All-decade acclaim is a stamp of football greatness.
If you were one of the two quarterbacks selected to an all-decade team by the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame selection committee, you are considered one of the two best quarterbacks of your era. The same with the four wide receivers, the four guards, the four defensive ends and the four cornerbacks selected to those all-decade teams. You are considered among the best players of your era.
First-team all-decade selection is a rubber stamp to Canton. There have been 145 position players with first-team acclaim through the 1990 decade. All but 10 of them now have busts in Canton. Second-team all-decade selection isn’t as automatic. There have been 142 such second-teamers through the 1990 decade but barely 50 percent of them (72) have been enshrined in the Hall.
Offensive players have historically been given the benefit of doubt. Not so defensive players. In the era of two-way football (since 1950), there have been 53 offensive players named second-team all-decade and 67.9 percent have been inducted into Canton. There have been 46 defensive players with second-team all-decade acclaim, but only 41.3 percent have been enshrined.
Which brings us to defensive end Neil Smith, a second-team all-decade selection for the 1990s. He has been eligible for the Hall of Fame for 12 years now but has never been a semifinalist, much less a finalist. Smith didn’t even appear on the preliminary list of 94 candidates for the Class of 2017.
Inexplicably, a great player has been forgotten.
Smith was the second overall pick of the 1988 NFL draft. The Kansas City Chiefs traded up one spot in the draft order to claim Smith, sending the Detroit Lions the third and 29th overall picks for the right to claim the All-America pass rusher from Nebraska. The Lions converted those two picks into a pair of Pro Bowl defenders, safety Bennie Blades and middle linebacker Chris Spielman.
But the Chiefs certainly got their money’s worth. Smith became one of the best pass rushers of the 1990s. He collected 95 ½ of his 104 ½ career sacks from 1990-99 and went to six Pro Bowls. He led the NFL with 15 sacks in 1993 and earned first-team All-Pro honors. His teams won 105 games in the decade and went to the playoffs nine times.
Smith spent the first seven seasons of the decade with the Chiefs and the final three seasons with the Broncos. He went to five Pro Bowls with the Chiefs and his final Pro Bowl in 1997 with the Broncos. That season, Denver – and Smith – won the first of back-to-back Super Bowls. He played one final season with San Diego in 2000 before retiring. Smith was inducted into the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 2006.
But being overlooked by Canton may be a result of Smith being overshadowed on his own team. He was part of a stereo pass rush in Kansas City with Derrick Thomas, the fourth overall selection of the 1989 draft. Thomas was a first-team NFL all-decade pass rusher and an eight-time Pro Bowler in the 1990s. He also led the NFL in sacks once with 20 in 1990 and set the NFL record with seven sacks in a single game.
But the Hall of Fame seems to have drawn a line at one edge rusher per team.
Carl Eller is enshrined from the Purple People Eaters of the Minnesota Vikings but Jim Marshall is not, even though Marshall has 128 career sacks. Reggie White is enshrined from the 1990s' Philadelphia defense of Buddy Ryan but Clyde Simmons is not, even though Simmons has 121 ½ career sacks. Bruce Smith is enshrined from the 1990s Buffalo Bills but Cornelius Bennett is not, even though Bennett, like Smith, was a second-team all-decade selection.
Marshall deserves better. So do Simmons and Bennett, who have never been finalists for the Hall of Fame to have their careers discussed and debated. Smith also deserves better. He forced 30 career fumbles, recovered 12 and also intercepted four passes in his career, scoring two touchdowns. He was an impact defender – and the Hall of Fame is all about impact.
Smith deserves consideration for Canton. His career demands discussion.