By Steve Cohen (@SteveInBrooklyn)
The Atlanta Falcons have sadly not had very many Hall of Famers on their roster throughout the team’s history. In fact, the Falcons went their first 30 years of existence without having a Falcon player enter the Hall of Fame. The dam was finally broken with players like Tommy McDonald and Eric Dickerson, but that did little to satisfy Falcon diehards, as their respective single seasons as Atlanta Falcons were not especially memorable.
With that backdrop, on a relative basis, the last five years have been a major breakthrough for the Falcons with regard to the Hall of Fame. Deion Sanders was a first-ballot inductee in 2011 to no one’s surprise. The following year, Chris Doleman – whose Falcons June Jones-era career was brief, but fairly impactful – brought his pass-rushing prowess into the Hall. And in 2014, the Senior Committee finally ended Claude Humphrey’s extended wait, so the football historians cheered while millennial casual football fans shrugged.
With all of that recent momentum, we’ll keep that wave going for at least one more year in 2016. Yes, Falcons could’ve-been-great Brett Favre will join Tommy McDonald and Eric Dickerson as Pro Football Hall of Fame “FINOs” (Falcons In Name Only). Falcon fans can celebrate this achievement by drowning in their sorrows, wondering what could have been if only Ron Wolf were not such a smarter general manager than Ken Herock. And if only Jerry Glanville could have realized that maybe, just maybe, that Favre kid had more upside than Billy Joe Tolliver and might be able to string together more than four starts in a row, unlike then-starting quarterback/injury-magnet Chris Miller. But alas.
Moving on from Brett Favre-related regrets, one other Hall of Fame finalist warrants discussion, and unlike Favre, most Falcons fans have fond memories of him in a Falcons uniform. That man is the great Danish legend with the left leg of steel, Morten Andersen.
Morten Andersen’s Background
This is Andersen’s fourth year of Hall of Fame eligibility and third time as a Hall of Fame finalist. From an outsider perspective—taking into account that no one ever knows what the 46-member NFL writer Selection Committee will decide to do once they all get together in one room—he would appear to have a more-likely-than-not chance of eventually making it in. Clearly, the Selection Committee considers him a worthy candidate for strong consideration, as well it should.
Morten is the all-time NFL points leader at 2,544 points, ahead of his nearest competitor (his near-namesake Gary Anderson) by more than 100 points, he played 25 seasons (i.e., he averaged more than 100 points per season played), he made the All-1980s and All-1990s NFL teams, he was a three-time First-team All Pro, and he was named to the Pro Bowl seven times. His career includes 13 seasons with the Saints, eight seasons with the Falcons, as well as some brief stays with the Giants, Chiefs, and Vikings.
In addition to reaching the highest heights among his generational peers, his longevity was something to behold. He played until age 47, which is essentially unheard of. The oldest active NFL player right now is 43-year old Adam Vinatieri, and there were a mere four active players age 40 or older during the 2015 season (Vinatieri, Phil Dawson, current Falcons kicking extraordinaire Matt Bryant, and Matthew Hasselbeck). The fact that Andersen had the strongest kicking leg in the league during his 1980s prime meant that he still had enough leg strength to be serviceable into the mid-’00s.
When compared to current active NFL kickers, Andersen currently maintains a 291-point lead ahead of 43-year old Adam Vinatieri (who currently sits in 3rd place on the scoring list behind Morten and Gary Anderson) and a 869-point lead over 37-year old Sebastain Janikowski. So it’s quite possible that Morten will hold the NFL all-time points record for at least another decade, at least before relative young guns Stephen Gostkowski, Robbie Gould, and Mason Crosby start pulling up somewhere in the rear-view mirror.
As a Falcons fan, it’s easy to have a soft spot for Morten Andersen. The guy secured the Falcons’ lone Super Bowl bid on a day during which his generationally great kicking counterpart Gary Anderson famously fell embarrassingly flat in the clutch department. And after his fine six-year Falcons run from 1995-2000, Morten returned to the Falcons six years later in 2006—at age 46—after the Michael Koenen-at-kicker experiment came to a screeching halt. Oh, and for good measure, he heroically salvaged the Falcons’ kicking game once again in 2007 when a then-boyish Matt Prater, um, cratered after two games. For good measure, Morten’s kicking percentages in 2006-2007 were among the best of his career (~88%)! There was truly a lot to like about Morten as a Falcon.
But now that the superlatives are out of the way, it’s worth sizing up Morten Andersen against (1) his 2016 Hall of Fame competition; and (2) his kicking peers. As shown from the discussion below, I think notwithstanding his truly impressive career, he should not be an inductee in 2016.
The 2016 Pro Football Hall of Fame Class Is a Very Strong Class Filled With More Historically-Significant Figures than Morten Andersen.
When I think of Pro Football Hall of Fame worthiness, I usually try to weigh how historically significant an NFL player/coach/executive’s career was. An exercise that I find useful for evaluating potential Hall of Famers is asking: If you were sitting down with someone for an extended period of time and had to give them an oral history of pro football, whose name belongs in that discussion and whose name is skipped over? Statistics, All-Pro appearances, and playoff/Super Bowl performances are obviously important factors as well for determining whether an individual has a Hall of Fame-worthy resume. But a Hall of Fame induction is essentially equivalent to immortalizing a football player/personality. Anyone who walks into Canton for the next hundred years will see that person’s bust and immediately regard him as a god among men. So the question, at least in my mind, is who warrants that status? Who are the true legends?
Of the current list of finalists, there are definitely some standouts:
- Brett Favre. Notwithstanding the fact that Aaron Rodgers has in some ways surpassed Favre, it’s impossible to question the significance Favre had to NFL quarterbacking, the preponderance of the West Coast offense, risk-taking, and playing through injury. An obvious selection.
- Terrell Owens. Another historically-excellent player who—despite all of the WR talent that has emerged in the last two dozen years—will be remembered as an ultimate gamer, including for playing through injury in the Eagles’ Super Bowl.
- Kurt Warner. His stockboy-to-Super Bowl MVP story is the stuff of legend and is one of those quintessentially American tales that professional sports brings from time to time. Although his tenure as an elite QB was relatively brief as far as NFL quarterbacking goes, three Super Bowl appearances and his status as the show runner of the Greatest Show on Turf means that his historic permanence is assured.
- Tony Dungy. There are coaches with better win/loss resumes, but the consistency with which his teams played and his persona will never be forgotten. Thanks to Dungy, never again will an NFL owner ask himself “Can an African-American head coach win my team a Super Bowl?” Dungy has already served as a direct or indirect inspiration to countless African-American coaches. And his unique-at-the-time, level-headed, non-rah-rah style led to a coaching philosophy and approach to which many aspire.
- Don Coryell. Given the number of football historians on the Hall of Fame committee, it’s amazing that Coryell hasn’t already been inducted. The guy was a true innovator in the passing game. When I grew up watching football in the ’90s, commentators so revered the “Air Coryell” style offense that you would have thought Coryell had been in the Hall of Fame for years.
- Ken Stabler (Senior Committee). He played before my time, but he certainly stacks up well in the historically-significant department. Most people who watched football in the 1970s probably assume Stabler is already a Hall-of-Famer.
- Dick Stanfel (Senior Committee). While we’re on guys who were before my time, my parents were children back when Stanfel played. Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say he’s a “legend” and probably the main thing that’s kept him from enshrinement is the fact that he only played seven seasons.
- Terrell Davis. He’d be a no-brainer if not for the fact that his career was relatively brief. But how do you tell the story of the two-time Super Bowl champion, late-90s Denver Broncos without including this guy? For three consecutive NFL seasons, he was the best in the league at what he did and helped his team win two Super Bowls during that span. What more could he have done? His resume is simply fancy yellow jacket-worthy.
- Orlando Pace. Based on Mike Martz’s eventual struggles guiding offenses, it became clear that the Martz offense was highly reliant upon a top-notch offensive line. So give Pace credit for the Greatest Show on Earth, even though he’s not the first or second or even third name that comes to mind from that offense. He wasn’t the best left tackle of his generation, but he wasn’t far off from that either.
- Alan Faneca. He played on numerous successful Steelers teams known for their smash-mouth style, and he was the smash-mouthiest of them all. (Insert All-Star joke.) He was a six-time All-Pro, arguably the best offensive player on the 2005 Super Bowl-winning Steelers team, and arguably the best offensive guard of the ’00s. On a relative basis, not many offensive guards are considered NFL legends, but Faneca deserves to be among them.
- Marvin Harrison. Here’s a case where the numbers argument may be stronger than the historic significance argument. There’s no other way to slice it: Harrison put up absolutely insane receiving yardage numbers. In any event, being the primary WR target of one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time makes Harrison pretty darn historically significant in my book.
- Kevin Greene. Sure, I suppose if you really wanted to, you could leave Kevin Greene out of your story of football history. But why would you want to? He was a consistent double-digit sack threat and made every defense he joined much better. Even towards the tail-end of his career, he was out there sacking quarterbacks for the newly-formed Carolina Panthers on the way to a NFC Championship game run.
- Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. (Contributor). There are probably many individuals who you could identify from the 49ers teams as “legends” before you’d get to DeBartolo. Does being smart enough to hire Bill Walsh make you a legend? Probably, right? Football historians will certainly make that argument for Bob Kraft, so the same logic should apply to DeBartolo.
So in addition to the two Seniors Committee finalists and the Contributor finalist, that means 10 of the 15 modern-era finalists are truly historically significant in my book. But there are only five induction spots open to modern-era finalists.
Which takes us to Morten Andersen. Now, certainly, if you were reciting the oral history of the Atlanta Falcons or the New Orleans Saints, Morten Andersen’s name would be featured. But in the oral history of the NFL? It’s possible, I guess, if you felt the need to talk about the all-time points leader, or felt the need to digress into kicking awesomeness of the 1980s, or wanted to accentuate how the Atlanta Falcons made it to the Super Bowl during the 1998 NFL season.
But I don’t think Morten is as significant a figure in NFL history as Jan Stenerud, who is the only kicker currently enshrined, was a Super Bowl winner, the best kicker of his generation, an originator of soccer-style kicking, and among the first dedicated kickers (one could argue the other side of that argument though, based on longevity, leg strength, and accuracy). Morten is certainly not as historically significant a figure as Adam Vinatieri, who made numerous, legendarily clutch Super Bowl-winning kicks and whose winning playoff kick against the Raiders in the snow during the tuck rule game will be featured in replays forever (and is a crucial moment in the Patriots/Brady/Belichick dynasty narrative).
So I think Morten’s a borderline case, similar to the four other modern-era finalists I did not mention above (Steve Atwater, Edgerrin James, Joe Jacoby, and John Lynch). Given the fact that there are ten modern-era finalists who had more historically significant careers, and only five modern-era players can be inducted, I unfortunately don’t think there is space for Morten in the Hall of Fame Class of 2016.
This leads me to one other concern I have with Andersen’s candidacy.
Andersen’s accuracy is unimpressive by historical standards, especially when considering the kicker generations that have followed.
Although Morten is number one on the NFL all-time scoring list (and number one in our hearts), he checks in at a lowly 48th on the current field goal percentage list for all kickers who have kicked at least 100 attempts in their career. His career 79.69% kicking percentage, while decent in the 1980s, would quite possibly get him fired in the 2000s and 2010s. Vinatieri, meanwhile, sits at 84% and ten players have an 85%+ rate.
Perhaps his accuracy is artificially low because the Saints had him attempt a large number of long kicks because of faith in his awesome leg? It’s possible, but that doesn’t seem to necessarily hold up when reviewing the stats. In most of those years with the Saints, Morten was attempting four or so kicks from beyond 50 yards. While that’s more than Gary Anderson was attempting at the time, another 1980’s peer, Nick Lowery, was in that ballpark. Even so, if you remove, say 10-15 kicks on account of the fact that the Saints were gambling on his leg (which would be a dubious approach, but just for argument’s sake), that doesn’t move the needle very much (1-2%) for someone who attempted 709 field goals in his career. And, in general, his accuracy from 40+ from the 1980s through mid-1990s just doesn’t hold up against more recent kicking talent. In fairness to Morten, though, it’s worth noting that Hall-of-Fame kicker Jan Stanerud is all the way back on the list at 97th, with a 66.846% accuracy rate.
When we compare quarterbacks and wide receivers from earlier eras to today, it’s an easy argument to make that game rules have changed to make offenses more passing-friendly, and thus it makes sense that quarterbacks and receivers be compared against players of their own era. That’s a somewhat harder argument to make for kickers. Have kicking techniques improved? Has more control over K-balls and ball inflation led to inflation of kicker performance over time? Are special teams coaches better at getting the most out of kickers these days? Are sports psychologists playing more of a role? Is the prospect of earning millions as an NFL kicker luring more talent to the game now than was the case 30 years ago?
If I were ready to induct Morten Andersen into the Hall of Fame, I’d be curious to hear answers to these types of questions. Because once Morten gets inducted, suddenly the diehard fans of Matt Stover, Ryan Longwell, Jason Hanson, and Jon Kasay will have a hook to argue “Hey, why not us?” since their kicking resume stacks up fairly well accuracy-wise against Morten’s (although none of those guys quite lasted until age 47). And the list will get longer as the current stable of kickers like Gostkowski and Gould continue their careers.
Other points worth mentioning regarding Andersen’s career and candidacy
The fact that the Falcons have had great kickers over the last 25 years can lead a Falcons fan like myself to under-appreciate Andersen. He’s arguably the 3rd-best kicker for the Falcons during that 25-year timeframe behind Matt Bryant and Norm Johnson, who was more consistent and accurate in the early 90s than Andersen was in later years. With that being said, Morten didn’t join the Falcons until he was 35 years old, meaning he was already past his kicking prime when he arrived in Atlanta. He put together an outstanding 13-year NFL kicking resume before he was a Falcon and was generally regarded as the best at what he did during that era. That should not be overlooked.
One other footnote that longtime Falcons fans may remember is that Andersen had a memorable missed chip-shot game-losing 30-yard field goal attempt in 1996 week 17 vs. the Jaguars, which had the effect of sending the Jaguars to the playoffs, in which they ultimately made it to the AFC Championship game. While this was certainly a low-point in Andersen’s career, a missed potential game-winning kick for a three-win Falcons team doesn’t seem like something that moves the needle much when you’re dealing with a 25-year playing career like Andersen’s. I have a hard time imagining that a committee member would decide the tipping point of whether Andersen is a Hall-of-Famer or not is one missed kick during a lost season.
Andersen has a good selling-point right now for his Hall worthiness in that he’s the all-time points leader. There might not be as much of a push to get him in the Hall of Fame if he falls to second or third, so in that sense, it’s good that the committee has already opened the window wide open for him by repeatedly nominating him as a finalist. Hopefully for his sake, neither Vinatieri or Janikowski catch up to him just yet.
* * *
We’ll find out later today if the committee decides to reward Andersen for an outstanding career. Personally, I put Andersen in the awesome-player-but-not-historical-NFL-figure category. But I think in a later year with lesser competition, there will likely be an opening for Andersen to be enshrined. And if there’s anything we know from a quarter-century of Morten Andersen, it’s that the guy can hit an opening from long range.
In any event, it’s safe to say that he’s put his best (titanium) foot forward, now it’s in the NFL writers’ hands to decide.