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.