Andy Benoit’s Quarter-Way All-Pro Team
I asked Andy Benoit, our Deep Dive maestro, to give me his All-Pro team through four weeks, based on the extensive tape work Benoit does each week. Here are his picks and explanations:
Quarterback is an easy decision; running back is not. Forte gets the nod over LeSean McCoy because Forte’s 3-1 Bears would not be transitioning to Marc Trestman’s system so smoothly if not for the stabilizing ground game and potent underneath receiving that the sixth-year veteran provides. If the Eagles didn’t have McCoy they’d still be 1-3.
Julio Jones has been prolific despite drawing more dedicated double-teams (those double-teams will soften when Roddy White’s ankle gets stronger). Green doesn’t have huge numbers, but his vastly improved route-running jumps out on film. Johnson isn’t a pure slot guy, obviously, but attention must be drawn to the fact that his impact inside has brought much-needed dimension to Detroit’s offense. Guarantee you defenses have worried about him in the slot more than anyone else this season.
Up front, Thomas has routinely won battles with no chip-block help, while the uber-athletic Smith has shown valuable improvement as a run-blocker. Mankins has been dominant as usual; Mathis’s more finesse style is a good fit in Chip Kelly’s system. Pouncey gets the nod purely on athletic merit.
There are several deserving defensive ends, but these two 31-year-olds have consistently pressured quarterbacks without sacrificing their every-down discipline in gap control. Inside, Babineaux is a versatile and disruptive gap-shooter, while Suh has been arguably the best in football at blowing up double-teams (that’s saying something for a guy in a one-gap scheme).
Houston was quiet against the Giants but is still tied with Robert Mathis for a league-leading 7.5 sacks. He’s the better playside run-defender. Matthews has only played two and a half games, but he’s the catalyst to a hybrid, attack-oriented Packers D that was borderline sensational in its last two outings.
The speedy, instinctive Lee is a perfect fit in Dallas’ new zone-based scheme. Bowman has been vicious in San Fran’s nickel and dime packages. Sherman is an easy call. So is Haden; he blanketed Mike Wallace in Week 1, often without true safety help. In Week 3, Haden was airtight on Jerome Simpson. In Week 4, he kept A.J. Green in check. Berry and Polamalu are technically both strong safeties, but who cares? Berry has been outstanding in man coverage and blitzing; Polamalu looks like his old Canton-bound self.
The 2014 Hall of Fame conundrum
I’ve said for a long time that the wide receiver logjam, particularly with five or six more receivers likely to cross the 1,000-catch plateau in the next five years, is going to be the most vexing problem for the 46 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters in the next few years. Marvin Harrison (1,102 catches) hits the ballot this year. Do voters put him in right away because of his importance to the Colts’ long run of excellence? Do they stack him behind Andre Reed and Tim Brown, who have been waiting nine and five years respectively? Do they wait to see if Reggie Wayne, 34, who wants to play multiple more years and is only 117 catches behind Harrison this morning, passes him, and by how much? Do the voters say both belong? Do the voters say neither belong?
But the logjam problem for 2014 could be a coaching one, for a couple of reasons.
Let’s get to the newest coach up for election in 2014, and the leader in the clubhouse among all coaches for enshrinement: Tony Dungy. In 13 years as a head coach in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, Dungy had one losing season. He had an amazing six-year run beginning in 2003—wining 12, 12, 14, 12, 13 and 12 games—one of which led to his lone Super Bowl title, following the 2006 season. But he does have downsides: Dungy is only 21st on the NFL’s all-time coaching wins list, and he is 9-10 in the playoffs. And though he has steadfastly said he is happy in his TV job and normal family life, he is 57, and the Hall of Fame selection committee (of which I am a member) has sometimes factored in the possibility of a coach returning to the sidelines if he’s still a relatively young man, which Dungy is. Why’s that significant? Because you want to be able to consider a coach’s full career, not a potentially incomplete one.
For the record, and in fairness to this section of the column, a disclaimer: I have worked with Dungy on the NBC Football Night in America set for five years. I believe he will not return to coaching—but as Bill Parcells used to say, they don’t sell insurance for these kinds of things.
One question sure to come up with Dungy, the first African-American Super Bowl-winning coach, is the pioneering aspect of the job. He was a coaching wunderkind, ascending to the Steelers’ defensive coordinator job under Chuck Noll at age 28. After seven head-coaching interviews, he finally landed the Bucs job in 1996, at age 40. Many of the successful African-American coaches, including Lovie Smith and Jim Caldwell, both of whom won a conference title and lost in the Super Bowl, credit Dungy with being a important leader in their progression. Playoff coach Leslie Frazier of the Vikings does too—and they’re not the only ones.
So does racial pioneering matter, and should it count toward election? The bylaws of the Hall say, “The only criteria for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame are a nominee’s achievements and contributions as a player, coach, or contributor in professional football in the United States of America.” Nothing is said about being a pioneer. So it will be left to the interpretation of the voters. But my interpretation will be that the pioneer aspect of the job should matter. Inspiring, encouraging and being a role model for African-American coaches (and, quite frankly, coaches in general and football coaches in particular) is part of Dungy’s contribution to the game, and I will speak up about that subject in the Hall of Fame selection meeting on Feb. 1 in New York. Being around Dungy quite a bit in recent years, and talking to coaches about him, I’ve always gotten the feeling he’s one of the most important coaches of this era, for many reasons. But being the first African-American Super Bowl-winning coach, and leading two franchises to consistent winning seasons for 13 years, is going to make Dungy a very strong candidate for election four months from now.
A word about one other coaching candidate: Jimmy Johnson. He’s never made the list of modern-era finalists. He’s usually knocked out in the cutdown from 125 to 25 at this time of year. (Ballots for 25 modern-era semifinalists are due from the voters by Nov. 1.) I’d like to see him have his case heard in the room, in front of the 46 voters, and the only way that happens is for Johnson to make the cut from 125 to 25, then the cut from 25 to 15 for the modern-era finalists. I’m not saying he deserves it more than lots of the players or coaches on the ballot. What I am saying is he deserves to have his case heard. I think a good case can be made that, among modern coaches, Johnson is a Gale Sayers-type candidate.
Johnson coached nine years, which most people have said is too short a career to merit entry into the Hall. It bothers me, too. But Sayers played just 68 games over seven injury-plagued seasons. He got in because he was a meteor across the NFL sky—a transcendent talent who retired with a 5.0 yards-per-carry average and an NFL-record 30.6-yard career kick-return average, and who once scored six touchdowns in a 1965 game against San Francisco. He had some Adrian Peterson and some Barry Sanders in him.
Did any coach have a quicker impact on the game in recent history than Johnson, both in winning and in trends? He came into the league with a bad Dallas team in 1989 and was determined to do it his way—from stocking his defense with smaller, faster players instead of bigger ones, to bringing the Cover 2 from the University of Miami, to working the draft the way he recruited players at Miami—scouting the college teams’ postseason with his coaching staff instead of leaving it all to the scouts. He coached two Super Bowl winners in five seasons, then left a Super Bowl team behind and went on to make three playoff appearances in four seasons in Miami.
Though I believe Johnson is a strong candidate, he probably will never make the Hall. Most will say he needed to win more than 89 games as an NFL coach, and it’s a valid criticism. I just think there are some coaches, and players, who were so impactful over a short period that they deserve an airing in front of the 46 people who guard the door to the Hall of Fame.