State Your Case: Why Michael Bates needs to be in the HOF discussion


Michael Bates photo courtesy of the Carolina Panthers

The Pro Football Hall of Fame has shown little regard for the contributions of Steve Tasker in Buffalo’s unprecedented run of four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s.

Tasker defined the term “special teams ace” – but he wasn’t the only card in that deck. By turning its back on Tasker, the Hall is also turning its back on Michael Bates and a slew of others who heightened the importance of the kicking downs on Sunday afternoons.

Tasker could block kicks, cover kicks and return kicks. So could Bates, who was a first-team NFL all-decade selection for the 1990s as a return specialist.

The Seattle Seahawks claimed Bates with a sixth-round draft pick in 1992. But he had more on his mind that year than football. An All-America sprinter at Arizona, Bates edged Carl Lewis for the final spot on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team in the 200 meters, then went to Barcelona and won a bronze medal in the event.

Bates joined the Seahawks in 1993 and used his track speed as a gunner on the punt team to set a franchise record with 22 special-teams tackles. He became a salary-cap casualty after his second season and wound up in Cleveland, where he spent the season covering kicks for Bill Belichick, a former special-teams coach himself and strong advocate of the kicking game.

When the Browns left Cleveland and Belichick behind after the 1995 season, Bates found himself out of work. He signed with the Carolina Panthers and his career took off, leading the NFL in kickoff returns in both 1996 (30.1 yards) and 1997 (27.3 yards). The expansion Panthers finished 7-9 in their first year in the NFL in 1995. Then Bates showed up in 1996 and Carolina improved to 12-4 and reached the NFC title game.

“Michael was as important to our ascendancy in the NFC as any player on our team,” said Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame general manager who built both the Bills and Panthers into powers. “He was as important to us as Steve Tasker was to us in Buffalo.

“In addition, he was the best kickoff returner I was ever around. Michael, (kicker) John Kasay and coach Brad Seely gave us the top special teams unit in the NFC. Unfortunately, Michael had a shorter career than Steve, so people don’t speak of him as a Hall of Famer. But he had a similar impact on our team.”

Bates spent five seasons with the Panthers and went to five consecutive Pro Bowls. He returned five kickoffs for touchdowns, including two in 1999, and also blocked three kicks. He set 12 franchise records during his five seasons with the Panthers, including career kickoff returns (233), career yards (5,987) and career average (25.7 yards).

Bates jumped to the Washington Redskins in free agency in 2001 and averaged 23.5 yards playing for another strong NFL special teams advocate, Marty Schottenheimer. Bates missed the 2002 season after suffering a broken ankle in training camp and finished up his career in Dallas in 2003 playing for yet another special-teams advocate, Bill Parcells, on a playoff team.

Bates scored five touchdowns in his career and all were speed related. He scored on kickoff returns of 100 yards against Atlanta, 99 yards against Indianapolis, 95 yards against New Orleans, 93 yards against St. Louis and 92 yards against Washington. He also caught a 40-yard touchdown pass against the Raiders in 1994.

Belichick, Schottenheimer and Parcells appreciated special teams – and they appreciated what Michael Bates brought to their football teams. Do Bates, Tasker, Elbert Shelley and, in the future, Matthew Slater, deserve busts in the Hall of Fame? Maybe, maybe not. But they certainly deserve to be in the discussion.

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2 Comments

  1. brian wolf
    August 28, 2018
    Reply

    Great article Rick. Bates definitely deserves discussion along with other special teams players like Bill Bates, Steve Tasker, Brian Mitchell, Devin Hester, Abe Woodson, Speedy Duncan and other players.

    The problem I have with special teams players making the Hall is that many of these players, even great ones, could not crack their offensive or defensive starting lineups, or didnt do anything once they did. Desmond Howard and Devin Hester are glaring examples.

    I think that players who mostly started, but also played great special teams, should get more consideration than just specific special teams players, however in the case of Steve Tasker and Ray Guy, these were players that could have excelled as starters, but were held back by their coaches. Yes, Ray Guy…who played safety in college and could throw a football as far as any quarterback…

    I would put in players like Troy Brown, James Brooks, Derrick Mason or even Darren Sproles, players that were excellent starters on offence who may not have the numbers for the Hall but excelled at special teams as well. Bill Bates and Abe Woodson would be examples on defence.

  2. bachslunch
    August 31, 2018
    Reply

    Fine write-up, Rick, well argued.

    The whole concept of the HoF and special teams is an interesting one. Currently, the following is the case for induction precedent:

    PK–yes, both specialists and combo candidates

    P–yes for combo candidates, Ray Guy is the sole punting specialist which may or may not be sufficient precedent (I’m fine with it)

    KR and gunner types–yes for combo candidates, no for specialists

    So far, only KRs who played a position at or near HoF level are in: Jack Christensen, Deion Sanders, Gale Sayers, and Tim Brown, for example. For me, this makes guys like Lemar Parrish, Dave Grayson, Abe Woodson, and perhaps even Irving Fryar and Derrick Mason reasonable HoF options. There were players who had HoF careers and also served as top kick blockers, such as Bob St. Clair, Ted Hendricks, Alan Page, and Jack Youngblood, which makes folks like Albert Lewis and Eddie Meador potentially reasonable choices also.

    Top KR specialists have so far been excluded, with the best choices including Devin Hester, White Shoes Johnson, Rick Upchurch, Dante Hall, Mel Gray, and Josh Cribbs, among others. Top gunners have also been excluded thus far, with good choices including Bill Bates, Steve Tasker, Elbert Shelley, Ron Wolfley, Hank Bauer, and when eligible, Matthew Slater. There are of course no dedicated long snappers, holders, or kick blockers in, either. Michael Bates is unusual in that he successfully served as a top notch KR and gunner, so for sure he belongs in this discussion, as does Brian Mitchell who excelled in several special teams capacities. The big problem for M. Bates and all the rest of these folks is that there’s no precedent for inducting them, in part because they did not play a field position at a high level. That may or may not be an issue, depending on how one sees it.

    I can see the thinking that it’s tough to deny someone like Karl Mecklenburg or Sam Mills or Mike Kenn or Joe Jacoby in favor of folks like Hester or Tasker or M. Bates, though I’m unsure how heavily I’m sold on the concept. The answer may well be to get more players in front of the voting committee and vote more folks in per year, and I’m fine with that.

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