Here we are a decade later, and LaDainian Tomlinson is still sprinting past the competition. The 2017 Pro Football Hall of Fame Class will be announced Saturday night, with one guy almost sure to be on the rundown: LT.
Those of you who are products of Oingo Boingo albums and the "San Di-ego Super Chaaaargers" fight song know the original LT as the top-flight player of the '80s, Lawrence Taylor. The historical symmetry between these players is that they posted two of the more dominant seasons in NFL history precisely 20 years apart. Taylor's MVP campaign in 1986 culminated in a Super Bowl, which was the only thing missing from Tomlinson's 2006 season. That year, he led the NFL in rushing, set an NFL record for total touchdowns that still stands and caught 56 balls, to boot. He didn't kick any footballs, but he did throw two for touchdowns on halfback options. It might be the most well-rounded historic season ever.
Tomlinson, who is fifth in career rushing yards, will be one of the five maximum modern-era finalists who receive that special call this weekend. Who will join the 2006 NFL MVP in the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2017? See below.
1) LaDainian Tomlinson, running back: There might be no absolute lock like Brett Favre in the Class of 2017, but I sure can't imagine Tomlinson waits. The guy is fifth all-time in rushing yards, fifth in yards from scrimmage (18,456) and second in rushing touchdowns (145). His company on those leaderboards are all Hall of Famers, and nearly all of them first-ballot (Curtis Martin is an exception). One facet of LT's career that has been overlooked was his 2010 season with the Jets, when he rushed for 914 yards and caught 52 balls, all in part-time duty. Tomlinson could've compiled more stats in that, his 10th season, but he wanted to save himself for the playoffs, with that New York team advancing to the AFC title game. The fact that LT is a good dude doesn't hurt, either.
2) Terrell Davis, running back: While we're discussing running backs, I think this is the year for TD. While he's not the near lock Tomlinson is, Davis was the best running back in pro football in the late 1990s. Anyone who was the premier player at a given position for three straight years should be strongly considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, regardless of length of career. Think Calvin Johnson, who was the wideout in the game from 2011 to '13. When you weigh Davis' achievements in the postseason, where he cruised past 100 yards by the third quarter of a few games, it's clear the Hall of Fame salute should have come three years ago.
3) Kurt Warner, quarterback: Another player who, like Davis, has been downgraded based on a so-called "short window." But the two-time MVP's case is different. Warner competed for over a decade in the league, yet what is so often pointed to is the mid-career lull from 2002 to '06, when a series of injuries and franchise decisions stunted his career. In 2004, the Giants went with Eli Manning when Warner was the better quarterback. The Cardinals did something similar, with Warner taking a backseat to Matt Leinart early in his tenure in Arizona. Finally, Warner's ability and insurmountable want to put him nearly atop the mountain for a second time, as he took the 2008 Cardinals to a Super Bowl as an MVP candidate. He doesn't need that hardware, though, as his MVPs, Super Bowl MVP and one big, fat ring should be enough to earn him a bust.
4) Joe Jacoby, offensive tackle: The darkhorse candidate of 2017. I spoke with several voters who feel Jacoby has as good a chance as anyone this year. Why? Look at the strength of this class, for starters. While the finalist class is solid across the board, how many names jump off the page, à la Brett Favre or Barry Sanders? Right. Thus, the full catalogue of a career is more important than ever. Jacoby was named to enough Pro Bowls (four). More importantly, he and Hall of Famer Russ Grimm anchored the left side of an offensive line that dominated the 1982 playoffs en route to the Redskins' first Lombardi Trophy. They would win two more. Each of those Super Bowl rings came with different quarterbacks. Jacoby was a mammoth protector at 6-foot-7 and 305 pounds, back when that was considered huge. Well, it still is, unless you're on the offensive line. Or an orc.
5) Terrell Owens, wide receiver: The numbers have never been the problem for Owens. He remains second in career receiving yards, third in touchdown receptions and seventh in catches. He was a dominant wide receiver for most of the 2000s. So what's the rub? Canton voters have pointed out that, if Owens was a Hall of Fame player, why were five teams so willing to see him walk? This is a bit unfair, especially counting the Bills (2009) and Bengals (2010) among organizations ready to part ways -- that was at the end of Owens' prolific run. Those who covered T.O. have mentioned how hard he played, even when blocking. Perhaps the most interesting number here, if Owens and the rest of the above players are inducted, will be zero. As in, zero defensive players among Modern Era inductees.
Not this year, but likely 2018 or 2019
John Lynch, safety: If Owens doesn't get inducted, Lynch probably will. The 49ers' newly minted general manager received a ton of publicity this past week, which, in theory, helps his Hall candidacy. The last person to spend his career as a true, pure safety and make it to the Hall was Ken Houston, who hung 'em up in 1980. The idea of no defensive player making the final five is disturbing. That said, the voters don't do re-dos. The final tally is just that, whether they respect defense or not.
Alan Faneca, guard: I felt Faneca had an outside chance to make it last year. Seems like every class has an offensive lineman. With so many equally qualified candidates this year, and with my guess that Jacoby's number is up, it might have to be 2018 for this mauling guard.
Morten Andersen, kicker: The NFL's all-time leading scorer will hear his name called at some point in the near future, of that much I am sure. The old "But he's a kicker ..." argument is tired. The consistency throughout this finalist group will make it hard for Andersen, as it will for Faneca and a lot of qualified folks.
Tony Boselli, offensive tackle: Take the Davis argument from a few paragraphs above and apply it here. Sure, Boselli only played seven years. He was considered the foremost technician at left tackle in the game when active. He made five Pro Bowls, missing only in his rookie year and injury-marred final season.
Brian Dawkins, safety: People who follow the Hall of Fame discussion have heard how difficult the road to Canton is for safeties. Rocks, ditches, potholes ... I'll show myself out. I consider the safety shortage more of an anomaly than anything else. That said, the résumés of Lynch and Dawkins -- and Darren Woodson, for that matter -- can only be overlooked for so long. In fact, if Lynch does get the phone call this year, 2018 very well could be Dawkins' time.
Don Coryell, coach: If there is one name in this entire article that I hope I am wrong about, it's this one. I think it's complete crap that in this day and age of constantly discussing scheme on TV, and with coaching hires, that the late master of the modern passing game (and how to freaking score!) has not had his name called. OK, I'm done. Nope, I'm not done. Don Coryell's bust should've been in Canton years ago.
Jason Taylor, defensive end: This list just gets harder and harder. Is Taylor a Hall of Fame-caliber player? Definitely. Yet, there are all these other names who have been finalists multiple times, and a first-time finalist like Taylor would have to leapfrog many of them. The 2006 Defensive Player of the Year was the great unicorn, an undersized defensive end who could score. Oh, 139.5 sacks aren't bad, either. Plays like the one highlighted in this piece make Taylor unique.
Wait a bit longer ...
For as long -- and as well -- as Kevin Mawae and Isaac Bruce played, they should receive serious consideration. What's relevant here is that both are first-time finalists with a few roadblocks in front of them. Mawae was a brilliant center who toiled for three teams. Getting multiple offensive linemen in one class is difficult enough. A guy like Jacoby, who played his whole career with one organization and won multiple rings, will probably stand out more in the voters' room. Similar issue for Bruce ... Does his name jump off the page as much as that of another wideout who was more famous, and boasts (literally) bigger numbers in all three major categories? What kind of backlash would ensue if Bruce jumped Owens this year?
A note on the senior and contributor finalists
Growing up in Dallas, I watched Jerry Jones get vilified for his firing of Tom Landry. And in the last 20 years, I've seen him get blamed for the failure of the Cowboys to win a Super Bowl since 1995. The three they won? Many give Jimmy Johnson the lion's share of the credit (even though he wasn't even the coach for the last one). Take three guesses as to who had the stones to hire Johnson, and the first two don't count ... Jones was instrumental in television deals and football's economic growth. And whether you like him or not, most fans would love to have an owner who wants to win as bad as him. Jones came along in 1989, right when Paul Tagliabue was named commissioner. Like Jones, Tagliabue was key to the growth of the television side of the business. He also avoided having too many controversies. Pro football ran smoothly during the reserved lawyer's time in office. Much to Tagliabue's credit, he made sure that football continued in New Orleans post-Katrina. One potential question about his candidacy, and a topic Tagliabue has discussed, is the evolution of the concussion issue during his stewardship.
Kenny Easley was the first premier safety I ever saw. He was top-shelf before Ronnie Lott permanently switched to that position in 1986. By that time, Easley had already been named first-team All-Pro three years in a row, made four straight Pro Bowls and earned a Defensive Player of the Year nod. Injuries ultimately derailed his career, but for a time, there was no player any team in the NFL would have rather had supporting the run and playing center field.
One more for the road
If there is one player who should be advocated for -- 10 times over -- it's former linebacker Chuck Howley. You might have heard the name. He remains the only player on a losing Super Bowl team to be named Super Bowl MVP. He was a five-time first-team All-Pro. He was named to those squads before the NFL and AFL merged and afterward, when there was more competition for those honors. He won a Super Bowl ring as a Pro Bowl player at 35 years old. Still waiting.