(Lynch photos courtesy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Talk of Fame Network
Defensive linemen are judged by their sacks, linebackers by their tackling and cornerbacks by their interceptions.
Then there are safeties. The measure of greatness at that position is an elusive one.
If a safety is a beast in run support, if he was dominant at the front end of his defense, like Cliff Harris, he’s dinged because he lacks interceptions. Harris was an NFL all-decade safety in the 1970s and a physical force in the Doomsday Defense of the Cowboys. Four times in his nine seasons Dallas led the NFL in run defense, and Harris also had a reputation of hammering receivers crossing the middle. But he only had 29 career interceptions, so he remains on the outside looking in at Canton with only one trip to the finals in his 33 years of eligibility.
If a safety is a ballhawk, if he’s dominant at the back end of his defense, like Paul Krause, he’s dinged because he lacks a presence up front. Krause holds the NFL record for career interceptions with 81, but it took him 14 years to get a bust in Canton. The knock on Krause was that when you turned on the game film, you could never find him on the screen because he played so deeply. He would never be enshrined as a tackler.
The perfect safety is one who can lead his team in both tackles and interceptions. And those safeties are the rarest of the rare.
Which brings us to John Lynch, the new general manager of the 49ers and a Hall-of-Fame finalist for the Class of 2017. This is his fourth trip to the finals still looking for a favorable result.
Lynch excelled in a Tampa Bay defense that was one of the NFL’s best in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Tampa 2 scheme relies on the front four to apply pressure on the quarterback with the other seven defenders sitting back in a zone coverage watching the quarterback, waiting on the football. When the pass is thrown, the back seven defenders are expected to pounce on the receiver in a hurry and with an attitude.
Lynch brought attitude. Both in coverage and run support.
He played 15 seasons and amassed 1,277 tackles, including three 100-tackle seasons. He was voted to nine Pro Bowls. The only safety in history who went to more was Hall-of-Famer Ken Houston with 12. Houston retired after the 1980 season — an no safety since him has been enshrined in Canton. So the position is engulfed in a 36-year drought.
Lynch was a third-round pick by the Buccaneers in 1993 but was a player without a position in his first three seasons. The closer to the line of scrimmage he played, the more effective he became. He played like a linebacker but wasn’t big enough to be a linebacker. So he started only 10 games in his first three seasons for Sam Wyche and his staff, spending the bulk of his time covering kicks.
But Tony Dungy arrived as head coach in 1996 and saw Lynch as a fit for his Tampa 2 scheme at safety. He wanted a thumper in the Donnie Shell-mold. Lynch became an instant starter for Dungy and posted his first 100-tackle season in 1996. He started eight seasons in Tampa and the Bucs finished in the Top 10 in both pass defense seven times and run defense five times.
Tampa Bay reached the NFC title game in 1999 and won the Super Bowl in 2002.
“John made game-changing hits,” Dungy said.
Lynch left for Denver in free agency in 2004 and started four more seasons, his final four, earning a Pro Bowl bid each time. Twice the Broncos finished in the Top 5 in run defense with Lynch in their secondary.
But, like Harris, Lynch paid a price for his style of play and his knack for contact. He intercepted only 26 career passes. The seven pure safeties already enshrined in Canton averaged 58 career interceptions. The safety with the fewest interceptions in Canton is Jack Christiansen, who played in the 1950s and intercepted 46 passes in an eight-year career.
“The number (26) is there,” said former Tampa Bay defensive coach and now Dallas coordinator Rod Marinelli of Lynch’s lack of interceptions. “You’d like better. But the hitting… John was a tremendous enforcer. How many passes were dropped in his vicinity? John was all about winning games. That helped us win games.”
If you look at his stats, you can quibble with the Hall-of-Fame candidacy of John Lynch. His 26 interceptions, 13 sacks and eight fumble recoveries come up short of the Hall of Famers at his position. But if you watch the tape and see his impact on the field, there should be no quibbles. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler for a reason. He’s a member of two franchise rings of honor, the Bucs and Broncos, for a reason. A a four-time finalist, Lynch remains a Hall-of-Fame candidate for a very good reason.