Why Mark Gastineau complicates J.J. Watt’s HOF case


J.J>Watt photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Quick question: If J.J. Watt’s career were to end today, would he be a Hall of Famer?

Some people … no, a lot of people … already have him fitted for a gold jacket, and you don’t have to be an Einstein to see why. In seven years, two of which were cut short by injuries, the Houston Texans’ star has been a four-time All-Pro, three-time Defensive Player of the Year and two-time leader in sacks. Plus, he was so good in 2014 he not only was named to the All-Pro first team as a defensive end but to its second team as a defensive tackle.

What’s more, that year he became the first defensive player since 2008 to gain MVP votes. He had 13.

So the resume is there, despite missing all but eight games the past two seasons. But it’s not J.J. Watt’s accomplishments that could hold him back from Canton as much as it’s the resume of another defensive end … and, Mark Gastineau, come on down.

The former New York Jets’ star was J.J. Watt before there was a J.J. Watt, and you can look it up. In his first seven seasons, he was a five-time All-Pro, a two-time NFL leader in sacks and league Defensive MVP. Moreover, in 1983 he set the NFL single-season sack record with 22, a mark that would stand for nearly two decades – or until Michael Strahan broke it in 2001.

J.J. Watt photo courtesy of the Houston Texans

Mark Gastineau was a force off the edge, three times producing 19 or more sacks in a season as part of the Jets’ famed “Sack Exchange.” According to Pro Football Journal, in 107 career starts he produced 107-1/2 sacks, or one a game, and was dominant to the very end – leading the AFC sacks in 1988 when he abruptly retired after seven games.

But because the NFL did not recognize sacks until 1982, Gastineau’s legacy has been diminished, with his numbers reduced to 74 career sacks. While not bad, they’re not Hall-of-Fame material for an edge pass rusher, and Hall-of-Fame voters go out of their way every year to remind Gastineau they’re not.

Not only hasn’t he been a Hall-of-Fame finalist; he’s never been a semifinalist, meaning he’s never, ever, been one of 25 candidates for annual consideration. Worse, as a senior candidate, his candidacy has been placed in the witness-protection program, with Gastineau never discussed.

“I’ve been on the senior committee 13 years,” said our Rick Gosselin, “and his name has never come up.”

So riddle me this: If Mark Gastineau can’t get a sniff after all that he accomplished, how … or why … is J.J. Watt considered a virtual cinch for Canton? The reason, I suggest, is three-fold: 1) Watt does more than rush the passer, as his five TDs, four forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries in 2014 attest; 2) He’s an eminently likeable figure where Gastineau was not and 3) he plays in the ESPN era, where the latest is the greatest and video replays are more available than discounted produce.

So we turn on the TV and see J.J. Watt sack the quarterback. We see him force the fumble. We see him catch the touchdown pass. And we see it over. And over. And over.

But Mark Gastineau? Uh, not so much. In fact, not at all.

Terrell Davis’ induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer opened the doors to Canton to all those who once thought longevity would keep them out — and if J.J. Watt were not to play another down, he’d qualify. But at 28, he doesn’t seem a likely candidate … even though he will have missed 24 of his last 32 starts when this season ends.

But age is not the key. This is: Davis excelled in the playoffs, averaging 142-1/2yards rushing in eight games, scoring 12 times, winning two Super Bowls and getting named a Super Bowl MVP. Neither Watt nor Gastineau reached the Super Bowl, though Gastineau did get to the 1982 conference championship before A.J. Duhe and the Miami Dolphins stopped the Jets. He also had nine-and-a-half sacks in five playoff starts, including 4-1/2 in three postseason games in 1982 … and two in the conference championship loss.

Nevertheless, the bottom line is this: Neither he nor Watt gained the rings that Davis has.

My point is this: J.J. Watt has done more than most in a relatively short career, and, yes, he would be a Hall-of-Fame candidate if his career were to end today. But how can he be considered a Hall-of-Fame favorite when Mark Gastineau – who produced more sacks his first seven seasons and, in fact, set the bar in that category – can’t gain the attention of voters?

And the answer is easy. He can’t.

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5 Comments

  1. Rasputin
    October 12, 2017
    Reply

    Gastineau was more of a pure pass rusher while Watt has been an overall dominant force who happened to rack up a couple of sack titles almost as an afterthought. Heck, Watt established his greatness initially playing 3-4 end, which isn’t even normally considered a high sack position. Watt routinely collapses the opposing o-line and may be remembered more for his extreme excellence in batting down passes than his impressive sack totals. He’s well rounded.

    That said, if Watt is done I agree that it diminishes his candidacy. First ballot status should be out, but he’s still probably done enough to earn eventual induction even if we’re pretending Terrell Davis isn’t in Canton.

  2. Joseph Wright
    October 12, 2017
    Reply

    Gastineau is one of the most political HOF snubs out there. His lack of voting support is largely based on the stodgy writers not liking his sack dance. The fact that he didn’t play the run is something they hide behind.
    For the back half of his career, Fred Dean was a designated pass-rusher (translation: part-time player/no run defense to worry about) and he’s in the Hall. Deion Sanders was a mercenary nomad who caught a lucky, perfect two-year storm with the 49ers and Cowboys.
    You don’t think the 49ers win those Super Bowls in ’81 and ’84 if Bill Walsh trades for Gastineau instead of Dean? And as for their respective run defense problems, there is a big difference in distaining the run to rush the passer (Gastineau) and hiding to avoid run support and contact altogether (Sanders).
    Gastineau was definitely a Hall of Famer but I would put Joe Klecko in first (or induct them together).

  3. dfr52
    October 12, 2017
    Reply

    Three Defensive Player of the Year Awards more than Mark Gastineau.

  4. bachslunch
    October 12, 2017
    Reply

    Here’s hoping J.J. Watt’s (honors currently 4/4/10s? and 3 DPOY awards) career isn’t done, though it could be. If so, my guess is he likely gets elected eventually, though am thinking he waits a few years. As Rasputin rightly points out, Watt was a fine all-around player, not just an excellent pass rusher. And given that more elite players seem to be retiring early (Patrick Willis, Calvin Johnson), plus folks like Kenny Easley and Terrell Davis just got elected and Tony Boselli reached the final 10 last time bodes well for him.

    But agreed that Mark Gastineau (4/5/none) has a strong HoF argument despite being more one-dimensional. Am actually surprised he fell into the Senior pool without ever reaching the finalist stage.

    • Rasputin
      October 12, 2017
      Reply

      Yeah, to be clear I would induct Gastineau too. Though I would induct older (but still living), even more deserving seniors like Chuck Howley first.

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