clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Horse Tracks: Steve Atwater and the Hall of Fame

New, comments

How does Steve Atwater stack up against some of those already enshrined in Canton?

Steve Atwater

Could you tell the story of the NFL without mentioning the player’s impact on the game?

This seems to be the rule-of-thumb that everybody who debates Pro Football Hall of Fame eligibility urns to when it comes to players. Has it always been this way? I had a conversation with MHR staffer Jeffrey Essery the other day and posited that it hasn’t.

If you look at the history of the hall of fame, you’ll notice a bunch of names among the shining stars that you’ve most likely never heard of. In 1963, the hall of fame’s inaugural class consisted of 17 enshrinees. From Jim Thorpe to Sammy Baugh, there are plenty of recognizable names, but as the years go forward there are names of people who I’ve never heard of and I began to wonder... Could the NFL’s story be told without some of these people?

Surely, there had to be someone not nearly as qualified as the Broncos own Steve Atwater and his candidacy for enshrinement. After these past frustrating yars of Atwater not breaking through, there has to be someone I could point at and say, “See?! If this guy got in, then why the heck isn’t Steve in?”

It turns out that at the safety/defensive back positions there were only three names that I didn’t recognize, Emlen Tunnell, Willie Wood, and Yale Lary. Just who are these guys that got the nod while Atwater waits?

I was more than a little embarrassed that I didn’t know about Emlen Tunnell. He is without a doubt someone who left a mark on the game we all love. To quote his wikipedia page.

Emlen Lewis Tunnell (March 29, 1924[1] – July 23, 1975), sometimes known by the nickname “The Gremlin”,[2] was an American football player and coach. He was the first African American to play for the New York Giants and also the first to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

...He next played 14 seasons in the National Football League (NFL) as a defensive halfback and safety for the New York Giants (19481958) and Green Bay Packers (19591961). He was selected as a first-team All-Pro six times and played in nine Pro Bowls. He was a member of NFL championship teams in 1956 and 1961. When he retired as a player, he held NFL career records for interceptions (79), interception return yards (1,282), punt returns (258), and punt return yards (2,209).

Although he was by no means the first African American to play in the NFL, to break a color barrier at the time he did, was no small feat. Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson had only made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers the year before Tunnell’s career with the Giants began. The amount of racial prejudice and bigotry he must have endured just to take the field had to be immense... and to put up record-breaking stats like he did is nothing short of hall of fame-worthy.

How does Atwater stack up? Atwater’s 24 interceptions, 408 return yards, and complete disinterest in the punting game doesn’t speak to a lack of qualifications on Steve’s part. It speaks to how incredible Emlen Tunnell’s career really was. It’s a travesty he’s not better known today.

Who is Willie Wood? Via his Wikipedia page.

Wood was not selected in the 1960 NFL draft, and wrote a letter to head coach Vince Lombardi to request a tryout;[7] the Packers signed him as a rookie free agent in 1960. After a few days with the quarterbacks, he requested a switch to defense and was recast as a free safety, and was a starter in the season. He started until his retirement in 1971.

Wood won All-NFL honors nine times in a nine-year stretch from 1962 through the 1971 season, participated in the Pro Bowl eight times, and played in six NFL championship games, winning all except the first in 1960.

...Wood finished his 12 NFL seasons with 48 interceptions, which he returned for 699 yards and two touchdowns. He also gained 1,391 yards and scored two touchdowns on 187 punt returns. He holds the record for the most consecutive starts by a safety in NFL history.

How does Woods look compared to Steve Atwater?

Atwater was voted First-team All-Pro in 1991 and 1992, was a Second-Team All-Pro in 1996, and was UPI First Team All-AFC in 1993 and 1995. While Wood’s honors are indeed impressive, most were from a pre-AFL/NFL merger NFL. At most there were just 16 teams to draw these accolades from until 1970 when the merger was officially complete. After the merger, there were no All-Pro considerations for Wood. It’s needs to be said that Steve Atwater had to garner his recognition with at most 31 teams competing in the pool.

Atwater went to 8 Pro Bowls and was a member of the 1990’s all decade team. Like Wood, Atwater won two Super Bowls. I know it drives our old school NFC friends a little crazy when we don’t weigh their pre-merger NFL Championships as heavily as we do Super Bowls, but let’s be honest... With only 13 teams in the NFL during Wood’s rookie year, how could a team not win championships more often?

When it comes to league recognition and championships (that matter), Steve Atwater is right there with Willie Wood.

I want to bring up the last name I didn’t recognize in the hall of fame enshrinement rolls at safety, Yale Lary. Via his wikipedia page.

Lary played 11 seasons in the National Football League (NFL), all with the Detroit Lions, from 1952 to 1953 and from 1956 to 1964, missing the 1954 and 1955 seasons due to military service as an Army second lieutenant in Korea. He played at the safety, punter, and return specialist positions, appeared in nine Pro Bowl games, and was a first-team All-NFL player five times. He led the NFL in punting three times, and at the time of his retirement in 1964, his 44.3 yard punting average ranked second in NFL history, trailing only Sammy Baugh. He also totaled 50 NFL interceptions for 787 return yards, both of which ranked fifth in NFL history at the time of his retirement.

Like with Wood, Lary played in an era of markedly fewer NFL franchises. In fact, when Lary came into the league his rookie year, there were just 12 NFL teams and one of them was the Dallas Texans in their first failed iteration. That’s not to take away from his accomplishments on the field. His stats are no joke and he is indeed worthy of his place of honor in Canton.

Like with Wood, Atwater’s Pro Bowl appearances and league recognition are on par with what Lary did. It’s tough to compare championships between the two since winning the AFC during Atwater’s career was much more difficult than winning all of the NFL in Lary’s time. I’m going to swing out and say that the stones in Atwater’s Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII rings out number the stones in the Lions 1952, 1953, and 1957 combined championship rings for a reason.

So what did I learn?

I learned that even though I had never heard of these three men, that they were in no way not deserving of their enduring recognition at the Professional Football Hall of Fame. What’s more, I learned that Steve Atwater checks all the same boxes when it comes to qualifying for enshrinement. Not only that, but let us never forget he knocked the Nigerian Nightmare square on his butt.

HORSE TRACKS

Mason's Mailbag: Rule change eliminates unncessary play
Also included this week: a question about the uniforms and another about WR Jordan Taylor.

Former Texas A&M QB and NFL head coach Kubiak inducted into Texas Sports Hall of Fame | National | themercury.com
WACO — Gary Kubiak hasn’t played at Texas A&M for almost four decades, but the former Aggie quarterback still remembers the plays.

Report: Broncos making P Riley Dixon available for trade
Dixon is no longer needed in Denver after the club signed Marquette King.

Tyron Smith 'feeling great' after injury-plagued 2017 - NFL.com
The Dallas Cowboys suffered when star left tackle Tyron Smith was out of the lineup the past two seasons. This weekend, he said he's taking steps to make sure that doesn't happen again in 2018.

Nick Saban touts Minkah Fitzpatrick as a top-five pick – ProFootballTalk
A week after former UCLA coach Jim Mora was far less effusive than he arguably should have been when praising former UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, Alabama coach Nick Saban has said all the right things about former Crimson Tide defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick.

New league will go without kickoffs, and NFL will watch closely – ProFootballTalk
The NFL seems to be moving toward eliminating kickoffs, and leading the way will be the new Alliance of American Football. That upstart league, which will begin play in 10 months, will not have any kickoffs.

Will XFL pivot toward old-school football? – ProFootballTalk
The XFL has been quiet since announcing its plan to return in 2020. But the preparations continue for the resurrection of the sports league that captured the imagination (but not nearly enough dollars) of American football fans in 2001.

Report: Ziggy Ansah in Ghana, won’t be at Lions workouts Monday – ProFootballTalk
The Lions will start their first offseason work since hiring Matt Patricia as their head coach on Monday and one of the team's top defensive players is not expected to be there.

Johnny Manziel 'definitely emotional' about Spring League debut, wants another NFL shot - CBSSports.com
Manziel threw a touchdown but was sacked three times in his return to football on Saturday

Ex-Eagles OC Frank Reich: Carson Wentz ignored coaches when told to avoid contact - CBSSports.com
Wentz suffered an ACL injury in Week 14 and hopes to be ready for the start of the 2018 season

Thomas Davis of Carolina Panthers suspended 4 games for violating PED policy
Entering his final season, Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis will be suspended for the team's first four games after he violated the league's performance-enhancing drug policy.

Tennessee Titans agree to deal with veteran Bennie Logan
Defensive tackle Bennie Logan, who played for the Chiefs last season, agreed to a contract with the Titans on Sunday.

Aldon Smith arrested again, held on $500,000 bond
Former San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders linebacker Aldon Smith was arrested again Friday and is being held on $500,000 bond by the San Francisco Sheriff's Department.

Odell Beckham Jr. to report for New York Giants' conditioning program
Odell Beckham Jr. told ESPN's Josina Anderson that he plans to report to the Giants' facility Monday for the first day of the team's offseason conditioning program.