NFL Nation: Roger Craig

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Eddie DeBartolo is a happy man.

Charles Haley is a finalist again for induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Yes, DeBartolo is one of the 15 finalists again, but he said last month Haley's candidacy is more important to him.

Last month, I asked DeBartolo, the 49ers' former owner, about being a semifinalist. He said he'd be thrilled to be inducted, but his focus is on getting Haley, a pass-rush star, voted into the Canton, Ohio, museum. Haley has asked DeBartolo to present him if he gets inducted. They were both finalists last year.

According to some members of the voting committee, Haley probably has a better chance than DeBartolo of getting in when the vote is made Feb. 1. In addition to the 15 finalists, there are two senior committee nominations. No more than seven and no less than four of the 17 nominees will be elected.

Linebacker Kevin Greene is also a finalist. He spent some time with the 49ers at the end of his career.

Former 49ers star running back Roger Craig did not make the transition from the semifinalist list to the final 15 Thursday night.
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Former longtime Oakland Raiders players Tim Brown and Steve Wisniewski, and Raider-for-a-season Roger Craig, are among the 25 semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014.

Brown, whose 19,682 all-purpose yards rank fifth in NFL history, has been a finalist the past four years, while it is the first time as a semifinalist for Wisniewski, who was an eight-time Pro Bowl guard. Craig, who had his best years with the San Francisco 49ers, was a finalist in 2010.

The list of 25 was winnowed down from 126 nominees, which included former Raiders coaches Tom Flores, one of 13 coaches to have won at least two Super Bowls, and Jon Gruden.

The list of 25 semifinalists will be reduced to 15 by mail ballot to the 46 selectors, and those 15 will be announced on Jan. 8, and then be joined by the two Seniors Committee nominees as 17 finalists. Former Raiders punter Ray Guy is one of the two senior candidates.

Those 17 finalists will be discussed the day before the Super Bowl, and the final class, which will be between four and seven members, will be announced.

Three 49ers are HOF semifinalists

November, 20, 2013
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Three key figures from the San Francisco 49ers’ Super Bowl era are among the 25 semifinalists up for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014: former owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., running back Roger Craig and pass-rusher Charles Haley.

Linebacker Kevin Greene, who played his last season with the 49ers, also is on the list.

The list will be pared down in January to 15, plus two nominees from the Seniors Committee. The final vote will be revealed in February, on the day before the Super Bowl. At least four and no more then seven new members will be elected.

If I had to guess, I’d think Haley has the best chance among the 49ers' group to be elected in 2014. DeBartolo is one of several league contributors on the semifinal list, so that may be difficult.

Football Today: Hall of Fame snubs

July, 11, 2013
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ESPN's Robert Flores, Jay Soderberg and I used the latest "Football Today" podcast to consider two subjects: Hall of Fame snubs and NFL teams whose championship windows are closing.

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.
Retired San Francisco 49ers great Roger Craig, previously an outspoken supporter of coach Jim Harbaugh, has gotten more specific in his predictions for greatness.

This was Craig to the San Francisco Chronicle in January 2012: "I see these guys doing some wonderful things this decade -- I think (coach) Jim (Harbaugh) will do a great job of creating another dynasty and winning some Super Bowls. I foresee us winning some Super Bowls in the next decade."

Here is Craig more recently, speaking to ESPN's Ashley Fox for a column published Monday: "I'm going on the record saying the 49ers win two Super Bowls in the next eight years. They'll be the winningest team in the next decade."

There's a lot to like about the 49ers. They're on a major roll and should be included on any short list for teams likely to dominate over the next decade. They're not the only NFC West team to consider, either.

The Seahawks are already similarly competitive and set up well for the future. The St. Louis Rams have a shot if their young draft choices develop and quarterback Sam Bradford continues to improve. The Arizona Cardinals are less settled for the long term at quarterback, but that's to be expected. Their coach and GM are just getting started.
Carson PalmerAP Photo/Ben Margot"We are going to take advantage of what Carson does best," Raiders coach Dennis Allen said of Palmer.


ALAMEDA, Calif. – Carson Palmer gave himself a refresher course this offseason in what watching football without the modern convenience of high definition is like.

It brought him back to the late 1980s, when he watched football just because he liked what he saw without knowing the complications of the game.

This time around, it was for the benefit of his NFL career.

As part of his indoctrination into the West Coast offense, Palmer, 32, watched as much of the scheme's attack as he could. He went all the way back to the Bill Walsh San Francisco 49ers.

“It was pretty cool going back to those days,” said Palmer this week during a break in the Raiders’ organized team activities. “There were no HD films back then, so it was kind of gritty. … It brought me back to when I was 8 years old and I just wanted to see (San Francisco running back) Roger Craig score a touchdown. … You look at the game so differently now, but it was a good learning experience.”

Palmer’s West Coast cram sessions included several incarnations of the scheme. However, a primary focus was the 2010 and 2011 Houston Texans. Palmer watched every game the team played the past two seasons.

New Oakland offensive coordinator Greg Knapp was Houston’s quarterbacks coach in those seasons. Knapp is bringing a version of the West Coast offense to Oakland. He is a disciple of the 49ers’ West Coast offense and has used versions of it as a coordinator in San Francisco, Atlanta, Oakland (in 2007-08) and in Seattle.

Palmer was in a West Coast offense in his first year at USC, at age 18. In a season during which he will turn 33, Palmer must adjust to the offense in what will be a crucial year for him personally. The previous Oakland regime traded two premium draft picks for Palmer last season in a desperate attempt to stay in the playoff hunt when starter Jason Campbell went down for the season with a broken collarbone.

Oakland was 4-2 when Campbell went down. It was 4-6 after acquiring Palmer from the Bengals. Thrown into the Oakland system after holding out in Cincinnati, Palmer’s rust showed as he threw 16 interceptions and 13 touchdown passes for the Raiders.

Palmer is now comfortable in Oakland, and though he is still adjusting to Knapp’s system, he says he is thrilled with the playbook because Knapp’s offense has so many variations. There are some classic West Coast schemes, but there is also zone-blocking running and other modifications. Palmer said he believes it is the most varied offense he has been in.

He thinks it will blend nicely with Oakland’s speed at receiver. Mostly, Palmer is confident his transition to the offense will be easy because of Knapp himself.

“He’s been fantastic with me,” Palmer said. “He’s amazing. He is a teacher in addition to a coach. … It will really help me get this offense down.”

[+] EnlargeGreg Knapp
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuNew coordinator Greg Knapp is installing his take on the West Coast offense in Oakland.
New Oakland coach Dennis Allen said Palmer was a major reason why he chose to hire Knapp as his offensive coordinator. He said Palmer’s ability to adjust to Knapp’s offense made the Palmer-Knapp pairing a “great fit” in Allen’s mind.

Allen scoffs at concern that Palmer might not be athletic enough to run Knapp’s offense. He has repeatedly said he thinks that Palmer is athletic as Matt Schaub, who flourished under Knapp in Houston. Palmer often ran around the field freely Tuesday in addition to participating in a multitude of plays, including several deep passes, which mesh with his big arm.

“He moved around today,” Allen said Tuesday. “He’s plenty athletic.”

Allen also said the key is to be flexible -- not only on offense, but on defense, where the 4-3-based Raiders will use multiple front-seven sets. Allen -- who was Denver’s defensive coordinator last season -- saw the benefit of in-season coaching when the Broncos went to an option offense for Tim Tebow midway through the season. He said Tuesday he learned from that experience.

“We are running the 'West Coast offense,' but we’re going to do a lot of things,” Allen said. “We are going to take advantage of what Carson does best.”

While hopes are high in Oakland that Palmer will show he was worth the high price, some worry about the fit. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. is in that camp.

“I have a lot of concerns with Palmer adjusting to the Raiders’ new offense,” Williamson said. “First off, it was the former staff/philosophy that wanted Palmer. He doesn’t anticipate routes well. When the receiver becomes open, Palmer throws it. Therefore, defensive backs get a better break on the ball and run-after-the-catch potential is more limited. Also, he has heavy feet and not a movement-based quarterback, which is ideally what they now want in Oakland. I do think Knapp will adapt his system to fit Palmer -- he will have to.”

To help Palmer adjust to playing for Knapp, Oakland signed Matt Leinart to be his backup. Leinart backed up Palmer at USC and the two Heisman Trophy winners have a close bond. Leinart was in Houston the past two seasons.

Leinart said this week he is happy to help Palmer with any nuances of Knapp’s offense. He said keys for Palmer will be to use bootlegs and rely on what should be a strong running game.

"I'm here for Carson, to help him with reads, to let him know that certain things are very good, just to stay on it," Leinart said. "Because when you're taught a new offense, there's things that you're not used to; you're used to doing it a certain way. Sometimes the reads are a little different. I told him today, 'Just stick with this route because it's a great route for us. It's going to be a great route for us.'"

And if he needs any reassurance, all Palmer has to do is flip on the old, gritty, grainy game film of the West Coast offense of yesteryear.
Kyle WilliamsAP Photo/Julie JacobsonKyle Williams' two turnovers during punt returns led to 10 points for the Giants in the 49ers' loss.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Surely it could not end this way for the San Francisco 49ers.

A fumble during a punt return, in overtime? The New York Giants recovering the ball and kicking a gift 31-yard field goal to reach Super Bowl XLVI against New England?

Never in a hundred years could Jim Harbaugh's mighty men let it end this way: 20-17 at Candlestick Park, their usually impeccable special teams letting them down twice.

"It's tough, real tough," running back Frank Gore said.

Imagine how Kyle Williams feels. The 49ers' second-year backup receiver muffed one punt before his killer fumble. Those mistakes led to 10 points for the Giants.

"You hate to be the last guy that had the ball, to give it up that way in that fashion and to lose a game of this magnitude," Williams said. "It is what it is."

Coach Jim Harbaugh used the word "cruel" to describe the Giants last week. The adjective applies more succinctly to the postseason rivalry between these teams.

Roger Craig's late fumble doomed the 49ers to a 15-13 defeat in the NFC title game 21 years ago. More than a decade passed before Trey Junkin's unfortunate field-goal snap for the Giants delivered a 39-38 victory to the 49ers in the wild-card round. And now, Williams.

Cruel, indeed.

"It's hard to swallow," 49ers defensive end Justin Smith said, "but what else are you going to do?"

Upgrade at wide receiver, for starters.

Williams, Michael Crabtree, Ginn and Brett Swain combined to catch eight passes for 51 yards on 29 targets in two playoff games. That is unacceptable.

Williams and Swain get a pass. They're young. They're backups. Ginn gets a pass. He was injured. That leaves Crabtree, the 10th player chosen in the 2009 draft. He was invisible in two playoff games, erased completely on Sunday by Giants cornerback Corey Webster.

It's tough to blame quarterback Alex Smith for Crabtree's irrelevance when Smith was completing game-changing passes to tight end Vernon Davis throughout the playoffs.

Smith targeted Crabtree 10 times in the divisional round against New Orleans. Crabtree turned those chances into four receptions for 25 yards. He lost at the ball more than once.

Crabtree caught one pass for 3 yards Sunday. A postgame interview wasn't productive, either.

"Sometimes you just gotta move the ball, man," Crabtree said. "You gotta make plays. You gotta give people a chance to make plays. You gotta make plays."

Give people a chance to make plays? Crabtree did not appear to be running wide open through the secondary in either of these playoff games.

Smith had problems, too. After completing 2 of 7 passes for 79 yards in the rain-soaked first half, he struggled with windy conditions thereafter.

"I felt great in the first half going either direction," Smith said. "I personally struggled with going from soaking wet in the first half and then in the second half, it dried out and your hands dried out and you're licking them the whole time in the second half, trying to get some of that tack."

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireAlex Smith struggled against the Giants completing just 12 of 26 passes for 196 yards.
Mother Nature wasn't the only one mixing it up on Smith. When these teams played in Week 10, the Giants gave the 49ers opportunities downfield by playing single-high safety looks designed to stop the run. That led to more one-on-one matchups outside.

"They just mixed it up a lot more, played a lot of two-high (safety) this game on first and second down, a lot of third down, especially those third-and-longs that we could not convert," Smith said.

On the surface, this season would end how it began, with the 49ers realizing just how much Ted Ginn Jr. meant to them. Ginn's two return touchdowns in Week 1 held off a late Seattle rally only days after the team had pressured him into accepting a pay reduction. Ginn's injury-related absence Sunday forced the less accomplished, less seasoned Williams into punt-return duty.

The results were disastrous, the lessons simple.

The 49ers were horrible on third down most of the season. They were worse against the Giants, converting one time in 13 chances. Touchdown passes to Davis covering 73 and 28 yards should have been enough on a day when the 49ers held Eli Manning and the Giants to 3.9 yards per play -- the lowest figure for a Giants offense since a Dec. 14, 2008 meeting with Dallas, a span of 52 games, counting playoffs.

Under less cruel and less unusual circumstances, the 49ers would have made up for their third-down issues by hawking the ball and forcing turnovers. But a secondary that had picked off 24 passes in 17 games fell all over itself trying to collect passes Manning threw right to them. Dashon Goldson collided with Carlos Rogers to foil one sure pick. Goldson and Tarell Brown collided to wreck another freebie.

Even when the 49ers appeared to force and recover an Ahmad Bradshaw fumble, head linesman Mark Hittner ruled San Francisco had stopped Bradshaw's forward progress before the ball came out.

"Every play that happened in the game, except that one, was played out to the completion of the play," Harbaugh said.

That was as close as the 49ers came to complaining about factors beyond their control. They lost this one more than the Giants won it. That is what hurt them the most.

A successful first season under Harbaugh guarantees nothing for the future. The rest of the NFC West appears to be gaining. The offseason will give the 49ers' future opponents time to figure out what this coaching staff sprung on the NFL so impressively this season.

The 49ers are unlikely to encounter a lower Super Bowl bar than the one they tripped over Sunday. All they had to do was beat a 9-7 team at home.

Pregame talk casting the Giants as a red-hot team amounted to nothing. The 49ers jumped to a 7-0 lead in the first nine minutes. They led 14-10 late in the third quarter and tied it late in the fourth without making a third-down conversion until the final play of regulation. The Giants did little to win the game late until forcing that fumble and centering the ball for Lawrence Tynes' winning kick.

"This is the hardest loss of my career in football, especially with it being so close, being in it the whole game," left tackle Joe Staley said. "A lot of missed opportunities."

Examining the most crucial event in the history of every team in the division.

A longtime Cincinnati Bengals assistant named Bill Walsh was having a hard time convincing NFL teams to hire him as a head coach.

The Bengals had promoted another assistant, Bill "Tiger" Johnson, when Paul Brown retired after the 1975 season. Walsh spent 1976 as offensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers before leaving the NFL entirely for the best head-coaching job he could get. Years later, Walsh accused Brown of conspiring to keep him from advancing.

Bill Walsh
Malcolm Emmons/.US PresswireThe 49ers won three Super Bowls under coach Bill Walsh.
While Walsh was building a winner at Stanford, the sputtering San Francisco 49ers were running through four head coaches in less than two calendar years. Young owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. made Walsh the fifth in 1979.

"Caution should be exercised in proclaiming Bill Walsh the savior of the 49er franchise," Bay Area columnist Ed Jacoubowsky wrote at the time. "But the selection of Walsh as director of the club's football operations probably is the best step the young owner could have taken."

Probably? Let's make that a "definitely" in hindsight.

The organization would never be the same. Offensive football would never be the same. The balance of power in the league itself would shift for a decade, and then some. This was the most crucial event in 49ers history and more significant than any the team's current division rivals have experienced.

That message came through clearly at the SportsNation ballot box, where Walsh's hiring received significantly more votes than any other NFC West Flash Point among the more than 129,000 ballots cast across the division. The 49ers' Flash Points drew more than 44,000 votes, most in the NFC West, and Walsh's hiring commanded better than half of them.

"If the 49ers never hired Bill Walsh, they would not have changed the organizational structure of the team, how players are graded and drafted, how to prepare those players for the season and utilize them on the field of play," razzberry80 wrote. "Bill changed EVERYTHING. Joe Montana was the best, but without Bill Walsh, Joe is probably not drafted by the 49ers."

Another 49ers fan, servegmo, credited Walsh for drawing him in as a fan living in Costa Rica.

"He is the reason people from all over the world started watching football," servegmo wrote. "He put the 49ers in a position where they changed football as a whole -- the offseason preparation, the inclusion of black coaches, the practices, the West Coast offense, how he managed the draft (drafting the best players EVER at quarterback, wide receiver and safety). How many coaches can say that?"

The 49ers won three Super Bowls in 10 seasons under Walsh, who qualified as a football visionary in strategy, philosophy and personnel evaluation. Walsh became famous for scripting plays to separate in-game emotions from the decision-making process. His personnel moves and broader philosophy scripted more lasting success: five Super Bowls, including two won after Walsh retired from the sideline.

With full support from DeBartolo, who had learned from past mistakes, Walsh showed an exceptional eye for talent. Has any coach possessed a superior vision?

"When he drafted Ronnie Lott, he thought, 'He's a corner now, but he'll be a longtime All-Pro safety,'" former Walsh assistant and two-time NFL head coach Dennis Green said for this project. "When he drafted Roger Craig, he saw him as a fullback now, but a little small for the fullback we really needed, so we would draft a fullback and Craig would make the transition to running back.

Trent Green
AP Photo/Harold JenkinsTrent Green's knee injury paved the way for Kurt Warner to step in at quarterback.
"Bill did that sort of thing constantly when he thought players could fit in a certain way and be very unique players."

Walsh's hiring commanded 53 percent of votes cast for the 49ers' Flash Points, with "The Catch" ranking second at 37 percent. Of course, there never would have been such a signature play if Walsh hadn't put together a 1979 draft class featuring Montana in the third round and Dwight Clark in the 10th.

RAMS: Trent Green's injury pivotal

The Kurt Warner story might never have been told if the San Diego Chargers' Rodney Harrison hadn't knocked out Green with a severe knee injury during the 1999 preseason.

Fans voted that moment supreme with 49 percent of more than 28,000 votes. Only Mike Jones' Super Bowl-saving tackle against Kevin Dyson (36 percent) came close to challenging.

The comments section of the Rams-related item drew barely more than a dozen contributions, however. So much for exit polling.

[+] EnlargePaul Allen
Robert Giroux/Getty ImagesPaul Allen helped bring an NFC title to Seattle.
"The ownership change [in 1972] precipitated everything that has happened to the Rams in 'modern' times," patdpenguin wrote. "The true answer to the question would be the ownership change, but as a lifelong fan, speaking with my heart, I would choose the Trent Green injury. Prior to that, the team had not proven anything, and was spinning its wheels."

SEAHAWKS: Paul Allen trumps all

The Seahawks were planning a move to Los Angeles during their darkest days of the 1990s, at one point even conducting free agency from an elementary school parking lot in Southern California.

Allen wasn't much of an NFL fan at the time, but he rallied to the cause of keeping the team in Seattle. Allen led a push to secure a new stadium, contributing $130 million of his own money in exchange for $300 million in public funding, as part of a deal to purchase the team.

Within a couple years, the team had landed Mike Holmgren as coach and general manager. Multiple division titles and the first Super Bowl in franchise history followed.

"I went with Allen buying the team," DiLune2 wrote. "It is hard to point to any one of those [other] moments as the one point where it all changed. They were part of a long, ugly slide. Allen buying the team, though, was the one point in time where you can look and say, 'It all changed right there.'"

[+] EnlargeLarry Fitzgerald
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images Larry Fitzgerald caught nine passes for 152 yards and three TDs in the NFC Championship Game.
CARDINALS: Beating Eagles to reach Super Bowl

Sixty-eight percent of more than 26,000 Cardinals voters pointed to the team's victory over Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game. No option for any team drew a higher percentage.

The runner-up for the Cardinals -- securing a new stadium in 2006 -- lagged with only 16 percent. But some felt strongly it should have prevailed.

"Wow, this is a slam dunk," longtime blog contributor Leesters wrote. "The stadium changed this team overnight. It went from the least competitive financial situation in the league to one of the best, in one year. Free agents could be afforded, better coaches, better home-field advantage. If it wasn't for this stadium, there would be no NFC Championship win."
Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Roger Craig, Sean Morey, Sam Bradford and Takeo Spikes are among the NFC West players and alumni scheduled to appear at the NFL Players Association's draft-related festivities in New York beginning April 28.

Hall of Famer and current Seattle Seahawks radio analyst Warren Moon, who played for Seattle before the team's move back to the NFC West in 2002, is also on the guest list revealed Monday.

The NFLPA took criticism when news broke that it planned to discourage players from attending the draft itself, but these events have been scheduled to give players flexibility should they choose to attend both.

"The series of events is a celebration of legacy -- of past, present and future football players coming together to honor those making the journey from prospect to professional," the NFLPA said in a news release.

The NFLPA has scheduled a welcome meeting and dinner with families for 4 p.m. ET on Thursday, the first day of the draft, which begins at 8 p.m. ET. Draft prospects attending would then have time to appear at the draft, should they choose to do so, as both will be headquartered in New York.

The NFLPA has scheduled media access for Friday from 8 a.m. to noon, followed by a lunch and dinner with reception at 4:30 p.m. A fitness and skills clinic is set for Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon in Harlem, followed by lunch and a party beginning at 9 p.m.

NFL teams generally fly first-round choices to their facilities in the day or two following the first round. Rules will allow that to happen again, despite the lockout. Players heading to their new teams' facilities for news conferences could miss NFLPA-sponsored events for Friday and/or Saturday.

The initial guest list, subject to change, features the following current and former NFL players: Charlie Batch, Cornelius Bennett, Dwayne Bowe, Bradford, Ahmad Bradshaw, Craig, Zak DeOssie, Dickerson, Eddie George, Faulk, Felix Jones, Maurice Jones-Drew, Dustin Keller, Brandon Marshall, Kevin Mawae, Willie McGinest, Brian Mitchell, Moon, Morey, Shaun O'Hara, Ray Rice, Tony Richardson, Spikes and Mike Vrabel.

The list of draft prospects includes Prince Amukamara, Marvin Austin, Adrian Clayborn, Marcell Dareus, Nick Fairley, Blaine Gabbert, A.J. Green, Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, Cameron Jordan, Ryan Kerrigan, Corey Liuget, Von Miller, Rahim Moore, Cam Newton, Patrick Peterson, Robert Quinn, Aldon Smith, Daniel Thomas and J.J. Watt.

NFC West Hall of Fame debate

July, 7, 2010
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A weeklong look at current or former players or coaches with Hall of Fame potential in the division.

Rams: Orlando Pace, LT

Claim to fame: Seven Pro Bowl appearances and three first-team All-Pro selections affirm Pace's standing as one of the elite offensive linemen of his era. Pace started two Super Bowls for the St. Louis Rams, winning one, and he was one of the best players for the Greatest Show on Turf.

Orlando Pace
Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIOrlando Pace was selected to the Pro Bowl seven times during his career.
Case for enshrinement: At his best, Pace dominated in all aspects of the game and he did it while playing for some of the best offenses of any era. Any discussion of the great tackles since the mid-1990s must include Pace, Walter Jones and Jonathan Ogden. The Rams drafted Pace first overall in 1997 and he lived up to expectations. That's saying a lot.

"The thing Orlando does so well is that he can get caught off balance on the pass rush and recover and finish the block, which is very difficult to do," then-Rams coach Mike Martz told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2002, when Pace was in his prime.

The Rams' offense put pressure on its tackles to hold up in protection. Receivers ran deeper routes, forcing quarterbacks to hold the ball longer. The Rams were willing to risk sacks for the big play. They gave up more than most teams by design, not because Pace had trouble protecting.

"Orlando is the cornerstone of everything we're trying to do on offense," teammate Isaac Bruce told the Post-Dispatch in 2004.

Case against enshrinement: Pace's conditioning wasn't always the best and he battled injuries throughout his career, at the expense of consistency.

Pace managed to play through the injuries for most of his first nine seasons, but he missed 23 of 32 games over the 2006 and 2007 seasons. Pace was never the same thereafter and he was below average last season for the Chicago Bears.

Parting shot: The final five or six seasons of Pace's career shouldn't overshadow what he accomplished in earning those seven trips to the Pro Bowl. Pace deserves strong consideration for the Hall of Fame even though he'll likely rank a couple notches below Jones and Ogden.

Cardinals: Kurt Warner, QB

Claim to fame: Warner authored a legacy unique to the NFL in going from virtual anonymity to superstar status when the Rams lost Trent Green to injury before the 1999 season. He was a four-time Pro Bowl choice and two-time MVP. He was also Super Bowl MVP. Warner helped turn two floundering franchises into Super Bowl teams quickly.

Case for enshrinement: None of the 14 quarterbacks enshrined in the Hall of Fame since 1985 can match Warner in completion percentage (65.5) or yards per game (260.8). Of the 14, only Steve Young had a higher passer rating and more yards per attempt. Only Dan Marino had more 300-yard games.

Warner reached 10,000 yards passing in fewer games than anyone in NFL history. Only Marino reached 20,000 and 30,000 yards as fast (they tied by reaching 30,000 yards in 114 games). Warner and Peyton Manning are the only players with a perfect passer rating in three games.

Warner was also about winning. He has a 9-4 starting record in the playoffs and has posted the three highest passing yardage totals in Super Bowl history. Only Bart Starr has a higher career postseason passer rating. Warner averaged 66.5 percent completions, 304 yards and 8.55 yards per attempt in the playoffs. Warner has 31 postseason touchdown passes in only 13 games (the three players ahead of him own between 18 and 24 playoff appearances).

Case against enshrinement: Warner started more than 11 games in a season only four times. He started between nine and 11 games four times and didn't accomplish much for a five-season period beginning in 2002.

Any argument against enshrinement for Warner will focus on the disjointed nature of his career and the fact that he produced sporadically as a result. The consistency simply wasn't as good with Warner as it was with the typical Hall of Fame quarterback.

Parting shot: Warner's candidacy improved significantly when he led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl following the 2008 season. I thought it was also important for his Hall credentials to follow up with another strong effort in 2009. Warner did that, leading the Cardinals to another division title. Tossing five touchdown passes with only four incompletions during a wild-card victory over the Green Bay Packers might have pushed him over the top.

[+] EnlargeRoger Craig
US PresswireRoger Craig was the first player in league history to post 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.
49ers: Roger Craig, RB

Claim to fame: Craig was among the more versatile running backs in league history, earning Pro Bowl honors at running back and fullback. He was a three-time Super Bowl champion and four-time Pro Bowl choice.

Case for enshrinement: Craig was the first player in NFL history to top 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. He led the NFL in receptions with 92 in 1985 and set the 49ers' season rushing record with 1,502 yards three years later.

It's tough to measure players across eras, but Craig ranked 13th on the all-time rushing list when he retired even though he did so much more than simply run the ball. His three touchdowns against the Miami Dolphins helped the 49ers win the Super Bowl after the 1984 season.

Craig was one of three players in NFL history with 8,000 yards rushing, 4,900 yards receiving, 70 total touchdowns and four Pro Bowls. Marcus Allen and Marshall Faulk are the others.

Case against enshrinement: Craig's versatility meant he usually wasn't exceptional in any one category. He generally wasn't a threat to rank among the league rushing leaders. While he did play fullback, he wasn't a great one in the traditional sense.

Craig was a four-time Pro Bowl choice with 8,189 yards rushing, 4,911 yards receiving, 73 total touchdowns and a 4.1-yard rushing average. Ricky Watters was a five-time Pro Bowl choice with 10,643 yards rushing, 4,248 yards receiving, 91 total touchdowns and a 4.1-yard rushing average.

Parting shot: Craig has good Hall of Fame credentials, not great ones, and he'll have a hard time breaking through given the quality of candidates and limited spaces.

Seahawks: Kenny Easley, SS

Claim to fame: Easley was a game-changing force while earning five Pro Bowl berths in seven seasons. He was the NFL's defensive player of the year in 1984.

Case for enshrinement: All-time Seahawks sack leader Jacob Green called Easley the best athlete his Seattle teams ever had. Tight end Todd Christensen of the division-rival Los Angeles Raiders said Easley, at his best, was even better than Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. Bill Walsh said Easley would be a Hall of Famer if Easley had played longer and, in his words, "maybe he still is -- he was that good." Lott said he knows the 49ers would have drafted Easley over himself if Seattle hadn't taken Easley first, and he blamed the Seahawks' failure to appear in a Super Bowl for keeping Easley out of Canton.

"Kenny could do what Jack Tatum could do, but he also could do what corners could do -- he could do what Mike Haynes could do," Lott said several years ago. "He was not only a great hitter and great intimidator on the field, but he was a great athlete. In that day, what made him so special -- him, Lawrence Taylor, those guys changed the game of football on the defensive side because they were not just guys that were big hitters. Now, all of sudden, you were seeing guys who were big hitters but also as athletic as anyone on offense."

Easley's outstanding ball skills helped him pick off 17 passes over a two-year period. He was indeed part of a trend toward greater athleticism on defense.

Case against enshrinement: Even if Easley were, at his best, better than Lott, there was no comparison between each man's careers. Easley, forced into early retirement after suffering from kidney failure attributed to excessive use of ibuprofen, simply didn't play long enough to solidify his Hall of Fame credentials. That wasn't his fault, but it was reality and it's tough to judge candidates on what might have been.

Parting shot: Easley becomes eligible for consideration by the Hall of Fame's Senior Selection Committee in 2012. His case deserves careful consideration and I think his chances for enshrinement will improve once the Senior Committee takes a harder look at his career. Easley was better than a lot of people realize. The respect he commands from all-time greats will help his cause.

Best 49ers Team Ever: 1989

June, 24, 2010
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Notable players: QB Joe Montana, QB Steve Young, WR Jerry Rice, WR John Taylor, RB Roger Craig, FB Tom Rathman, TE Brent Jones, G Guy McIntyre, FS Ronnie Lott, OLB Charles Haley, DE Pierce Holt, DE Kevin Fagan, OLB Keena Turner, LB Matt Millen.

[+] EnlargeJoe Montana
Andy Hayt/Getty ImagesJoe Montana and the 49ers were at the height of their success during the 1989 season.
Analysis: The San Francisco 49ers had multiple teams worthy of consideration as the best in franchise history. I'll take the one that outscored its opponents 126-26 during the postseason, including 55-10 over the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Denver led the NFL in scoring defense that season.

The 1989 team featured the 49ers' offense at the peak of its powers.

Joe Montana averaged 9.1 yards per attempt with 13 starts that season. The figure for three-game starter Steve Young -- 10.9 yards per attempt -- was even more ridiculous. Drew Brees set a career high at 8.5 yards per attempt last season. Tom Brady's average was 8.3 during his historic 2007 season. Dan Marino was at 9.0 in his 1984 career season. None could match the 49ers' top two quarterbacks during this special season.

This was the first 49ers team of the 1980s without Bill Walsh, but offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren was still there, as were nearly all of the team's iconic offensive players from the decade. Tight end Brent Jones emerged as a starter. Roger Craig topped 1,000 yards rushing. Fullback Tom Rathman caught 73 passes. Montana set a career high for passer rating at 112.1, completing 70.2 percent with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Rice caught 17 touchdown passes while averaging 18.1 yards per reception.

The defense was typically overlooked except by those forced to play against it. John Elway completed only 10 of 26 passes for 108 yards and two interceptions against the 49ers in the Super Bowl.

"Their defense doesn't get enough credit," Broncos coach Dan Reeves said afterward. ''I can't say enough about them.''

Walsh later regretted retiring. This team made it easy to see why.

Most impressive win: Having already touched on the Super Bowl victory, let's focus on the victory that delivered the NFC West title to San Francisco that season. Montana passed for 458 yards, including 286 to receiver John Taylor, and the 49ers twice overcame 17-point deficits to edge the division-rival Rams, 30-27, on the road.

Transcending Walsh: This 49ers team became the only one in NFL history to win back-to-back Super Bowls with different head coaches. The change from Walsh to George Seifert might have actually helped this team, at least for a season. The offensive-minded Walsh left the defensive-minded Seifert with a veteran offense trained to function at a high level without much big-picture help. Holmgren took the best of what Walsh taught him and made it even better with his own tweaking. In that sense, the 1989 team might have gotten the best of what Walsh and Holmgren had to offer. Montana was also at his best. He never enjoyed a finer season.

Honorable mention

1984: This was the team that knocked off Marino in the Super Bowl after the quarterback shredded defenses for a then-record 48 touchdown passes. This was a great 49ers team with a franchise-best 15-1 record, but the best group in 49ers history needed to include Rice, I thought. He arrived the next year.

1994: Proponents of this team will point to a defense featuring Deion Sanders, Rickey Jackson, Ken Norton, Merton Hanks, Eric Davis, Tim McDonald, Bryant Young and others. They'll point to Young's record six touchdown passes against the San Diego Chargers in the Super Bowl.

1948: Let's save some recognition for one of the early 49ers teams. This one outscored opponents by more than 17 points per game on its way to a 12-2 record. Frankie Albert put up modern-day numbers with 29 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions and a 102.9 rating.
John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan MarinoUS PresswireJohn Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino are a part of a draft class that may be the best in NFL history.
The 1983 NFL draft might have been the best of the modern era even without Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway, Jim Kelly or Dan Marino.

It was that good.

"I think if you asked each guy to a man, in particular the Hall of Fame guys, there has always been a pride about our class," said cornerback Darrell Green, the 28th overall choice in 1983 and a Hall of Famer. "Without ever discussing it, we knew we were a pretty special class of athletes."

The class produced six Hall of Famers –- Elway, Kelly, Marino, Green, Eric Dickerson and Bruce Matthews -– in addition to recent Hall finalists Richard Dent and Roger Craig. Of the 335 players drafted, 41 combined for 142 Pro Bowl appearances.

No other draft class has produced more than 34 Pro Bowl players since the NFL and AFL combined for a common draft in 1967, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That year served as the starting point for this project ranking the five best draft classes. The 1996, 1981, 1969 and 1985 drafts also made the cut.

Not that making the cut was good enough for some.

"If you took the defensive players in our draft and put them on the field against any class, we would shut them out," said Ronnie Lott, one of the more decorated members of a 1981 class featuring Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, Rickey Jackson, Howie Long and Kenny Easley.

The project was biased against recent classes because their players haven’t had time to achieve in ways that set apart the older classes. The 2001 class has already produced 33 Pro Bowlers, same as the 1996 class and more than every other class but 1983, 1987 and 1988. But the best players from that class aren't finished achieving.

The biggest challenge, at least to me, was settling on the right criteria. ESPN Stats & Information provided an updated version of the spreadsheet used to identify elite draft classes for a previous project Insider. The spreadsheet awarded points to players based on:

  • Hall of Fame enshrinement (15 points)
  • MVP awards (8)
  • Player of the year awards (6)
  • All-Pro first-team awards (4)
  • All-Pro second-team awards (3)
  • Super Bowl victories (3)
  • Pro Bowls (2)
  • Rookie of the year awards (2)
  • Super Bowl defeats (1)

I used the spreadsheet as a starting point.

From there, I assigned 15 points to current or recently retired players likely destined for Canton. The players I singled out were: Troy Polamalu, Dwight Freeney, Ed Reed, LaDainian Tomlinson, Steve Hutchinson, Brian Urlacher, Tom Brady, Champ Bailey, Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, Alan Faneca, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Taylor, Jonathan Ogden, Marvin Harrison, Ray Lewis, Brian Dawkins, Terrell Owens, Derrick Brooks, Marshall Faulk, Larry Allen, Michael Strahan, Brett Favre, Junior Seau and Deion Sanders.

I added five points for Hall of Fame finalists not yet enshrined -- Cortez Kennedy, Shannon Sharpe, etc. These changes allowed the rich to get richer, of course, because all those players already had lots of Pro Bowls on their resumés. But if it was important to recognize current Hall of Famers -- and it was, I thought -- then it was important to acknowledge the strongest candidates not yet enshrined.

Another thing I noticed: These changes didn't significantly alter results, which were predicated mostly on Pro Bowl appearances, a statistical correlation revealed.

The next challenge was making sure the formula didn't acknowledge great players at the expense of good ones. ESPN's John Clayton and Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. felt the formula should take special care in this area. I wasn't as adamant.

"You love the Hall of Famers," Horton said, "but I like the class where the guy plays at a high level for a long time. I love those third-round picks that just play and play. We shouldn’t make a mistake at the first pick. That guy should be a great player."

Clayton used approximate-value ratings from Pro Football Reference to produce averages for each draft class. The 1993 class produced the highest average, followed by the 1996, 1983, 1975 and 1971 classes. Clayton also plugged in total games played. The 1983 class edged the 1993 class for the most, followed by the 1990, 1976 and 1988 classes.

A few key variables changed along the way.

Teams drafted at least 442 players annually from 1967 to 1976. They drafted more than 330 players each year from 1977 through 1992. The 1993 class featured only 224 players, fewer than any class under consideration. The first 224 players drafted in 1969 had much higher average approximate-value ratings than the 1993 class, for example. More recent draft classes also benefited from league expansion, which opened roster spots and opportunities for additional players.

NFL regular seasons also grew in length from 14 to 16 games beginning in 1978.

My focus was more on what the draft classes produced and less on extenuating circumstances.

The 1993 class is among those deserving honorable mention. Do the most decorated members of that class -- Strahan, Willie Roaf, Will Shields, John Lynch, Jerome Bettis and Drew Bledsoe among them -- hold up to the best from other years?

Take a look at my top five classes and decide for yourself.


[+] EnlargeDarrell Green
US PresswireDarrell Green was the last pick of the first round in the 1983 draft.
1983

Why it's the best: No other class came close using the point system from ESPN Stats & Information. The 1983 class finished in a virtual tie with the 1996 and 1981 classes even when I removed from consideration the three Hall of Fame quarterbacks -- Elway, Marino and Jim Kelly. No class had more combined Pro Bowls from its top-10 picks (42) or more combined Pro Bowls from players drafted later than the 200th overall choice (26). Five of the six Hall of Famers played their entire NFL careers with one team for 83 combined seasons, or 16.6 on average.

Hall of Famers: Elway (Broncos), Kelly (Bills), Marino (Dolphins), Green (Redskins), Dickerson (Rams), Matthews (Oilers)

Hall of Fame finalists: Richard Dent (Bears), Roger Craig (49ers)

Other big names: Karl Mecklenburg (Broncos), Joey Browner (Vikings), Chris Hinton (Broncos), Charles Mann (Redskins), Dave Duerson (Bears), Leonard Marshall (Giants), Albert Lewis (Chiefs), Curt Warner (Seahawks), Jimbo Covert (Bears), Henry Ellard (Rams), Mark Clayton (Dolphins), Tim Krumrie (Bengals), Greg Townsend (Raiders), Gill Byrd (Chargers), Don Mosebar (Raiders), Darryl Talley (Bills).

Late-round steals: Mecklenburg was the 310th overall choice. Dent went 203rd overall. Clayton went 223rd. They combined for 15 Pro Bowls.

Ah, the memories: Green grew up in Houston rooting for the Oilers, but his hometown team wasn't very accommodating on draft day. His family didn't have cable TV, so they couldn't watch the draft on ESPN. They had heard the Oilers would be showing it at their facility, or at least providing real-time updates, but Green was turned away.

"They sent my little behind on out of there," Green said. "That is the way that went. What is funny, I’m a Houstonian, I played 20 years in the NFL, started 18 years and I never played in Houston but one time, so I couldn’t stick it to them. ... But you always love your hometown. I was a Luv Ya Blue, Bum Phillips, Kenny Burrough, Earl Campbell, Dan Pastorini fan."

Green was used to the cold shoulder. Tim Lewis, drafted 11th overall by Green Bay, was supposed to be the superstar cornerback that year. Looking back, Green liked going one spot after Marino. Green also values being a bookend to a first round featuring Elway on the other side.

"[Redskins general manager] Bobby Beathard told me if I was there, he would take me," Green said. "I'd always been told by pro players, 'Hey, don’t believe anything they say.' As an adult, I know why. Things change. But the man told me. We got down to Dan Marino at 27 and I knew I wouldn't be 27. Then when we got to 28, the last pick of the first round, now I’ve got nothing else to do but believe it. I was extremely excited he maintained his word."


Ray Lewis
Frank Victores/US PresswireRay Lewis could be one of the best linebackers to ever play in the NFL.
1996

Why it's No. 2: Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis arguably rank among the three best players at their positions in NFL history. Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens arguably rank among the 10 greatest receivers. Between four and seven members from this class have strong credentials for Canton. Only the 1983 class produced more total Pro Bowl appearances. Unlike some other classes -- 1988 comes to mind -- this one provided star power deep into the draft.

Hall of Famers: none yet.

Hall of Fame finalists: none yet.

Strongest Hall credentials: Jonathan Ogden (Ravens), Marvin Harrison (Colts), Ray Lewis (Ravens), Brian Dawkins (Eagles), Terrell Owens (49ers), Zach Thomas (Dolphins), La'Roi Glover (Raiders).

Other big names: Mike Alstott (Bucs), Willie Anderson (Bengals), Simeon Rice (Bucs), Lawyer Milloy (Patriots), Tedy Bruschi (Patriots), Eddie George (Titans), Jeff Hartings (Lions), Keyshawn Johnson (Jets), Donnie Edwards (Chiefs), Jon Runyan (Oilers), Amani Toomer (Giants), Muhsin Muhammad (Panthers), Stephen Davis (Redskins), Joe Horn (Chiefs), Marco Rivera (Packers).

Late-round steals: Fifth-rounders Thomas, Glover and Horn combined for 17 Pro Bowls. Another fifth-rounder, Jermaine Lewis, added two more. No other fifth round produced more total Pro Bowls during the period in question. Although expansion added additional picks to more recent fifth rounds, those picks were also later in the draft. Thomas and Glover should get strong Hall of Fame consideration.

Ah, the memories: Glover was the 16th defensive tackle drafted in 1996. He wasn't even invited to the combine initially, and when he did get the call, there wasn't enough time to prepare for the specialized events. Glover, who weighed about 265 pounds at San Diego State, was in trouble and he knew it.

"It's funny to me now, but it wasn't funny then," Glover said. "I got a call maybe a week before the combine, so I wasn’t prepared. I was out there doing my long-distance conditioning training and I wasn’t doing speed-type training. I may have ran like a 5.1 or 5.2, a very bad time."

Glover performed much better at his personal workout, dropping those times into the low 4.9s. Oakland made him the 166th player chosen that year.

"I just remember feeling goosebumps and I started sweating -- the dream is coming true," Glover said. "And then I was put on the phone with Mr. Al Davis. He asked me a very specific question: 'How would you like to be an Oakland Raider?' And I damn near lost it. I didn’t cry or anything. I kept my composure over the phone. As soon as I hung up and saw my name come on the ticker -- I lived in a tiny 2-3 bedroom home -- the place just erupted. All the women were crying and all the men were asking for tickets."


[+] EnlargeLT
US PresswireLawrence Taylor helped the New York Giants win two Super Bowls.
1981

Why it's No. 3: This was arguably the greatest defensive draft under consideration, particularly near the top. The NFL's best athletes typically played offense, but 1981 draftees Taylor, Lott and Easley helped change the dynamics. This draft wasn't as strong as some throughout, but its star power on defense set it apart. Key players from this draft helped the 49ers, Redskins, Giants, Bears and Raiders dominate at times during the decade. Only the 1986 draft produced more Super Bowl winners.

Hall of Famers: Taylor (Giants), Lott (49ers), Mike Singletary (Bears), Howie Long (Raiders), Rickey Jackson (Saints), Russ Grimm (Redskins).

Hall of Fame finalists: none.

Other big names: Easley, Eric Wright (49ers), Dennis Smith (Broncos), Cris Collinsworth (Bengals), Hanford Dixon (Browns), Freeman McNeil (Jets), James Brooks (Chargers), Brian Holloway (Patriots), Hugh Green (Bucs), Carlton Williamson (49ers), Neil Lomax (Cardinals), Dexter Manley (Redskins), Mark May (Redskins), E.J. Junior (Cardinals).

Late-round steals: Charlie Brown, chosen 201st overall by the Redskins, caught 16 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, earning Pro Bowl honors both years. Wade Wilson, chosen 210th, played 19 seasons and earned one Pro Bowl berth, in 1988.

Ah, the memories: Once the 49ers drafted Lott eighth overall, the USC safety headed to the airport to use a ticket the team had held for him. Easley, chosen sixth by the Seahawks, was the other great safety in that draft class and the two were so closely linked that the person behind the airline counter mixed up Lott's destination.

"You are going to Seattle?"

"No, San Francisco," Lott replied.

Lott often looks back on how things might have been different if the Saints had drafted Taylor instead of George Rogers first overall. That wasn't going to happen because the Saints wanted a running back to help them control the clock, and they were especially particular about character in that draft -- their first with Bum Phillips as head coach.

"Lawrence Taylor, I didn't realize he was going to be that type of player, but Rickey Jackson did turn out to be the player we needed [in the second round]," Phillips said. "We needed a great player and a great individual. We needed some leadership and we needed the right kind of character to be leaders."

The 49ers needed a new secondary. They used that 1981 draft to select Lott, Wright and Williamson.

"I talked to Bill Walsh and his statement was, 'If I see it on film once, then my coaches should be able to get it out of a guy,'" said Horton, the Scouts Inc. founder and veteran NFL talent evaluator. "That always stuck with me. He was amazing at seeing things on tape. That '81 draft was a smart draft. You could look at that draft and you could see what teams were thinking."


Joe Greene
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireJoe Greene is one of five Hall of Fame inductees from the 1969 draft class.
1969

Why it's No. 4: Roger Wehrli's 2007 Hall of Fame enshrinement gave this class five inductees. Only three other classes managed more combined Pro Bowl appearances. Some of the names in this class won't resonate with recent generations, and that is understandable. But this was still a strong class and one worthy of our consideration.

Hall of Famers: Joe Greene (Steelers), Ted Hendricks (Raiders), O.J. Simpson (Bills), Wehrli (Cardinals), Charlie Joiner (Oilers).

Hall of Fame finalists: L.C. Greenwood (Steelers), Bob Kuechenberg (Eagles).

Other big names: George Kunz (Falcons), Bill Bergey (Bengals), Bill Stanfill (Dolphins), Calvin Hill (Cowboys), Ed White (Vikings), Gene Washington (49ers), Jack Rudnay (Chiefs), Bill Bradley (Eagles), Ted Kwalick (49ers), Jim Marsalis (Chiefs), Ron Johnson (Browns), Fred Dryer (Giants).

Late-round steals: Greenwood was a six-time Pro Bowl choice and was the 238th overall pick. The Falcons found five-time Pro Bowler Jeff Van Note with the 262nd choice. Larry Brown, chosen 191st overall, was a four-time Pro Bowl selection.

Ah, the memories: There was no scouting combine back then. Wehrli couldn't remember seeing a pro scout, even at Missouri practices. He had never even run a 40-yard dash until a Cardinals scout asked him to run one at the Hula Bowl all-star game in Hawaii.

Wehrli agreed to run on the spot even though he was wearing pads, the playing surface was natural grass and the stakes were higher than he realized.

"At the time, I didn’t know it was a Cardinals scout," Wehrli said. "I ran the 40, came back and he said, 'Man, we didn’t realize you were that fast.' Later, he told me that timing moved me up to a first-round draft choice [from the third round]."

Wehrli had clocked in the 4.5-second range. He would run 4.4s on Astroturf later in the pros.

"You never really trained for it back then," he said.


[+] EnlargeJerry Rice
US PresswireJerry Rice, the best receiver in NFL history, helped San Francisco win three Super Bowls.
1985

Why it's No. 5: Just as the 1983 class featured more than quarterbacks, the 1985 version offered much more than the most prolific receiver in NFL history. Yes, Jerry Rice was the 16th overall choice, helping set apart this class from some others. But the supporting cast featured elite talent, from Bruce Smith to Chris Doleman and beyond.

Hall of Famers: Rice (49ers), Smith (Bills).

Hall of Fame finalists: Andre Reed (Bills).

Other big names: Lomas Brown (Lions), Steve Tasker (Oilers), Ray Childress (Oilers), Kevin Greene (Rams), Jay Novacek (Cardinals), Bill Fralic (Falcons), Jerry Gray (Rams), Randall Cunningham (Eagles), Ron Wolfley (Cardinals), Al Toon (Jets), Jim Lachey (Chargers), Kevin Glover (Lions), Mark Bavaro (Giants), Herschel Walker (Cowboys), Duane Bickett (Colts), Doug Flutie (Rams), Jack Del Rio (Saints).

Late-round steals: Tasker became a seven-time Pro Bowl choice on special teams as the 226th overall choice (albeit with Buffalo, after the Oilers waived him). Greene was a fifth-rounder, Novacek was a sixth-rounder and Bavaro, one of the toughest tight ends, provided excellent value in the fourth round.

Ah, the memories: Bill Polian was a little-known pro personnel director with USFL roots when Bills general manager Terry Bledsoe suffered a heart attack two months before the draft. The Bills had already landed their franchise quarterback in Kelly two years earlier, but his two-year detour through the USFL had set back the organization. Buffalo held the No. 1 overall pick, and the stakes were high.

Polian took over GM duties. Norm Pollom, a holdover from the Chuck Knox years, headed up the college scouting side.

The Bills were in great hands. Although some fans hoped the team would draft Flutie, Polian and Pollom found building blocks.

Aggressive wheeling and dealing allowed Buffalo to land cornerback Derrick Burroughs with the 14th choice, acquired from Green Bay, even after drafting Smith first overall. Reed was a steal in the fourth round. The decision to draft Smith over Ray Childress was the right one even though Childress became a five-time Pro Bowl choice for the Oilers.
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Rice did not take Canton for granted

February, 6, 2010
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Jerry Rice left nothing to chance during his NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks.

The all-time receiving leader certainly wasn't banking on enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, even if others viewed his candidacy as a no-brainer.

[+] EnlargeJerry Rice
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeAn emotional Jerry Rice reacts to his induction into the Hall of Fame.
"It means the world because a weight is on your shoulder for so long and you just never know," Rice said after his selection as part of the 2010 class. "I never took it for granted. I'm a very superstitious guy and I didn't think of myself as being a shoo-in."

Rice's face revealed elation even well after his name was announced.

"When my name got called, it was just like when I got drafted by the San Francisco 49ers," he said. "All the emotions hit and like I said, I'm glad to be part of this class. Now I get a chance to say thank you to everyone that played a very important part in my life: my family, my coaches -- high school, college, professionally -- the fans and media because I drew energy from my fans and also from the people who supported me."

Rice became emotional when reflecting on his late father, the late Bill Walsh and the values his parents instilled in him through hard work and old-school discipline. Rice recalled the way his father made him lay bricks as a kid and the hard stares his dad would give him when young Jerry needed to be kept in line. He also admitted that some 49ers teammates initially wondered if he was showboating when he insisted upon taking every reception to the end zone during practices.

"But then it became contagious and Roger Craig started doing it, Brent Jones, and it was all for just getting in position so you could make blocks downfield," Rice said. "If you came to a practice for the San Francisco 49ers, it was just like a game situation."

Rice voiced support for Craig, Charles Haley, Tim Brown and the other former teammates who fell short on Hall of Fame voting.

Brown, one of 15 finalists this year, called Rice and offered congratulations -- on Friday.

"But still, I didn't take it for granted," Rice said. "I think he deserves to be in here, also."

Dawson continues to wait for Hall

February, 6, 2010
2/06/10
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One of the top centers of all-time will continue to play the waiting game.

Dawson
Dawson
Thirteen-year Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Dermontti Dawson, who made seven consecutive Pro Bowls from 1992-98, was once again passed over for the Hall of Fame. This was the sixth consecutive time he failed to make it to Canton since becoming eligible in 2005.

Dawson made the cut from 15 to 10 finalists this year. But Dawson wasn't part of the five inductees that included Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Russ Grimm, John Randle and Rickey Jackson. Senior nominees Dick LeBeau and Floyd Little also are part of the 2010 class.

This year was perhaps the closest Dawson came to making the Hall of Fame. He also was a finalist in 2008 and a semifinalist in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009.

There is an impressive backlog of players currently not in the Hall of Fame. In addition to Dawson, strong candidates such as Cris Carter, Cortez Kennedy, Richard Dent, Andre Reed, Charles Haley, Tim Brown and Roger Craig were all rejected this year alone.

Several more impressive candidates such as Marshall Faulk, Deion Sanders, Jonathan Ogden and Jerome Bettis also will be eligible very soon. That will further congest the Hall of Fame voting process, which doesn't help Dawson's candidacy.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Jerry Rice, Russ Grimm, John Randle, Emmitt Smith and Rickey Jackson made the list of five final candidates for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Of the five, only those receiving 80 percent approval from the committee will qualify for enshrinement. Those results are scheduled to be announced on NFL Network about 25 minutes into a program that begins at 5 p.m. ET.

Cortez Kennedy, Richard Dent, Dermontti Dawson, Andre Reed and Shannon Sharpe survived the cut from 15 to 10 finalists. Charles Haley, Roger Craig, Cris Carter, Don Coryell and Tim Brown were eliminated in the cut from 15 to 10 finalists.

The status of the two seniors-committee candidates, Dick LeBeau and Floyd Little, will be announced with the other enshrinees.

This was my first year as a voter. Rules prevent me from revealing which candidates received my votes. Rules also prevent me from disclosing specifics of conversations.

Kennedy, arguably the best defensive player in Seahawks history, took a step forward in the process by making the cut to 10. And if Randle is enshrined, Kennedy could emerge next year as the top defensive tackle eligible for consideration.

Rice's selection was a formality. Grimm's inclusion among the final five candidates marks a big step forward for him. Harry Carson once made the cut to five, but failed to receive the necessary 80 percent support, so nothing is final until the announcement is made. But it is looking pretty good for Grimm.

Carter took a step back by missing the cut to 10. Look for Kennedy, Dent, Dawson, Reed and Sharpe to receive strong consideration in 2011.

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