by Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
When Chicago Bears’ linebacker Brian Urlacher announced his retirement on May 22, 2013 via Twitter, it was a sign of the times. So, too, was the breathless commentary later that day on outlets like ESPN and NFL Network labeling him a “first-ballot Hall of Famer.” Oh, really?
The odds of becoming a Hall of Famer are miniscule. The odds of becoming a first ballot Hall of Famer are even less and rightfully so. Of the nearly 30,000 men who have played, coached or contributed in a major meaningful way to pro football, only 287 have ever been elected, which is roughly 1%. Of that 1%, only 73 were first ballot Hall of Famers.
Yet those long odds against any player being a first ballot Hall of Famer are not the primary reason the climb will be uphill for Urlacher. His problem is not his numbers. His problem is No. 52.
When Urlacher first becomes eligible along with him on the list of new candidates will be two-time Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl XXXV MVP Ray Lewis. It is difficult to believe two players who are first-time candidates and played the same position will be voted in the same year, especially when nearly everything one of them did was just a little bit better than the other.
Urlacher played 13 seasons in the NFL before retiring after injuries and a contract dispute ended his career in Chicago. He was NFL Defensive Rookie of the year in 2000, went to eight Pro Bowls, was named All-Pro four times and was Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. He was named to the 2000 All-Decade team and played in Super Bowl XLI, losing 29-17 to the Indianapolis Colts.
A converted college safety known as a “Lobo-Back” while at New Mexico, Urlacher’s career was exemplary and impactful. He started 180 of his 182 games in Chicago, third highest total in club history behind Walter Payton (184) and Olin Kreutz (183), and finished with 1,779 tackles, 41 1/2 sacks, 22 interceptions, 16 fumble recoveries and 11 forced fumbles. He was a playmaker and a game changer.
But he was not Ray Lewis.
Lewis played 17 years for the Baltimore Ravens, went to the Pro Bowl 13 times and was named All-Pro seven times. He was twice named Defensive Player of the Year, twice won the Super Bowl and was MVP of Super Bowl XXXV. He also joined Urlacher on the All-Decade team of the 2000s before ending his career in 2012 with 2,061 tackles, 41 1/2 sacks, 31 interceptions, 19 forced fumbles and 20 fumble recoveries. He is the first player in history to post 40 or more sacks and 30 or more interceptions.
Simply put, Lewis was better and when one is talking about so thin a line as the one dividing first ballot Hall of Famers from the rest, such judgments must be made.
Lewis was the driving force behind one of the league’s all-time stingiest defenses, anchoring the 2000 Super Bowl-winning unit that allowed the fewest points (165) and rushing yards in history over a 16-game season. Six years later, a Lewis-led defense put up similarly remarkable records, finishing first in 14 defensive categories including fewest points and total yards allowed and was second in sacks and takeaways. In the 14 games Lewis played that season, Baltimore allowed only one 100-yard rusher.
It seems clear both are likely to eventually become Hall of Famers but you only have one chance to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Only four middle or inside linebackers ever received that honor: Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert, Mike Singletary and Ray Nitschke. To be the next requires clearing a high bar. The likelihood two such players at the same position will do so in the same season is infinitesimal on the face of it.
Compare the numbers and the individual impact on their teams and it is difficult to argue Urlacher was superior to Lewis. The only issue then is will both become first ballot Hall of Famers in 2017?
Anything is possible but there is a reason that list is so short. It should be.
Follow Ron Borges on Twitter at @ronborgesTOF or @RonBorges
Photo courtesy of Baltimore Ravens