(Tommy Nobis photo on the front and Mike Kenn photo above courtesy of the Atlanta Falcons)
By Rick Gosselin
Talk of Fame Network
It’s time the Pro Football Hall of Fame eases up on the Atlanta Falcons. The snub has gone on too long.
Good football players – in many cases, Hall-of-Fame-caliber players – have been erased from the pages of history by a cursed franchise.
Atlanta was awarded an expansion franchise in 1966, but the road to respectability was an unusually long one. It took the Falcons six years to post their first winning season, 13 years to qualify for the playoffs and 15 years to capture a division title.
And still no Lombardi Trophy.
And the Hall of Fame seems to be holding some great players at non-statistical positions responsible for those on-the-field failures.
Tommy Nobis was the first overall pick of the 1966 draft by the Falcons and set a league record with his 294 tackles on his way to NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He also went to the first of his five Pro Bowls in 1966, then was voted the first-team All-Pro middle linebacker in 1967. He became an all-decade selection in the 1960s, joining fellow middle backers Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke.
But Butkus and Nitschke were both first-ballot Hall of Famers. Nobis has been eligible for the Hall of Fame for 35 years but has never once been a finalist. So his career has never been discussed for its Hall-of-Fame merits, and his candidacy now rests in the hands of the Hall’s senior committee.
Claude Humphrey also was a high draft pick of the Falcons, the third overall selection of the 1968 NFL draft. He also won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and went to the first of his six Pro Bowls as a rookie. He was selected first-team All-Pro five times as a Falcon. He finished his career with a three-year stay in Philadelphia, helping the Eagles reach their first Super Bowl in 1980 with a team-high 14 ½ sacks.
Unlike Nobis, Humphrey did become a Hall-of-Fame finalist. Three times he reached the finals as a modern-era candidate -- and three times he was passed over by the committee. Then he became a rare two-time nominee by the Hall's senior committee. He was rejected the first time in 2009 before finally collecting his bust on a second-go round in 2014 – in the 28th year of his candidacy.
The only other Hall of Famer who spent any appreciable time in Atlanta was Deion Sanders, who played his first five seasons with the Falcons before moving on to win Super Bowls with both the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.
But that’s it for the Falcons and their Hall-of-Fame representation. Fifty years of football have produced two busts in Canton – and both of those players moved on to other franchises to achieve any team success.
Nobis isn’t alone in the snub. Some of the NFL’s finest offensive line play was on display in Atlanta for a span of 26 consecutive seasons from 1969 through 1994. George Kunz was a right tackle who played the position at an elite level. So did Jeff Van Note at center, Mike Kenn at left tackle and Bill Fralic at right guard.
They were recognized for their fine play during their careers but not in retirement. Not one has ever been a Hall-of-Fame finalist, and only Kenn has been a semifinalist.
Kunz was the second overall pick of the 1969 draft who became a walk-in starter on a team desperate for quality players. He was voted to the Pro Bowl as a rookie and went back four more times over the next five seasons. The Falcons traded Kunz to Baltimore in 1975, and he went to three more Pro Bowls with the Colts.
(George Kunz photo courtesy of the Atlanta Falcons)
But no matter how high you were drafted or how many Pro Bowls you attend, it’s difficult for players to overcome a lack of team success in any Hall-of-Fame discussion. Especially offensive linemen who have no statistics. Sixty-nine percent of all those enshrined in Canton won championships. There were no championships in Atlanta during the Kunz era and very few wins. The Falcons went 36-45-3 during his six seasons.
Van Note arrived in Atlanta along with Kunz as an 11th -round draft pick in 1969 but didn’t make the team. He spent that season playing minor-league football but returned in 1970 not only to win a position on the roster but a spot in the starting lineup. Van Note went on to play 248 games with the Falcons, an NFL record for a center, and started 226 of them. He also went to five Pro Bowls during his 17-year.
The Falcons have retired his jersey number 57. And that’s been his final accolade. The Falcons went 105-140-4 during his career and never won a playoff game.
Kenn was the 13th overall selection of the 1980 draft. Like Kunz, he became a walk-in starter, and, like Van Note, he went to five Pro Bowls. He played in 251 career games, fourth most by any offensive lineman in NFL history and second-most among left tackles (Lomas Brown).
Kenn did play in a rare Atlanta playoff victory in 1991, but, overall, the Falcons posted just a 106-157-1 mark during his career. He’s been a three-time semifinalist (2015-16-17) but has not been able to take the next step in the process.
Fralic was another high draft pick by the Falcons, the second overall selection in 1985. He became a walk-in starter and, beginning in 1986, went to four consecutive Pro Bowls. He also was a two-time first-team All-Pro and one of four guards named to the NFL’s 1980s all-decade team. The other three have already been enshrined – Bruce Matthews, Mike Munchak and Russ Grimm. But Fralic’s career has never been discussed by the committee. That 43-83-1 record by his Falcons has become an obstacle he’s been unable to hurdle.
George Kunz went to eight Pro Bowls. Bill Fralic and Tommy Nobis were all-decade selections. Van Note and Kenn both rank in the Top 6 in games played by NFL offensive lineman and their longevity was punctuated with quality.
Do they all belong in the Hall of Fame? Do any of them belong in the Hall of Fame?
Who knows? But their careers are certainly deserving of that discussion.