Brian Dawkins now knows he is one of 15 finalists for election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017. He is one of only three first-year eligible players on the ballot, joining running back LaDainian Tomlinson and defensive end Jason Taylor. The Philadelphia fans who still revere Dawkins and wear his No. 20 jersey to Lincoln Financial Field celebrated the news.
The actual vote will take place on February 4, the day before Super Bowl LI in Houston, where the new class of enshrinees will be announced. A minimum of four and a maximum of eight new members will earn their tickets to Canton. It is pro football’s highest honor and there is no doubt in my mind that Dawkins deserves it.
Start with the fact that Dawkins is the best safety in Eagles history.
Jerry Norton, Randy Logan and Wes Hopkins all earned trips to the Pro Bowl as did Bill Bradley who was the first player ever to lead the league in interceptions two years in a row (1971-72). Don Burroughs had nine interceptions to help the Eagles win their last world championship in 1960. Joe Scarpati played valiantly through some bleak seasons at Franklin Field. All of them were good players. But none was Dawkins.
Dawkins played 13 seasons with the Eagles and three more with the Denver Broncos. He played 183 regular season games with the Eagles, more than any other position player. He tied the club record with 34 pass interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. He appeared in seven Pro Bowls as an Eagle. Only the great Chuck Bednarik appeared in more with eight. The numbers alone make a strong case for Dawkins as a Hall of Famer, but his impact goes far beyond that.
I would contend Dawkins changed the safety position in today’s NFL. When he came into the league in 1996, safeties were seen primarily as support players, centerfielders who provided deep help in zone coverage. Defenses were not built around safeties. With his extraordinary versatility, Dawkins adjusted that way of thinking. He changed the way personnel people scouted the position and the way coaches taught the position.
Dawkins was the first of a new breed at the safety position. Ed Reed (Baltimore), Troy Polamalu (Pittsburgh) and Bob Sanders (Indianapolis) became All-Pros and impact players on Super Bowl teams by following the path that Dawkins had blazed. If we can assume those players will one day be knocking on the door at Canton, then it stands to reason Dawkins should be there as well. It is one of the strongest arguments for his election: he was a true game-changer. That was his goal from the time he joined the Eagles as a second-round draft pick from Clemson.
“Most people don’t think of the safety position as an important part of the defense,” Dawkins said. “It’s like the safety is the last line of defense and that’s it. I want to redefine the safety position as one to be reckoned with.”
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Dawkins did that with an assist from the late Jim Johnson, defensive coordinator under head coach Andy Reid. Johnson recognized Dawkins’ vast skill set and used him in multiple roles: blitzing, playing man coverage, playing in the box against the run. As teams began utilizing more three- and four-receiver sets, Dawkins was able to match up one on one with slot receivers and even taller targets on the outside. It gave the Eagles an edge other teams did not have.
“Brian could play free safety, strong safety or corner and not miss a beat,” Johnson said. “He’s in the Jerry Rice mold in terms of self-sacrifice. He practices as hard as he plays. He has no regard for his body and just flies around. He does whatever he has to do to make plays.”
“When you play the Eagles, the first thing you have to do is find number 20,” said former Giants quarterback Kerry Collins. “They have an aggressive scheme and good players, but it all revolves around Dawkins. You have to be aware of where he is at all times because he can do so many things. He’s always a threat to make a big play.”
Most Eagles fans view Dawkins’ election to the Hall of Fame as a slam dunk and while it should be, history suggests otherwise. Among all players who spent their entire career at safety as Dawkins did only seven have made it to Canton and most are old-timers: Jack Christiansen (1951-58), Yale Lary (1952-64), Emlen Tunnell (1948-61), Larry Wilson (1960-72), Willie Wood (1960-71), Paul Krause (1964-79) and Ken Houston (1967-80). Mel Renfro, Ronnie Lott and Rod Woodson also are enshrined in Canton, but they started their careers at cornerback before moving to safety.
Clearly, safeties have a tougher time getting into the Hall than players at other positions. Krause, for example, holds the NFL record for career interceptions with 81 yet he waited 20 years before he finally was voted in. There were two safeties on the ballot last year - John Lynch and Steve Atwater - and both were passed over by the voters. It raises the question: Is there a bias against safeties among the Hall’s Board of Selectors? And if so, what does it mean for Brian Dawkins?
As a former voter, I can say there is no bias but when you are in the position of choosing between the finalists and there are quarterbacks, running backs, defensive ends, cornerbacks, etc. on the ballot, their impact outweighs that of the safeties. Remember, there are 15 finalists every year and fewer than half will make it so as a voter you are faced with some very hard choices. But I think with the evolution of safety play in today’s NFL - one that surely involves Dawkins - the voters will view the position differently and perhaps value it more.
If I were still on the Board of Selectors, I’d lobby strongly for Brian Dawkins. He deserves to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for Comcast SportsNet. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here. He is also the author of The New Eagles Encyclopedia.