Bengals can't get past Hall steps

2-9-02, 1:45 p.m.

Only in the Pro Football Hall of Fame can the present impact the past.

The Canton shrine is a wonderful place, full of history and courage and dignity and all the best things about the game.

But the selection process can sometimes bring out the worst of it, too. Such as bias and envy and ego.

The Hall's procedures are under the gun after this past week's vote in New Orleans in which Bill Parcells and Art Modell were denied induction.

Parcells didn't make it, apparently, because he simply has the audacity to think about coming out of retirement. Never mind that he's taken three different teams to a conference championship game. We know why Modell didn't make it, but so does everyone else now after the beans were spilled from what is supposed to be a secret selection process. Modell will have a difficult time overcoming the resentment in Cleveland spawned by his move of the Browns to Baltimore.

And then there is the case of the Bengals' first Super Bowl team, which exposes the flaws of a well-intentioned process undertaken by hard working and decent men.

Twenty years ago last month, Cincinnati went to Detroit with three players and one coach with legitimate claims to the Hall: quarterback Ken Anderson, cornerback Ken Riley, wide receiver Isaac Curtis, and secondary coach Dick LeBeau.

And they can't even get into the room. Can't even get a foot in the door of the meeting where the 38 selectors choose each year's class. Can't even get in the debate.

Each NFL city is represented by a media member in that town. The panel also has several at-large members.

As one of the selectors left last week's selection meeting in New Orleans, he sniffed, "Curtis has a weak argument. Riley (has an argument) for guys who know football, not the common run of the mill person. LeBeau has a lot of people in front of him."

Never mind that the people who know football should be making the selections for one of the few things in life not run of the mill.

Never mind Riley's 65 career interceptions are fourth best all-time and the three guys who are in front of him are in the Hall.

Never mind that Curtis' career average per catch of 17.1 is longer than the last two receivers elected, which are his Steeler rivals from the '70s and '80s in Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

Never mind that LeBeau's 62 career interceptions are sixth best all-time and are six more than the total of Lem Barney, his Detroit teammate already in the Hall.

"Unfortunately," said Chick Ludwig, Cincinnati's Hall representative, "the way this team has lost for the last 10 years has hurt the older guys. The Bengals are a tough sell now."

And that's what Canton has become and it really is too bad. A sell instead of a song. They invented the league in a car dealership. They don't have to honor it in one.

The Bengals didn't start pushing for Hall recognition until the middle of the 1990s, when Anderson failed on his first couple of appearances in front of the committee.

Now, if a Bengal can't get in with the tireless, energetic Ludwig pushing him, he won't make it to Akron, never mind Canton.

That's how it works. The representative from a player's city has to market him like a bar of soap and then he has to give a William Jennings Bryan oration on his behalf in front of the annual day-before-the-Super Bowl meeting. That's only if

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the candidate has survived the October-November vote of the 38 that cuts the field to 15 finalists.

But is that how it should be? Shouldn't it be a ballot filled out in the privacy of research and conscience?

As the selectors' elder statesman said of the process last week, "It's a little like the salary cap," said Will McDonough of "The Boston Globe." You come up for three or four years and if you don't get in, you disappear. Then you need someone to push you up again."

The old Bengals have not only become a victim of the new Bengals,

but also of the panel's code that allows good players on great teams free access and great players on good teams none at all.

If you were on the '70s Steelers or Raiders or Dolphins, Welcome. The '70s Bengals? Take a hike with Homer Rice.

At least debate it, man.

Stallworth got elected last week with 537 catches for 63 touchdowns. Last year, Swann, his Super Bowl teammate, got in with just 336 catches and 51 touchdowns.

What about Curtis with 416 catches for 53 touchdowns? For 17.1 yards per catch? Stallworth averaged 16.2, and Swann 16.3 At least talk about him. The numbers are more than comparable.

(And how Swann and Stallworth got in over James Lofton's 764 catches and 75 touchdowns and Art Monk's 940 catches and 68 touchdowns is anyone's guess and shows you how people are still intoxicated by that '70s show the Steelers put on.

Is Lofton not in because he spent his career in the media tundras of Green Bay and Buffalo, did most of his work with the mediocre Packers, and had an ugly brush with the law? Wasn't all that citizenship stuff buried with Lawrence Taylor's election? And is Monk not in because he rarely spoke to the media?)

Here is the Bengals' problem. Paul Zimmerman, the noted "Dr. Z," of "Sports Illustrated," who has a lot of influence on the committee, nodded at the meeting room and said, "Look at the people in there. Maybe three percent know about Riley and eight percent know about Curtis."

How about Riley? At least Anderson has made the list of 15 finalists a few times. Riley and Curtis never have. Heck, Riley never made a Pro Bowl, which shows you the small-market bias that Ludwig is fighting has been around longer than Paul Brown.

Dan Hampton, a tackle off the great Bears' defense that dominated the early' 80s and won a Super Bowl, was elected last week.

A nice player. But was he better than Riley, who excelled for 15 seasons in two different eras on five playoff teams?

"It's hard to argue that Ken Riley shouldn't be in," said Jarret Bell, an at-large member from "USA Today." "I have the utmost respect for him. Sometimes, it's just the political machine. There's no question that being on a (Super Bowl) winning team adds to the mystique.'

Larry Felser, who has fought his own battles for the smaller markets from "The Buffalo News," thinks it comes down to exposure.

"They're under publicized players and they haven't really pushed them until lately," Felser said. "There is an emphasis on winning a Super Bowl, but I think guys like Anderson and Riley, definitely, yes. Take a guy like Sonny Jurgensen. If I remember, the starting quarterback in that Super Bowl for Washington was the rag-arm Billy Kilmer."

Many committee members say Anderson should be in. He was the NFL MVP in 1981, he's the only man to win back-to-back NFL passing titles in two different decades, and his passing rating of 81.9 is better than most of the quarterbacks in the Hall.

"Total Football," the NFL's official encyclopedia, rates Anderson as one of the 300 top players in NFL history.

And yet, he's not in. Passed over for guys like the flashier Dan Fouts and Fran Tarkenton and the more charismatic Jurgensen. Not better. But simply more high profile. But is it a Hall of Fame or Hollywood Squares?

Take a guy like Dave Casper, the Raiders tight end from the John Madden days who made it last week. Worthy? No question with 378 catches for 52 touchdowns in 147 games for 13.8 yards per catch.

But how about a guy like former Bengals tight end Rodney Holman? The Bengals feel no one could approach Holman as a blocker, plus he caught 365 balls for 36 touchdowns in 212 games for 13.1 yards per catch.

Holman's numbers aren't as good as Casper's. But it's a career that certainly deserves to come in front of the room with Casper's even if he didn't play for the world-famous John Madden on the big, bad Raiders ensconced in media lore.

Even some committee members are uncomfortable with aspects of the process. The most concern appears to be with the rule that requires at least four people be elected every year. No matter what. That might be good for the economy of Canton each Induction Weekend, but it cheapens each ticket sold to the Hall.

And maybe the process should be open to more than 38 selectors. Maybe more votes in more small markets will level out a playing field dominated by the great teams that have saturated the media.

The Baseball Hall of Fame has many more members and a strict 75- percent rule for induction. There is no debate. Only a ballot. Ed Bouchette of "The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette," votes for both Halls. He says the Baseball vote isn't necessarily the best.

"I don't know if there is a perfect one," Bouchette said. "This way, it allows for guys to be talked about and discussed and voters can be informed. But it can lend itself for back-room politics."

A Hall of Fame should be out in the sunshine. Right there on the steps. Maybe a closed hotel ballroom isn't the best place.

Here is the Bengals' problem. Because he played the bulk of his career more than 25 years ago, LeBeau is now a senior candidate. Which means he comes under the scrutiny of an eight-member committee that chooses one senior player a year for induction. Dr. Z is a huge factor here and he blows off LeBeau in the time it takes to cough.

"There are a lot of guys in front of him," Zimmerman said. "Like Dave Robinson. Like the greatest punter no one has heard of. Tommy Davis. . .I'd like to see it expanded to two old-timers a year instead of one. . .In that case, maybe it would take (LeBeau) seven to eight years."

Robinson was great because of his versatility and his importance to the Green Bay dynasty of the 1960s as one of the league's top linebackers. He should be in, but LeBeau also had the same kind of impact on Detroit's dominating defenses of the 1960s and should be waiting in line next to Robinson, not behind him.

And as for Davis, he was a steady, but not great punter/kicker. He led the NFL in punting once and went to the Pro Bowl twice from 1959-69. He should be standing behind LeBeau, a three-time Pro Bowler during a career in which he set a cornerback record by playing in 171 straight games. LeBeau also contributed as a coach in the 1980s by developing the zone blitz defense.

One man's opinion can be another man's no-brainer.

"What I have to do," Ludwig said, "is just keep hammering these guys and keep presenting the cases."

But should it have to be that way?

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