Commentary

Nobis a Hall-worthy bird

While Deion figures to be first Falcon in, an old Atlanta LB deserves consideration, too

Originally Published: February 16, 2010
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

NobisManny Rubio/US PresswireTommy Nobis (60) did not have many opportunities to cheer during his 11-year Falcons career, but he was one of the best linebackers of his era.
ATLANTA -- During an appearance on ESPN Radio last week, I was asked by "The Pulse" host Doug Gottlieb which modern-day player who currently is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame should be.

Without hesitation, I cited former Chicago Bears defensive end Richard Dent, a six-time finalist for whom I've voted each year of his candidacy. Having now considered my reply for more than the half-second of dead air time to which radio guests are limited, I wouldn't alter that answer.

Despite great respect for the 43 other selectors charged with choosing the annual Hall of Fame class, I remain amazed that Dent still hasn't received the nod. Then again, being part of the selection equation, I'm not about to criticize the verdict of the selectors.

Yet, the post-Super Bowl reflection did spark this thought: Of all the NFL franchises that began play before the 1970 merger season, only one -- the Atlanta Falcons -- doesn't count a single guy with a bronzed bust in Canton.

The election of former New Orleans Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson on Feb. 6, one day before the Saints claimed their first Super Bowl victory, left the Falcons as the last pre-merger team on the Hall of Fame sideline.

Oh, sure, tailback Eric Dickerson and wide receiver Tommy McDonald, both Hall of Fame members, have some Atlanta ties. But those connections are flimsy, to say the least: Longtime Los Angeles Rams standout Dickerson played four games for the Falcons in his final season, '93, and former Philadelphia Eagles star McDonald played 14 contests in 1967.

So who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame from a franchise that has almost as many last-place divisional finishes (13) as nonlosing years (14, not counting the 1982 strike-truncated campaign) in its mostly miserable 44-year history?

How about Tommy Nobis?

[+] EnlargeDeion Sanders
Manny Rubio/US PresswireIn 2011, Deion Sanders is expected to become the first Atlanta Falcon inducted into Canton.

Granted, barring a collective brain cramp by selectors, cornerback Deion Sanders figures to end the ignominious Falcons-less streak next year, his first season of Hall eligibility. There have been four opportunities (three as a modern-day finalist and one as a nominee of the Hall's senior committee) to consider defensive end Claude Humphrey, and he has fallen short every time.

Center Jeff Van Note and tackles Mike Kenn and Chris Hinton seem to fit the nebulous criteria, but none has generated much electricity among the selectors. Defensive end Chris Doleman is often mentioned, but the former Minnesota Vikings star made only a brief appearance with the Falcons, playing just two of his 15 league seasons in their uniform.

But other than the fact that Nobis played on a crummy expansion team -- a franchise that had two winning seasons in his 11-year career -- there isn't much to keep him a Hall of Fame outsider.

Acknowledged as one of the greatest players in University of Texas history, Nobis was the first choice of the then-expansion Falcons in 1966. Because the NFL and AFL had not yet merged, he was also a first-round pick that year of the fledgling league, and there was a tremendous battle for his services. But Nobis chose to test himself against the best and, in so doing, certainly became one of the best defenders of his era, albeit for one of the NFL's worst franchises.

In 11 seasons, he was named five times to the Pro Bowl, was once honored as an All-Pro and was the NFL's defensive rookie of the year in 1966. That season, records indicate, Nobis made 294 tackles in 14 games. OK, so the number is preposterous, given that it would mean a 21-tackle average per game. Tackle totals are hard to gauge in that period, for sure.

But even if Nobis made just half as many stops as those for which media guides credit him, that still would be an unbelievable season. By comparison, the NFL's top tackler this past season, San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis, had 152 in 16 games.

The most dominant middle linebacker of Nobis' era, Dick Butkus of Chicago, was one of the all-time great defenders. Butkus played in a city where he garnered headlines and the NFL had a history. Nobis was burdened with helping write the history, such as it is, of the Falcons.

[+] EnlargeTommy Nobis
AP Photo/John AmisNobis, seen here in 2009, is among several Falcons considered Hall-worthy.

In the eight seasons in which their careers overlapped (1966 to '73), Butkus recorded more interceptions (17 to 10) and fumble recoveries (19 to nine). It's nearly impossible to compare their tackle totals.

In that eight-year period, Butkus was named to seven Pro Bowl squads and Nobis to five. But here's the kicker: During those eight seasons, the well-established Bears and upstart Falcons had the same regular-season record, 39-69-4.

That's notable because one of the primary arguments against Nobis is that he played for a bad team. But former Denver Broncos running back Floyd Little, who labored for one of the worst offenses in NFL history, nonetheless was elected as one of the two class of 2010 nominees of the HOF's senior committee.

There have been movements in Atlanta and his native San Antonio, Texas to have Nobis considered for the Hall of Fame. Still, his résumé has never been considered "in the room," the term employed to describe the debate by the selectors.

According to Joe Horrigan, vice president of communications for the Hall of Fame, Nobis has been among the preliminary nominees five times and has been considered by the senior committee on 10 occasions. But he's never been a finalist.

This is not meant as an endorsement of Nobis nor intended as an initiative on his part, and this humble correspondent won't benefit in any way from forwarding his name.

But the question last week from Doug Gottlieb was a reminder that although Hall of Fame status is stringent and the debate well-researched every year, players fall between the cracks. That's been the case with Tommy Nobis.

Maybe it's time to pull him up from the cracks.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.