NFL Nation: Thurman Thomas
But as the game has grown, rules have changed. Much of the emphasis has been on player safety, with quarterbacks and other offensive players increasingly afforded greater protection.
Reaction to the changes has been mixed. To some, it's part of a natural evolution toward a faster-paced, speed-based game. To others, football has shifted away from its roots as a physical sport.
Given the chance to be NFL commissioner for a day, which rule would you change?
That's the question we asked several Pro Football Hall of Famers at the Hall's inaugural Fan Fest in Cleveland in May. From stars of the 1960s to players who earned their gold jackets playing a more modern version of football, there was no shortage of opinions about how to change the game -- even some you wouldn't expect.
"Well, I'd put the head slap back in," former defensive lineman Carl Eller cracked.
Eller, a member of the Minnesota Vikings' famed "Purple People Eaters" of the early 1970s, took a more serious note when he offered a popular commentary about the modern NFL: It's becoming too much of an offensive game.
Here are more proposed rule changes and thoughts from Hall of Famers in our latest NFL Nation Says:
Contributing: Coley Harvey, Pat McManamon and Michael C. Wright.
-- Steelers DB Rod Woodson, Class of 2009
-- Patriots G John Hannah, Class of 1991
-- Vikings G Randall McDaniel, Class of 2009
-- Redskins LB Chris Hanburger, Class of 2011
-- Packers LB Dave Robinson, Class of 2013
-- Vikings DE Carl Eller, Class of 2004
-- Lions CB Lem Barney, Class of 1992
-- Bills RB Thurman Thomas, Class of 2007
Contributing: Coley Harvey, Pat McManamon, Michael C. Wright
At the inaugural NFL Hall of Fame Fan Fest in Cleveland in May, ESPN.com caught up with several Hall of Famers who shared a variety of opinions on whether they would encourage their children or grandchildren to play football, considering the concussion risk.
It's a topic that's been discussed from youth football parents to President Barack Obama, who said if he had a son he wouldn't let him play pro football.
Despite the rule changes the NFL has made in recent years to eliminate the types of violent collisions that can cause concussions, and despite the league's push for teaching youth coaches “heads-up” tackling techniques, some former players still have their reservations about letting their grandkids play the game.
“I'd rather for them to be a doctor or lawyers,” Cowboys Hall of Fame offensive tackle Rayfield Wright said.
Not all of the Hall of Famers shared Wright's sentiments. Here are more thoughts from others when asked if they would want their youngest relatives to play the game that made them legends:
-- New England Patriots G John Hannah, Class of 1991
-- Minnesota Vikings DE Carl Eller, Class of 2004
-- Dallas Cowboys OT Rayfield Wright, Class of 2006
-- Green Bay Packers LB Dave Robinson, Class of 2013
-- Minnesota Vikings G Randall McDaniel, Class of 2009
-- Pittsburgh Steelers DB Rod Woodson, Class of 2009
-- Buffalo Bills RB Thurman Thomas, Class of 2007
Contributing: Mike Rodak, Michael C. Wright, Pat McManamonContributing: Mike Rodak, Michael C. Wright and Pat McManamon
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:
Three of a kind. Not since 1991 have three NFC West teams finished a season with winning records. It could happen in 2012 if the St. Louis Rams upset the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. The Rams would finish 8-7-1 with a victory. Seattle and San Francisco already have 10 victories apiece. The 1991 NFC West race finished with New Orleans (11-5), Atlanta (10-6) and San Francisco (10-6) ahead of the Los Angeles Rams (3-13). Also with a victory, the Rams would become the second team since the merger to post an undefeated division record without qualifying for postseason.
Milestone weekend. Steven Jackson, Russell Wilson and Aldon Smith are chasing milestones as the regular season wraps up.
The Rams' Jackson needs 10 yards rushing for his eighth consecutive 1,000-yard season, which would tie LaDainian Tomlinson and Thurman Thomas for fourth behind Emmitt Smith (11), Curtis Martin (10) and Barry Sanders (10).
Seattle's Wilson has 25 touchdown passes, within one of Peyton Manning's rookie record. Wilson, with a 98.0 NFL passer rating, also has a shot at breaking Matt Hasselbeck's single-season franchise record (98.2).
Smith, with 19.5 sacks, needs three to break Michael Strahan's single-season record for sacks. Houston's J.J. Watt (20.5) is nearer the record, however.
Stopping the bleeding. The 49ers have been outscored by 50 points and allowed more than 700 yards over their past five-plus quarters. That is nearly as much yardage as the 49ers allowed over a 12-quarter stretch of games against Chicago, New Orleans and St. Louis. The trend is about to end. The 49ers' Week 17 opponent, Arizona, has 735 yards in its past four games. The Cardinals' Brian Hoyer is making his first NFL start at quarterback.
Crabtree's time. The NFC West is in danger of finishing without a 1,000-yard receiver for the first time since the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions in 2002. The 49ers' Michael Crabtree needs 67 yards against Arizona to become the team's first 1,000-yard receiver since Terrell Owens in 2003. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald needs 215 yards to reach 1,000 for the sixth consecutive season. Seattle's Sidney Rice needs 252 yards for 1,000. Crabtree is averaging 91.5 yards per game since Week 13, sixth-most in the NFL.
ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.
A trip to the hotel bar a couple hours later found the place mostly empty except for a couple reporters from Minnesota. I sat down with them and soon discovered Hall of Famer John Randle, Kennedy's teammate on the 1990s All-Decade team, seated across the way. Two-for-two and three full days in Canton still to come.
I'm not much of a drinker -- a six-pack lasts a year in our house -- so when tequila shots appeared unexpectedly on our side of the bar, visions of "Frank the Tank" from Old School came to mind.
My hesitance must have been easy to spot. Randle rose from his chair and looked my way.
"Hey, you in?"
Enjoying the ride(s)
Trip One to the elevator produces a five-story ride with Thurman Thomas and his wife, Patti.
Leroy Kelly, Elvin Bethea and Roger Wehrli are along for the ride on a subsequent trip.
By then, my wife, Kim, and our two sons, Derek (10) and Cade (7), have arrived via red-eye flight from Seattle to Cleveland. We'd decided to make this a family trip, a mini-vacation for them, upon learning months earlier that Kennedy had earned enshrinement.
"We were just in the elevator with Gale Sayers!" Derek announced upon entering our room.
Heading to the Hall
The lobby was packed with Hall of Famers, most wearing their gold jackets, as they assemble for bus rides (police escorts included) to the Hall for a dedication ceremony. Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr. will be there when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Hall officials cut red ribbon for the new Pro Football Research and Preservation Center in Wilson's name.
Another chance meeting with Kennedy produces a lucky break. He graciously invites me to ride along in his car, along with Mark, an off-duty police officer from Las Vegas and Kennedy's friend since 1994.
The weather is already sizzling when we arrive, but it doesn't get much cooler than this: Hall of Fame corner Lem Barney, who averaged five picks per season for 11 years with the Detroit Lions, practically intercepts us as we get out of the car. He shakes Kennedy's hand. Mark and I get handshakes, too. Kennedy follows the red carpet to the special seating area for Hall of Famers.
All in the family
Mark and I wind up sitting next to Patti Thomas, Thurman's wife, in the front row of the general-seating area. Sayers and Joe Greene sit across the rope divider about six feet away. She's moved when Wilson, 93 and a World War II veteran, delivers a speech marked by self-deprecating humor after initially needing assistance to stand.
The Hall experience can be as much for the families as for the enshrinees themselves.
"I'm his wife and I'm blown away," Patti Thomas said. "These guys that you grow up watching ... my brothers come. They are huge sports fans. They're like kids in a candy shop. They've met 'em all and they're still like that, over and over again. Ninety-five percent of the guys are very outgoing. It's been an amazing thing. What a huge blessing."
Ray Nitschke Luncheon
From the Hall, it's off to the annual initiation luncheon, a chance for the new class to socialize with existing Hall of Famers in a private setting. Goodell is there, as are Hall officials, Class of 2012 presenters and some selection committee members. There are no wives or family members. And when lunch is served, enshrinees head into their own private room. No one else is allowed inside.
A microphone gets passed around, but the current class only listens. What happens beyond that, no one can say for certain.
"Thurman has so much fun when we come," Patti Thomas said. "He tells me his favorite thing of all is the Ray Nitschke Luncheon because it's only Hall of Famers, just the guys in there. And he said that is the coolest event because it's just us. Nobody else is allowed to come in there and he loves it."
A Butler and a dentist
Former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Jack Butler waited 50 years for enshrinement, a record. His son and presenter, John, would give a guy the shirt off his back. John Butler did just that Friday. When one of the Hall of Famers showed up with the wrong shirt -- all were supposed to wear official blue Hall polos -- the younger Butler gave up his.
While the Hall of Famers were enjoying their privacy and camaraderie at the Nitschke luncheon, John Butler and Willie Roaf's father, Clifton, a retired dentist, sat down at the table I'd chosen in our less exclusive luncheon room.
What an honor it was for me, a first-time visitor to Canton, and the two other Hall selectors seated at our table.
I'd approached Jack Butler in the hotel lobby earlier in the day, congratulating him on his enshrinement. With Ted Hendricks, James Lofton and several other Hall of Famers gathering nearby, the elder Butler said "it's starting to have a meaning to it all."
"It's amazing, just incredible," John Butler said. "You think about it in the past, we would look at his numbers, ever since I was a kid, and say, 'Wow, his numbers match up.' But it's not like an expectation he'll get in. When it happens, it's overwhelming."
Gold Jacket Dinner
Our family purchased tickets and arrived with a group featuring Greene, Dave Casper, Tom Mack and others.
"Is that the ghost-to-the-post guy?" Cade, our youngest, asked later.
That was him. Of course, Casper accomplished much more for the Oakland Raiders than his famed overhead grab for a 42-yard gain against Baltimore on Christmas Eve 1977. A 7-year-old raised on NFL Films drama might not know that yet.
Dozens of previously enshrined Hall of Famers took their turn walking an aisle through guest tables before greeting the 2012 class on stage. My wife heard our oldest, Derek, gasp when Marshall Faulk's name was called.
The boys craned to see Warren Moon make his entrance.
The video highlight packages are what got me.
Dawson pulling from his center position and flattening the same defender twice on one play. Doleman forcing fumble after fumble with blind-side hits on quarterbacks. Kennedy beat the center and then dragging the guard into the backfield to stop a runner in his tracks. Roaf collapsing one side of the formation with devastating power. Martin setting up his runs with patience and accelerating away from trouble. Butler picking off passes, scoring as a receiver and lighting up opponents (I feared Goodell might fine him retroactively).
There were poignant moments, too. The elder Roaf hugged his son and wouldn't let go. When he finally walked away, leaving his son to sport his new jacket alone on the stage, Clifton Roaf squeezed the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb, as if to stop the tears.
The after party
Once the Gold Jacket Dinner broke, Hall of Famers and their families returned to the hotel for a reception.
My kids headed straight for the ice cream sundae bar, of course.
Not to worry, a nearby bartender offered. Bill Parcells, presenter for Martin, had done the same thing. A weekend such as this one makes all of us feel like kids.
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.
Final Power Ranking: 31
Preseason Power Ranking: 17
Biggest disappointment: Failing to build on Sam Bradford's promising rookie season. Bradford was the NFL's offensive rookie of the year after setting rookie records for completions (354) and pass attempts (590). Only Peyton Manning had thrown for more yards than Bradford as an NFL rookie. There were challenges this season with the lockout, a tough early schedule and all that goes with learning a new scheme. Bradford and first-year coordinator Josh McDaniels liked their chances, but the offense suffered huge setbacks when injuries sidelined Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola in the season opener. The Rams approached the season eager to see how Jackson, Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Mike Hoomanawanui and Lance Kendricks functioned together. That group never took a snap together. Bradford completed only 53.5 percent of his passes. He took 36 sacks in 10 starts and threw for only six touchdowns.
Biggest need: Offensive playmakers. Bradford completed only 1 of 16 attempts in goal-to-go situations. For perspective, consider that Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman, another young quarterback facing struggles in 2011, completed 14 of 20 passes with eight touchdowns in these situations. Picking up Brandon Lloyd by trade helped, but the veteran receiver might wind up being a one-year rental. Lloyd's contract expires in March. The man influential in bringing him to St. Louis, McDaniels, might not be back. The Rams need to draft a difference- maker at receiver. That could be tough to justify with so many needs elsewhere on the roster.
Team MVP: Jackson was an obvious choice. If only he hadn't strained a quadriceps while breaking a 47-yard touchdown run against Philadelphia on his first carry of the season. That injury limited Jackson to six carries over the first three games. Jackson still topped 1,100 yards for the season. He joined Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas, Curtis Martin, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson and LaDainian Tomlinson as the only players with seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He rushed for 159, 130 and 128 yards during a three-game stretch when the Rams went 2-1.
Starting over up front: The offensive line was supposed to be a strength for St. Louis after the team signed guard Harvey Dahl in free agency. Dahl held up his end, but the rest of the line fell apart. Rodger Saffold will be back at left tackle or somewhere along the line. Dahl will return. Right tackle Jason Smith, chosen second overall in 2009, will not return at his current salary. Center Jason Brown lost his starting job during the season. Left guard Jacob Bell took a pay reduction and a one-year deal right before the season. The team has not developed young depth on the line. How will the team protect Bradford?
"Oh my God!" one Buffalo Bills fan said with his hands up. "Oh ... my ... God!"
Fans jumped and hugged each other following Buffalo's 34-31 upset win over the New England Patriots, the Bills' first win over New England since 2003. Chants of "Let's go Buffalo" and "3-and-0" could be heard throughout the stadium.
"We have a football team again!" another Bills fan screamed.
It's official: The Bills are a factor again in the AFC East. Buffalo is in sole possession of first after the Patriots and New York Jets lost for the first time in Week 3.
Buffalo hasn't had a winning season since 2004. The Bills haven't won double-digit games since 1999. It appears all that could change this season.
This Bills team is different from previous seasons. The 2011 Bills have heart and are fun to watch. Buffalo, which broke a 15-game losing streak against New England (2-1), has overcome deficits of 18 points or more the past two weeks.
Many Bills fans stayed in the stadium Sunday to celebrate with the players after their huge upset.
"There’s such a great connection between this franchise and this community," Bills safety George Wilson explained afterward. “We’re a blue-collar team in a blue-collar city. These fans have been with us through the ups and downs. They come out and support us even when we aren’t winning. ... I'm just happy they’re able to go to work on a Monday for a third consecutive week [with a win]."
The Bills are a young team that bottomed out during last season's 0-8 start. Buffalo is 7-4 since and heading in the right direction. It's a team filled with outcasts and overlooked players, starting with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and running back Fred Jackson (74 yards rushing, 87 yards receiving). This group doesn't have much name recognition nationally, but it's easy for Buffalo fans to root for.
Former Bills star running back Thurman Thomas, one of the links to Buffalo's four Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, congratulated players in the locker room after Sunday's game. He likes the new-look Bills but said there are differences from his Buffalo teams.
"The group we had, we had a lot of first-round draft picks and a lot of second-round draft picks," Thomas said. "This group, gosh, they're seventh-round picks. They're free agents, undrafted guys, but they're hungry. When you have that philosophy and that way of wanting to do things and make a name for themselves, it seems to come together."
Buffalo was the first team this season to solve the Tom Brady puzzle.
Brady entered the game on a record pace and had another solid output in terms of yards (386) and touchdowns (four). He threw for three touchdowns to give the Patriots a 21-0 lead, but Buffalo held New England to just 10 points in the second half and picked off Brady four times.
How did Buffalo do it? Route recognition and timing.
Offensively, the Bills won the battles at the end of the half and at the end of the game.
Fitzpatrick -- who threw for 369 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions -- led Buffalo to 10 points in the final two minutes of the second quarter. Fitzpatrick also drove the Bills 70 yards in the final 3:25 to set up Rian Lindell's 26-yard field goal.
I asked Lindell in the locker room about the pressure of making that chip shot, perhaps the biggest kick in the last decade for Buffalo.
"I'll tell you what," Lindell said with a smile. "I would have just ran up that tunnel and kept on running if I missed."
Maybe that would have happened to the 2000-2010 Bills. But this is a new era in Buffalo. The breaks are starting to fall the Bills' way, as evidenced by Patriots receiver Chad Ochocinco's drop of a sure touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Bills receiver Steve Johnson did the same thing last season in a Week 12 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bills linebacker Nick Barnett, who played for the Packers' Super Bowl championship team last season, has been around a lot of good teams. He thinks Buffalo is on to something.
"This can be one of the best teams. It just depends on how we continue to grow," Barnett said. "It’s too early to talk about we're going to the Super Bowl or this and that. We still got some growth to do. But I think we're playing [well]. If the offense keeps putting up 30 points, there’s no way we should lose, ever."
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Big Tree Inn has been a Buffalo Bills institution for decades.
The beloved watering hole and wing joint is about 600 yards of Abbott Road sidewalk away from Gate 4 at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Signed jerseys from Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Kent Hull, Bruce Smith and Darryl Talley adorn the walls of the modest 1,600-square-foot space. Ruben Brown, the perennial Pro Bowl guard, has his own corner.
The Big Tree Inn is a gathering spot for fans and a rite of passage for the players who pass through during the week -- and after home games -- to hang out with hardcore patrons. Wise visiting players place to-go orders for the bus ride to the airport or the outbound flight.
Reed called the Big Tree "a hallowed place" that when he walks through the door gives him the same feeling others might get when they walk into Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium.
"That was the first place I walked into as a so-called Bills rookie at that time," Reed said. "Every time you walk in there, you get a sense of what the Bills are all about."
You can imagine how much a Ralph Wilson Stadium neighborhood restaurant with 12 employees would rely on NFL games to remain profitable. With the lockout threatening to wipe out exhibitions and maybe even regular-season dates, Big Tree Inn owners Dan DeMarco and Brian Duffek are nervous.
"We're just praying," Duffek said on a quiet Tuesday afternoon at the bar. "If this is the crowd we have on a Sunday in October, we've got a big problem."
The Big Tree is as much of the game-day routine for many Bills fans as putting on a parka. Duffek said home games account for about 30 percent of the Big Tree's annual revenues. The till already had been shorted by games the Bills outsourced to Toronto through 2012.
In addition to the business' bottom line, bartenders could lose out on hundreds of dollars in tips each day. Hours likely would be cut for the whole staff.
"Everybody says 'There's only eight or nine home games,' but people don't realize that a home-game crowd starts showing up on Thursdays and pour into Mondays," DeMarco said from behind the bar. "People flock in from out of town and fill the motels around here. They give us four or five days of business every home game."
DeMarco joked about his regular crew of "season-ticket holders" who prefer to watch the home games at his place rather than in person.
A large wood carving of Reed stands outside the entrance alongside versions of Kelly and ESPN's Chris Berman. Bottles of Reed's Over the Middle Sauce are stationed around the bar.
"It's been cemented in my life," Reed said. "When we became a team in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Big Tree was a huge part of that.
"The camaraderie was always evident when we showed up there and, over some beers and some wings, would talk about our team and what our goals were. Every Friday we went to the Big Tree, talked about the week's practice and could be ourselves away from the coaches and the stadium. A lot of tension was released there. A lot of things were gotten off our chests in that place. Any time I go back up there, it's a lot of memories."
There are a lot of ghosts wafting around the Big Tree, but Sundays could make the place look like a ghost town if the lockout endures.
Roethlisberger has been sensational in the postseason, but not this postseason. Aside from a couple clutch throws, he was below average in beating the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game. He had another pedestrian outing Sunday.
He threw two interceptions, one that Nick Collins returned for a touchdown. Roethlisberger overthrew Mike Wallace twice in key situations in the third quarter: a would-be touchdown after Wallace got behind the Packers secondary and a third-and-2 play right before the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger also failed to take advantage of a defensive backfield missing its best player, Charles Woodson, the entire second half.
Roethlisberger is 10-3 in the postseason and has been to three Super Bowls in his seven NFL seasons. Brady won his first three Super Bowls and his first 10 postseason games before a defeat. Plus, Brady has appeared in a fourth Super Bowl.
I understand Brady has lost three straight postseason games, but he still has more championship rings and conference titles.
The New England Patriots were the Packers' springboard. The Packers have won every game since losing 31-27 at Gillette Stadium in Week 15. Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers was hurt and couldn't play, but the Packers still gave the scalding-hot Patriots a scare with backup quarterback Matt Flynn.
"The New England game was a big game for us," Rodgers said on ESPN's Super Bowl set Sunday night. "We lost that game, a game we were double-digit underdogs. I was out. Matt played great, and our defense played pretty well also.
"That was the game where, I think, [we said] 'We got a good team. Let's not lose this opportunity.'"
Howard Green quietly made one of the game's biggest plays. The former Jets defensive lineman didn't register a tackle. But he bull rushed Steelers guard Chris Kemoeatu and, in a great individual effort, harassed Roethlisberger into a bad throw that turned into Collins' pick six. Green started only six games in the regular season and playoffs.
It wasn't quite Thurman Thomas losing his helmet at the start of Super Bowl XXVI, but Steelers left tackle Jonathan Scott -- not good enough to remain with the Buffalo Bills despite starting eight games in 2009 -- had to come off the field with the game on the line because his shoe came off.
Scott missed the Steelers' third-and-5 play with 62 seconds remaining and their fateful fourth-and-5 with 56 seconds left. Trai Essex replaced him as Roethlisberger's blindside protector and did OK while on his heels, but the switch was one more thing for Roethlisberger to worry about.
Roethlisberger threw incompletions on both plays.
A Lombardi Trophy would've completed a tremendous turnaround tale for Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler. He was dismissed from Buffalo's staff at the end of last season. The native of nearby Lockport, N.Y., was living a dream by coaching his hometown team. He was on Dick Jauron's staff and served under interim coach Perry Fewell through an ugly campaign. But new Bills general manager Buddy Nix cleared out the coaches' offices when he took over, and Kugler was snatched up by the Steelers.
Reed and Martin were among the 15 finalists for induction, but neither AFC East star made the cut Saturday when the next induction class was determined.
Reed has been a finalist five times. For the second year in a row, the Buffalo Bills legend finished ahead of Cris Carter and Tim Brown in the selection process, which pares down the group of finalists from 15 to 10. Reed made the top 10, while Carter and Brown did not.
But Reed didn't make the next cut to five. That's the group the selection committee makes a final yea or nay vote on, with 80 percent agreement required for induction. The committee approved all five.
Reed will have to wait to join his former teammates already honored in Canton: quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, receiver James Lofton, defensive end Bruce Smith and head coach Marv Levy.
Reed made 951 catches for 13,198 yards and 87 touchdowns. He's known as one of the best yards-after-catch receivers in NFL history, perhaps second to only Jerry Rice, and among the grittiest over-the-middle threats.
Reed was a seven-time Pro Bowler. He posted 13 seasons with at least 50 receptions, tied for second all-time. He's tied for third in postseason history with five 100-yard games. His 85 postseason receptions rank third.
Martin, a star running back with the New England Patriots and New York Jets, was on the ballot for the first time. His former coach, Bill Parcells, advocated Martin be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Martin ranks fourth in all-time rushing yardage behind Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders, a pretty good crew -- if you're into that kind of thing.
Martin rushed for 14,101 yards and scored an even 100 touchdowns, 90 on the ground and 10 more off catches. He ran for 1,000 yards in 10 straight seasons, the second-longest streak in league history. Martin was the 1995 offensive rookie of the year and made five Pro Bowl rosters.
Carter was another Hall of Fame finalist with an AFC East connection, albeit barely. Carter finished his career with the Miami Dolphins, catching eight passes over five games in 2002. His 130th and final touchdown was with Miami.
That gave every AFC East club a link to Saturday's selection process.
Bill Polian doesn't think so.
Polian assembled the Buffalo Bills teams that went to four straight Super Bowls. Five members of those teams already have bronze busts in Canton: quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, receiver James Lofton, defensive end Bruce Smith and head coach Marv Levy. Bills owner Ralph Wilson has been enshrined, too.
"It seems like every second or third year somebody gets inducted into the Hall of Fame and we have a reunion and get to reflect on it," Polian told me Thursday night. "It's a big family that has stuck together and still stays in touch.
"It's a blessing. To be associated with guys like that? It's a special, special group."
Polian insisted more Bills belong in the Hall of Fame and is bothered that wide receiver Andre Reed hasn't gotten in yet. Reed could get the Canton call Saturday. He is among the 15 finalists who will be evaluated by the selection committee for five openings on the 2011 class.
"It's shocking to me that he's not viewed as a shoo-in Hall of Famer," Polian said. "Andre Reed was our biggest big-play player on a team that went to four Super Bowls. How he could not be included in the Hall of Fame when he's one of two guys who dominated is beyond me.
"Go with the facts. Don't go with perception. Go with reality because if you go with reality, you have to say Andre Reed belongs, without question. To me, it's just baffling."
That would give the Bills five Hall of Famers who played or coached all four Super Bowl teams. Lofton played on only three of them. Bills owner Ralph Wilson also has been inducted.
Put that group up against the New England Patriots, who won three Super Bowls in four years.
"The teams are comparable," Polian said.
There aren't that many slam-dunks from all three of New England's championship rosters.
Head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are surefire Hall of Famers. Beyond that, Adam Vinatieri has a strong case for his heroics, but there are no guarantees for kickers. Jan Stenerud is the only Hall of Fame kicker or punter. Maybe defensive end Richard Seymour or cornerback Ty Law will be considered.
Beyond that, much of the Patriots' roster was comprised of semi-stars such as linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, who went to one Pro Bowl apiece, and transients.
That the 1990s Bills will send more players to Canton than the 2000s Patriots is fascinating to me. It shows how incredible the Patriots have been at navigating free agency and the draft to maintain a consistent winner with a fluctuating roster -- and how truly magnificent that collection of talent was for Buffalo.
"That'll never happen again," Reed told me last week. "You won't see an assemblage of players like that -- at least not in Buffalo. I know that."
Polian is an advocate of Tasker's induction into Canton, too.
"Steve Tasker was, pound-for-pound, the greatest special-teams player ever to play," Polian said. "If you value special teams, then Steve Tasker belongs in the Hall of Fame. I am also an unabashed Ray Guy fan.
"I've seen every player that's played in this game since 1977, and I can tell you Ray Guy literally changed the game -- as did Steve Tasker."
So that would make at least seven Hall of Famers from the 1990s Bills if Polian had his way.
When you consider how much talent Polian gathered with the Bills -- and his success with the Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts since then -- there's no way you can't consider Polian himself.
But for now, Andre Reed is on deck.
"Andre is clearly, clearly, clearly deserving to be inducted," Polian said. "By any measure in the era he played, Andre Reed is a Hall of Famer."
The game has changed, and all you need for proof is a glance at Paul Warfield's career stats. He caught more than 50 passes once. He gained more than 1,000 yards once. In some of his Pro Bowl seasons, his numbers wouldn't have justified a roster spot in your 10-team fantasy league.
Yet Warfield is considered one the most dangerous receivers NFL history, a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer.
"Our game is beginning to resemble baseball in which everyone is looking at numbers," Warfield said this week from his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. "Numbers tell the story to a degree, but I like to look at one's full body of work.
"I'm from the old-school generation. You might be termed a wide receiver, but you should be a football player first."
Steve Largent is another example of how stats don't quantify a receiver's worth like they used to. Largent retired after the 1989 season as the NFL's all-time leading receiver with 819 catches. He, too, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Twenty-one years later, Largent ranks 20th in receptions behind such names as Derrick Mason, Torry Holt, Keenan McCardell, Muhsin Muhammad and fullback Larry Centers.
In 1985, only four players had caught 600 passes. The list is 55 players long now.
"It doesn't necessarily undermine a player's ability to get into the Hall of Fame because he had great stats or doesn't have great stats," Largent said Monday from his office in Washington D.C. "You're looking for a guy who was the total package."
With that in mind, you might consider Andre Reed's stats if you choose when deciding if he belongs in the Hall of Fame. They're sterling -- if a little outdated and discounted by time.
To both Largent and Warfield and other legendary receivers, Reed qualifies for Canton without even looking at the numbers.
"I saw the value Reed had to that team not only as a receiver, but also as a leader," Largent said. "There are some attributes you don't keep statistics of, but you become aware of as one player watching another play the game."
Reed is Largent's "total package" and Warfield's unequivocal embodiment of "football player."
"It's long overdue for Andre," Warfield said.
Reed is among the 15 Pro Football Hall of Fame finalists who will learn Saturday whether they will be included in this year's induction class.
The star Buffalo Bills receiver has been a finalist five times. There's a belief this year offers his best chance yet. In previous years, he has shared the ballot with at least one receiver who took precedence because they were icons (Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin) or had been waiting longer (Art Monk).
Reed could become the sixth Hall of Famer from a team that went to four straight Super Bowls but failed to win one.
Already enshrined are Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, defensive end Bruce Smith and head coach Marv Levy. Wide receiver James Lofton also is in Canton, but he didn't play on all four Super Bowl teams, and is more closely associated with the Green Bay Packers.
"I was a part of something special, and I'll take that to my grave," said Reed, 47. "We were a family. But the Hall of Fame, I don't know how I would react. It would be a validation of your work and what you did.
"Hopefully on Saturday I can be in that fraternity with them, but every year it's a tough ballot."
The other finalists include running backs Marshall Faulk and Jerome Bettis, receivers Tim Brown and Cris Carter, tight end Shannon Sharpe, center Dermontti Dawson, tackle Willie Roaf, defensive ends Richard Dent, Charles Haley and Chris Doleman, defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, cornerback Deion Sanders and NFL Films patriarch Ed Sabol.
The Hall of Fame's 44-member selection committee will decide Saturday. The group includes NFL writers, one representative per franchise, 11 at-large voters and one from the Pro Football Writers Association. The committee will pare the group of 15 finalists down to 10 and then to five. At that point, a vote will be held, with 80 percent agreement needed for induction.
Up to five modern-era candidates may be elected each year. First-time nominees Faulk and Sanders are virtual locks to get inducted. That leaves three spots available for Reed and the other finalists to get in.
Buffalo News reporter Mark Gaughan will make the case for Reed's induction. It's a compelling one.
"He certainly had a great career, one of the great clutch receivers," Warfield said. "He was consistent, one Jim Kelly could always go to and always find open in a situation where they're trying to make a big play. He's an all-encompassing receiver."
Reed was third on the NFL's all-time receptions list when he retired after the 2000 season with 951 catches, behind only Rice and Carter. Reed was a seven-time Pro Bowler and a superstar on a team that won four conference championships in a row.
"He was as dangerous a receiver as there is," former Bills quarterback Frank Reich said. "Versus press coverage, he was almost impossible to stop, coming off the ball. We always felt if they tried to play tight man on Andre it didn't matter who was guarding him. Any shutdown corner in the league in press coverage, Andre was going to beat him."
Reed was a force on the big stage. In 19 postseason games he had 85 receptions for 1,229 yards and nine touchdowns. He didn't score any Super Bowl touchdowns, but he did have 27 receptions for 323 yards.
In the Bills' epic comeback against the Houston Oilers in the 1992 postseason, he made eight catches for 136 yards and three touchdowns.
Reed is known as tremendously durable. He played 253 games, counting playoffs. He often darted into traffic to make plays in a crowd of defenders.
"No fear," Reich said.
Reed was one the greatest ever when it came to yards after the catch, second perhaps only to Rice.
What put Reed's production in even greater context is a closer look at Buffalo's offense in the 1990s.
Many fans, even those who closely followed the Bills then, recall a prolific aerial attack. They remember Kelly running the no-huddle, K-Gun offense and slinging the ball all over the field to Reed and Lofton.
As Gaughan will point out again Saturday, the Bills ranked 17th in passing offense throughout Reed's career. In Reed's six prime seasons from 1988 through 1993, the Bills passed 51 percent of the time. By comparison, the Washington Redskins' famed "Hogs" offense passed 50 percent of the time when Monk was there.
Reed didn't have much receiving help either. He played with Lofton for four seasons, but Lofton was 33 years old when he joined Buffalo. In 1988, for instance, Reed's second and third receivers were Trumaine Johnson and Chris Burkett.
So far, the chief impediment for Reed's induction hasn't been his resume, but the other names on the ballot.
A wide receiver has been inducted each of the past four years, and in seven classes out of the past decade.
Gaughan noted there is room in Canton for at least two more receivers from the 1990s. A breakdown of membership shows seven receivers who predominantly played in the 1960s, four from 1970s, four from the 1980s and two from the 1990s.
Reed, Carter and Brown are the worthiest receiver candidates to join Rice and Irvin from that decade.
There's a velvet rope. This is Reed's fifth year as a finalist. Carter has been a finalist four times, Brown twice.
Reed apparently jockeyed to the head of the receiver line last year. In the selection process, Carter and Brown didn't make the top-10 stage, but Reed did.
That development has raised Reed's hopes for 2011.
"I'll be more nervous because of the way the voting went last year," Reed said. "I feel I'm more deserving of it. It was pretty close. The anticipation is enhanced this year."
But there are no guarantees. Several legendary receivers have waited longer than five years to get the Canton call. Don Maynard, John Stallworth and Monk got in on their eighth time as finalists. Lynn Swann was a finalist 14 times. The Seniors Committee was necessary to induct Bob Hayes 34 years after his last NFL game.
Reed admitted he has fantasized about the phone call too many times to count. He's even tried to research the moment.
"I've talked to a bunch of Hall of Famers who say when they get the call they're at a loss for words," said Reed, who plays a lot of golf and sells his own line of barbeque sauce in the San Diego area. "They don't know how to react.
"I'll just have to wait and see."
And hopefully not have to wait some more.
It was December 1964. While snow was being cleared from Fenway Park's field, the Buffalo Bills waited anxiously in a spartan locker room for their game against the Boston Patriots to start. They normally would've whiled away this time with card games or other diversions to ease the mood. Not on that day.
The Bills had to win to host the AFL Championship game six days later. The atmosphere was tense, the room quiet.
"Cookie stood up," Maguire recalled, "and said 'I'm going to tell you something. If we don't win this game, I'm going to beat the s--- out of everybody in this locker room.' "
Just then, Bills head coach Lou Saban and assistants Joe Collier, Jerry Smith and John Mazur unwittingly walked into their star fullback's escalating fury.
On the first play of the game, Gilchrist took a handoff from Jack Kemp and trucked helpless Patriots safety Chuck Shonta.
"Cookie ran right over his ass," said Maguire, the Bills' popular linebacker and punter. "Then he went up to Bob Dee, who was the defensive end, and says 'You're next.' Kemp came over the sideline and said 'We've got to get him out of there. He's going to kill somebody.' "
The Bills pummeled the Patriots and then shocked the San Diego Chargers to win their first of back-to-back AFL titles.
"He had so much character he brought out the best in all of us," Bills tight end Charley Ferguson said. "If there's ever such a thing as 110 percent, that's what you got from Cookie. There was no such thing as not being ready."
Carlton Chester "Cookie" Gilchrist died Monday morning in a Pittsburgh assisted living facility.
Cancer finally caught him at 75 years old, but not before he broke another tackle.
Gilchrist's hospice nurse found him dead in a chair Saturday. She phoned his great nephew with the somber news. Thomas Gilchrist arrived and saw his uncle slumped over. Nurses prepared Cookie's bed for him to be laid down one last time. Thomas carried his uncle's 140-pound body from the chair.
And then Cookie woke up.
"He was dead in the chair," Thomas Gilchrist said. "And 30 minutes later he was drinking a root beer with me."
Cookie Gilchrist's family and teammates were laughing at the thought Monday. It was symbolic of how he was: rugged, stubborn and usually unbeatable.
Gilchrist often is overlooked among the game's great running backs because his career was brief and his relationships strained.
Ferguson, who also played with Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson, called Gilchrist "one of the greatest backs to ever play the game."
"These young guys didn't have more of an opportunity to learn about Cookie and see him in action," Ferguson said while mourning at former Bills teammate Booker Edgerson's home in suburban Buffalo. "They may have heard something, may have heard very little, but if they ever had that kind of opportunity it would have meant something to them."
Gilchrist went straight from Har-Brack High School in the Pittsburgh area to the Canadian Football League, where he starred for six years. He played fullback, linebacker and kicked field goals for Hamilton, Saskatchewan and Toronto before he returned stateside with Buffalo.
He played only six seasons in the AFL, but they were brilliant. He's the fullback on the all-time AFL team. In 1962, he became the first AFL back to rush for more than 1,000 yards and also kicked eight field goals and 14 extra points for Buffalo. In each of his first four seasons, he was an All-Star and led the league in rushing touchdowns.
He spent three years with the Bills and one with the Miami Dolphins sandwiched between year-long stays with the Denver Broncos.
"He was so impressive," Maguire said. "He was the biggest fullback in the game and could run and block. When he first came to the Bills he was the wedge buster.
"On the football field, he was one of the nastiest sons a bitches I ever met in my life. There was absolutely no fear in that man."
Gilchrist's 31 rushing touchdowns (in just three seasons) still rank third in Buffalo behind only Simpson and Thurman Thomas. Gilchrist set single-game records with 243 yards and five touchdowns against the New York Jets in 1963.
Gilchrist was a battering ram on the field, but so headstrong that he gave coaches and administrators headaches.
He engaged in several disputes with Saban and Bills owner Ralph Wilson. One of the pivotal moments came in Buffalo's first game against Boston in 1964, a War Memorial Stadium shootout between Kemp and Babe Parilli that didn't involve much running.
"The offense got the ball and he didn't go into the game," former Bills tight end Ernie Warlick recalled. "Saban asked 'Hey, Cookie, why aren't you out there?' He said 'They're not giving me the ball, so why the hell should I play?' So he sat on the bench and told his backup [Willie Ross] to go in."
The Bills placed Gilchrist on waivers after that episode, but Kemp brokered a reconciliation. The club pulled him back for the rest of the campaign. The Bills traded him to Denver in the offseason for Billy Joe.
"He jumped off the curb every once in a while," Warlick said, "but he was with them team almost 100 percent."
Gilchrist was among a group of black players who boycotted the AFL All-Star game over racist treatment in New Orleans. The game was moved to Houston.
He turned down induction into the CFL Hall of Fame, citing bigotry.
"He was very outspoken," said Edgerson, a Bills cornerback for eight seasons. "He understood the economics and the monetary value of a player. He expressed himself, and that got him in trouble a lot.
"But the things he did back in the 1960s was mild compared to what these guys do today. There is no way in the world he would be considered a bad boy today."
The Bills waived Gilchrist during the 1964 season because of his contract demands.
"I wanted a percentage of the hot dog sales, the popcorn, the parking and the ticket sales," Gilchrist said in a 2007 interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "[Saban] said that would make me part owner of the team. I was a marked man after that."
Those familiar with the selection process claim Wilson has long refused to consider Gilchrist for the team's Wall of Fame. Gilchrist and Wilson didn't mend their fractured relationship until a phone conversation last week, Thomas Gilchrist said.
Wilson also had a lifelong feud with Saban, the only coach to win a championship for Buffalo, let alone two. Saban, who died in March 2009, isn't on the Wall of Fame either.
"It's very sad that it couldn't be patched sooner," said Edgerson, added to the Wall of Fame in October. "It doesn't make any difference whose fault it is, or who didn't come to the table. Obviously, it was bad blood because they have not been put up on the Wall, and everybody believes that they should have been regardless."
Said Warlick: "It is a shame that those two guys are not even considered to go on the Wall. It's really too bad because they both should be there."
What makes Gilchrist's absence on the Wall of Fame even more disappointing is that players such as him -- stars that burned brightly but briefly -- aren't properly appreciated, particularly by younger generations.
Those who watched Gilchrist play know how special he was.
"Anybody from that era would never forget him," Maguire said. "He was that kind of a guy. When you went on the field with him, you never even doubted that you were going to win because he wouldn't let you think any other way."
Gilchrist is survived by sons Jeffrey and Scott and daughter Christina Gilchrist and two grandchildren.
Calling hours will be held Wednesday at Ross G. Walker Funeral home in New Kensington, Pa. Funeral services will be Thursday.
Thomas Gilchrist asked that any regards be sent to 322 Mall Blvd. Suite 164, Monroeville, Pa. 15146.
Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith were eligible for the first time, and both were no-brainers. Space is limited in each class, and the voters weren't going to induct two receivers.
But Reed views 2010 as a step in the right direction. The legendary Buffalo Bills receiver won't get into the Hall of Fame this weekend, but he's walking up the front steps.
"My phone was blowing up when we got to the final 10," Reed recalled of the selection process, which concludes Super Bowl weekend. "I hadn't gotten to the final 10 yet. You're only a stone's throw away then."
He also received more votes than Cris Carter for the first time, indicating Reed's candidacy is on the rise.
Reed's case is an interesting one that has been explored on this blog before. When the seven-time Pro Bowler retired in 2000, he ranked third all-time with 951 receptions. He has slid to eighth and probably will drop out of the top 10 this year. Randy Moss, Torry Holt and Hines Ward are closing in.
"That's just how it is," Reed said. "A lot of guys are going to have a lot of catches. The game has changed. Now it's pass to set up the run. Before it was run to set up the pass. But maybe catches won't be as much of a factor. It'll be how many championships, how many times did you go to the Super Bowl? It'll be more team-oriented because anybody can catch 800 balls nowadays.
"In 1989, I caught 88 balls. That was a career year. These guys are catching 100 balls left and right now. Wes Welker had 100 balls three years in a row. Is Wes Welker going to be a Hall of Famer? I don't know. It's an accomplishment to catch 100 balls a year, but ...
"Keyshawn Johnson caught 800 balls, but nobody really talks about him. Great receiver, but do you put him in? Steve Smith? Keenan McCardell? Those guys are on the wayside."
Reed was the best receiver on a team that won an unprecedented four consecutive conference titles. The Bills couldn't manage to win one Super Bowl, but that hasn't barred Reed's teammates from the Hall of Fame.
Twenty years from now there likely will be more inductees from the Bills of the 1990s than the New England Patriots of the 2000s. Already in are quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, defensive end Bruce Smith and head coach Marv Levy. So is James Lofton, who spent four seasons with Buffalo.
"I played in the best era of wide receivers ever, if you ask me," Reed said. "All the guys that are in my era are Hall of Famers. The next group of guys will be Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison and Randy Moss.
"They'll be arguing about those guys, but it'll be a different argument because of how the game has evolved."
While folks are formulating those arguments, Reed is content to wait his turn.
"I'm humbled by it," he said. "I don't trip and say 'Aw, man!' If it's going to happen, it's not on my time. It's on somebody else's.
"My friends and family are more upset about it that I am. When it's my time, it's my time."
With such talent in the backfield, folks have wondered how new head coach Chan Gailey will delegate the touches among Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
Those who assume Gailey will spread around carries with a semblance of equity shouldn't be so sure.
In fact, if Gailey doesn't designate a workhorse and ride him hard, it would be the first time he declines to do so since his rookie season as an offensive coordinator in 1988.
In an ESPN fantasy football column, Matthew Berry provides an enlightening look at Gailey's history with running backs since the Dallas Cowboys hired him to be head coach in 1998. The chart also included Gailey's subsequent play-calling gigs with the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs.
As we can see, Gailey doesn't split carries. True, he had Emmitt Smith in Dallas, but Gailey saddled up Lamar Smith in two seasons with Miami and Larry Johnson, who played only 12 games for Kansas City in 2008.
Not included in Berry's chart are Gailey's pre-Dallas stops as offensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos (1988-89) and Pittsburgh Steelers (1996-97).
The trend of one dominant back generally remains.
In his first season as an NFL playcaller, Gailey had a pair of over-the-hill backs in Tony Dorsett and Sammy Winder. Dorsett had 181 carries for 703 yards, while Winder ran 149 for 543 yards. The next season, however, rookie Bobby Humphrey took over with 294 carries, nearly three times as many as Winder.
Jerome Bettis was Gailey's go-to guy in Pittsburgh. Eric Pegram managed 509 yards on only 97 carries in 1996, but the Steelers' second-leading rusher the next season was quarterback Kordell Stewart.
Gailey's track record shows an obvious preference for one back taking 300-plus handoffs.
Buffalo's best shot was its first, and not merely because it came down to a last-second field goal attempt that went wide right. That squad was its most complete on both sides of the ball.
The 1990 Bills are known as one of the best teams not to win the Super Bowl. Their 13-3 record is tied for the best in franchise history. They ranked first in scoring offense and sixth in scoring defense. Kelly led the NFL in passer rating, Thomas led in yards from scrimmage and Smith was voted defensive player of the year.
The Bills rolled through the regular season. They went undefeated at home and seemed to be surging down the homestretch. They outscored their first two playoff opponents 95-37, but went up against the NFL's best defense when they met the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
The Bills led the Giants by nine points in the second quarter and held a two-point lead in the fourth quarter. But the Bills trailed by a point when Scott Norwood lined up from 47 yards away for what would have brought Buffalo its first major championship. The kick sailed wide of the upright.
Most impressive win: The Los Angeles Raiders went into the AFC Championship Game at Rich Stadium with only four losses while allowing an average of 16.4 points. The Bills annihilated the Raiders 51-3 with the help of six interceptions. The score was 41-3 at halftime.
Norwood not to blame: Did Norwood really choke? To claim he did is to suggest a successful kick was probable. The fact is, Norwood never had made a field goal longer than 49 yards in his six NFL seasons. That meant 47 yards was about the limit of his range. He made 6 of 10 attempts from 40-plus yards that season. The fateful attempt also was on grass, a surface he was kicking on for only the fourth time.
1964: The Bills won their first of back-to-back AFL championships with a squad that ranked first in total offense and defense. They outscored opponents by an average of 11 points a game.
1991: The Bills rebounded from their "Wide Right" heartbreak, repeating their 13-3 record and reaching the Super Bowl again. They scored at least 34 points nine times.
1993: Buffalo won the AFC championship a fourth straight time. The offense ranked sixth in total yards, while the defense ranked fifth in yards allowed and had a league-high 47 takeaways.