The headliner of the Class of 2021, which should be chock-full of big names, Manning owns all the stats you could ever want to read, went to a gazillion Pro Bowls, won Super Bowls ... and on ... and on. Putting all that aside, what should define Manning's career is the manner in which he redefined a position that had already been dissected six ways from Sunday. By the time Manning entered the league in 1998, quarterback was thought to be easily the most important position on the field, and the most intellectual position off it (in terms of football IQ, anyway). Yet, Manning changed not only how quarterbacks performed during the game, but how we viewers absorbed it -- pre-snap. Manning won so many plays two seconds before the ball was ever snapped, it made completing passes as easy as brushing paint after the color has already been picked and the walls taped. I guess instead of typing this blurb I could've simply tossed this factoid out there: five-time MVP winner. Manning's impact on the game: 500 times that.
In some respects, Woodson became a defensive version of Marshall Faulk -- a queen on the chessboard. Like Mike Martz moving Faulk around, creating mismatches wherever he saw fit, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers utilized Woodson's myriad abilities in reverse, all over the formation. Woodson was a mismatch for protection schemes that didn't account for a corner-turned-pass-rusher out of the slot. He could still cover one-on-one when needed deep into his NFL career. And when Woodson closed out his playing days with the Raiders, with whom he started out as an ascending athletic freak, he had morphed into both quality center fielder and locker-room leader. Few defensive backs play 18 years. None looming in Canton's future have 65 picks to their name, either.
Boselli was a left tackle's left tackle, right out of the gate. By Year 2, Boselli had already established himself as the best in the business, and other interested parties began taking notice. Walter Jones, a first-ballot Hall of Famer himself, told me in Canton that he still remembered "the Boselli-Bruce Smith game." Still in college at that point, Jones watched the 1996 wild-card playoff game on the tube with the rest of us junkies as Boselli shut out that season's Defensive Player of the Year (and the NFL's all-time sack leader). Boselli would not only keep it up for the next three years, but he would gradually be regarded as the top technician in the league. "Technician" is a description Jones used, as well. By 2000, Boselli was a Hall of Fame-level player with a body worse for the wear. A shoulder injury ultimately did him in, thus ending a brilliant career after seven seasons. The question for voters remains: Do they want 11 years from a good player or seven years from a dominant player?
As you can see by the tip of the cap to Boselli, not everybody subscribes to the idea that a player must persevere through a 17-year career to earn a bronze bust. Willis certainly didn't, as his eight-year run at linebacker produced more than the requisite honors and respect around the league. Had Willis tacked a few more years on to his resume, they would've served as ancillary notes at best, undue opportunities for punishment at worst. He persevered through several injuries, missing a large chunk of his final campaign. With the dismissal of Jim Harbaugh, perhaps Willis knew the 49ers were soon to lose chunks of games, as well. So he called it quits. In the old days, eight years was deemed a solid career. Now, we expect guys to play forever. Eight seasons, with five as a first-team All-Pro, should be plenty for Willis' candidacy, especially in an uber physical sport. This isn't golf.
Ken Anderson. For years, I tended to avoid the Ken Anderson Hall of Fame conversation. When pondering the premier quarterbacks of the 1970s, my train of thought usually went Staubach-Bradshaw-Stabler-Tarkenton-Griese, or something to that effect. The '80s? Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway, Dan Fouts, then Anderson. But after re-thinking Anderson and doing comparative research, I've seen the stripes ... er, the light. League MVP? Check. Took his team to a Super Bowl? Check. Most notably, Anderson led the NFL in passer rating four times. None of the players to pull that feat off are off Canton's guest list. Anderson's resume is hampered in that the bulk of his career came in the 1970s, yet his most proficient seasons were in the early '80s. Add in my brother's less than eloquent (but on-point) thought: "Remember what division he played in back in the '70s, meaning his face was getting smashed in twice a year? ... that Bengals team revolved around him." The Steelers did it to everybody.
Bobby Beathard. If anyone should incessantly tweet about so much winning, it's Bobby Beathard. Talk about a deserving "contributor." As GM of the Redskins from 1978 to 1988, Beathard helped build three Super Bowl teams for the Redskins, starting with the hire of Joe Gibbs. Washington won it all in 1982, 1987 and 1991 -- with a different starting quarterback each time. Perhaps nothing speaks to the strength of those rosters more than that fun (and relevant) fact. After taking over the Chargers operation in 1990, Beathard collated enough talent to put San Diego in the playoffs in 1992, 1994 and 1995, as well as earn a berth in Super Bowl XXIX. These are merely highlights. Beathard scouted for the 1966 Chiefs, who made Super Bowl I. Maybe we should mention his tenure as director of player personnel for the Dolphins' Super Bowl champion teams from 1972 and 1973, too. Good grief.