The ongoing construction at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which features the completion of and ribbon-cutting for the Ralph Wilson Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center, doesn’t include a ditch around the Canton shrine.
But, at least figuratively, it could.
Because when the Class of 2012 is inducted this weekend, the ceremony could well be a testimony for the significance of “trench” players in the league. Four of the six new enshrines, all but one of the “modern-day” players who will be memorialized on Saturday, are former linemen. It marks the first time since 2001, and just the second occasion in the past 40 years, in which four players who earned their livelihoods and their reputations at the line of scrimmage will be honored together.
“Especially for an offensive lineman, it’s amazing, because you don’t really have any (statistics) for comparison,” said former Pittsburgh center Dermontti Dawson, who played all 13seasons for the Steelers, was named to seven Pro Bowl squads, and is regarded by many to have been superior to Mike Webster, another former Steelers’ center who is in the Hall of Fame. “It’s always going to be special, no matter who you are. But for a player who pretty much was anonymous to most of the people who watched the game, it probably means even more.”
Dawson will be joined by tackle Willie Roaf in becoming the Hall’s first multiple-offensive line inductees since ’01.
The two defensive linemen entering the Canton museum are end Chris Doleman and tackle Cortez Kennedy. Running back Curtis Martin, the fourth-leading rusher in NFL history, is the lone “skill position” player among the modern-day enshrines. The sixth member of this year’s class is former Pittsburgh defensive back Jack Butler, originally one of the two nominees of the “senior” committee.
The Saturday induction ceremonies will represent a red-letter day for a group that Kennedy aptly characterized as a “blue-collar class.”
This marks the first time in the past 40 years in which the Hall of Fame class had at least two linemen each from the opposite sides of the ball.
In recent years, Hall of Fame selectors, even while being criticized for logjams at some positions, most conspicuously wide receiver, have given due to line positions that had seemingly been ignored for a while. Since the 2001 selection of three offensive linemen – the trio of Mike Munchak, Jackie Slater and Ron Yary that year represents the biggest offensive line class in over four decades – there has been at least one blocker in eight of the 11 HOF classes. This is the first time since 2007, though, with more than one. And the first time since ’01 that the “modern” class included more than one blocker.
“These guys, though, belong,” assessed former NFL coach Dick Vermeil, who coached Roaf for all four of the tackle’s seasons in Kansas City. “They’re definitely among the best of the best.”
Like Dawson, Roaf cited the lack of statistics for offensive lineman as a component of what makes it more difficult to choose a player at the position for recognition in the Hall of Fame. Selectors clearly fine the chore to be a difficult one, as well.
Since 1973, there have been only five occasions, including this year, in which there were multiple offensive lineman chosen among the “modern-day” enshrinees. There were none selected in 18 of those 40 years.
Said Dawson, who is credited with revolutionizing the center position, because of his combination of strength and athleticism and ability to pull on traps and sweeps and lead the downfield blocking on screen passes: “It goes beyond being recognized by (your peers). You really have to do something that makes you stand out. Even then, there’s some (subjectivity) to it. To get in as (an offensive lineman), well, that really is something.”
Actually, despite empirical numbers such as sacks and tackles, defensive linemen have lagged behind as well. Saturday will mark the first time since 1995 that the Hall class will include more than one defensive lineman. Somewhat remarkably, given the attention paid to sacks, it will be the first time since 1980, when the class included Deacon Jones and Bob Lilly, that there are two “modern” defensive line players. In fact, this year and ’80 mark the only times in 40 years that there has been more than one “modern” defensive lineman.
Hard to believe, given the focus on the position in recent seasons, that there were five stretches of at least three years since 1973 in which no defensive linemen were elected to the Hall of Fame.
That this year’s class of enshrines might lack the profile of some of the HOF groups that featured bigger-name “skill” players hardly detracts, though, from the honor. At least for the men who on Saturday will join the game’s most elite fraternity.
“They can call it ‘the trenches,’ and it probably was viewed as a ‘grunt’ job to a lot of people,” Kennedy said. “But it all looks beautiful now.”