NFC West: Aeneas Williams
ESPN.com Seattle Seahawks reporter Terry Blount makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.
Week 1: Green Bay Packers
All the pregame hype will center around the so-called Inaccurate Reception, the controversial Hail Mary catch by Golden Tate two years ago that won the game over the Packers at Seattle on a Monday night. Tate has moved on to Detroit, but the Seahawks now have too many weapons for the Packers to stop, no Hail Mary required. Prediction: Win
Week 2: at San Diego Chargers
The Chargers better hope they play a lot better than they did in the preseason game at Seattle, a 41-14 victory for the Seahawks on Aug. 15. San Diego will play better, but not good enough to beat a much better team. Prediction: Win
Week 3: Denver Broncos
The Broncos and their fans got a tiny bit of meaningless Super Bowl revenge in the preseason opener with a 21-16 victory over the Seahawks in Denver. Enjoy it while it lasts, boys. Repeating that outcome in Seattle is not an option. Prediction: Win
Week 5: at Washington Redskins
Traveling coast to coast to play on the road for a Monday night game is a tough task against any NFL opponent, and even tougher against quarterback Robert Griffin III. But the Seahawks catch a break in this one by coming off a bye week with plenty of time to prepare and be fresh for the journey. Prediction: Win
Week 6: Dallas Cowboys
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave Seattle a little bulletin-board material last month when he said the Seahawks were to blame for the increase in penalty flags during the preseason. There won't be near enough flags against Seattle for the Cowboys to win this one. Prediction: Win
Week 7: at St. Louis Rams
Any division game in the NFC West is a rugged battle. The Rams have a defensive line that gave the Seahawks problems a year ago. But they aren't strong enough overall to beat Seattle, even at home in their out-of-date dome. Prediction: Win
Week 8: at Carolina Panthers
The Seahawks were fortunate to win the season opener at Charlotte a year ago. That Panthers team was better than this one, but back-to-back road games against very physical defensive teams will end the Seattle winning streak. Prediction: Loss
Week 9: Oakland Raiders
Coming off their first loss of the season and returning home against an outmanned opponent, is there any doubt? Prediction: Win
Week 10: New York Giants
The Seahawks easily defeated the Giants 23-0 last year in New Jersey, a dress rehearsal for their Super Bowl victory at the same location -- MetLife Stadium. The Seahawks won't need a rehearsal to roll past the Giants in this one. Prediction: Win
Week 11: at Kansas City Chiefs
This likely will be a low-scoring game between two strong defensive teams. Odds are against any team that has to try to win by matching its defense against the Seahawks' D. Prediction: Win
Week 12: Arizona Cardinals
The last time the Cardinals played at CenturyLink Field was last December when they handed the Seahawks a 17-10 loss. That won't happen again unless the Seahawks get caught looking ahead to the 49ers game. The Seahawks don't look ahead. Prediction: Win
Week 13: at San Francisco 49ers
It's a Thanksgiving night, national TV game in the 49ers' shiny new stadium against the hated Seahawks. If San Francisco can't win this one, its time as a championship contender is over. Prediction: Loss
Week 14: at Philadelphia Eagles
This is the toughest part of the season for the Seahawks with back-to-back road games against likely playoff contenders. But the 10 days between games will help and be enough of a cushion to keep Seattle from losing two in a row. Prediction: Win
Week 15: San Francisco 49ers
This is a game that could decide which team wins the NFC West. No way the Seahawks lose to the 49ers twice in three weeks, especially not in front of a rabid full house of 12s. Prediction: Win
Week 16: at Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals probably will be fighting for a playoff spot, and the Seahawks already will be in at 12-2. That difference will be just enough for Arizona to win at home in the same stadium where the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl a few weeks later. Prediction: Loss
Week 17: St. Louis Rams
For the second consecutive year, the Rams close the regular season in Seattle. And for the second consecutive year, the Seahawks will beat them without much trouble. Prediction: Win
Predicted Record: 13-3
Pastor Aeneas Williams stood in front of a congregation unlike any other he has spoken to before, inside a sanctuary that has defined his life, and he expounded about a religion whose followers are as devout as any other.
It wasn’t a Sunday morning in his St. Louis church. It was a Saturday night in Canton, Ohio.
In front of thousands of football fans -- his congregants -- who gathered in a small, Northeast Ohio town to pay tribute to a sport’s cathedral, Williams preached about football, faith and family during his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech.
For 25 minutes, the devout Christian pontificated about the Church of Football.
It was everything you'd expect from Williams, who spent 10 of his 14 seasons with the Arizona Cardinals and the last four with the St. Louis Rams. He was thankful and humbled. He addressed hot-button issues, and he showed that the fire hasn't disappeared 10 years after he last played. And it was all done with a flair only those accustomed to speaking in front of the masses can provide. He promised he'd cry, but only sweat dripped down his cheeks. His impassioned speech had two themes, both of which he has tried to live in his life: "Begin with the end in mind and die empty." He tried to stay away from the morbid, but he pointed out that he was inductee No. 287 and his last name put him on the bottom of every list of this year’s inductees -- a symbol for his road to the Hall.
He started at the beginning of his football life, which began in a park in New Orleans, and went through his journey to the Hall of Fame, which didn't truly begin until a week before the season began at Southern University. It was then that Williams decided to walk on. Although, as he explained, nothing came easy to him -- speed, winning in Arizona, his acceptance into the Hall of Fame -- Williams was a natural talent whose dedication helped him become great. He thanked Gill Byrd, the former San Diego cornerback, whose help Williams solicited. But after spending time with Byrd and his wife, Williams didn’t become just a better cornerback. He credited Byrd for teaching him how to be a good husband and father while playing in the NFL.
As to be expected from a Williams speech, faith played a large part.
He talked about taking signs from God as early as his childhood, when Williams, as a running back in the 95-pound league, was crushed by a 110-pound player. It was then that Williams switched to defense. He also said his faith helped lead him to walk on at Southern.
Williams' competitive edge shined bright throughout his speech. It was obvious he still basks in having shut down Michael Irvin in the 1999 playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys, the same one the Cardinals won in an upset. Williams joked that he was covering Irvin so closely that if Irvin went to the bathroom, "I had to go flush it."
His speech began by supporting NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for having to make tough decisions so the game could continue. He joked about getting a middle finger salute from an entire section of New York Giants fans when he'd come out for warm-ups at old Giants Stadium. He noted that his former defensive backs coach, Rob Ryan, put him on Aeneas Island long before Revis Island was discovered. Williams said his work ethic was established in the aisles of the Superdome, where he sold popcorn, peanuts and soda as a kid.
By the time Williams finished, he still hadn't cried, but he was leading the stadium of fans in chants and cheers. Williams looked comfortable on a pulpit, behind a lectern, talking with his hands, preaching the gospel of football.
He looked at home in the Hall of Fame.
Reporters, teammates, coaches -- they all have humorous anecdotes that have defined Williams’ career. But when Kwamie Lassiter joined the Arizona Cardinals in 1995, all he saw was a Hall of Famer in the making, a cornerback who treated practice receivers as if they were Jerry Rice or Michael Irvin. Williams was as serious about his football, watching endless tape hours after the film session as over, as he was his faith and his family.
Lassiter had no clue how funny Williams was.
“He’d tell more jokes than anyone,” Lassiter said.
Williams, a pastor in St. Louis, would always tell clean jokes, but they were always funny, Lassiter remembered. Even when his teammates told the same jokes, but the inappropriate version, Williams’ jokes still provided comic relief. And the jokes seemed to get even better when the mood was most tense, such as before a big play on the field.
“We’re in the midst of the game and he’d lighten up the mood and say something crazy,” Lassiter recalled. “He seems always serious that you think he’s not paying attention and this guy tells me a joke.”
Lassiter said Williams’ humor is most comparable to that of Peyton Manning -- subtle and dry and, at least when Manning first hit the comic scene, unexpected. Lassiter expects Williams’ Hall of Fame speech, which he’ll present this evening in Canton, Ohio, to display his humor.
“If there’s anybody deserving of the Hall of Fame, it’s that guy,” Lassiter said. “I can’t wait for the jokes.”
When the conversations turned to what Lawrence's son Aeneas did for a living, Lawrence would tell them Aeneas played cornerback in the NFL. It wouldn't take long for the natural follow-up question: "How good was he?"
Before this past February, Lawrence had plenty to boast about. Aeneas played for 14 years for the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler and a three-time All-Pro who had 55 interceptions and started in a Super Bowl.
Lawrence's answer changed the day before the Super Bowl in New York when Aeneas was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"That kind of ends the discussion as it relates to a whole lot of debate as to how good your son is," Aeneas remembers his dad saying.
On Saturday, Aeneas will be enshrined in Canton, Ohio. Presenting him isn't just a man who shouldn't have to answer any more questions about his son but a man who built the foundation from which Aeneas grew. Lawrence was the first and only of nine siblings to attend and graduate from college. When Aeneas graduated from high school, his family applauded. Going to college was a given. Graduating from school was expected.
His upbringing kept Aeneas humble, and it carried him throughout his career. He'll first listen to his father, which befits Aeneas. He's never let his words do the talking. But after Lawrence boasts and brags as only a proud father can, it'll be Aeneas' turn.
Aeneas Williams' speech has been written for some time, but he's cried while rehearsing it. Although speaking in front of a crowd is old hat for the pastor of The Spirit Church in St. Louis, this is different. This is the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Still, this may be the easiest speech of Williams' life.
"It won't be hard because I won't be telling someone else's story," Williams said. "The great credible speech ... comes from the credibility of the one speaking, so it won't be hard. It won't be hard for me to share the truth as to how fearful I was."
Williams will tell stories. He will tell the one about how he proved his college coach wrong when going from a 4.6-second 40-yard dash to running a 4.28. And about how then-Cardinals defensive backs coach Rob Ryan hugged Williams and promised him he would lead the league in interceptions. And, of course, how he continued to work throughout his career to prove himself.
"It's pretty easy to tell those stories because I want people to not stand up there and think I was just like this guy that was predicted to do it," Williams said. "I wasn't, and I want to tell people why and what [and] how significant the mentors were, how significant it was."
The stories that might not be told are how Williams became a mentor himself.
Unlike Williams, Kwamie Lassiter wasn't drafted into the NFL, but the two shared a goal of being a professional defensive back. Williams worked with Lassiter during his early years with the Cardinals. He taught Lassiter how to watch film, how to study it, how to implement what he learned. He showed Lassiter how to play with a calm mind, which Lassiter credits as one of the Williams' most important lessons. Another was teaching Lassiter that the game is bigger than any individual.
"It was somewhat shocking," said Lassiter, who played with Williams in St. Louis. "But when I found out who he was as a man, and not a cornerback or athlete, I can understand why he went about this business the ways he did, why he says the thing he did.
"It was shocking."
ST. LOUIS -- The prime of Aeneas Williams' career was spent with the Arizona Cardinals and that is the place where he is most remembered for his many accomplishments. But Williams spent the final four seasons of his career as a member of the St. Louis Rams.
Upon arrival in St. Louis, Williams moved to free safety and hardly missed a beat. Williams was first team All Pro in 2001 and went to the Pro Bowl in 2001 and 2003. Many will remember him as a Cardinal but for fans of the Rams and in St. Louis, Williams' legacy goes far beyond his short stint playing for the Rams.
Williams was one of the most beloved players on the roster during his four seasons in St. Louis and is still revered around the city. The statement from Rams COO Kevin Demoff sent out Saturday night succinctly summed up how Williams is viewed by the Rams and their fans.
“On behalf of the St. Louis Rams, I’d like to congratulate Aeneas on this well-deserved honor," Demoff said. "Aeneas’s four seasons in a Rams uniform capped off his Hall of Fame career, playing a key role in helping the club reach the franchise’s third Super Bowl. While his play alone earned him this honor, Aeneas is also a Hall of Fame person. He remains extremely active in the St. Louis community and the Rams are grateful for the way he continues to contribute to our city and our organization.”
There's little doubt that Williams' work on the field was Hall of Fame worthy. His 55 interceptions, 23 fumble recoveries and 12 defensive touchdowns speak for themselves. We could dig into all of the numbers here but there's no denying that the body of work is Hall of Fame worthy.
What isn't taken into account in Hall of Fame discussions is character and personality. In those terms, Williams seemed to be born a Hall of Famer. I was only able to cover Williams for one year, his final NFL season in 2004, but he remains one of the classiest players I've been around in my decade covering the team.
Much of that final season was injury-plagued and Williams appeared in 13 games in the only season of his 14-year career in which he didn't come up with at least one interception. While his career was winding down, Williams never seemed to let it effect his professional approach. Week after week, Williams would answer any and all questions.
Even with his skills declining, Williams never made excuses and was incredibly influential for young defensive backs such as Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler as the Rams made a run to the playoffs, the only one they've had in the past 10 years.
When the season was over, Williams quietly faded into the background, never so much as announcing his retirement. Every time I saw him after that, he looked like he could still play.
That's right, Williams is still easily seen around these parts. He and his wife founded the Spirit Church in town, where Williams serves as pastor. The family is involved in plenty of philanthropic endeavors around the area as well.
Williams also serves as a sort of unofficial mentor for the Rams, a way for him to stay around the game while also working to help young people. Williams has been a consistently positive influence for Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins, for example.
Unlike baseball, the Pro Football Hall of Fame does not have team affiliations on player busts nor require them to declare a team as the one with which he's most closely associated.
If it did, Williams would almost certainly go in as a Cardinal after spending 10 years in Arizona. But that doesn't mean the Rams and St. Louis have any reason to not count him as one of their own.
Williams is an adopted son of St. Louis and Rams fans. Now, the Pro Football Hall of Fame should be proud to do the same.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Ken Houston didn't think Aeneas Williams was serious.
Houston met Williams, then a second-year cornerback for the Arizona Cardinals, at a banquet in 1992. The elder Hall of Famer and Williams were part of a small group talking about defense. Williams was listening intently to Houston, who spent 14 seasons as a safety for the Houston Oilers and Washington Redskins and was a 12-time Pro Bowl selection.
After they finished, Williams asked Houston, who worked as school counselor, if he could visit him at his home in Texas. Sure, Houston said. But Houston never thought it would actually happen.
When Williams began realizing he had the potential to be an NFL cornerback, he wanted to be the best to play the game. And if that meant paying his own way on trips across the United States to learn from some of the game's greatest defensive backs, then that's what it would take.
Sometime after Williams' second season with the Cardinals, Houston was in the middle of teaching a class in a gymnasium at an alternative high school in Houston, Texas, when Williams walked in. Houston was as surprised as he was excited. He sent the class of juniors to the bleachers and pulled Williams over to the side of the gym where they started dissecting the art of covering a receiver.
The two spent the rest of that day talking about first steps, first touches and body control.
“I would like to say I did something but he already had the work skills. We just went over the basic fundamentals,” Houston said.
“I thought his interest in the game and his willingness to accept teaching and to seek out people who could help him to be the best [stood out]. I've never had another player do that.”
Williams knew what it'd take to be the best and his years of hard work have paid off.
Williams, who will turn 46 on Wednesday, will find out if he'll be part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2014. It's his third straight year as a finalist, but to the pastor at The Spirit Church in St. Louis, Williams understands what's in his control and what's not.
“The awesome thing about this opportunity to be elected into the Hall of Fame is that all of the work I can do is already done,” Williams said.
“I am appreciative of the process. I know at the end of the day, no matter who was elected, there will be a contingent of people who think someone else should've been. I'm appreciative of those guys who make that decision and I trust that process.”
The process has brought a man who spent the first 10 years of his career mired in losing to the Hall's front stoop. Drafted by the Cardinals in the third round of the 1991 NFL draft, Williams remembers former Cardinals general manager Larry Wilson -- a Hall of Famer -- saying, "I think we drafted our cornerback for the next 10 years."
“Larry was like a prophet,” Williams said.
Williams played in 160 games for the Cardinals, winning just 56 of them. In 2001, he joined the St. Louis Rams and played in a Super Bowl that season, losing to the New England Patriots. In 14 seasons, Williams had 677 tackles and 55 interceptions. He is one of six players in history to return nine interceptions for touchdowns.
Of those six, the three besides Williams who are eligible for the Hall of Fame -- Rod Woodson, Deion Sanders and Houston -- are already in. Next up is Williams, who started all but four games in his career, was named to the Pro Bowl eight times and was a three-time first-team All-Pro.
What's more impressive to Houston is Williams stood out despite playing for teams that consistently lost. The Cardinals won four games four times in 10 years while he was in Arizona and three games in another. They were .500 or better just twice. And Williams played for four head coaches.
“For you to be an All-Pro and a [Pro Bowl] pick on those poor teams, guys have to really think you were doing the job,” Houston said. “And you have to play every Sunday when you're on a losing team. If you're an outstanding player on a losing team, then you're an outstanding player.
“He wasn't on a winner at the time, therefore you didn't get to see him much and when I did get a chance to see him, on those occasions, he was always steady. Never in the news. Never in the limelight. Just a good player. Never promoted himself. Someone was always promoting him. And to me, it's not self-promotion that makes you a great player, it's when other people promote you that make your name as a great player.”
“The individual of Aeneas Williams had set his standards so high it didn't matter what was going on around him,” said Byrd, now the cornerbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “He didn't allow his purpose to be a slave to his circumstances.”
Williams reached out to Byrd after that game in 1992 at Sun Devil Stadium, greeting him as “Mr. Byrd” and asked if he could come out to San Diego and “go over football.” Like Houston, Byrd never expected the 24-year-old to follow through.
And like he did with Houston, Williams called Byrd -- who was as surprised as Houston -- and flew out to California for a few days. That trip established a friendship and an annual trip. Williams spent time with Byrd every summer for four years -- the last two years of Byrd's career as well as two after he retired -- working on technique, as well as the mental side of the game.
Byrd went beyond footwork and proper hand placement. He taught Williams where he should be looking coming out of a break and how his hips could dictate where he'd drive a receiver.
Then they focused on the psychological part of football. Byrd taught Williams a new mindset. Instead of covering a receiver, the receiver had to beat Williams. As soon as Williams grasped Byrd's concepts, Byrd saw a confidence emerge from the up-and-coming star.
“I would say as a young man first, I saw a singular focus to be the best and that's what impressed me about Aeneas,” Byrd said. “He never traded what he wanted most for what he wanted for the moment. He would make sacrifices, even if for the moment he wanted to relax or didn't want to work out.
“He always kept in the forefront of his mind what he wanted most.”
And while other young stars in the NFL were basking in the spoils of being rich and famous in their early 20s, Williams was laying a foundation for his career. One characteristic that helped distance himself from the pack was his ability to not only seek out others for questions but to listen to their answers.
“The one thing all young players have and as you have success it's revealed as pride,” Byrd said. “Pride will do you in in a lot of situations because you don't want to take instructions from others.
“Aeneaes always humbled himself.”
And not only did Williams rise above the Cardinals' losing, he did it among tough competition.
The 1990s were full of talented defensive backs, especially in the NFC, with the likes of Darren Woodson, Mark Carrier, LeRoy Butler, Darrell Green, Eric Davis, Merton Hanks and some guy named Deion.
He didn't just look at his peers as competition, which drove him to get better, but he learned from them. Take Sanders for an example. He revolutionized the cornerback position with his unconventional staggered stance, compared to the parallel-feet stance. Williams didn't feel comfortable having his feet parallel, so when Sanders lined up with his back foot behind his front foot, Williams copied him and flourished as a press-cover corner.
As he did with Houston and Byrd, Williams befriended the best defensive backs to come before him, traveling the country in search of their knowledge. Williams said Michael Haynes, Ronnie Lott and Rod Woodson all shared their wealth of defensive acumen with him.
It wasn't just defensive players who Williams would copy. When Williams learned that Jerry Rice sprinted to the end zone for a touchdown after every pass he caught for a touchdown, Williams began doing the same when he snagged an interception or scooped a fumble.
While a slew of his contemporaries helped mold Williams, it was a son of a coach who allowed him to blossom.
After Buddy Ryan replaced Joe Bugel as Arizona's head coach in 1994, Williams wasn't sure if he wanted to re-sign. He told his wife it was because he heard Ryan was hard on his players. In reality, though, it was because Ryan challenged his defensive backs.
“I was afraid to play in Buddy's system because I knew Buddy put his cornerbacks on an island,” Williams said.
Under defensive coordinator, Fritz Shurmur, the Cardinals ran a zone blitz, Williams said, which gave him help. Ryan's new scheme was intimidating. Shortly after Williams re-signed with the Cards, Rob Ryan, then Arizona's defensive backs coach, gave Williams a hug and told him he thought he could lead the league in interceptions. In 1994, Ryan's first season, Williams tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions.
“He reminded me of what he believed I can do,” Williams said.
From then on, Williams was Arizona's top cover corner, drawing assignments such as Michael Irvin and Randy Moss for entire games, following them around the field instead of sticking to one side.
“That's when my belief, my confidence and abilities soared through the roof,” he said.
While Williams knows what it's like to lose, it didn't make the last two years any easier. When his football career began, he wrote down his goals. Among his many selfless ambitions, including helping his position coach become a defensive coordinator and his defensive coordinator become a head coach, was making the Hall of Fame.
He's knocked on the front door twice but hasn't been elected. Williams hasn't allowed it to consume him. He has a wife, four children and a congregation to do that.
“Kinda like you're up for an election and don't win,” Williams said. “You have that disappointment or that desire, but immediately your focus goes to, ‘Thank you, Lord, for allowing me to be a focus.'
“I am grateful. I express great gratitude to be there in that room and in that discussion, but I'm immediately able to keep that in perspective when it comes down to things like this.”
Williams learned as a player how to stay in the moment. He already understood the magnitude of being a professional football player, which accounts for less than one percent of all high school football players. But being a finalist, one of 15 players from across generations, to be at the final step for consideration to the Hall, he also understands the immensity of the honor.
If Williams should lose out on making the Hall again, he's prepared. He'll just reset, put it all in perspective and not think about it until 2015.
“We'll congratulate the guys that do [make it],” Williams said, “and we'll look forward to the process next year.”
Former Arizona Cardinals defensive back Aeneas Williams was among the 15 modern-day finalists for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, announced Thursday night.
The class of 2014 inductees will be voted on Feb. 1, the day before Super Bowl, in New York City.
Williams has been a finalist the past two seasons.
Former Cardinals coach Don Coryell was a finalist in 2010 but was not elected. Former Cards running back Emmitt Smith, best known for his time with the Dallas Cowboys, was a finalist for the first time in 2010 and voted in that year. And former Cardinals cornerback Roger Wehrli was enshrined in 2007 after being a finalist for the first time.
Williams’ fellow modern-day finalists are K Morten Andersen, RB Jerome Bettis, LB Derrick Brooks, WR Tim Brown, owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., coach Tony Dungy, LB/DE Kevin Greene, DE/LB Charles Haley, WR Marvin Harrison, T Walter Jones, S John Lynch, WR Andre Reed, G Will Shields and DE Michael Strahan.
The two senior nominees are P Ray Guy and DE Claude Humphrey.
Williams would be the Cardinals’ 12th Hall of Famer and the first since Wehrli was inducted in 2007.
Cardinals Hall of Famers
1963 -- Ernie Nevers, halfback
1964 -- Jimmy Conzelman, coach
1965 -- John “Paddy” Driscoll, halfback
1967 -- Charles W. Bidwill Sr., owner
1968 -- Charley Trippi, halfback
1972 -- Ollie Matson, halfback
1974 -- Dick “Night Train” Lane, defensive back
1978 -- Larry Wilson, safety
1994 -- Jackie Smith, tight end
1996 -- Dan Dierdorf, tackle
2007 -- Roger Wehrli, cornerback
Williams, Bettis and Greene spent varying parts of their careers with the Rams. While none are exactly remembered in the big picture for their time with the team, all made valuable contributions to the organization at some point.
Probably the most familiar to Rams fans is Williams, who came to St. Louis via trade in 2001. He promptly moved to safety and served as a veteran leader of a defense that helped the Rams reach Super Bowl XXXVI. Williams still lives in St. Louis and is active in the community. He spent most of his career in relative anonymity in Arizona but was long regarded as one of the team's best cover corners. His time is probably coming in Canton, but this year might not be it.
Bettis spent just one season in St. Louis after his first two came with the team in Los Angeles. He was traded to Pittsburgh in 1996 and went on to become the sixth-most accomplished rusher in league history. Of this group, Bettis probably has the best chance to break through this season.
Greene never played a down for the St. Louis version of the Rams, but he played for the Los Angeles edition from 1985 to 1992. Greene also has local ties as he hails from nearby Granite City, Ill. Like Bettis, Greene is probably more renowned for his time with the Steelers. He finished with 160 sacks, which ranked third all-time at the time of his retirement. Much like Williams, Greene will probably have his day, but it might not happen right away.
The competition to make it to Canton this year figures to be difficult. First-ballot candidates such as Seattle offensive tackle Walter Jones, Indianapolis wide receiver Marvin Harrison and Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks look to have strong cases to earn a nod this year. Giants end Michael Strahan, defensive end Charles Haley, Buffalo receiver Andre Reed and guard Will Shields are among the others with a shot to get in.
This year's crop of Rams candidates will pale in comparison to what the team figures to have in the next couple of years. Receiver Isaac Bruce, tackle Orlando Pace and quarterback Kurt Warner are due for Hall of Fame eligibility for the class of 2015, followed by receiver Torry Holt in 2016.
Former Rams receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce chatted it up with former Tennessee cornerback Samari Rolle, who is working in the team’s coaching internship program. That trio was joined at various times by Lance Schulters, another former Titans defensive back in the internship program, La'Roi Glover, a former Rams defensive tackle and now the team’s director of player programs, and former Rams tackle Grant Williams.
The sight of former Rams is nothing new around the team’s training facility these days. Since Jeff Fisher took over as coach in Jan. 2012, he’s made it abundantly clear that he’s happy to welcome back former players who might want to offer some advice to his young team or who might just want to watch practice.
In the two weeks since camp started, other former Rams such as defensive back Aeneas Williams, safety Keith Lyle and linebacker Chris Draft have stopped by. It’s not limited to Rams alumni, either. In addition to Schulters and Rolle, former Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck was also in town for a couple of days.
While it might be nothing new for Fisher to open the doors to past Rams, it does represent something of a departure from how things were in the not-too-distant past.
“This is home,” Holt said. “I should feel comfortable and good when I come here. Myself and others, we did a lot for this organization. So it feels good to be able to step back out on this field and not be looking over your shoulder or feel like you’re stepping on anybody’s toes and then to be able to provide information for guys to improve their game. It’s not about us, it’s just about sharing what we’ve learned to make this organization better and try to bring back championships to this organization.”
That’s a feeling that Holt shared with plenty of other former Rams who didn’t feel welcome or comfortable about being at Rams Park on a regular basis.
In 2011, Rams Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood told ESPN’s Arash Markazi that he didn’t feel like he had any connection to the team he once played Super Bowl XIV with while nursing a broken leg.
"We are their legacy but they forgot us," Youngblood said then. "They don't have anything to do with us, really. I find that unfortunate because you look at other franchises, even those that have moved, and they use their alumni in their marketing and in their organization. They use their Hall of Famers as an example for the players who are there today. They use their alumni, but the Rams have cut us out of the picture."
At the time, the Rams had begun to make inroads in their alumni program, which has taken off in recent years. As part of those efforts, the Rams signed Holt and Bruce to one-day contracts so each could retire as Rams. Most notably they welcomed back 20 prominent players from their past to celebrate the team’s 75th anniversary last December.
Included in that group were a number of Los Angeles Rams, including Rosey Grier, Vince Ferragamo, Dennis Harrah, Jackie Slater, LeRoy Irvin and Youngblood.
That’s just the tip of iceberg. Holt is back in St. Louis this week in preparation for his work as a color analyst on the team’s preseason broadcasts. He joins another former Ram, Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, in the booth for those duties.
Fisher’s open-door policy should come as no surprise given his experience in the league. He’s entering his 28th year coaching in the NFL and his 18th as a head coach.
Surrounded by a veteran staff with plenty of experience of its own, Fisher is undeniably comfortable in his own skin. The paranoia that can sometimes accompany first-time head coaches has long since evaporated and Fisher clearly views the opportunity to bring in any former player with wisdom to share as a positive for a team that again figures to be one of the youngest in the league.
“It feels good to be back, it feels good to be welcome and Coach Fisher gets it,” Holt said. “He welcomes us. He knows the value and the importance of the guys talking to veteran guys who have been there, done it and done it at a high level because you can gain so much from that as a player. I’m thankful that I’m able to come back and coach Fisher is an excellent coach who understands the game, understands what it takes to improve his roster and he’s allowing us to help out.”
Flores pointed to Ray Guy and asked about another former Raider, ex-coach Tom Flores. Soderberg stumped for a Canadian Football League legend. I offered thoughts from my perspective as a Hall of Fame voter.
One key point: Selectors do not vote "against" candidates. We vote for them, and some miss the cut because only five modern-era players can qualify in a given year. The very best candidates get in quickly, while others get in eventually.
The bar for enshrinement rises and falls depending upon the strength of the field. In that way, the process resembles a golf tournament. Shooting even par would have won the Masters in 2007. It would have fallen short by 19 strokes in 1997.
Still, there are some valid questions surrounding Hall of Fame candidates repeatedly considered as finalists before fading from the conversation. We discussed some of the considerations during this podcast.
The chart ranks candidates by most appearances as finalists without being enshrined to this point. Thirty-one others have been finalists up to three times, including NFC West favorites Eddie DeBartolo Jr., Roger Craig and Aeneas Williams.
The Greatest Show on Turf won one Super Bowl, lost another and unraveled so furiously that its epitaph requires some reassembly.
Dramatic narratives have sought to explain why the St. Louis Rams fell so hard after a 1999-2001 run featuring three consecutive MVP awards, a 37-11 record and an average of 32.7 points per game.
Coach Mike Martz’s ego swallowed the team, some say. Front-office infighting poisoned the culture. Quarterback Kurt Warner’s deteriorating health precipitated a controversial and regrettable departure. Draft failures wrecked the roster. The team lost its soul when key role players departed in free agency.
Whatever the reasons, the Rams were never the same after Adam Vinatieri delivered an 48-yard field goal to put the underdog New England Patriots past St. Louis 20-17 in Super Bowl XXXVI, launching one NFL dynasty at the expense of another.
Throw in spying allegations against New England as a Super Bowl subplot -- more on that in a bit -- and those 2001 Rams easily qualify on ESPN.com’s short list for "Most Dynamic Teams of the Century." They're relevant for what they accomplished and for what happened next: a 7-9 record in 2002 and just one additional winning season for the Rams to this day.
About that epitaph ...
"It's one that escapes me as to how, one, we didn't stay together and, two, how things from that point forward did not continue to roll on," Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk said recently.
If only the Rams could have known then what has become apparent now.
"Success is something that you have to know how you are going to deal with it before it hits you," Faulk said. "We ran into that in a sense of people wanted credit for putting the team together. Guys on the team who had roles, they wanted to move on and become the actual guy."
So, while some of the Patriots’ core players stuck around instead of chasing more prominent roles elsewhere -- Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi come to mind -- the Rams watched Grant Wistrom, Kevin Carter, London Fletcher and others cash in elsewhere. And who could blame them? Certainly not Faulk, who had escaped Indianapolis via trade and became an MVP in St. Louis. Teams look out for their own interests, and players often must do the same. But free agency has proven over time that money doesn’t always buy the right fit.
"That core group of guys that might not be the highest paid, might not be the most visible guys, their roles and them understanding the roles is kind of what keeps it together," Faulk said. "They might not be the guys who make it into the Hall of Fame, but they are for more or less a lot of the reasons why a lot of games are won, multiple championships are won."
Defensive back Aeneas Williams, himself a Hall of Fame finalist in recent years, was new to the Rams in 2001. The team expected Williams to do for the defense what Faulk had done for the offense. That wasn't far from what happened.
Williams famously picked off Brett Favre twice in the playoffs that postseason, returning both for touchdowns. He clinched the Rams' Super Bowl berth by picking off Donovan McNabb late in the NFC Championship Game.
With Williams and first-year coordinator Lovie Smith, that Rams defense ranked among the NFL's statistical leaders almost across the board, a reversal from 2000. They were third in yards, fifth in yards per play, third in rushing yards, sixth in net yards per pass attempt, second in first downs, sixth in third-down conversion rate and seventh in scoring.
"It was one of the best seasons I had, not just the winning but the amount of talent and the amount of humility that was on the team," Williams said. "That team was special."
The Rams knew it, too. They were 3-0 and coming off a 42-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins when Smith, recently hired away from Tony Dungy's staff in Tampa Bay, delivered just the right message. Players were reveling in the victory and newfound elite status of the defense when Smith stood up to address the team. He listed off the team's accomplishments and exulted in how good it all felt. Players exulted along with him.
Smith then delivered a message that resonates with Williams to this day.
"There are some of you who are still making the same mistakes, and I'm telling you that we are looking to replace you," Smith told the team.
There was nothing condescending or demeaning about Smith's delivery or his message. He did not name names. But the message was clear.
"To have that sobering thought from your leader in such a respectful and honoring way, which was intentional as it relates to accountability, I'll never forget it," Williams said. "The teams that have coaches who hold the players accountable no matter how good they are will be the ones that consistently win."
And yet the way that 2001 Rams season ended, and what happened next, might always publicly define that team more than the 14-2 record or revitalized defense.
"That team was loaded," Faulk said. "But this is why we play the greatest sport. There is no Game 5. No Game 7. There is one game, and you have to get it right or it doesn't matter how great you were the rest of the year."
Williams, now a pastor in St. Louis, pointed to the Rams' relatively narrow 24-17 victory over the Patriots during the regular season in suggesting the fat Super Bowl point spread was more about perception than reality. He downplayed the Spygate angle while acknowledging that some teammates are more passionate about whatever advantages the Patriots might have gleaned through taping opponents' hand signals or worse.
"Without knowing, we can only speculate," Williams said. "I relish the moment and the other thing, once we played 16 games and two or three playoff games, rarely are you fooled by what a team does. In that game, it boils down to turnovers."
Faulk carries a different perspective as someone familiar with every aspect of the Rams' offensive plan. He questions whether the Patriots could have anticipated previously unused wrinkles without spying. He has alluded in the past to red zone and third-down plays. The Rams scored on their lone red zone possession. Pressed for specifics, Faulk cited the way New England adjusted to tweaks in the way Faulk went into motion, including on Warner's quarterback sneak for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
"It's extremely hard to tell you what it was, or what we did, but I will say this," Faulk explained. "The play that Kurt Warner scored on, Mike [Martz] drew that up in the dirt. The motion that I used on that play, I would love to show it to you and love to show you other plays how I went in motion and what I did so you could see it. It's just talk when you talk, but here is what we normally do and this is what we put into this game."
Related comments from Faulk made waves during Super Bowl week. Then as now, Faulk wearies of charges he's pushing conspiracy theories.
"I didn’t make the news, I didn’t make up the news about what happened, but it is what it is," he said. "You accept the loss. They beat us. It happens. You are going to lose games. Is Bill Belichick a great mind? Yes.
"But when a guy like Aeneas Williams sits at home and has to wonder whether he lost the Super Bowl or was cheated out of it, that is who I feel bad for."
Faulk, Warner, Fletcher, Wistrom, Carter, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, Leonard Little and others from that 2001 team can reflect knowing they won it all two years earlier. For some, that Super Bowl against New England would be as close as they came to football immortality. At least they can know the 2001 team will not be forgotten anytime soon.
Davis, entering his eighth season with the San Francisco 49ers, was once an immature young player prone to outbursts on the field and during practice. He has grown into a steady team leader with varied business and community interests. I hope to follow up with him regarding his role at the symposium.
The symposium in Aurora, Ohio aims to emphasize "legacy, tradition of character and leadership, as well as social and professional responsibility" to NFL rookies, according to the league. Retired cornerback Troy Vincent, now the NFL's senior vice president of player engagement, put it this way in a league news release:
"We believe in our peer-to-peer model that the more information these young men have on how those before them handled success, the better prepared they will be to meet expectations on and off the field. Through our speakers there is a story to be told, a lesson to be learned, a teachable moment, a message of success in conveying our number one objective which is to provide our rookies the tools to succeed during their NFL playing experience and beyond."
Their names are shaded in the chart below: Kevin Greene, Charles Haley, Aeneas Williams, Jerome Bettis and Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
The first two men listed qualify as seniors candidates. Their enshrinement does not affect the maximum five slots available to modern-era candidates.
San Francisco 49ers great Roger Craig was among the 12 semifinalists not making the reduction to 15 this year. The others were: Morten Andersen, Steve Atwater, Don Coryell, Terrell Davis, Joe Jacoby, Albert Lewis, John Lynch, Karl Mecklenburg, Paul Tagliabue, Steve Tasker and George Young.
The next round of voting begins and ends one day before the Super Bowl. I'm one of the voters and will have a tough time reducing to five on the final ballot, as usual. It's a select group that makes it in the end. Strong cases can be made for each of the four players eligible for the first time. Adding them to the list makes it tougher for some of the holdovers.
The full list is available here. A few resources on the seven in question:
- Roger Craig: The San Francisco 49ers great has lived by advice Bill Walsh gave him regarding the Hall. KGO-TV's Mike Shumann has the details in this 2010 item.
- Eddie DeBartolo Jr.: This 1990 piece by Rick Reilly for Sports Illustrated captures the essence of the 49ers' former owner.
- Kevin Greene: The former Los Angeles Rams and (briefly) 49ers outside linebacker has been a finalist previously. Jason Lisk's 2010 item for Pro Football Reference looked at Greene, Chris Doleman and the next man listed.
- Charles Haley: ESPN's Jean-Jacques Taylor made the Hall case for Haley this year. Haley won Super Bowls with the 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.
- Aeneas Williams: Williams made the final 10 last year. Hall selector Kent Somers profiled the former Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams defensive back this year.
- Larry Allen: Allen finished his career with the 49ers after spending his best years with the Cowboys. Back in 2006, Dr. Z chose Allen as the most likely offensive linemen of the era to win quick enshrinement.
- Jerome Bettis: Bettis began his career with the Rams before spending his prime years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Our AFC North blogger, Jamison Hensley, thinks Bettis has a better shot at enshrinement this year.
I'm one of the Hall selectors and feel privileged to be one. We'll gather in New Orleans one day before the Super Bowl to narrow the list from 15 finalists to no more than five modern-era enshrinees. To simulate the process, reduce from 27 to 15. From there, cut to 10 and then five. There are always tough choices with the bar set so high.
- Seattle, with its 24-21 defeat at Miami, became the eighth team since 1940 to lose a game despite committing no turnovers, forcing at least one and returning a kickoff for a touchdown. The Seahawks are the 14th team over that span to lose with no turnovers and a kick-return score, regardless of whether the opponent committed a turnover.
- Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson became the first rookie to complete 16 consecutive passes in a game. He's also the first rookie to post an NFL passer rating of at least 125 in three consecutive games.
- St. Louis rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins became the first Rams player with two pick-sixes in a regular-season game. Aeneas Williams did it during the postseason against Green Bay. Jenkins is the first rookie from any team with two pick-sixes in a game since 1960.
- The San Francisco 49ers, in beating New Orleans, had two pick-sixes in one game for the first time since current Seahawks assistant Ken Norton Jr. had two of them against the Rams in 1995.
- The 49ers' Aldon Smith needs one sack to break Reggie White's record for the most over the first two seasons of an NFL career since 1982, when sacks became an official stat. Smith has 30.5. White had 31.
Back in a bit. Happy Tuesday.