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Off-Season Argument: Kickers in the Hall of Fame

What makes one career worthy and another not?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This week, a fan named “Ed” wrote in to Peter King’s Football Morning in America column, suggesting that former Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson had as legit a case for the Hall of Fame as newly retired Adam Vinatieri. Dawson recorded a comparable FG and higher PAT percentage, “Ed” argued, and played into his 40s as well. He just played on a terrible team, whereas Vinatieri played for a winner, giving the latter lots more moments to shine.

King’s response was to throw shade at John Stallworth for some reason, arguing that Harold Jackson and Wes Chandler caught more passes and had more league-leading stats than #82, but that, “a big factor in Stallworth making the Hall of Fame is that he was drafted by the Steelers.” Adding, “Hall voters have given great favor to championship rings.”

New Orleans Saints v Pittsburgh Steelers
“And you can go right to...”

I have a lot to say about this, but let me start by pushing back at King’s logic: Stallworth didn’t simply ride the good luck of being “drafted by the Steelers.” Stallworth participated in creating those championships.

Jackson was an excellent receiver on four different teams, but in 14 career playoff games he caught 24 passes; in 18 playoff games, Stallworth caught 57. Is that really about luck? (Answer: no.) Chandler was also very good for a long time, but could he have taken a 10 yard pass through the minefield of the defending-champion Dallas “Doomsday” defense for a 75 yard touchdown in the first ever Super Bowl re-match (which the Steelers only won by four)? Or pulled in a 73 yard come-from-behind touchdown bomb in the fourth quarter of next season’s title game, after his coverage-eating teammate, Lynn Swann, had been knocked into the hospital? Well, Chandler never caught a post-season touchdown, despite playing six seasons with Dan Fouts and Don Coryell, so I’m thinking no. Would either of them have led the league in receptions or yards while playing in Chuck Noll’s run-first offense (with the era’s best wideout, according to the HOF, swallowing targets on the opposite side)? Not a chance.

In other words, Stallworth wasn’t just “lucky” to get drafted by the powerhouse Steelers; he was an integral part of that powerhouse. You couldn’t just plug in Harold Jackson or Wes Chandler and still have the same team or individual success.

Could you have replaced Vinatieri with Dawson and still won the Patriots titles? Maybe (that’s a better question). But you couldn’t replace Stallworth with former Steelers Mike Wallace or John L. Williams, or current Steelers WR coach Ike Hilliard — all of whom played in Super Bowls and each of whom retired with more receptions than Stallworth, but none of whom will wind up the Hall of Fame — because there’s more to greatness than stats or team success.

Phil Dawson #4...
Hey look! It’s the Steelers beating the Browns in the playoffs! Weird...

Which takes us back to kickers.

I’m not really a Phil Dawson guy (I remember his name, but I didn’t even realize he was retired, or that he’d played 20 years), so I don’t have much dog in that particular fight. But “Ed’s” argument has merit. And yet, it would never occur to me that Vinatieri and Dawson are equal in NFL history. So, now that the HOF has opened its doors for kickers — whose positions are so highly defined, and who don’t log 65 snaps per game — how does one make such a distinction?

For most positions, the traditional criteria has been, “can you tell the story of the NFL without this player?” That does seem to privilege winners, but doesn’t exclude great players on bad teams (think: Barry Sanders). It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad. However, with kickers, transcendence does seem to require a great team, and that’s not really fair.

More recently, it’s been my observation that the argument about greatness (HOF or otherwise) comes down, far too often, to a yardstick analysis of stats. And that’s more fraught still. Stats aren’t meaningless (I’m something of a stats junky myself), but among the major sports, football is the one where a player’s numbers are most contingent on scheme and teammates. (For example, one argument I’ve often made for Stallworth is that he played not merely on a run-first team, but he had his best season in 1984, catching passes from Mark Malone, Cliff Stoudt, and David Woodley. Ergo his 537 catches can’t be viewed in a vacuum against, say, Mike Wallace’s 538, which came almost entirely from Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Tannehill, and Joe Flacco.)

Kickers might seem like stand-alone players, but it’s still hard to make a difference on a lousy team — as “Ed” suggests, it’s not Dawson’s fault that his team never put him on the field with three seconds to go in the Super Bowl. In other words, we’re still at square one, except that it’s slightly more complicated now. Ugh.

Here’s my suggestion, instead:

I think there are a series of questions to ask instead — questions that could probably be stretched to apply to any position, though I’ve written them up for kickers. Some version of these are probably already the questions voters ask as they consider a candidacy, but I rarely see most of them invoked (or taken seriously) in the public discourse on “greatness.” Here goes:

AFC Divisional Playoffs: Pittsburgh Steelers v Indianapolis Colts
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

1 – What are the player’s overall stats? (Of course.)

That’s the one we use most, of course. I consider this more of a pre-requisite than an argument, though. Or rather, looking at stats is a good way to cut a player off the stack, rather than get a player through the door.

For example, former Colt’s kicker Mike Vanderjagt famously retired as the NFL’s all-time most accurate kicker (he’s currently 7th). That ought to put him into the conversation for the Hall of Fame. But it shouldn’t get him a bust by itself. In Vanderjagt’s case, he made an absurd number of low-pressure kicks because he played on the early 2000s Indianapolis Colts, with Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Eddgerin James, and Peyton Manning (who famously, and fantastically, once referred to him as “our idiot kicker”).

But he doesn’t get a trip to Canton for a reason I suspect you all already know: he wasn’t clutch. In fact, I’m reasonably confident that when you read his name, the first thing most of you thought was his godawful shanked 43 yard kick at the end of the Steelers 21-18 upset win at Indy in the 2005 playoffs. That may have been the biggest kick of his career, and it was one of the ugliest I’ve ever seen. That’s got to be the definition of not-clutch.

And speaking of clutch...

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers
No one wore the single-bar facemask as well as Gary Anderson.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

2 – How was the player under pressure – in game-winning kicks, overtime, or the final play of a half?

This is a significant part of the argument for Vinatieri, of course. Win a couple of Super Bowls on last second kicks and you’ll get a reputation.

There’s a complication to this though: I don’t actually know if Vinatieri was great at this throughout his career, or if he just happened to rise to the occasion in those championship moments. That is, it’s possible that he was a mediocre kicker in high pressure, who just happened to deliver when the lights were brightest.

NOTE: I’m not actually making that case – I truly don’t know. But the question of whether he was actually that good for the bulk of his career is a question with an answer. Instead of only remembering the two or three biggest victories, and making a case based on those, it might be worthwhile to look at all the pressure situations. If Vinatieri was a 96% kicker when the pressure was on over 20 years, that’s a pretty strong argument. If he was a 50% kicker in those moments, but happened to be 3-for-3 in the most-watched events, that’s less great. I’m not sure it’s disqualifying, but it’s certainly a harder sell.

Here’s another example: some of you might remember Gary Anderson, one of the league’s all-time great kickers, and still the highest scorer in Steelers history. When I think of Gary Anderson in high pressure moments, I think of the 1989 playoffs, when the ragtag bad-news-bears Steelers went into Houston and took Jerry Glanville’s Oilers to overtime in the House of Pain. After 24 year old Rod Woodson forced (and recovered) a fumble, Chuck Noll put Anderson on the field for an utterly improbable 50 yard game winning kick – Anderson’s first 50 yard attempt of the entire season. And he nailed it. Anderson is a legend in my mind for this.

But when the rest of the NFL world thinks of his clutch kicking, they go back to 1998, when Anderson made all 35 field goals and all 59 PATs for the 15-1 Vikings, then shanked a 38 yard FG in the 4th quarter of the NFC championship game (at home) against Atlanta, which the Vikings then lost in overtime. To them, he’s Scott Norwood — good kicker on a good team, who choked in the biggest moment.

So which is the real Anderson? Hard to say. Importantly, that Steelers make was in overtime (i.e. make it and you win) on a team playing above its weight class; that Vikings miss came while his team held a seven point lead at the two-minute warning (i.e. the Vikings defense blew it at least as much as Anderson).

In other words, the question of whether Gary Anderson was a clutch kicker or not is kind of open, and how we weight these moments is kind of complicated. We probably ought to be careful not to get lost in the narrative or the blame.

Wild Card Round - Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals
Fun Fact: Boz is #4 on the All Time list for FG accuracy. Dawson is #23; Vinatieri is #25. And our man is 16-16 on postseason FGs. Maybe this article should actually be about Chris Boswell’s HOF chances?
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

3 – How did the player perform in high degree of difficulty, such as long kicks, or cold/wet weather?

Vinatieri gets some mileage here out of his game-winner in the snow of the Tuck Rule game. And he deserves praise for that, though probably not as much as he receives. After all, this was his home stadium, he’d been kicking in similar conditions for years, and that game shouldn’t have gone into overtime in the first place (ahem). Also, Sebastian Janikowski may have been the better kicker that day anyway – he’d gone 3-3 on the game, including a 45 yarder in the third quarter to match Vinatieri’s 45 yard long, and Sea-Bass was used to kicking in sunny Oakland. That stuff shouldn’t count against Vinatieri, who delivered when asked; but it probably shouldn’t be romanticized either.

When I think of difficulty, I invariably think of Chris Boswell, believe it or not. In particular, I think about Boswell’s rookie year, in which he came off the couch mid-season to replace dead-legged Josh Scobee (and torn-ACL Shaun Suisham), and helped power the Steelers to an 8-4 finish. In their infamous Wild Card matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals (in the cold January rain of Cincinnati), Boz went 3-3 through three quarters, before watching the Bengals furiously come back to take a lead after the worst person in football intentionally separated Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulder. With the contest all but over, Ryan Shazier forced the most improbable fumble I’ve ever seen. Then Ben, as we all should have predicted, came back out of the locker room like a G—D— gladiator, and led the team on a game-winning drive with rubber bands holding his throwing arm together. That’s, of course, when the worst person in football gave the game’s best receiver brain damage on the field, and (after the second worst person in football shoved a ref), 22 year old Chris Boswell had to go out and kick a makeable, but not chip-shot, 35 yarder for the win. With all that heroism on his team, and all that evil on the opposition, on a hostile field, in January rain, Boz (a Texan, not used to the Midwest winters) nailed it.

We could talk about his second year too, when he set an NFL playoff record, going 6-6 at cold and notoriously rough Arrowhead to power the Steelers past K.C. (oddly, by the exact same score as the Bengals game – 18-16). But you probably get the point.

Super Bowl XLV
The reason Hines isn’t smiling is that he’s trying to figure out which Packer he wants to send to the hospital, and that’s stressful work.
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

4 – Do they have some element that they’re known for that isn’t typical?

This is a little harder to throw out examples for, because the examples are, by definition, not typical. With kickers, you might think of something like coffin corner kickoffs, or touchbacks, or never having a kick blocked, or perhaps making tackles on long returns. I don’t know.

An easier-to-grasp example might be Hines Ward among wide receivers. Ward has the career numbers to be a Hall of Famer; he came through in big moments (such as the Super Bowl); he was great under pressure and in bad conditions; AND he was universally acknowledged as the best blocking WR of his era (and perhaps of all time). There really isn’t a statistical measure for this, and most receivers simply aren’t asked to take this roll, but Hines did it extraordinarily well, and we all know it.

Could Ward have caught another 200 balls if he’d have played with Peyton Manning in Indy instead of Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox in Pittsburgh? Sure. In fact, it seems likely. Could Marvin Harrison have made Ed Reed play with his head on a swivel so as not to get blasted by a downfield block (twice a year for a decade)? Probably not. That’s not a metric that ought to matter for Marvin Harrison’s HOF credentials, but it’s a pretty strong argument for Hines in the Hall.

Lynn Swann Making a Diving Catch
Pictured: the play that, quite literally, made me a football fan.

5 – Do they have immortal moments?

This is sort of the catch-all of the list. It’s Lynn Swann over Mark Washington, John Elway at his own two, Walter Payton leaping over the line, Troy Polamalu leaping over in the other direction. Not every great player has a signature play (or several, if you’re Polamalu), but those should count for something too.

Kickers have precious few opportunities for these. Making a kick, missing a kick, or perhaps shanking a kickoff – that’s about it (and two of them are bad). So for someone like Vinatieri to have multiple memorable moments is pretty great. Again, it doesn’t get you in the door (otherwise David Tyree and Larry Brown would be Hall of Famers, and Mike Webster wouldn’t), but it does factor in too.

What have we really been talking about here?

As you’ve probably figured out, this isn’t really a discussion of Adam Vinatieri (and certainly not of Phil Dawson). It’s not even entirely about kickers. Rather, it’s really about greatness, and how we know it when we see it.

I don’t expect that we could apply this sequence of questions to a list of players and come up with the identical judgment about the worthiness of one career or another. I don’t think it works that way. Instead, ultimately, I’m hoping that more people start laying out rationale like this, so we can get away from the lazy “fantasy-stats vs rings” arguments that have come to dominate all discussions of greatness in the sport over the last decade or so.

If I missed a category (or lens through which to look at this stuff) tell me about it in the comments. As per usual, I’m trying to start a conversation, rather than end one. In any case, go Steelers.

P.S. Yeah, I’d probably put Vinatieri in the Hall of Fame.