Hall of Fame Debates: Bengals Bonanza
There are very few Cincinnati Bengals players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That's because the Bengals have been a miserable organization for most of their 53-year existence, because past Hall of Fame selection committees had a Pittsburgh Steelers fixation, and because the Bengals don't have many well-qualified candidates.
Few would debate the first point: the Bengals have endured 20 seasons of double-digit losses and won just five playoff games in over half a century of professional football. The second point is also hard to argue: the Steel Curtain Steelers, Lombardi Packers, outlaw biker Raiders and a few other dynasties dominated the Hall of Fame voting for decades, casting a shadow over many also-rans of the 1960s and 1980s, including the fine Bengals teams of the mid-1970s and early 1980s.
The lack of well-qualified candidates, on the other hand, is a point of contention. Bengals fans have planned a "Jungle at the Hall" rally for June 19 to advocate for the enshrinement of eight greats of yesteryear. Ken Anderson and cornerback Ken Riley are at the top of their agenda, which also includes tackle Willie Anderson, wide receivers Isaac Curtis and Chad Johnson, running back Corey Dillion, guard Max Montoya, and cornerback Lemar Parrish.
The Jungle at the Hall net is a little too wide, and the event poorly timed, to convince any Hall of Fame Seniors Committee voter. But several players on the list do deserve serious consideration. Let's explore which Bengals greats, if any, deserve to join Anthony Munoz in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Why There are So Few Bengals in the Hall of Fame
Munoz, one of the greatest offensive tackles in NFL history, is the only career Bengals star in the Hall of Fame. Charlie Joiner, Terrell Owens, and Bill Walsh are also enshrined, but not primarily for their Bengals accomplishments.
To understand why the Bengals and other also-ran franchises of the early Super Bowl era are under-represented, let's put ourselves in the wing-tipped shoes of a successful beat writer or sports columnist of the 1970s, the kind of journalist who voted for All-Pro teams and awards and shaped opinions and legacies back then.
You have an electric typewriter and a telephone, not a computer with Internet. There are no satellite packages, no NFL Game Pass, no Pro Football Reference or NFLGSIS to provide lots of sortable stats, no Thursday night or Sunday night games, not even VCRs to tape the games you missed when reporting from the locker room after an early-afternoon kickoff. You probably know your hometown team much better than a modern beat writer does, because coaches and players drank whiskey and smoked cigars with reporters in hotel fern bars in those simpler times. But teams and players outside of your division? They're mostly reputation, hearsay, quotes from the players and coaches who faced them, and scraps of stats, highlight clips, and Monday Night Football moments to all but the absolutely most plugged-in analysts.
Playoff games and Super Bowls were inordinately important to the reputations of football players of the 1960s and 1970s, because those games were nationally televised and much more of pro football and its media were available to watch/cover them. Perennial powerhouses who won lots of playoff games also earned more Monday Night Football appearances and late-afternoon national broadcasts. As a result, it was as impossible for a local fan (or, say, a regional reporter trying to stay abreast of the whole NFL) to catch a down-and-out team on television in the 1970s as it was to avoid watching the Steelers or Cowboys.
Writers of the time took their jobs seriously and had plenty of ways to get reliable out-of-town information. Still, the atmosphere of the era created a feedback loop for player reputations, which occurred at the same time that a handful of dynasties began to dominate the sport. The Lombardi Packers, Steel Curtain Steelers, America's Team Cowboys, and members of a few other teams became larger-than-life personalities. The teams that bubbled up to lose to them in the playoffs, having received little-to-no national attention during the regular season, began to look a little like Jabronis, even to those who should know better.
Now fast-forward to the 1990s. You have graduated from local columnist to Distinguished Local Columnist and Hall of Fame voter. The ballots are crammed with Steelers, Cowboys, Raiders, and Dolphins from the days of your beat, plus some leftover Packers and leftover leather-helmet guys. Also, the NFL just underwent an offensive revolution, and there are all sorts of guys with crazy stats entering the ballot. Oh by the way, do you remember those guys who got their butts kicked in playoff games in the 1970s? Can you find room to squeeze a few of them in?
The voters should have found room to squeeze more of them in. The final Lombardi Packers and Steel Curtain Steelers through the gate weren't exactly essential. The committee only selected four individuals in a few years, which is shocking when you consider the ever-increasing backlog they faced. Someone should have moved coaches and contributors to their own ballot decades ago, so Ken Anderson wouldn't get stuck on the same ballot as Joe Gibbs or Dan Rooney. But what happened, happened. The typical Hall of Fame class of the 1990s and early 2000s consisted mostly of guys who played for dynasties, plus perhaps one recent superstar and/or one overqualified candidate from an also-ran.
The seniors committee corrected some oversights in the last decade or so by grabbing a few old Oilers (Robert Brazile and Curley Culp, who also played for the great AFL Chiefs), Falcons (Claude Humphrey), and members of the ultimate 1970s "losers" (Vikings Carl Eller and Mick Tingelhoff). The Broncos helped themselves by winning Super Bowls in the late 1990s and creating a fresh batch of candidates. But the Bengals remained in limbo, despite the fact that several of their 1970s stars had cases which were at least as strong, if not stronger, than those of Brazile, Humphrey, or most members of the quirky 2020 Centennial class.
Ken Anderson, Willie Anderson, Ken Riley, and More
OK, Milhouse, we're finally at the fireworks factory: let's delve into the Hall of Fame portfolios of the players Bengals fans are about to rally for.
Anderson led the NFL in passer rating four times and in completion percentage three times. I've noticed that the analytics-minded types most likely to stan for Anderson absolutely loathe passer rating and completion percentage as statistics, except when they are being used as unassailable proof of Anderson's excellence.
I am being glib, of course. Anderson would likely have won DVOA titles in 1981 and 1975, and perhaps another year or two as well. But no one in the NFL was all that impressed with passer ratings in 1974 or 1975, when Anderson won the crown running Bill Walsh's proto-West Coast offense. Anderson was considered a very good quarterback running a system that had a reputation for being a little gimmicky in an era when quarterbacks only threw lots of short passes if they were incapable of completing longer ones. The fact that the Bengals went 2-6 against the Steelers and 0-2 in the playoffs during Anderson's 1973-1976 early peak did nothing for his reputation or his eventual candidacy. QB WINZ may not be a real stat, but they are a real line-item in a Hall of Fame conversation, like it or not.
Here's what I wrote about Anderson for Football Outsiders over a decade ago, as taken from my book A Good Walkthrough Spoiled:
People who advocate Anderson as a Hall of Famer point to his excellence from 1972 through 1975 and his MVP-caliber performances in 1981 and 1982, constructing scaffolding between those two peaks to suggest that Anderson sustained that level of performance for a decade. He didn't. Anderson was injured and very ordinary for the back half of the 1970s; the Bengals even drafted a potential replacement in Jack Thompson (the unforgettable Throwin' Samoan) third overall in 1979. I often compare Anderson to Kurt Warner, except that Anderson went 0-1 in Super Bowls instead of 1-2. Again, I don't think I should have to explain or justify why three Super Bowl appearances make a quarterback a much better Hall of Fame candidate than one.
I remain an Anderson Hall of Fame skeptic, but I have become much more sympathetic to his case since the Seniors Committee enshrined Ken Stabler in 2016. Stabler has little more than Anderson to offer except the Super Bowl ring and hagiography that come from playing for a legendary team. Stabler's induction suggests that the committee chose "studying the playbook by the jukebox light" tall tales over the story of how Anderson helped pave the way for Joe Montana and the modernization of NFL offenses. Frankly, the Hall of Fame could use a little less swaggerin' tough guy iconography and a little more respect for true innovators.
My gut tells me that the Seniors Committee will get around to Anderson at some point. But I am fairly certain they don't want to hear anything else about Anderson's completion percentages.
Anderson played during the same era as Tony Boselli, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones, Jonathan Ogden, and Willie Roaf. That made Anderson somewhere between the third- or fourth- and sixth- or seventh-best tackle in the NFL for most of his career, depending on who else was healthy and active.
Ah, but he was the best RIGHT tackle in the NFL for much of that era, argue some of the Bengals fans I interacted with on social media recently. As the best player at his position, it's inexcusable that he has not already been enshrined.
I mean, come the hell on.
Yes, the left tackle/right tackle dichotomy was grossly exaggerated in the wake of the book and film The Blind Side, to the point where left tackles of the last 25 years or so have been turned into superheroes while right tackles are often shrugged off as beefy bouncers. That said, NFL teams almost always put their most athletic lineman at left tackle and place a premium on drafting, signing, and compensating left tackles. Colleges also place their most athletic linemen at left tackle, where they are more likely to be drafted to play right tackle or guard in the NFL than the typical collegiate right tackle or guard. High schools follow the same pattern. Furthermore, the Boselli-Pace-Jones generation reinforced the Blind Side mythology by setting a new standard for left tackles in an era when increased passing and use of spread formations were making pass-protection more and more important.
None of this makes right tackles chopped liver by any means. But while claiming that Anderson was a peer of Pace or Roaf who just happened to play on the other side of the line and therefore didn't get enough props may sound clever on Twitter, it's an "umm, actually" argument that insults the intelligence of any Hall of Fame voter. If Bengals fans really want to stump for Anderson, they need to bury that talking point in a landfill.
A better argument for Anderson is that his career accomplishments are roughly on par with those of Alan Faneca, Steve Hutchinson, and Kevin Mawae, a trio of recently enshrined offensive linemen with long careers who had the benefit of playing on more successful/popular teams. Fitted among this tier of players, Anderson's case looks much stronger. Anderson is also helping himself by being an engaging social media personality, which will keep him in voters' minds.
Anderson is the only player on this list whose case is not in the hands of the Seniors Committee. He was a semifinalist last year and could sneak into the finalist ballot now that the Faneca logjam is mostly clear. Bengals fans who want to launch an Anderson campaign should separate him from the old-timers, drop the gotcha arguments, and work to generate some buzz around their candidate while there is room for him on the docket.
Hall of Fame arguments about 1970s wide receivers make my temples throb, in part because the early 2000s selectors ended their Steelers spree with a Lynn Swann/John Stallworth double-shot. Based on the Swann-Stallworth selections, Curtis is a worthy Hall of Famer, as are Cliff Branch, Drew Pearson, Harold Carmichael, Stanley Morgan, and possibly a bunch of guys such as Nat Moore and Ahmad Rashad. If we write Swann and Stallworth off as a fever dream, Branch still deserves induction, Pearson (just selected by the Seniors Committee) deserves consideration, and everyone else—including Curtis and my childhood hero Carmichael (a Centennial Committee selection)—fit squarely into the Hall of Very Good.
The Seniors Committee appears to be circling Branch at this point. It would be lovely if the committee stopped doubling down on dynasty selections (Stabler, Jerry Kramer, etc.), but Branch is overqualified and deserves to get in. Campaigning for Curtis at this point is just a waste of energy, which brings us around to the next trio of Bengals legends.
Dillon finished among the top five in rushing yards twice, once with the 2000 Bengals and once with the 2004 Patriots. He's roughly as qualified as Stephen Jackson, LeSean McCoy, Jamal Lewis, Fred Taylor, Ricky Watters, and Warrick Dunn, which means that he is not really qualified.
Not a serious candidate. His presence on the agenda weakens any case Bengals fans are trying to make.
A solid starter at guard for both the Anderson teams of the early 1980s and the Boomer Esiason/Sam Wyche teams of the late 1980s I wrote about recently here at FO. Montoya is exactly the kind of player local Rings of Honor are made for.
Lemar Parrish and Ken Riley
The paradox we must deal with here is that Pro Bowl voters (read: fellow players) of the era preferred Parrish, but the bigger Hall of Fame push right now is for Riley, who passed away last June. Parrish earned five Pro Bowl berths in the 1970s and 1980. Riley was mentioned on a variety of end-of-season All-Pro teams, but he did not earn an official Pro Bowl berth or All-Pro recognition until 1983, when he intercepted eight passes and returned two for touchdowns for a Bengals team coming off a run of success.
Riley is tied with Charles Woodson for fifth on the all-time interceptions list with 65; Woodson's recent induction likely brought a little extra attention to Riley's case. Everyone ahead of Riley (Paul Krause, Emlen Tunnell, Rod Woodson, Night Train Lane) is a Hall of Famer, as are Woodson, Ed Reed, and Ronnie Lott just below him. Riley never led the league in interceptions, which reminds us that interception rates were much higher in the 1970s and didn't really go down much when passing exploded in the early 1980s. There are some not-quite greats (Darren Sharper, Dave Brown, Eugene Robinson, Bobby Boyd) not too far south of Riley on the leaderboards.
Parrish, on the other hand, returned a total of 13 punts, kicks, interceptions, and fumbles for touchdowns in his career. He's tied with many players for fifth on the all-time non-offensive touchdown list, behind Devin Hester, Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson, and Ronde Barber. Parrish played the latter part of his career in Washington but just missed that franchise's Super Bowl era. If he had played with the Hogs, John Riggins, and the young Darrell Green, he'd likely be a Hall of Famer.
The best cornerback of the late 1970s who is not currently enshrined is Broncos great Louis Wright, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s team who for years was considered second only to Mel Blount at the position. If asked to stump for a cornerback from that era, it would be Wright. After that, I would happily advocate Parrish and/or Riley.
The Path to Canton
Hall of Fame voters have varying opinions about fan campaigns. Some voters told me in the past that they listen to campaigns and can be swayed while others said campaigns don't matter, and of course a campaign can be counterproductive if it turns annoying or nasty.
Based on what I have heard over the years, rallies won't impress most voters, letter-writing campaigns just turn into a hassle, and stomping and flexing across social networks is about as helpful as it sounds. But rallies and content creation about a former great's Hall of Fame candidacy, when done right, can A) raise public awareness about that player; and more importantly B) create an environment where it is easier to collect testimonials from former teammates/coaches/opponents about that player and thereby shed new light on his contributions.
So let's say the Bengals fan community makes Riley its top priority. Creating websites, blog posts, podcast segments, and such around Riley creates a forum for someone such as John Stallworth to offer his opinions on what it was like to be covered by Riley. Stallworth's remarks then jog Terry Bradshaw's memory, so he chimes in when appearing on a Cincinnati radio show during Super Bowl week. Wade Phillips then pipes up, telling stories from when he was on his dad's Houston Oilers staff. Sure enough, Mel Blount weighed in on Riley soon after the rally was announced. Voters take public testimonials with a grain of salt—old-timers often say one thing about their peers/rivals with a microphone in front of them but a very different thing at midnight in the cigar bar. But lots of public support could inevitably move Riley up the Senior Committee's very, very long backlog of applicants.
So a Jungle in the Hall-type rally can mobilize local fans and media to start the ball rolling on a campaign. After all, this article wouldn't exist if not for the rally! But it's important for anyone who wants to publicly stump for a player or players to realize that Hall of Fame voters are well aware of who Riley and Parrish, Ken and Willie Anderson and the others were. They know they were great players. They will also see straight through "completion percentage champion" or "best right tackle" arguments. And while many are sympathetic to the fact that some teams are underrepresented, they are sure to tune out long lists of local heroes, because there's not enough space on the ballot and not enough hours in the day for 32 such lists.
Bengals fans should enjoy their rally: a road trip to Canton with fellow fans after 15 months of quarantines sounds like a blast. Those fans should then should launch one or two good Hall of Fame campaigns around their best candidates, because the zany buckshot approach is more likely to hurt than help.