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HOF 2010: Rickey Jackson

Posted by Jason Lisk on January 27, 2010

Previous HOF 2010 Bios: John Randle; Roger Craig; Russ Grimm; Steve Tasker; Aeneas Williams; Art Modell; Terrell Davis; Dermontti Dawson; Tim Brown/Cris Carter/Andre Reed; Chris Doleman, Kevin Greene and Charles Haley; Cortez Kennedy; Don Coryell; Ray Guy; Cliff Branch; Shannon Sharpe; Jerry Rice; Richard Dent; Emmitt Smith; Dick LeBeau

He has a most common name, but even then it gets misspelled quite often. Perhaps if he had a catchy nickname or unusual last name, Rickey Jackson's Hall of Fame chances would have materialized before this year. He was no shrinking violet and often spoke his mind, but Jackson's career can be characterized by always being overshadowed--by teammates, contemporaries, and by playing for a franchise that didn't have a whole lot going for it when he arrived.

It began at the University of Pittsburgh. Jackson was a star high school player from Florida, and headed north to Pittsburgh, where he played on some of the most dominant defenses and some of the most talented college teams of all-time. Jackson was in the shadow of his fellow defensive end, Hugh Green, who finished second in the Heisman voting in 1980 as a a defender. When Pitt met South Carolina in the 1980 Gator Bowl, it was supposed to be about Heisman winner George Rogers versus runner-up Hugh Green. Jackson stole the show, making 19 tackles as the Panthers won in a rout, 37-9. He followed up that performance by being selected the MVP of the East-West Shrine game.

Still, after those great performances to end a stellar career for an elite program, Jackson fell to the 2nd round of the draft. He was not only overshadowed by his teammate, but also by the most dynamic linebacker of a generation, Lawrence Taylor. In most years, a player with the eventual career of Rickey Jackson would be the best linebacker from his class, but not in 1981. You could basically write LT's name in at one of the two all-pro spots for the next decade, during both Taylor and Jackson's primes. While LT joined the illustrious history of the New York Giants, Jackson was the first defensive selection of the New Orleans Saints by new coach Bum Phillips for his 3-4 defense. How bad was New Orleans as a franchise when Jackson was drafted? The franchise had been in existence since 1967, but had never made the playoffs, and had never even had a winning season in the fourteen seasons before Jackson was drafted. Jackson made an immediate impact with the Saints, and before the preseason was through, it was clear that Jackson was a playmaker and a steal in the second round. He finished with an unofficial rookie franchise record of 8 sacks in 1981 (the sack became an official statistic the next season, so those 8 are not included in his official career totals). Jackson led the Saints to 7-7 upset of eventual Super Bowl runner up Cincinnati in October of 1981, when he recovered a fumble on the opening drive and spearheaded a defense that held the Bengals to 205 yards of offense.

Still, Jackson toiled in the relative of anonymity of New Orleans early in his career. The Saints rose from the depths to the achieve mediocrity during Phillips' tenure, going 19-22 over a three year span from 1982-1984. During that time, the defense ranked in the top 5 in yards allowed (but lower in points due to the offense continually ranking near the bottom of the league). Jackson was named to his first pro bowl in his third season, and would be selected four consecutive seasons. Despite the Saints having a defense that ranged from average to above average over this time, the only other defensive Pro Bowler was Bruce Clark in 1984. During what we might consider his prime, from ages 25-28, Jackson was the clearly best player on a team without any stars, and made the defensive unit into an overall productive one.

Toward the end of the 1986 season, Jackson stated that he thought the Saints were on the verge of a defensive breakthrough and could turn into a Chicago Bears-type dominant defense. The team was in its first year with head coach Jim Mora, who had previously coached in the USFL with the Philadelphia Stars. Mora had brought with him two linebackers from the USFL, Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson, and the team had also drafted Pat Swilling in 1986. Swilling and Johnson weren't starting full-time yet. When he said it, Jackson's prediction seemed borderline insane. By that time, the Saints were in their twentieth straight non-winning season, and he was suggesting they could be like the Bears defenses that were dominating the league at the time?

The Dome Patrol was born in 1987, and easily ranks as the best group of 3-4 linebackers in the league's history. The funny thing is, again, Rickey Jackson was overshadowed. He is the most likely member of the Dome Patrol to get enshrined in Canton, but if he had actually received more individual honors while playing as a member of the Dome Patrol, his case would be iron-tight. From 1987 to 1991, Jackson was not selected to a single pro bowl. In 1989, he missed the first two games of his career, as a result of a late night car accident in September that was expected to keep him out much longer. He played the remainder of the season with wires in his jaw.

Each of his three linebacker mates, meanwhile, were selected pro bowlers three times over that span. Perhaps he was taken for granted since the others were new and the additional impact they added could be seen. Clearly, he didn't have to do as much and carry the team like he did before 1987. With another outstanding edge rusher in Swilling, he may have had more responsibilities in coverage than before, when he was the pass rushing option. Jackson intimated as much in an interview before the 1991 season, when he groused that pro bowls were based on sacks, and he had slimmed up so he could get back to rushing the passer more. While he didn't make any pro bowls over that five year span, I think you can give him credit for what the group accomplished in terms of honors as a whole. He may not have won an award like the Defensive Player of the Year that Swilling won in 1991, but he should get an assist Swilling's 17 sacks and the DPOY Award, as teams couldn't just gameplan against Swilling.

Jackson returned to the pro bowl at ages 34 and 35, recording 25 sacks over those two seasons. 1992 is notable because every member of the Dome Patrol was selected to the pro bowl. Swilling went to Detroit as a free agent before the 1993 season, and Jackson kept on plugging, while the guy that replaced Swilling, Renaldo Turnbull also made the only pro bowl of his career.

At age 36, Jackson couldn't come to a contract agreement with New Orleans, and then signed a below market deal with the San Fransisco 49ers for a chance to win a Super Bowl ring. It paid off, as Jackson won a ring as starter on the 1994 San Fransisco 49ers. He retired after two seasons in San Fransisco, with 6 pro bowls to his credit, 128 sacks (plus 8 as a rookie), with well over 1,000 tackles, and 227 games played (the only two he missed were after the car accident in 1989). He was never selected as a first team all-pro by the Associated Press, which is likely their oversight and not an indictment of him, considering that a) LT occupied one of those spots for a decade and so their was only one up for grabs, and b) he did make multiple all-pro teams from other selecting groups.

Let's put Jackson's career up against other players who were never selected first team all-pro by the Associated Press and are currently in the Hall of Fame. There were lots of players pre-1950, but this is everyone who started their career since 1950.

position first last pro bowl starter career AV All Pro Other
LB Rickey Jackson 6 15 111 4
QB Troy Aikman 6 12 97 1
DE Elvin Bethea 8 14 89 0
LB Harry Carson 9 13 94 2
QB John Elway 9 16 138 1
RB John Henry Johnson 4 8 58 0
OT Mike McCormack 6 10 80 7
WR Tommy McDonald 6 9 68 3
QB Warren Moon 7 15 119 1
OT Jackie Slater 7 13 93 3
TE Jackie Smith 5 15 77 0
OT Bob St. Clair 5 11 80 5
QB Roger Staubach 6 8 104 0

Elway and Staubach both had Super Bowl MVP's on their resume as well, while Moon was selected as the AP Offensive Player of the Year in 1990. Comparing him to the other non-QB's on the list, Jackson rates very well. He is higher than everyone in AV (and significantly higher than several). He had more seasons where he was named to an all-pro team than everyone but St. Clair and McCormack, two offensive tackles who played the majority of their careers in the 1950's and had more selecting groups naming all-pros than in Jackson's era.

When we compare him to other linebackers using the Approximate Value method, his career total of 155 (which is different from the 111 listed above because it is just the raw sum of every season played, with no peak season weighting) ranks very favorably for induction. He is 9th all-time, and everyone ahead of him is either in the Hall of Fame or will be soon after they become eligible. He ranks ahead of thirteen linebackers already in Canton. Remember also that AV uses AP All Pro Selections as one of the weighing factors, and since he is the anti-Zach Thomas and was not favored by the Associated Press, he is arguably undervalued.

One of the great things about AV is that it identifies players like Jackson who were likely undervalued by things like just looking at pro bowls and all pros. So what is it that AV "sees" about Jackson? When he was on teams that had very few good players, the defense still performed at an above average level and Jackson was recognized as the best player. When he was on teams that had multiple stars on defense, those teams were elite with Jackson in the lineup. A player who seemed to always make the defensive teams he played with better seems to indicate a Hall of Fame talent to me. He was the underappreciated teammate playing opposite of the rare Heisman trophy defensive player runner up in college, and a defensive player of the year in the NFL a decade later. I don't think that was just coincidence. In 2010, he's finally getting recognized as a finalist, and it seems fitting that it is occurring in a year when the franchise he helped change from doormat to respectable NFL franchise is making its first appearance in the Super Bowl. The only thing that should keep him out in 2010 is the fact that three spots are effectively open for several players who have Hall of Fame resumes. He should be in eventually, if not this year.

Chances Rickey Jackson will make the HOF in 2010: Average

Chances Rickey Jackson will make ever the HOF: Very Good

This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 27th, 2010 at 7:30 am and is filed under Approximate Value, HOF, Player articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.