Much was expected of Joey Browner when the Minnesota Vikings selected him with the 19th overall choice of the celebrated 1983 NFL draft, ahead of such Hall of Famers as Dan Marino and Darrell Green.
And Browner delivered on those expectations.
Browner played nine seasons with the Vikings and went to six Pro Bowls. He strung together seven consecutive 100-tackle seasons and was voted one of the 50 greatest Vikings on the 50th anniversary of the franchise in 2010.
Browner collected a career-high 188 tackles in 1985, 131 more in 1987 to help the Vikings reach the NFC title game and back-to-back 120-tackle seasons when Minnesota led the NFL in defense in both 1988 and 1989. He was voted to the 1980s NFL all-decade team at safety.
Browner has been eligible for the Hall of Fame for 21 years now but has never a semifinalist, much less a finalist. So how does a six-time Pro Bowler and a three-time first-team all-pro never come up for discussion?
There are two reasons – the position Browner played and the success of his team. Or rather the lack of success. Browner played 10 NFL seasons and never won a championship.
There are 275 players enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Only 36 percent of them failed to win a championship. And of the 101 players who did not win a title, only 37 played defense. And of those 37, eight were elected as seniors. So only 29 defenders without rings were elected during their 25-year windows of modern-era eligibility.
Now let’s address the position Browner played. There are only nine pure safeties enshrined in Canton. Only one position has fewer – tight ends with eight. But in the traditional NFL lineup there are twice as many safeties on the field (two) as tight ends (one).
So safety is the most undervalued position in the Hall of Fame. Paul Krause, the NFL’s all-time interception leader with 81, waited 14 years for his bust. Kenny Easley, a first-team all-decade safety and a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, waited 25 years before finally getting his bust as a senior.
So if you didn’t win a championship, you are a long shot for Canton. If you didn’t win a championship and played defense, you are an even longer shot. And if you didn’t win a championship and played safety, you are the absolute longest shot for a bust in the Hall of Fame.
And that’s not fair to a player the caliber of Browner, who was much more than a tackler at his strong safety position. He was a playmaker.
Browner scored three defensive touchdowns in college at Southern Cal and four more in his NFL career. He returned an Earnest Jackson fumble 63 yards for a touchdown and also interceptions of Steve DeBerg, Eric Hipple and Gary Kubiak for his other scores. Browner added a fifth pro TD with a 48-yard interception of a Dan Fouts pass in the 1986 Pro Bowl.
Browner intercepted 37 career passes plus three more in the playoffs. He had a seven-interception season in 1990, a six-interception season in 1987 and three other five-interception seasons. Browner recovered 16 fumbles plus two more in Pro Bowls. He recovered a career-best five fumbles in 1985. He also forced 18 fumbles and sacked 10 quarterbacks. Browner collected a career-best 20 tackles in a single game against the Bengals in 1985 and showed his versatility with 111 career special teams tackles.
So add it all up. Do the tackles, interceptions, fumbles, touchdowns and Pro Bowls add up to a Hall of Fame career for Joey Browner? Maybe, maybe not. But all the statistics and accolades add up to a career that certainly deserves a discussion from the Hall of Fame selection committee. The absence of a championship ring should not close any doors for a great football player.