- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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A weeklong look at current or former players or coaches with Hall of Fame potential in the division.
Saints: Drew Brees, quarterback.
Claim to fame: He led the 2009 Saints to their first Super Bowl championship while throwing for 34 touchdowns and posting a career-best 109.6 passer rating. Brees threw for a career-best 5,069 yards in 2008. He has thrown for 30,646 yards in a nine-year career.
Case for enshrinement: Brees has been more than a quarterback for the Saints. Arriving as a free agent in 2006, Brees has helped New Orleans and the entire Gulf region rebound from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Brees has taken an extremely active role in the community and has done just as much on the field.
He is the perfect quarterback for coach Sean Payton’s offense. Brees has made the Saints one of the most fun teams in the league to watch while putting up huge offensive numbers. With Brees, the Saints have reached heights the franchise never came close to before.
Case against enshrinement: This almost certainly will change in another few years, assuming Brees continues to play anything like he has the past few seasons. But, at this moment, Brees would not be a slam dunk for the Hall of Fame because he’s only spent eight seasons as a starter and his years in San Diego were very good, but not great.
A couple more years of big numbers and another Super Bowl title, or at least some more playoff victories, should put Brees over the top.
Bottom line: Barring major injury, Brees is well on his way to the Hall of Fame.
Buccaneers: Tony Dungy, former coach.
Claim to fame: He took over a disaster of a franchise in 1996 and turned the Bucs into a consistently respectable team for the first time in franchise history. Dungy went on to coach the Indianapolis Colts and won a Super Bowl.
Case for enshrinement: The knock on Dungy in Tampa was that he couldn’t win the big one and the Bucs had to turn to Jon Gruden to get them their Super Bowl victory. But Dungy was largely responsible for building that team and changing the entire football climate in Tampa Bay. Building around Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch, Dungy took the defensive philosophy he learned in Pittsburgh and built the famed “Tampa 2’’ defense, which became a phenomenon around the league. He also built a lengthy coaching tree with Herm Edwards, Jim Caldwell, Lovie Smith, Rod Marinelli and Mike Tomlin going on to become head coaches.
Case against enshrinement: With all of the defensive talent he had in Tampa Bay and Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, Dungy only won one Super Bowl title.
Bottom line: If I’m voting at the time Dungy comes up for the Hall of Fame, he’s the first name on my ballot. Aside from his record on the field, Dungy brought all sorts of good things to every place he’s ever been. He won with class and did things the right way. He still does things the right way. There was a recent tragedy involving a family member of a former Dungy player. I wish I could tell you the story of how Dungy reached out, but I’m sworn to secrecy. Let’s just say it was a Hall of Fame move.
Panthers: Steve Smith, wide receiver.
Claim to fame: Smith has 574 career receptions for 8,330 yards and 50 touchdowns. With all sorts of injuries at running back, Smith put the 2005 Carolina offense on his back and carried the Panthers to the NFC Championship Game. That season, Smith had 103 catches for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Case for enshrinement: He’s the best player in the history of the franchise. Initially expected to be nothing more than a kick returner, Smith made himself into one of the most dynamic receivers in the NFL.
His touchdown catch in double overtime in the divisional playoff round against St. Louis put the 2003 Panthers into the NFC Championship Game.
Case against enshrinement: It’s getting more difficult for receivers to get into the Hall of Fame as the NFL has evolved into more of a passing league. At the moment, Smith’s numbers aren’t even close to Hall of Fame material.
Smith’s also had some troubles. On three different occasions, he has had physical altercations with teammates. Playing in a small market with a franchise that’s never had back-to-back winning seasons doesn’t help either.
Bottom line: Let’s not count Smith out of the Hall of Fame race yet. He’s 31, but he really hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. He’s going to miss some time in training camp as he recovers from a broken arm, but he should be ready for the start of the regular season.
With either Matt Moore or Jimmy Clausen taking over as the new starting quarterback, Smith’s numbers could suffer. But he remains Carolina’s only proven threat in the passing game. If he can play another four or five years at a high level and get his career yardage above 13,000, he could have a shot. Of course, it would only help if the Panthers can have a few more playoff seasons.
Falcons: Dan Reeves, former coach.
Claim to fame: He led Atlanta to a franchise-best 14-2 record in 1998 and the only Super Bowl berth in team history. Reeves also led the Broncos to three Super Bowls in four years.
Case for enshrinement: Reeves, who also played in the NFL, wasn’t the best head coach ever and he wasn’t the best player ever. But combine what he did as a player and a coach and you’ve got a pretty impressive résumé. Reeves was a very solid player for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s and early ‘70s. He primarily was a running back, but also played some quarterback and receiver. He threw a touchdown pass in the legendary "Ice Bowl." The Cowboys made the playoffs every year Reeves played for them. He became Denver’s head coach in 1981. In 12 seasons, Reeves led the Broncos to six playoff appearances, five division titles and three Super Bowls. He took the New York Giants to the playoffs in his first season with that team and took the Falcons to the Super Bowl in his second season with the team.
Case against enshrinement: Reeves’ coaching career was better than his playing career, and you can poke some holes in that coaching career. The strongest argument against Reeves is that he never won a Super Bowl with the Broncos, despite having John Elway in his prime. Despite his early success with the Giants and Falcons, Reeves wasn’t able to keep the level of play that high for very long with either team.
Bottom line: A very tough call because Reeves doesn’t have one overwhelming accomplishment going for him. If he just had been able to win one Super Bowl with Elway, the path would be much easier.