I've been given a list of 76 of the greatest players in pro
football history. From this I must, as a Hall of Fame selector,
choose 12 who will appear before the selection committee in
January. In other words, I have to make 64 cuts. People such as
Archie Manning, Roger Craig, Russ Grimm, Art Monk, Randy
Gradishar--how many of these stars can you decide are not good
enough, without losing your sanity?
It's a fearsome job. I agonize. I run past the deadline the Hall
has given us, and I always get that phone call that begins,
"Look, we need your picks now!"
I can't give you my final choices, but topping my list, and the
guy I will lobby hardest for, is Dave Casper, the old Raiders
tight end. People forget how good he was. I don't know how to say
this more plainly: He was the best tight end I ever saw. He
played part of his career under the old rules, which allowed
defenders to mug receivers all over the field. How many times did
I train my binocs on Casper, fighting his way through the carnage
and reaching at the last minute to make one of his patented
one-handed catches? He simply didn't drop the ball.
Blocking? Well, Casper spent time as a tackle at Notre Dame. He
might have been the best blocking tight end of all time. If
you've got a picture in your mind of him as a slow former tackle,
forget it. He averaged 13.8 yards a catch, two-plus yards more
than the average of the current No. 1 at the position, the
Chiefs' Tony Gonzalez; better than the career average of any Pro
Bowl tight end from last year; better than the average of the
Ravens' Shannon Sharpe, the best deep threat at the position.
The quarterback competition is a tough call. Ditto the race among
running backs and wideouts once you get past graceful, acrobatic
Steeler Lynn Swann. Among the offensive linemen, I've got strong
feelings for Bob Kuechenberg, the left guard and spearhead of the
mighty Dolphins running attacks of the early '70s, and Jackie
Slater, the Rams right tackle who performed with great class and
dignity for 20 years, count 'em.
It broke my heart last year when the Rams' Jack Youngblood didn't
make it. Who could turn thumbs down on this fierce, talented
competitor? But another name jumps out from the nine remaining
defensive linemen on the list, and this will come as a surprise:
Elvin Bethea, DE, Oilers.
A talented sacker (14 1/2 in 1976, four in a single game),
Bethea became the prototypical run-stuffing end in Bum
Phillips's early 3-4, sacrificing sacks for power. I'd say that
Bethea and the Bucs' Lee Roy Selmon were the best 3-4 ends I've
Still on the defensive line, I know that Dan Hampton, the heart
and muscle of Buddy Ryan's ferocious Bears defenses, will be one
of my dozen choices. The Giants' Harry Carson, one of the alltime
great goal-line defenders--he had a knack for knowing where the
thrust was coming from--is my top candidate among the linebackers.
Former Cowboy Cliff Harris leads my defensive-backs list. If I
had to pick an alltime free safety, I'd split the position into
two categories. There was the rangy type, the swooping
interceptor, and Willie Wood was the best I've seen in that
style, with Paul Krause close behind. (Both are in the Hall of
Fame.) Then there was the killer type, the "obstructionist," as
Al Davis liked to refer to such players. Come into my area and
you take your life in your hands. Two candidates pop up, Harris
and Jack Tatum, but Tatum never had Harris's coverage instincts.
In addition to the 76 candidates on the list, there are three
other players to consider. As finalists last year, Swann and
Youngblood will be automatically added to the January ballot, and
both will again get my vote. Nick Buoniconti, who is this year's
Seniors candidate, also deserves a choice.
As far as voting for coaches and contributors (owners, officials,
etc.), I've always had a hard time comparing, say, a Jerry Jones
to a Phil Simms (both on the ballot). There should be two classes
of nominees, players and nonplayers, but this is the system, and
I'll just have to work it out. That is still another reason I
never have my ballot ready on time.
COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. I don't know how to say this more plainly: Casper (87) was the best tight end I ever saw.