“The Greatest Game Ever Played
,” according here to George R.R. Martin, was the 1958 NFL Championship Game. A huge national TV audience sank their nails into their leather armchairs until Johnny Unitas’s underdog Colts pulled out a sudden-death overtime win over the mighty New York Giants.
Baby Boomers were little kids at the time, and the TV-friendly action of pro football caught and held their attention as Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers, Al Davis’s Oakland Raiders and Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys dominated two decades of rapid growth and change.
In 1978, the league entered what’s often called the “modern era.” The NFL had grown to 30 teams, adopted a slate of offense-friendly rules changes, and a 16-game regular-season
that would remain the format until the Biden Administration.
I was born three years later. As a little kid I read every sports-history book I could get my hands on, and watched and read all the football analysis I could. From ESPN to NFL Films, Sports Illustrated to The Sporting News and newspaper writers to game announcers, everyone telling the story of the game made sure I knew how glorious that 1958-to-1978 period had been.
And why wouldn’t they have? It was their story. John Madden, whose voice was on my TV and in my video games, coached the Raiders from ‘69 to '78. His play-by-play partner Pat Summerall had been the kicker for those 1958 Giants–and his offensive coordinator was none other than Vince Lombardi.
A whopping fourteen Hall of Famers played for Lombardi in Green Bay. The Packers made the title game in of Lombardi’s nine seasons as head coach, winning five of them. That’s pretty amazing! But there were only 13 teams in the league at the beginning of that run, and 16 teams at the end of it.
The modern era’s first dynasty, Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers, won three Super Bowls in ten years–all while playing in a 30-team league. But as of right now, they have only seven Hall of Famers to their credit.
Roger Craig, a player I grew up being told was not only one of the best in the business but the template for a coming generation of multi-dimensional feature backs (and he was!), is on the Senior list. Despite four Pro Bowl berths, being named first-team All-Pro, and making the Hall of Fame’s own All-1980s Team, he’s still on the outside looking in. If he’d played for Lombardi, he might not have had to wait at all.
The snubs increase throughout the decades. As writers who covered the postwar greats gave way to writers who grew up idolizing them, and then to those same writers being assisted by Senior Committee consultants who played at the time, it’s hard not to feel like the voters are just a group of old heads sitting around Remembering Some Guys while forty years’s worth of all-timers sit around waiting.
The Marv Levy Bills, who made four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s? Five Hall of Famers. The Tony Dungy Colts, who won double-digit games in every one of Dungy’s seven years there, plus one of their two Super Bowls? Three. The no-doubt greatest dynasty of all time, the Bill Belichick Patriots? Just four Hall of Famers so far across over two decades of dominating a 32-team league, counting mostly-Viking Randy Moss but not still-active quarterback Tom Brady.
As my friend Bryan Frye wrote in 2015
, the doubled number of teams, increased number of players per team, increased national TV coverage and repeatedly expanded playoff fields has created far many more opportunities for players to pen their own indelible moments in the history of the game.
While sportswriters have much less access to the players themselves than they used to–it’s been a long time since they rode the same trains and stayed in the same hotels–their abilities to watch games they weren’t covering, and measure player performance in an objective way, were minimal compared to today. They inducted memorable players from great teams, as opposed to great players worth remembering.
As important as those old-school teams were, it’s beyond ridiculous that like half their starters are in, while THIRTY-FOUR eligible players who earned at least three First-Team All-Pro nominations since I was born are out.
But as Bryan reminded me on Twitter
, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a physical building, a museum that just received the highest level of American museum accreditation. Though it’s expanded several times since being built in 1963, there are real limitations on how big it can get–and real questions about how relevant it would be if it expanded to honor the same proportion of today’s players as yesterday’s.
As with so many mid-20th-century institutions, the Hall of Fame has to decide whether to honor its traditions or its values. Will it keep being the Hall of Sixties and Seventies, or change to reflect the changed nature of the game? Besides inducting more than five active candidates a year, I’d love to see the Senior Committee do one big last class of pre-1978 inductions: Everyone deserving still left gets in, and then we stop adding pages to that chapter of history.
I think it’s on today’s NFL analysts to push for change. More modern players need to be let in, more greats need to be actively celebrated instead of bronzed and forgotten, and we need to keep talking about what qualifies a person for enshrinement and why. When we “tell the story of the game,” to make sure we’re grounded in history, able to distinguish between (and adjust for) eras, and insist that there’s a whole lifetime of football worth remembering that was played in between the peak of Bart Starr’s career and the twilight of Aaron Rodgers’s.