Posted by Neil Paine on January 27, 2011
Joe Namath. Larry Csonka. Lynn Swann. John Riggins. Marcus Allen. Those men aren't the first to pop into most minds when they think of Richard Dent, but that's my implicit association when hit with the question "Richard Dent: Hall of Famer?" All five men capped careers that were squarely "Hall of Very Good" with incredible playoff and/or Super Bowl performances that made them "Hall of Famers." They were the MVPs of Super Bowls III, VIII, X, XVII and XIII, respectively, and without those rings all of them would have had tough times making it to Canton. One day, we might remember the MVPs of Super Bowls XXXII (Terrell Davis) and XL (Hines Ward) the same way, as both of those players are still in the "HOVG" in most people's eyes.
How does this relate to Richard Dent? In the playoffs following the 1985 season, Dent recorded six sacks and five forced fumbles in three playoff games, culminating in being awarded the Super Bowl XX MVP trophy. Dent's fantastic performance isn't as fondly remembered as the men above, as his team's games were never in doubt. Chicago blew out all three opponents en route to being crowned champions; the Bears would score all the points they needed in the first quarter of each game. But while it lacked a dramatic flair, Dent's performance was still impressive. I noted that Terrell Davis set the single-season rushing record (regular and post-season combined) in 1998; well, Dent set the single-season official sack record (regular and post-season combined) in 1985, with 23 sacks. His 1985 season was one of the best in NFL history, as he also chipped in with 12 forced fumbles (regular and post-season, combined), scored a touchdown on an interception return, and was named first-team All-Pro on one of the greatest defenses of all-time.
But defensive players, even more than offensive players, need to be very good for very long. Thirteen players entered the NFL in 1960 or later, played for 10 or fewer seasons, and are now in the Hall of Fame; only two of those, Lee Roy Selmon and Dick Butkus, are defensive players. On offense, you can put make gaudy highlights and put up monster numbers in a short amount of time (Gale Sayers, Earl Campbell, Lynn Swann, Kellen Winslow) and leave an indelible mark on the game. On defense, players are more likely to be recognized for being consistently great over a long period of time, than for having the short peak that some offensive players have.
So one year won't cut it for Dent; unfortunately, 1985 was the only season the Associated Press named him to its first-team All-Pro squad. But he was far from a one-year wonder; in '84 the UPI named him all-conference, the AP named him second-team All-Pro and Pro Football Weekly had him as a first-team All-Pro. In '88 and '90, he was again a second-team All-Pro according to the Associated Press; he was voted first-team all-conference by Pro Football Weekly in 1993. And in '84, '85, '90 and '93, he made the Pro Bowl. Essentially, he has an impressive but not extraordinary slate of post-season honors. So what can Dent backers hang their hats on when they say he is a Hall of Famer?
The Bears had one of the greatest defenses in NFL history during Dent's prime; in '84, '85 and '86, Chicago led the league in yards allowed; in '85, '86 and '88, the Bears were tops in points allowed. From '84 to '88, over a five year span, the Bears ranked in the top two in yards allowed every season, in the top four in points allowed each year, ranked in the top two in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns allowed in each season (leading the league in each metric four times) and ranked in the top three in net yards per attempt allowed. Chicago also ranked in the top three in passing yards and passing touchdowns allowed from '84 to '86, ranked 1st in passing touchdowns allowed in '83, and ranked in the top five in interceptions five of six seasons from '85 to '90. All of this came during Dent's prime. Currently, those Bears have only two defensive players in the Hall of fame. One of them was one of the most obvious choices of any year, first-ballot selection Mike Singletary. The other? Dent's teammate on the defensive line, Dan Hampton. How does Dent's resume stack up against Hampton's?Dent Hampton Seasons 15 12 Games/Started 203/150 157/151 Sacks 137.5 82 (57 official) AV 97 104 Best-4yr-AV 63 68 1AP (A.P.) 1 1 2AP (A.P.) 3 4 Pro Bowls 4 4
Hampton has a small edge in Pro Bowls, AV and peak AV, while Dent played for three more seasons. The biggest difference is in sacks, where Dent blows away Hampton (and most everyone else) in career sacks. Dent ranked in the top three in sacks in three different seasons and is currently sixth on the all-time official sack list. He was the pass rushing terror for perhaps the most terrifying pass rush in league history. So why did Hampton get in before Dent? Let's briefly review Hampton's career.
When the Bears drafted Hampton, they already had Jim Osborne (a thirteen-year mainstay in Chicago) and Alan Page (yes, that one) in the middle, so Hampton played defensive end. After Page retired following the '81 season, Hampton moved inside and excelled in '82, recording nine sacks in nine games. But with DT Steve McMichael getting too good to ignore (and Osborne still around), and DE Al Harris capable of playing OLB, the Bears shifted Hampton back outside for the '83 season. But by '84, Richard Dent was about to explode, and demanded a starting spot; with Osborne just about done, Hampton was moved back inside and made another Pro Bowl.
Hampton took on the role of yo-yo without complaint, playing DE in '81, DT in '82, DE in '83 and DT in '84; it looked like he would become a fixture inside next to McMichael, with Dent and Mike Hartenstine more than handling the DE spots. Only one, humongous, problem: the Bears drafted William Perry in the 1st round of the '85 draft, and by mid-season, the Fridge was commanding one of the inside spots; Hampton would play DE for the next two and a half years. In 1988, Perry would miss most of the season, and Hampton would again play inside. In 1989, the Bears drafted Trace Armstrong, and with Perry, Dent and McMichael all healthy, Hampton started just four games. When McMichael was injured in '91, Hampton started nine games, the last season of his career.
Hampton's versatility was one of the reasons the Bears defense was so dominant; as evidenced above, they moved him around to play wherever they needed him, and he excelled everywhere along the line. A look at the most common alignment of Buddy Ryan's famous 46 defense shows the roles of Hampton and Dent: whether as a DE or DT, Hampton would line up off the outside shoulder of the guard, with a nose tackle on his inside. He'd also have help on his outside, either in the form of Dent or linebacker. In some ways, that makes the "versatility" of switching positions seem less impressive; the DT (as opposed to the NT) and the DE both lined up in the 3 technique in the 46 defense, and had similar responsibilities. The 46 DE and DT were both the outside edge of a incredibly dominant inside rush. And because there was another man outside them, they'd basically be pass rushing like a defensive end, with only one blocker trying to stop them.
But Dent had it even better. With his talent in that scheme, it's easy to see why he led the league in sacks; he'd have Steve McMichael and the Fridge (or Hampton) playing against the center and guard, allowing him to go one-on-one against the LT. And blockers also had to worry about Otis Wilson and Wilber Marshall rushing the passer, too. From '83 to '88, six members of the Bears' front seven would make a Pro Bowl, with only Perry not getting such an honor. Playing in the most innovative defense of the day, with by far the most talented front seven in the league, Dent recorded an awesome 121.5 sacks in 151 games in 10 seasons. Dent also had a reputation as a very good run defender, and the Bears defense (admittedly with several stud run defenders) were always tough against opposing runners. So how come the Associated Press put him on its first-team All-Pro only once in that decade?
Well, Reggie White and Bruce Smith earned ten first-team All-Pros during that decade; Chris Doleman, Clyde Simmons (in '91 and '92, playing under the system installed by Buddy Ryan and coached by Bud Carson) and Howie Long each earned two All-Pros during that time, too. There was an incredible amount of HOF-caliber talent playing defensive end during Dent's prime. In '84, Dent had 17.5 sacks but missed out due to Gastineau's 22 sacks and another dominant season by Howie Long; no DE has ever had more sacks and not been selected by the Associated Press to its first team. In '87, Dent had 12.5 sacks in the 12-game season, but Reggie White and Bruce Smith took those honors. In '90, Dent had a huge season in a bunch of categories but again lost out to White and Smith when the post-season awards were given out. Dent's last big season was '93, but Smith and Neil Smith, the NFL leader in sacks for the 11-5 Chiefs, took top honors from the Associated Press.
Dent's career is tough to grade; on one hand, he's undervalued because he played during the time of some of the best defensive ends in NFL history. On the other, few have ever been placed in a better position to succeed, based on personnel and coaching, than Dent. In fact, the '87 Bears were arguably the greatest collection of front seven talent of the last 60 years. In some ways, he's similar to L.C. Greenwood, a guy who was surrounded by stars, made a bunch of Pro Bowls and a couple of all-pro teams, but isn't in the Hall of Fame. Greenwood's had trouble because there are already four members of the Steel Curtain already in Canton but there are only two Bears that have been bestowed with that honor.
At his best, Dent was the most dominant player in the game, with his 1985 season as Exhibit A. But was he a HOFer? Was he a product of his system? If the Bears had won two or three Super Bowls, which they had the talent to do, he almost certainly would be Cantonized already. And while he had a lot of help around him - perhaps more than any other player in league history - he was also a key part of and the catalyst for some of the best defenses the NFL has ever seen. Dent was the third youngest of the stars in the front seven, but the Bears D was elite before Marshall and Perry became starters. Similarly, in '83, before Dent became a starter, the Bears D had McMichael, Hampton, Wilson, Singletary, Harris, Osborne and Hartenstine, but they were not yet elite; they allowed 301 points and had a defensive SRS rating of only +1.5; the D was even worse in '82. It was Dent's ascension, perhaps along with the normal maturation of the other young starters on defense, that transformed the Bears from solid to outstanding.
Ideally, we would like to conduct a lab experiment; if we put Dent in his prime on an average team, and he put up huge numbers and won awards, then we'd feel confident that he should be in the Hall. Well, we can't exactly do that, but Dent's career wasn't always roses. By 1993, the Bears LBs were Joe Cain, Dante Jones and Vinson Smith. Chris Zorich and a 36-year-old Steve McMichael were the DTs. None of those players (except McMichael) ever made a Pro Bowl. The other DE was Trace Armstrong, who was in the prime of his very solid career. But Dent, at 33-years old, recorded 12.5 sacks and was the only Pro Bowler in the front seven for the 3rd ranked defense in the NFL. He was named first-team All-conference according to Pro Football Weekly. He would leave the Bears after that season and the Bears defense regressed. Dent played a relatively nondescript four seasons for four teams (one of them the Bears) after that. He would get a technical Super Bowl ring with the '94 49ers, but he played in just two games that season.
The early '60s Packers have five defenders in the HOF. The late '60s/early '70s Chiefs and the Super Bowl Steelers of the '70s each had four HOF defenders. The Purple People Eaters have three HOFers, as do several other teams from the '50s, '60s and '70s. The Bears, in '81 with Hampton, Singletary and Page, did too, but Page was in his last season and Singletary his first. While I normally feel that very good players on great units often get inducted into the Hall, it's not as if the '80s Bears are overrepresented in the Hall. Dent's not a slam dunk, and there are a lot of great candidates this season. And you could argue (as Sean Lahman did in his great book) that McMichael was the better defensive lineman. But I wouldn't argue with anyone who votes for Dent for the Hall of Fame.