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Hall of Fame Class of 2014: Claude Humphrey blazed a trail

In advance of Saturday night's Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony (7 p.m. ET on NFL Network), NFL Media historian Elliot Harrison is taking a closer look at the seven members of the Class of 2014. Below you'll find five intriguing tidbits about defensive end Claude Humphrey.

1) True Falcon

From the only-a-diehard-Falcons-fan-knows-this department ... As incredible as it seems, Claude Humphrey is about to become the first true Falcon to officially enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And by that I mean that, at the moment, there isn't a single enshrinee who spent over half of his career in Atlanta. Humphrey spent 11 of his 14 years there.

Here is the list of former Falcons currently holding it down in Canton:

» Eric Dickerson: Played one ill-fated, injury-riddled season for the Falcons.
» Chris Doleman: Spent two seasons in Atlanta and 13 seasons elsewhere (including 10 in Minnesota).
» Tommy McDonald: Primarily known as an Eagles legend, McDonald played one season for these birds of a different feather.
» Deion Sanders: Unlike the prior three guys -- and like Humphrey -- Sanders was drafted by the Falcons. Yet, the franchise only experienced five seasons of "Prime Time." Sanders also spent five seasons -- and won a Super Bowl -- with the Dallas Cowboys.

NFL Exposure

Claude Humphrey Through the Years

Take a look at some of the best photos throughout the years of the former Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman.

2) One of a kind ... sort of

When Humphrey makes his acceptance speech Saturday at Fawcett Stadium, you can bet we will hear about his alma mater, Tennessee State. Humphrey was picked third overall in the 1968 NFL Draft -- a huge deal for a small-school prospect. In fact, no Tennessee State alum had gone in the first two rounds up to that point.

In an interesting twist, Humphrey was one-upped in draft annals by a fellow Tennessee State alum -- a fellow Tennessee State defensive end, to boot -- just a few years later. Ed "Too Tall" Jones was the first overall pick in 1974. Going a step further, Jones' first game for the Cowboys came against Humphrey and the Falcons. "Too Tall" made a Humphrey-esque impression, amassing five sacks in his debut.

3) The greatest defense nobody remembers

Humphrey was the premier player on the best statistical defense of the modern era. Yes, you read that correctly. The 1977 Falcons still hold the modern mark for fewest points allowed in a single season. Head coach Leeman Bennett's unit, nicknamed the "Grits Blitz," yielded all of 129 points, which averaged out to 9.2 per game!

Roll the 1976 Steelers, 1985 Bears and 2000 Ravens into a burrito, and it still won't taste as good as the '77 Falcons. Only twice all season did Humphrey and company allow more than 16 points -- 10 times, they gave up 10 points or less. Despite entering the season at the overripe age of 33, Humphrey played as well as he ever did, earning second-team All-Pro honors from The Associated Press. Unfortunately, Atlanta's offense managed just 12.8 points per game, so the Falcons went 7-7 and missed the playoffs.

One more note: The '77 Falcons' stifling defensive effort was the last straw for The Powers That Be. Tired of seeing too many 10-7 contests, the NFL Competition Committee took matters into its own hands the following offseason, approving liberalized pass-blocking rules and the 5-yard bump zone to help offenses put more points on the board.

4) Loveable loser? Not so much

Humphrey's departure from the Falcons in 1978 certainly wasn't ideal -- for the player or the organization. After enduring 10 playoff-less seasons, Humphrey banged the drum loudly for a trade. Who could blame him? The big defensive end had made six Pro Bowls by that time, but while he'd absolutely flourished in an individual capacity, he had yet to sniff January football. So after Atlanta opened the '78 campaign with three losses in its first four games, Humphrey literally walked out on the team, as it was the only thing he thought he could do.

Now, here's the cruel irony: After Humphrey's exit, the Falcons rallied to win eight of their last 12 games and make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. And in the postseason, Atlanta knocked off Philadelphia -- which is exactly where the Falcons sent Humphrey in a trade a few months later.

5) The vet at the Vet

In Philly, Humphrey achieved what he never could in Atlanta: team success. Humphrey played his first career postseason contest at Veterans Stadium in 1979. That was his 144th professional game -- it must've felt like the Super Bowl. Of course, he played in one of those -- Super Bowl XV -- the very next season. All told, Humphrey made the playoffs in each of his three seasons with Dick Vermeil's Eagles.

What's really cool about the end of Humphrey's career is that he helped pioneer a role that holds great prominence today: the older but still effective situational pass rusher. Humphrey helped those 1980 Eagles get to the Super Bowl by racking up 14.5 sacks at age 36. That was not common in those days, but it certainly is now. Look no further than last year's Arizona Cardinals, who took a flier on 35-year-old John Abraham and got 11.5 sacks to show for it. Or how about the Denver Broncos paying DeMarcus Ware a huge chunk of change to come on board this year, despite the fact he is entering his 10th NFL season?

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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