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Kevin Green and Chris Doleman), and being in that elite company — plus the fact that he never saw a microphone he didn't like — probably will get him in right away.
That leaves Allen, who spent 12 years in Dallas before following the big bucks to San Francisco, where he played a couple of years with the 49ers. Possibly the strongest player in the history of the NFL (Allen famously bench pressed 700 pounds and squatted 900), he spent his career not just blocking defensive linemen, but mauling them into submission. He also defied the notion that big men can't move, getting his 325 (wink, wink) pounds into a high enough gear to become arguably the greatest pulling guard ever, in addition to his stature as one of the most dominant blockers to suit up in an NFL uniform.
But the fact is that Allen played on a team loaded with stars who already are in the Hall of Fame (Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin) and others who one day will be (Charles Haley, Deion Sanders). The thinking is that he was a very good player, but with all that talent around him, how dominant was he really? Could he not have been the beneficiary of a stellar surrounding cast?
Yes, he played with great teammates, but that should not be held against him. He was consistently overpowering for a dozen years in Dallas, and still effective when healthy in San Francisco.
Ironically, while Allen might be the player left out of the first-ballot induction, he and Favre are the only players on the list who are mentioned as perhaps the best players ever to suit up at their positions. Seau is no Lawrence Taylor, Sapp didn't become Mean Joe Greene, Ogden isn't Anthony Muñoz and Strahan is nowhere near Bruce Smith or Reggie White. Favre is at least in the discussion, if not at the top of the list, when discussing great quarterbacks, and Allen certainly is on the short list of great guards.
But the fact is that it is his position — the one he so thoroughly dominated for so many years — that might well cost him first-ballot enshrinement. For much of his career, guards were the big guys next to the stars of the line, the tackles. By the time Steve Hutchison got huge money to leave the Seattle Seahawks for the Minnesota Vikings, Allen was winding down his career by the Bay.
If he doesn't get in on the first ballot, it's an injustice, to be sure. Allen is as good a guard as ever has played in the NFL, and if anyone deserves the prestige that goes along with first-ballot enshrinement, it's him. But chances are he'll be left out the first year … but only because he was caught in a bad position.
In a bad position?
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