When we had NFL historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal on last week’s broadcast, we asked him for an out-of-the-box choice for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So he gave us one.
Former San Francisco 49ers’ defensive tackle Bryant Young.
It’s not that Young isn’t qualified. He is. He was a 1990s’ all-decade choice. But what makes him a wildcard is that in his five years of Pro Football Hall-of-Fame eligibility, Bryant Young has never been a semifinalist. That means he’s never been one of the top 25 candidates in any year, and that’s more than surprising for someone with his qualifications.
It’s downright wrong.
Young not only was one of the best defensive tackles of his era, but he had more tackles and tackles for losses than Hall-of-Famer Warren Sapp and only seven fewer sacks (96.5-89.5). He had more safeties, too, with a 49ers’ record of three.
He was named to the Pro Bowl four times. He was named All-Pro four times. He was the 1999 NFL Comeback Player of the Year. He starred for a Super Bowl winner (1994) and the NFL's top defense (1997). And he was held in such high regard by the 49ers that, until this year, no one since his retirement wore his number 97.
"No offense to Warren Sapp," Turney wrote earlier this year, "but Bryant Young was a more complete tackle. Sapp played the 'three technique;' Young had to play both the 'shade' tackle and the 'three' tackle. (And) he played the run better. Just solid in every way."
So why isn’t he held in such high regard by the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s board of selectors? Sapp was a first-ballot choice, but Young can’t get a sniff. But why? I wish I knew, and Young – who today is defensive line coach for Atlanta – wishes he did, too.
“It’s a bit baffling,” he said this week. “When you look at the numbers and the span of my career, it makes you wonder. When all the things that you consider in terms of character and representation of the game … and just the impact you make on a team and the organization … I think it deserves to be talked about.”
So do I.
He checked most of the boxes in his 14-year career. He was a Super-Bowl champion. He was an all-decade choice. He was an All-Pro multiple times. He’s among the all-time leaders in sacks at his position. He overcame a career-threatening injury. And he was a team leader. So what’s the deal?
Maybe it’s because he wasn’t as outrageous, boisterous, surly, marketable, you name it, as a Warren Sapp. Young not only is a private individual; he's quiet, considerate and uncomfortable talking about himself. But he played with such a passion and fury on the field that he won the 49ers’ most prestigious honor – the Len Eshmont award – a team-record eight times, including the last four seasons of his career.
The award is given annually to the player who best exemplifies the insipirational and courageous play of former 49er Len Eshmont, and this is all you need to know about Bryant Young: His eight selections lap the field. No other player in the history of the award, which dates back to 1957, won it more than twice.
Not Joe Montana. Not Jerry Rice. Not Steve Young ... or Roger Craig ... or Hugh McElhenny ... or Ronnie Lott ... or John Brodie. Nobody.
So maybe it’s because he wasn’t a sack machine. Yeah, I know, defensive tackles aren’t known for sacks, nor should they be. Yet sacks are the sexy statistics that attract the most interest and often are used as measuring sticks of defensive linemen. Young had two seasons with double-digit sacks; Sapp had four.
Or maybe it’s the position. Defensive tackle is not considered a glamorous position, but it’s one of the most important in today’s game. Yet there hasn’t been a modern-era defensive tackle chosen to the Hall since Sapp in 2013, while Curley Culp – widely considered the best nose tackle in the game’s history – had to wait over 30 years before reaching Canton.
Or maybe it's all of the above, I don’t know.
What I do know is what I saw, and what I saw in Bryant Young was an extraordinary and complete player whom opponents had trouble defending. In fact, when then-teammate Dana Stubblefield produced a career-best 15 sacks in 1997, winning the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, some within the organization believed Young deserved part of that award – mostly because opponents were more concerned with him than Stubblefield.
“I thought Bryant Young was a force to be concerned about when you played the 49ers," said Hall-of-Fame general manager Ron Wolf. "He was strong at the point of attack, but, even more so, was a penetrating type of defensive lineman. You had to be aware of where he was at all times.
"I doubt seriously he received the publicity he should have, but he was, to put it frankly, a pain in the butt to play against. He kept coming all the time. Relentless in his effort on every play. Really admire how he performed for San Francisco.
"I certainly think he is deserving of Hall-of-Fame discussion. He reminded me of a somewhat larger John Randle, though not as good a player as John was overall. It would be hard to find too many people, however, who were as good as John was with the Vikings.”
Wolf's Green Bay Packers almost annually had to deal with Young, and, like other opponents, they didn't go to sleep on him. You couldn't. But Hall-of-Fame voters have, and it’s high time that ends. Bryant Young deserves nothing less.