State Your Case: It’s time Hall wakes up to Leslie O’Neal

Leslie O'Neal photo courtesy of L.A. Chargers)

There are only 12 pass rushers in NFL history with more sacks than Leslie O’Neal, and all are either in the Pro Football Hall of Fame or not yet eligible.

Then there’s O’Neal, tied with Lawrence Taylor at 132-1/2 sacks. He not only is eligible for Canton but has been eligible the past 12 years. Yet he’s not in the Hall … he’s never been a finalist or semifinalist for the Hall … and his name didn’t appear on the Hall’s preliminary list until a voter suggested it be added in 2015.

I’m serious.

So you will find Leslie O’Neal’s name among the 108 candidates on the preliminary list for the Class of 2018. But, barring an upset, you won’t find his name among the semifinalists that are announced later this month because … well, because Leslie O’Neal seems to have been forgotten by the Hall’s 48 selectors.

And, frankly, I don’t get it.

It’s not as if this guy is a marginal candidate. He was named to six Pro Bowls. He was a three-time All-Pro. He was an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He had 10 or more sacks in seven of his first nine years, with a career-best 17 in 1992 when he led the AFC. He led the San Diego Chargers in sacks every year from 1990 through 1995, is the franchise’s all-time leader, was named to the Chargers’ Hall of Fame and was chosen to their 40th and 50th anniversary teams.

“I’ve said this before,” said Nick Canepa, columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune and former Hall-of-Fame voter. “I think the best defensive player in the history of the Chargers was Leslie O’ Neal. He was better than Junior Seau. He just wasn’t as dramatic.”

O’Neal was good, all right. And sometimes he was a downright great football player. He had more sacks than Hall-of-Famer Rickey Jackson. He had more sacks than Hall-of-Famer Derrick Thomas. He had more sacks — 32 more — than Hall-of-Famer Charles Haley. And he had more despite missing nearly two seasons with a severe knee injury.

So why does he get an annual stiff-arm by Hall-of-Fame voters? I wish I knew. The board of selectors loves edge rushers, electing at least one in nine of the past ten years. Yet it won’t as much as acknowledge Leslie O’Neal, and I’m at a loss to explain it.

Heck, we elected Jason Taylor this year on his first try, and Taylor had seven more career sacks than O’Neal. Seven. Once upon a time I thought it was because O’Neal played much of his career on bad teams, with the Chargers failing to reach the playoffs until his seventh year there. But tell me what great teams Taylor was on.

He wasn’t.

Then I thought it had something to do with rings. Charles Haley may have 32 fewer sacks, but he has five more Super Bowl rings than Leslie O’Neal … and that counts when voters start measuring resumes. Except tell me how many rings Jason Taylor has. Forget it, I’ll spare you the trouble.

As many as Leslie O’Neal. And O’Neal at least went to a Super Bowl. Taylor did not.

Granted, unlike Taylor, Leslie O’Neal wasn’t an all-decade choice or a Defensive Player of the Year. But he was a marvelous edge rusher — one of the best of his era. He was quick off the ball. He was relentless. He had great hands. He was disruptive. And he was effective. Those qualities should count for something, and they should at least get Leslie O’Neal past the first wave of cuts.

But they don’t.

I know, there are plenty of others who suffer the same indignity — with wide receiver Drew Pearson the first that comes to mind. He’s a first-team all-decade choice from the 1970s, and he’s never, ever been a semifinalist. Pearson is puzzled and wonders what he did to alienate voters. The answer is simple.


When O’Neal was inducted into the Oklahoma State Football Hall of Fame in 2014, he was asked when Canton would wake up to his achievements and induct him into the Pro Football Hall.

“You know, it’s a business,” he told Jenni Carlson of the Oklahoman. “So, if things work out that way, they do. If not, it’s not something I can push or do anything about.”

Maybe not. But there’s something we can push or do something about. We can get Leslie O’Neal into the room to be discussed as a Hall-of-Fame finalist. He may not demand it, but we should.

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  1. Rasputin
    November 14, 2017

    No rushing titles, but he did post 7 seasons of 12 or more sacks (hitting 17 in 1992), and 8 double digit sack seasons. That’s a rare accomplishment and shows sustained excellence.

  2. bachslunch
    November 14, 2017

    Leslie O’Neal has a better HoF argument than people think, especially if you value sack numbers — he’s 10th all time. And he did go to six pro bowls. What he lacks, though, are 1st team all pro selections and all decade team memberships, and when you consider that Neil Smith (1/6/90s and also a respected sacker) is not in and not likely to get in except as a Senior, it gives one pause regarding O’Neal. I’m not heavily sold on his candidacy, but there’s also no reason he should have been left off past preliminary lists or not have his case discussed.

  3. Rich Quodomine
    November 14, 2017

    I think he has two major issues: No rings or sustained team excellence – though a pretty good run at it in 1994 – and he played at the same position as Bruce Smith and at the same time. From 1990 to 1995, the Bolts went 6-10, 4-12, 11-5 (oh, hi Bobby Ross), 8-8, 10-6 (Super Bowl), 9-7. Not bad, but not great. and the defenses were very good, but not all time best. O’Neal has an argument, especially given what he was working with. He also wasn’t as flashy as a Smith or Seau. He deserves a deeper dive. I think that the HoF tends to look first at players with greatness who also have flair and personality (I see you Joe Namath, your style wouldn’t get you a ticket to the HoF these days), and O’Neal didn’t have that swagger that I remember. Doesn’t make him less great, but like Bill Mazeroski in the baseball Hall, great defense and quiet, calm effectiveness without flair (or offensive statistics) will require a longer wait.

    • 1976 Pitt Panthers
      November 19, 2017

      Bill Mazeroski has a signature moment, and that’s something valuable when talking about HOF candidates in any sport. I am surprised O’Neal hasn’t garnered more support for Canton.

  4. speedkilz88
    November 14, 2017

    Harvey Martin!

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