Sunday, February 6, 2011

2011 Pro Football Hall Of Fame Class : NFL Voters Wake Up And Almost Get It Right

Some of my regular readers know I have a series of articles, Crazy Canton Cuts, that is dedicated to gridiron greats not yet inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

When I first started my series, the first player I profiled was Washington Redskins legend Chris Hanburger. Not only was I astonished and irked by his exclusion, I decided to try to find a way to get him his overdue respect. The year was 2008 and I quickly found several fans who agreed with me.

I was interviewed for an article on the Washington Times by legendary sportswriter David Elfin. Elfin was raised in the District of Columbia are and was a true Redskins fan. In fact, Elfin led the charge to get Art Monk, a great Redskins wide receiver, finally inducted just a few years ago. Having him as an ally in my mission proved to be immeasurable.

I found it strange that Hanburger had barely scratched the selection process when eligible. His nine Pro Bowls were the most in the illustrious history of the Redskins, let alone the most by any player not yet inducted. He also was named First Team All-Pro four times and had set a record for fumble returns for touchdowns when he retired.

Nicknamed "The Hangman", Hanburger was the first linebacker in NFL history who could beat you by blitzing or covering a pass. Former Pro Bowl running back Calvin Hill told me how he use to marvel at the athleticism Hanburger possessed. Hill said Hanburger frequently jumped over him with ease during a blitz, was strong, and was surely the fastest linebacker in the NFL in his era.

Saint Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame tight end Jackie Smith battled Hanburger twice a year for many seasons. He called Hanburger the poster boy of the modern day weak side linebacker. "Linebackers were big strong guys, not very mobile and geared more to stopping the running game" before Hanburger revolutionized the position.

He weighed about 220 lbs much of his career, but was said to near 200 by the time he retired in 1978. His lack of weight did not prevent him from being stout against the run nor unstoppable when charging in on a blitz. But his athleticism wasn't what made him special. His intelligence put him over most every player in the league. He played in an era where the coaches weren't barking into a microphone to a headset in a helmet of a player, telling them what to do step by step.

The captain of the Redskins defense, he knew over 300 audibles and Hall of Fame head coach George Allen demanded more. Allen was a defensive guru that would spend hours in the film room with Hanburger and the defense. As former Redskins safety Rickie Harris put it, "You had to not only know your responsibilities, you had to know the exact location and responsibilities of the other 10 guys on defense. He was the smartest player I ever played with."

Some theorize his journey into Canton took so long because he was a team player who preferred to differ to his teammates rather than accept any personal glories. He would do his job and go straight home to his wife and kids instead of hanging around talking to reporters. All of the former Redskins players and coaches I talked to said he was a serious man of no nonsense. Reporters perhaps thought he was grouchy, but Hanburger's only mission was to help the team win then go home to his loved ones.

Talking to his son, Chris Jr., it seems his dad has been enjoying his retirement years amongst family. Now he is being pulled out of his comfort zone to give a speech in Canton, which will probably encompass how great his teammates, coaches, and opponents were, then having to be interviewed on television during the Hall of Fame Game.

His family is most likely more ecstatic to see this long overdue honor happen more than Hanburger, though his son suspects deep down his father is appreciate and happy. Redskins Nation is celebrating, because they know the importance Hanburger holds. Older fans might be especially happy, yet most have told their offspring of the greatness of Chris Hanburger.

It was nice to finally see the voters realize it as well. In my research, I had talked to a few other than Elfin. One senior voter did not even know what position Hanburger played, even though the Pro Bowl was an earned honor in those days. Your peers, the ones who truly know who was the best of the best, voted you in as opposed to the fan vote now that seems to cheer on the loudmouths best known for antics over actual gridiron play.

The game was regional back then. The technology did not allow for the immense coverage it has today. A voter would be lucky to see a player on an opposing team, from another division, once a year. If that player was in another conference, it would be a blessing to catch him at least once. It was as if the only voters who knew of Hanburger's greatness had to cover teams in the NFC East, where the Redskins play.

This also happened to Les Richter, the other Seniors Committee nominee inducted this year. Not only did he go to the Pro Bowl eight times as a linebacker, he also was the place kicker of the Los Angeles Rams for many years. He was once traded for 11 players, which surely says how good Richter was. I profiled him long ago in my Crazy Canton Cuts series and mourn the fact he has passed away and will not be in Canton to enjoy his long overdue respect.

There were four other players included into the induction class this year. Richard Dent, another Crazy Canton Cuts subject, finally went in. The former Chicago Bears defensive end is certainly worthy, but I think of equal or better defensive ends still waiting. Men like Jim Marshall, Claude Humphrey, and Coy Bacon, just to name a few.

Shannon Sharpe went in, which was a foregone conclusion. He was not much of a blocker as a tight end, but he had sure hands and was durable. Not nearly as good as his brother Sterling, he deserved entry even if he did play in the era of inflated statistics. Jerry Smith, another Crazy Canton Cuts subject, invented that style of play as a tight end, and retired with several records. Though I wish he was inducted, the homophobia of the league will probably prevent it.

Marshall Faulk is a running back I have no issues with as far as induction goes. I honestly though Curtis Martin, another finalist, was at least equal. Perhaps Martin will go in next year.

Deion Sanders was an exciting return man and special on man-to-man coverage. Kickers were better tacklers than him, but he didn't have to do much of it when the ball was in the air because it wasn't coming his way. I have profiled a gaggle of cornerbacks not yet in Canton, and I can name one equal to Sanders in coverage and returns, if not better, but certainly better as a tackler. How Lemar Parrish sits outside of Canton while Sanders goes in bewilders me.

Ed Sabol's induction was the right thing in the wrong way. His inclusion steals a spot from a player, whgich should not happen. The father of NFL Films, Sabol helped build a lot of the lore now associated with the game. He should have went in, but not at the expense of an actual player. How can the voters blow off a Ray Guy, saying punters aren't worthy, yet vote in a guy who sat on the sideline in a coat and tie holding a camera?

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