CANTON, Ohio - Every Hall-of-Fame class is unique, but the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s 2019 list of inductees may include the greatest secondary ever.
The eight selectees who will be enshrined Saturday night include late Denver Broncos' owner Pat Bowlen, former Dallas Cowboys’ personnel man Gil Brandt, the most prolific pass catching tight end in NFL history in Tony Gonzalez and center Kevin Mawae, who blocked for 1,000-yard rushers in 13 of his 16 seasons and for five different runners.
Each earned his bust in Canton with consistent performances over many years at the highest level of the sport. Yet as adept as each was in his roles it is the other four enshrinees who make this class particularly noteworthy.
What NFL coach wouldn’t cut off his whistle and promise to never again utter the professional sports lie “we are family’’ for the chance to walk onto the field with Ty Law and Champ Bailey as his cornerbacks and Johnny Robinson and Ed Reed as his safeties?
Maybe someone might argue that isn’t the greatest secondary ever assembled at one time but more than likely it would be.
Bailey, Law, Reed and Robinson made 226 interceptions, scored 19 touchdowns and caused hundreds of offensive coordinators and quarterbacks many sleepless nights. All four were offense disruptors. They were game changers. They were at their best in the biggest games. They were impactful in every way imaginable.
The Class of 2019 is the first to include four defensive backs and that’s an achievement in an era where defense seems to have been legislated out of the game and in a Hall where there’s a 60-40 split in favor of offense. Law made quick note of this when the class was first announced.
“We talked about that amongst the group,” Law told the Talk of Fame Network. “We feel good that we were the first to put four defensive backs in. Even if that’s done again … at some point … we say, ‘We’ll put our secondary up against any Hall-of-Fame class; any Hall-of-Fame receivers, running backs or defensive backs. Any. Period.'
“We’re like: 'Bring it on.' (When) we have an Old Timers game, then we’re going to shut it down.
“You think about it from an interception standpoint. We’ve got over 200 combined … 220 … interceptions (among) the four of us. So, that’s a helluva class right there. And we have two safeties and two corners. So how great is that? Imagine if we were all in our primes and playing together. We wouldn’t lose a game.”
Not many at least. And their coaching staff wouldn’t lose much sleep, regardless of what quarterback they were about to face or which receivers might be running downfield against them.
They might not even worry about today’s “hands off the offense’’ rulebook which has led to a meaningless proliferation of passing statistics that have all but made a mockery of the record book and historical perspective,
If there is an antidote to that, the Canton Four might be it.
The oldest among them is Robinson, who at 81 waited 43 years for the knock to come on his door from Hall-of-Fame president and CEO David Baker … and there is is no good explanation for that. Robinson was not only a member of the AFL’s All-Time team and anchor of one of the greatest defenses in pro football history (the 1969 Chiefs) but also a ball-hawking safety who led the AFL in interceptions in 1966 and then did it again in the reformatted NFL in 1970, the first year of the newly merged league’s formation.
“Simply put, Johnny Robinson is one of the greatest safeties that I ever faced,” said Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Lance Alworth, who Al Davis and many others believe belongs on any short list of greatest receivers in NFL history. “In fact, I can’t think of any that I’ve seen in the 50 years since that have been better.
"When we ran cross patterns against Kansas City, I knew that I was going to get hit hard. I had to prepare myself specifically for him, both mentally and physically.”
Next to him on that podium and on their defensive backline may be the most impactful safety in football history, former Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed.
Reed turned his 64 interceptions into 1,590 return yards, which is the most in NFL history. He had both the longest and second-longest interception returns in history, 107 yards against the Eagles and 106 yards against the Browns. He tied for the most years leading the league in interceptions (3), tied for first in post-season interceptions with seven and is a former NFL Defensive MVP.
One could go on with his resume, but why bother? Let Bill Belichick handle that.
“He’s the best weak safety I’ve seen since I’ve been in the National Football League in my career,’’ Belichick once said of Reed. “He’s outstanding at pretty much everything. The list goes on and on with him. It’s just a question of pretty much anything he’s out there for, he’s good at.”
Law finished his career with 53 interceptions as the most impactful defensive player on the Patriots’ first three Super Bowl champions. He had seven pick-sixes in the regular season and another in New England’s Super Bowl upset of the St. Louis Rams that kick started their dynasty.
And if those 53 aren’t impressive enough for you, he had six more in the playoffs and so terrorized long-time rival Peyton Manning that Manning said, “When Ty goes into the Hall of Fame I should be his presenter because I did more than anybody else to put him there. He was almost like another receiver out there. He understood situational football as well as anyone I ever encountered. He knew how to play the moment.’’
So did Bailey, who went to 12 Pro Bowls and, like the other three, was an all-decade selection. He finished his career with 52 interceptions, and NFL coaches of his time will point out that he would have had many more if teams hadn't often abandoned the idea of throwing in his direction.
"When you think of a shutdown corner," Baltimore wide receiver Torrey Smith once said, "you think of Champ Bailey."
And when you think of a shutdown secondary think of the one that’s inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. Is the Canton Four the best ever assembled on one podium? It’s hard to argue otherwise.