Patrick Willis a "slam-dunk" Hall of Famer? Not so fast, everyone

Denver Broncos Historical Archives

(Photos courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos)

By Clark Judge

Talk of Fame Network

I read an article that called Patrick Willis – now the former linebacker of the San Francisco 49ers – a “sure-fire Hall of Famer,” with the author telling us he’s a cinch to make it to Canton because … well, because he just is.

OK, fine. But this just in: He’s not.

He’s not a cinch to be anything except a subject in stories that chronicle the decline and fall of the San Francisco 49ers. That doesn’t mean Patrick Willis might not end up in Canton some day … because he might. But it does mean he doesn’t get in “easily,” which I also read, because anyone not named Unitas, Montana, Lott or Rice doesn’t make into the Pro Football Hall of Fame easily.

Which is exactly as it should be.

Look, Patrick Willis was a terrific player on a terrific defense and was named to multiple Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams. And that’s great. But so was Randy Gradishar. In fact, he was more than that. And look where it got him.

Not in the Hall of Fame, that’s where.

Like Willis, the former Denver star was a first-team All-Pro five times. Like Willis, he was a two-time team MVP. But he was also the league’s 1978 Defensive Player of the Year. Willis was not. He was the league’s 2007 Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Randy Gradishar was a sure tackler, who could rush the quarterback, who could cover in space and who, when he retired, held the league record for most career tackles. In short, he was a complete linebacker. There was almost nothing Randy Gradishar couldn’t do … except make it to Canton.

Now, all of a sudden, Patrick Willis retires, and we’re asking if he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer? Slow down, people. There are only 12 middle linebackers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and two of them – Nick Buoniconti and Les Richter – had to wait 25 years as seniors. Nevertheless, and let me get this straight: With Willis’ retirement, there’s a push to put him, Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher in as first-ballot choices in the space of three years?

I don’t think so, and don’t take it from me. Take it from Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News and Talk of Fame Network. He’s been on the Hall’s board of selectors for over two decades, is on the Hall’s senior and contributor committee and knows the difficulty of getting anyone – especially a middle or inside linebacker – to Canton.

“Tommy Nobis isn’t in,” Gosselin said, “and he was an all-decade selection in the 1960s. Randy Gradishar isn’t in, and he was the 1978 Defensive Player of the Year and a seven-time Pro Bowler. Lee Roy Jordan isn’t in. He had 48 career takeaways, went to five Pro Bowls and played on two Super Bowl champions. Mike Curtis isn’t in. He went to four Pro Bowls and wears a Super Bowl ring.

“Nobis and Curtis have never been in the room as finalists to be discussed, and Gradishar has only been discussed twice. Patrick Willis may be the latest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the greatest. Let’s slow down, and let the process play out.”


Nevertheless, there are voters I’ve spoken with who have him moving toward the head of the class, with one telling me “I believe that for quite some time he was the best defender in the NFL” before he went on to label him “a great player.” OK, but what was Randy Gradishar? I know what he is now: Someone on the outside of the Hall looking in.

Patrick Willis has Hall-of-Fame credentials. What he doesn’t have is longevity. But he played eight years, and that’s more than most NFL players. Furthermore, he excelled in those eight years, reaching the Pro Bowl seven times and the All-Pro team six. But history tells us that doesn’t necessarily make you a Hall-of-Fame cinch ... and not because of what the Hall’s selectors tell us.

But because of what Randy Gradishar does.

“Willis certainly is worthy of discussion,” said Ira Miller, another longtime selector, “but slam-dunk? Hardly. In fact, he’s barely more than a borderline candidate (because of) a relatively short career.

“How many NFL championships did his team win? For comparison’s sake, does the name Terrell Davis ring a bell? Also a short career ... and Davis was a league MVP, a Super Bowl MVP, a 2,000-yard rusher and one of the great post-season rushers of all time. Yet he is not in the Hall of Fame. Patrick, get in line.”