NFL players have a 25-year window of eligibility for the Pro Football Hall of Fame as modern-era candidates. There is a five-year waiting period after a player retires before he becomes eligible. Then he has a 20-year window of eligibility.
If that window closes, the player moves into the senior pool – otherwise known as “the abyss.” Many of those in the abyss are worthy Hall of Fame candidates who never advanced to the finals, thus never had their careers discussed and debated by the full 48-member selection committee.
Last week we asked our listeners and readers of the Talk of Fame Network to identify the player most deserving of the one senior committee nomination for the Class of 2019. Linebacker Andy Russell of the Pittsburgh Steelers was the overwhelming winner from the slate of 10 candidates we presented.
But let’s pull back the curtain on the senior committee. There are more than 10 deserving candidates in the senior pool. Far more. So we’re going to offer up a second-slate of 10 senior candidates worthy of Hall of Fame discussion. Frankly, we could offer up a third, fourth and fifth slate of candidates — and we will in the coming weeks.
And therein lies the problem for the senior committee, of which myself and fellow Talk of Fame Network host Ron Borges are members. There are too many deserving candidates but too few slots for worthy candidates who have fallen through the cracks of the selection process.
So if this grouping was the slate of finalists for the one senior spot in the Class of 2019, who would be most deserving of that honor? Here are your options:
Cliff Branch. There are 11 Raiders from the 1970s in the Hall of Fame. The franchise’s Hall of Fame owner Al Davis long believed there should be 12 – Branch. An Olympic-caliber sprinter, Branch set the then NCAA 100-meter dash record in 1972 with a 10.0 clocking and was invited to the Olympic trials. But he elected to pursue a football career instead after being drafted in the fourth round by the Raiders. That speed became his calling card on the football field. He averaged 17.3 yards per catch in his 14-year career, helping the Raiders win three Super Bowls. He deposited 67 of his 501 career catches in the end zone for touchdowns. He went to four Pro Bowls but has never been a Hall of Fame finalist.
Mike Curtis. Curtis was the best player on a Baltimore defense that allowed the fewest points in an NFL championship season in 1968. That sent him to the first of his four Pro Bowls. He was the best player on the entire team in 1970 when the Colts won their first Super Bowl. That earned him the first of his two team MVP honors from the Colts. He went to the Pro Bowl as both a strongside linebacker and a middle backer, and finished his career with the expansion Seattle Seahawks as a weakside linebacker. Curtis was a team captain of both the Colts and Seahawks. He has never been a Hall of Fame finalist.
Pat Fischer. Voted one of the 70 greatest Redskins and a member of the franchise’s Ring of Honor. Fischer played 17 seasons and 213 games at cornerback, which was at the record for his position at the time of his retirement. He intercepted 56 career passes, which ranks 18th all-time and ninth among pure corners. That ties him with Lem Barney, a Hall of Famer, and Charles Woodson, a soon-to-be Hall of Famer. Fischer overcame a huge obstacle – his size (5-9, 170 pounds) to go to three Pro Bowls and set an NFL record for cornerbacks with his 16 fumble recoveries. He has never been a Hall of Fame finalist.
Roman Gabriel. The NFL MVP in 1969. From 1967-1970, Gabriel quarterbacked the Los Angeles Rams to a 41-11-4 record and was voted to three Pro Bowls. He was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1973 and led the NFL that season with 3,219 passing yards and 23 touchdowns. He was voted the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year that year and was sent to his fourth Pro Bowl. He passed for 29,444 yards and 201 touchdowns in his career and also rushed for 1,304 yards and 30 more scores. Gabriel has never been a Hall of Fame finalist.
Charlie Hennigan. A wide receiver decades ahead of his time. Hennigan caught 100 yards in passes in 10 of Houston’s 14 games in 1961. That record stood for 34 years before Hall of Famer Michael Irvin posted 11 100-yard games for the Cowboys in 1995 in a 16-game season. Hennigan’s three 200-yard games that season still remain an NFL record 57 years later. His 1,746 yards receiving were another record that stood for 34 years before Hall of Famer Jerry Rice broke it, also in 1995, with 1,848 yards for the 49ers. In 1964, Hennigan caught 101 passes for an AFL-leading 1,584 yards and eight touchdowns. Those 101 receptions remained an NFL record for 20 years before Hall of Famer Art Monk caught 106 for the Washington Redskins in 1984 in a 16-game season. Yet Hennigan has never been a Hall of Fame finalist.
Chuck Howley. The MVP of Super Bowl V – the only player off a losing team ever so honored. Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry said, “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anybody better at linebacker than Chuck Howley.” His game was as versatile as it was complete. He intercepted six passes as a strongside linebacker in 1968 and five more as a weakside backer in 1971. He also had a career-best 5 ½ sacks in 1969. Howley intercepted two passes in Super Bowl V – one off Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas, the other off Earl Morrall – on his way to MVP honors. He chipped in two more takeaways in Super Bowl VI – intercepting a pass by Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese and recovering a fumble by Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka – to help the Cowboys win their first championship. Howley went to six Pro Bowls, intercepted 25 career passes and recovered 18 fumbles. But he has never been a Hall of Fame finalist.
Joe Klecko. A member of the New York Jets’ vaunted “Sack Exchange” in the 1970s, Klecko is the only defensive player in NFL history voted to the Pro Bowl at three different positions – end, tackle and nose tackle. He was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1981 when he led the league in sacks with 20 ½ from his end position. But Klecko ruptured a patella tendon in his right knee in 1982, which led to his move inside to tackle in 1983. Another knee injury in 1987 slowed him down further. Klecko’s jersey number 73 has been retired by the Jets and he has been enshrined in the franchise Ring of Honor. But he’s never been a Hall of Fame finalist.
Bob Kuechenberg. A member of one of the best offensive lines in history. That blocking front powered the run-based Miami Dolphins to a perfect season in 1972 and back-to-back Super Bowl championships. Center Jim Langer has been enshrined in Canton, as has guard Larry Little. Kuechenberg has been an eight-time finalist who now finds himself in the senior pool. Kuechenberg went to six Pro Bowls, including one at left tackle when injuries forced him to change positions in 1978. Keuchenberg also played in Super Bowl VIII with a 10-inch metal rod in his forearm. Said Miami’s Hall of Fame coach Dan Shula: “Bob Kuechenberg did more to help my team win than any player I ever coached.” It should be noted that Shula coached Hall of Fame quarterbacks Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese and Dan Marino.
Jim Marshall. There are two members of Minnesota’s Purple Eaters defense of the 1970s enshrined in Canton, end Carl Eller and tackle Alan Page. Minnesota’s Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant will tell you there should be a third – Marshall. He played more seasons (20) and more games (282) than any defensive lineman in NFL history and recovered more fumbles (29) than any defensive player in NFL history. He also sacked 128 quarterbacks. That’s more than Hall of Famers Derrick Thomas, Charles Haley, Andre Tippett, Fred Dean and Elvin Bethea. He has been a Hall of Fame finalist a single time (2004).
Ken Riley. Is the fifth all-time leading passer enshrined in Canton? Yes (Dan Marino). Is the fifth all-time leading receiver enshrined in Canton? Yes (Marvin Harrison). Is the fifth all-time sacker enshrined in Canton? Yes (Chris Doleman). How about the fifth all-time interceptor? Nope. That’s Riley, who intercepted 65 career passes, all with the Cincinnati Bengals. That also ranks him second among pure cornerbacks behind Hall of Famer Dick “Night Train” Lane. Riley led the NFL with nine interceptions in 1976 and again with nine more in his final season in 1983. But he was never selected to a Pro Bowl. He also recovered 18 fumbles and scored five touchdowns. Yet Riley has never been a Hall of Fame finalist.