What does longevity mean in deciding a HOF candidate?

How significant is longevity in a Hall of Fame candidate? Three HOF finalists this year will test that concept.

Photo courtesy of the Denver Broncos
Photo courtesy of the Denver Broncos

(Terrell Davis photo courtesy Denver Broncos)

(Kenny Easley photo courtesy Seattle Seahawks)

By Ron Borges

Talk of Fame Network

Longevity has long been part of the criteria for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the theory being that a significant part of ability is availability. Of the 266 players with busts in the Hall, only nine played fewer than eight NFL seasons, only four played fewer than seven and only one, Ernie Nevers, played only five.

So what does “longevity’’ really mean?

Just as importantly, what is the meaning of “played?’’ Does that mean you were actually still playing at a Hall-of-Fame level or simply getting paid while being physically impaired so badly you mostly watched?

These are question that are difficult to answer, but what constitutes the true meaning of longevity in a Hall-of-Fame career will be sorely tested this year with the presence of three finalists whose careers lasted only seven years: Senior candidate Kenny Easley, tackle Tony Boselli and running back Terrell Davis. All three were all-decade players and the best at their positions in their prime. But did their stars shine long enough for enshrinement? That is really the only question about them and one that will soon be answered.

Whenever the issue of longevity comes up the name most often mentioned is Gale Sayers, who is among five Hall of Famers to have lasted only seven seasons, with only five of those years of Hall-of-Fame quality. Sayers played in 68 games, the fourth fewest among Hall of Famers (along with Ace Parker), but few did more in less time before his broken knees shut him down.

Sayers was a five-time first team All-Pro who twice led the league in rushing, was an all-decade player in the 1960s and twice was second in rushing touchdowns. He also twice led the league in kick returns and was first three times in all-purpose yardage, second once and third once in each those five seasons of brilliance. His career average of five yards rushing per game is seventh all-time.

It should also be pointed out that he played when a season was 14 games, not 16.

That Sayers was a Hall-of-Fame performer seems obvious. But what if you performed in similar fashion for only four seasons? That is the case with Davis, a three-time finalist who played in only 65 games. That would be the third fewest, trailed only by Nevers (54) and Cliff Battles (60) back when seasons, and careers, were much shorter.

Yet Davis is one of seven running backs to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, with his 2,008 in 1998 fifth all-time. He led the NFL in rushing that season and finished second the prior two years, as well as ninth in his rookie season. He also led the NFL in touchdowns in 1997 and 1998 and missed only three games during those first four years.

Before knee injuries cut his career short, he became one of only 12 players to win both a league MVP and a Super Bowl MVP. Of the eight who are Hall-of-Fame eligible he is the only one not enshrined.

In addition, Davis’ playoff performances are without precedent. He is tied with Dallas’ Emmitt Smith for the most 100-yard rushing games in the playoffs with seven, but he did it in eight games. Smith needed 17. He also has the highest career playoff rushing average, 5.59 yards per carry, and averaged 142.5 rushing yards per playoff game. His overall career rushing average of 97.5 yards per game is the fourth best all-time.

The problem for Davis is he played only 17 more games in his final three seasons, meaning all his Hall-of-Fame accomplishments came in a brief but spectacular four-year span. Do four years of excellence constitute a Hall-of-Fame career? Thus far they have not, but he will have another chance next month to argue that it does.

In Boselli’s case, he was a five-time Pro Bowl left tackle and all-decade player in the 1990s whose command of the position during his seven seasons seems beyond debate. He started all but seven games his first six years before knee problems cut his career short after three more starts. So the question is: At a position generally known for longevity did he last long enough?

Here’s what he told the Talk of Fame Network about that debate during a recent interview.

“I understand longevity plays a role,’’ said Boselli. “And it plays a greater role depending on whether you’re really good or great. But from my standpoint ... and I hate to do this…but when I listen to the draft and hear people say ‘He’s not Tony Boselli’ or ‘all-decade team,’ it seems like a lot of people view me as one of the best to play the position. And if you’re the best at what you do, doesn’t’ that have to mean something?’’

It did in the case of Hall-of-Fame center Dwight Stephenson. Stephenson was the best center of his time and a Hall of Famer, yet while he played more years than Boselli he started fewer games (87 to 90) and was chosen to as many Pro Bowls (five). So what’s the difference between them? One played in two Super Bowls, and the other played on the losing side in two conference championship games. One played for a storied franchise and the other played for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Other than that there seems to be little to separate them.

As for Easley, he was the game’s most dominate strong safety for seven years in the 1980s. He was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1981 and NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1984. He led the league in interceptions with 10, bringing two back for touchdowns, in 1984. He was a five-time Pro Bowler and first team all-decade selection. But, more significantly, he changed how offenses played the Seahawks.

Opponents began to spread their tight ends wide to take him out of the passing game, with Redskins’ coach Joe Gibbs going so far as to put his tight end in motion without any intention of throwing to him simply to draw Easley away from the line of scrimmage and out of the middle of the field, where he so often wreaked havoc on opposing offenses.

The kidney disease that Easley claimed was caused by taking massive doses of ibuprofen at his team’s insistence cut his career short after seven seasons and was only discovered after Seattle traded him to the Phoenix Cardinals for quarterback Kelly Stouffer on April 22, 1988. That trade came not from a slippage in play despite his failing kidneys but because of his vocal leadership during the 1987 strike.

He never played another game, having a kidney transplant two years later and severing ties with the Seahawks for many years after settling a lawsuit against them.

Are seven seasons of excellence, one shortened by a strike, enough to enshrine a candidate whom Hall-of-Fame safety Ronnie Lott calls “the best safety to ever play the game’’? That, along with the question of what longevity truly means when it comes to the Hall of Fame, will be answered next month.

We should all hope the answer is yes in all three cases because Kenny Easley, Tony Boselli and Terrell Davis were more than Hall-of-Very-Good players during their careers. They were Hall-of-Fame performers, cut down too quickly not by fading skills but by unavoidable injury.