The Pro Football Hall of Fame is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013. To commemorate this milestone, NFL Media historian Elliot Harrison is picking his Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Team. Selecting from the pool of more than 200 players voted into Canton, Ohio, there are sure to be disagreements. Hit up Elliot at @Harrison_NFL to share your opinion.
Perhaps the best measure of a player -- particularly a defender -- is whether his game could transcend eras. "Night Train" had the skills and strength to lock up with a Raymond Berry ... or a Reggie Wayne. And he brought a physical component that was highlighted in a violent era of pro football. Lane absolutely destroyed receivers with his clothesline tackles, and he had no problem in run support, either. He could bait-and-pick on an out route like Rod Woodson did in 1993, or deliver a message a la Ronnie Lott in 1983. And he was a factor from the first moment he stepped onto an NFL field. As a rookie, he recorded an unfathomable 14 interceptions -- in 12 games! Considering that teams barely threw the ball 20 times per game in 1952, that is truly a remarkable total (and it is still the most interceptions ever by a rookie). The seven-time Pro Bowler set the standard at the position.
Elite. It's a term we hear a lot these days. Tom Brady is elite; Eli Manning says he is. Woodson, though, embodies the word. Here's all you need to know about the DB: He was named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team ... as an active player with just seven seasons under his belt at the time. So the guy was already considered an all-timer before he was even halfway done with his career. Woodson was an offensive threat on defense; he took the ball to the house 12 times off interceptions, with 10 of those coming after he'd already been selected to the league's all-time team. Always considered a team leader, Woodson won a ring in Baltimore, and he also appeared in Super Bowls with Pittsburgh and Oakland. And he sustained a high level of play throughout his career, earning a first-team All-Pro nod with the Raiders at age 37.
Competition at cornerback:Deion Sanders' exclusion from our starting lineup does not diminish his standing as one of the greatest players of all time, regardless of position. "Prime Time" still might be the best cover corner ever, but in the end, Woodson's absurd longevity put him over the top. Mike Haynes was a Pro Bowl-caliber player pretty much from Day 1 in the league, playing the lion's share of his career in stifling man-to-man coverage. One player whose name should be mentioned far more than it is: Mel Renfro. The Cowboys great was very similar to Woodson: Every quarterback completely avoided his side of the field, and he excelled as a kick returner. Renfro spent three seasons playing across from another future HOF corner in Herb Adderley, and QBs constantly tested Adderley's side. That's respect. Mel Blount's size (6-foot-3) and overall skill set made him an any-era player. Lem Barney, Roger Wehrli and Darrell Green all deserve acclaim.
It's tough to compare Lott to anyone in NFL history. There's just no one quite like the guy. He was named first-team All-Pro at cornerback in his rookie season, and he made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons at that position. He played cornerback and safety in 1985, and he even had part of his finger amputated so he could play in the playoffs one week after an injury to his pinkie left his status in doubt. Then the Niners permanently moved him to safety in '86, a spot from which Lott would make six straight Pro Bowls and become the greatest all-around player the position's ever seen. Not a lot of players have made All-Pro at two positions -- or had body parts amputated so they could play in a football game. Perhaps the most ferocious hitter in league history -- at least since Dick Butkus -- Lott put his stamp on many a game. His big hit on Ickey Woods in Super Bowl XXIII has been credited as one of the key plays of the Niners' four Super Bowl wins in the '80s. Most importantly, unlike most other safeties who deliver knockout shots, Lott was not a liability in coverage. For proof, look no further than his 63 career interceptions. All in all, four Super Bowl rings and a track record of excellence at two positions make Lott a no-brainer member of this team.
This was easily the toughest decision on the defensive side of the ball. Tunnell and Jack Christiansen were 1a and 1b at safety in the 1950s, and both were named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-Decade Team. Yet, what Tunnell accomplished in his prime cannot be ignored. In his first 10 seasons in the NFL, he picked off 73 balls. That's over seven per season. Consider: In 2012, the Cowboys and Chiefs had seven interceptions as a team. And Tunnell played at a time when the ground game was still king -- QBs certainly were not chucking the ball all over the field. With pro football being such a field-position game when Tunnell entered the league in 1948, his penchant for giving his offense a short field was a huge factor. He was the ultimate center fielder, dangerous every time he got the ball in his hands (as evidenced by his four pick-sixes and six kick/punt return touchdowns). And, of course, he was a winner. Tunnell was a key defensive player on the 1956 champion Giants, and he finished his career with the 1961 Packers -- Vince Lombardi's first team to win it all.
Competition at safety: So many great safeties have played in the NFL, yet only nine have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Through the first 80-plus years of the league, having a physical safety was an integral part of winning. So often, they were asked to support against the run or deliver a signature blow over the middle. While that part of the game has changed with player-safety rules, there's no ignoring the significance of an impactful safety pre-Y2K. On that note, no safety boasted a better combination of hitting and coverage skills than Lott. His only real competition in that sense is Larry Wilson, whom former Packer great Jerry Kramer once called the best player in football. Wilson, who is widely credited with instituting the safety blitz, intercepted 52 balls over his fabulous career. Christiansen and Ken Houston were true ballhawks -- guys who could roam center field and make teams pay for putting the ball in the air. Christiansen racked up an astounding 46 interceptions in just eight seasons, while Houston took nine picks to the house during his first five seasons in the league.