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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Every NFL team’s best player not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame- AFC North

Every NFL team’s best player not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame- AFC North

Canton needs to take another look at these legends
Publish Date: 03/09/2021
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducts new candidates every year, expanding walls of bronze busts and commissioning new gold jackets. While Canton does a great job safeguarding many legends’ memories, plenty of stars have come and gone without earning their place in football immortality. Luckily, there’s still a chance to pull men out of the abyss of senior candidates and dress them in gold.

When I began this project, I intended to highlight one player for each team in a single article. That quickly became impossible. There are too many great players not in the Hall to only touch on one man per team, and doing it in a single article would only diffuse attention away from each legend. That means this article is the first in an eight-part series. Check back regularly for the following editions.

Before meeting the AFC North’s overlooked superstars, let’s recap how players become eligible for the Hall of Fame and discuss how I formatted the article.

To qualify for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a player must be retired and eligible (five seasons of inactivity). Recently retired players like Julius Peppers or active players like Richard Sherman do not qualify. In this case, players who retired following the 2016 season become eligible this coming voting cycle. Those potential first-ballot Hall of Fame Class of 2022 members, which notably include Andre Johnson, Steve Smith Sr., and DeMarcus Ware, do not appear in this article.

Each player is accompanied by his position and the years during which he played in the NFL. It doesn’t matter if the player only spent part of his career with the franchise he’s listed alongside. So long as the player performed at a noteworthy level with a franchise, even if it was only for two or three years, he’s eligible for that spot.

For my sanity’s sake, don’t overcomplicate the teams moving around. Colts players are Colts players whether they are from the Baltimore or Indianapolis days. The Cardinals and Rams have also moved around a lot. None of that matters. This article primarily focuses on highlighting the players anyway, not the teams, and bringing awareness to forgotten legends.

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Pittsburgh Steelers- L.C. Greenwood, DE (1969-1981)

Honorable mentions- Gary Anderson, Carnell Lake, Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, Andy Russell, Hines Ward

In an era before the NFL tracked every possible data point, Greenwood amassed a franchise-record 73.5 unofficial sacks alongside Pro Bowlers “Mean” Joe Greene and Dwight White. The 1970s Steel Curtain defenses were some of the best in league history, but the greatness of a few members sometimes outshined the performances of other legends. Greenwood got buried in NFL history under the gold jackets of four other 1970s Steelers defenders.

Several of those Hall of Famers credit their success to the role Greenwood played along the defensive line. Greene once claimed, “I don’t know what my career would have been without him [Greenwood]. He should absolutely be in the Hall of Fame. Bottom line, he’s being cheated.”

Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham also went to bat for his former teammate, saying, “I’ve … heard people say, ‘What are we gonna do, build a wing out here for all the Steelers from back then?’ I wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame without L.C. and the work he did on the field. The fact that he isn’t in there, too, has everything to do with politics.”

During his 13-year career, Greenwood made six Pro Bowls, was a First-Team All-Pro twice, won four Super Bowls, and made the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-1970s Team. He was also a member of the Super Bowl’s Silver Anniversary Team in 1990. The former tenth-round pick is a forgotten legend that still deserves a seat in Canton.

Greenwood isn’t the only star from the Steel Curtain that hasn’t gotten his due. Linebacker Andy Russell was one of the few holdovers from the pre-Chuck Noll era. He played for the Steelers during their first two Super Bowl runs and made seven Pro Bowls over his 12-year career. Russell’s former teammate Rocky Bleier is on record saying, “Andy more than anybody else probably deserves to be in the Hall of Fame … He just retired maybe at the wrong time.”

Ward also deserves a few paragraphs and a gold jacket. The Super Bowl XL MVP made four Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams during his career. He’s Pittsburgh’s franchise leader in the three major receiving categories and ranks 14th all-time in receptions, 16th in receiving touchdowns, and 26th in receiving yards. Ward ranks among the top-eight in playoff history in all three receiving categories as well.

A third-round pick from 1998, Ward more than outperformed his draft stock. There’s even a rule the NFL implemented in 2009 unofficially dubbed the “Hines Ward rule” that protects players from blindside blocks. Ward was so physical that he’d go hunting for defenders when the ball wasn’t coming his way. Games sometimes ended with Ward having delivered the hardest hits, which made him a controversial figure among his peers.

Lake and Porter were both four-time All-Pros that made All-Decade teams. Porter retired with 98 career sacks. Anderson is third all-time in points scored and field goals made. He also made All-Decade teams in the 1980s and 1990s. Lloyd was more talented than all three of those players. He was First-Team All-Pro in three consecutive seasons and made five Pro Bowls straight before an injury ended his prime early.

Cincinnati Bengals- Ken Anderson, QB (1971-1986)

Honorable mentions- Willie Anderson, Lemar Parrish, Ken Riley

Cincinnati has at least three players worthy of induction. Willie Anderson peaked late in his career, making three consecutive First-Team All-Pro runs, but Canton generally requires more from offensive linemen over prolonged careers. That leaves Ken Anderson, Parrish, and Riley as Cincinnati’s best players not in the Hall of Fame.

Anderson has a Hall of Fame résumé on par with Ken Stabler’s, except the latter has a Super Bowl ring. In his 16 seasons with the Bengals, Anderson led Cincinnati to Super Bowl XVI, went to four Pro Bowls, and was the MVP and Offensive Player of the Year in 1981. He also led the NFL in passer rating four times, completion percentage three times, and passing yards twice.

History often judges quarterbacks by the number of titles they win, but Anderson lost to Joe Montana in the Super Bowl. Had Cincinnati won, Anderson surely would’ve claimed his place in Canton by now. Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly, and Warren Moon were great quarterbacks that never won Super Bowls or MVPs. All three are in the Hall. Induct Anderson already.

Parrish also has a bone to pick with the voting committee. In his 13-year career, the former seventh-round pick made eight Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams. He recorded five or more interceptions five separate times. For a defensive back, that’s consistent, elite production. Parrish also put in work on special teams, returning four punts and one kickoff for touchdowns.

Riley, Parrish’s former teammate, also deserves a bronze bust. The former sixth-round pick passed away last June, nearly four decades after his 15-year career came to a close. Despite earning three All-Pro selections, Riley never made the Pro Bowl. He also missed out on multiple All-Decade teams despite intercepting five or more passes seven times.

“Riley not being in, that’s just glaring,” ESPN’s Jeff Legwold told Cincinnati’s official team website. “As selectors we have to dig in what happened in those years of Pro Bowl teams. For him to have lost out to his teammate when, in my opinion, (Riley) had better seasons, I find it odd. The guy has the second most interceptions by a pure corner. The list is the list.”

Cleveland Browns- Dick Schafrath, OT (1959-1971)

Honorable mentions- Gary Collins, Michael Dean Perry, Clay Matthews II, Frank Minnifield

Voters wasted Matthews’ final year of modern-era eligibility this past voting cycle. The four-time Pro Bowler played in Cleveland for 16 of his 19 professional seasons. However, Matthews isn’t the biggest Hall of Fame snub in Browns history. Schafrath spent his entire career with Cleveland, amassing a résumé that put him on par with the best tackles of the 1960s.

Starting in 1963, Schafrath made six consecutive Pro Bowls and earned three consecutive First-Team All-Pro nominations. The former second-round pick received his fourth First-Team All-Pro bid in 1969. Surprisingly, he didn’t make the 1960s All-Decade Team over Bob Brown or Ralph Neely.

Outside of Matthews and Schafrath, the Browns have several other team legends that have decent cases for induction. Dean Perry made six Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams. Minnifield made the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-1980s Team and was a three-time All-Pro.

Lastly, Collins served as a punter and wide receiver. He made the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 1960s All-Decade Team, went to two Pro Bowls, and caught five passes for 130 yards and three touchdowns in the 1964 season’s championship game.

While Collins doesn’t have the All-Pro selections to match some Hall of Famers, he outshined legendary teammates Jim Brown and Paul Warfield at times. A player of that caliber can’t get left out in the cold in these debates.

Baltimore Ravens- Jamal Lewis, RB (2000-2009)

Honorable mention- Derrick Mason

Baltimore’s current franchise only came into existence in 1996, making it one of the most recent additions to the NFL. Most of the newer franchises don’t have long-forgotten stars yet, so this selection leans toward a modern standout at running back.

The Ravens picked Lewis at fifth overall in 2000. The Tennessee product made an immediate impact, rushing for 1,364 yards as a rookie. Baltimore won the Super Bowl that season behind a dominant defense and a ground game that featured Lewis and Priest Holmes. Lewis ran for 102 yards and a touchdown as his team topped the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

Lewis missed the entire 2001 season before bouncing back with another 1,300-yard rushing performance in 2002. However, the Georgia native’s career peaked in 2003, when he ran for 14 touchdowns and a league-leading 2,066 yards. At the time, Lewis was only the fifth running back to top 2,000 yards in a single season. The stellar campaign won Lewis a First-Team All-Pro selection and the Offensive Player of the Year award.

Former Ravens general manager and Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome is a supporter of Lewis’ case. The legend told The Baltimore Sun that Lewis was one of the game’s most explosive players,

“They talk about Randy Moss, how he could strike from any part of field. Jamal could do that, on any carry, he could take it the distance. Always a threat. Defenses knew if we don’t get this guy, he is going to take it to the house. There are very few guys you can say that about. Jamal was so big, so big and so powerful, and he could get to his top speed in a hurry.”

“Hopefully, this will get people’s attention,” Newsome said. “If you look at his career and compare to those who have gotten in the Hall the last five years, Jamal rates some serious discussion. Jamal was our bell cow. Now everybody is playing with two, sometimes three backs, but Jamal was going to be on the field 85 to 90 percent of the time. He was going to get his 25 to 30 carries, and those carries were inside the hashes.”

Former Raven and Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden weighed in as well, saying, “Jamal Lewis, without a doubt, deserves consideration for the Hall of Fame. He was definitely the main engine in our offense for years. He had the 2,000-yard season and Pro Bowls but didn’t have the luxury of playing with great quarterbacks to take the pressure off of him in the running game.”

The Pro Football Hall of Fame added Lewis to the All-2000s Team. His entire ten-year career played out during the decade, and he retired with 10,607 rushing yards.

While Mason never made an All-Decade team, he amassed 12,061 receiving yards, and his 17,150 all-purpose yards are the 19th-most of all-time. The Michigan St. product was a First-Team All-Pro as a kick returner in 2000 and produced eight 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

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