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Willie Anderson's Hall Of Fame Bid Falls Short, But Momentum Looks To Be On Right Side

Willie Anderson as the Bengals "Ruler of the Jungle" ahead of the Nov. 28, 2021 game at Paul Brown Stadium against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Willie Anderson as the Bengals "Ruler of the Jungle" ahead of the Nov. 28, 2021 game at Paul Brown Stadium against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

LAS VEGAS _ Bengals Ring of Honor member Willie Anderson's third straight trip to the Pro Football Hall of Fame finals ended with another miss here Thursday night when the 2024 class was announced at NFL Honors.

But it was his closest call yet as Hall-of-Famers and voters alike sense the time is near for the player considered the best right tackle in the turn-of-century NFL.

"I think he'll get in at some point," said Bengals Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz this week here at the site of Sunday's Super Bowl between the Chiefs and 49ers.

"There is momentum building for him. There should be momentum building for him."

The list of seven inductees is headlined by two pass rushers in Julius Peppers with a first-ballot nod and Colts playmaker Dwight Freeney and his 125.5 career sacks. It's another brick in Anderson's case anchored by his sterling efforts against the top sackers who lined up over him and not on the traditional left side of the offense.

Also in the class are record-breaking returner Devin Hester, wide receiver Andre Johnson, one of 12 men to have at least 14,000 career yards, and 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, a five-time All-Pro in eight seasons.

Rounding out the class are senior candidates Randy Gradishar, an NFL Defensive Player of the Year who roamed at linebacker for the Orange Crush Broncos, and the Bears' Steve McMichael, whose 95 sacks are the most ever by a nose tackle.

It's the first time in seven years an offensive lineman won't get inducted, extending the drought for a right tackle to 18 years. But indications are Anderson's wait for a bust in the Canton, Ohio shrine could be close to over.

Andrson advanced from the final 15 of modern-era finalists to the top ten for the first time in the balloting of the 50-member selection committee, of which is the Cincinnati selector.

"That 330 number scares me about as much as my blood pressure being high," Anderson said of the phone call from the Canton area code. "It's an emotional ride every year. Guys have done it longer than me. I try to be a good sport about it and be as patient as I can.

"I'm happy for the guys who made it because I know how big of a deal it is … It's a big night for their family, friends and teammates and the people pulling for them. We'll keep waiting and go on to next year."

Also reaching the top ten but not going all the way were tight end touchdown machine Antonio Gates, Greatest Show on Turf wide receiver Torry Holt, prolific edge rusher Jared Allen, and cutting-edge safety Darren Woodson.

"I think Willie Anderson is going to get in. I think it's going to be hard and he's probably going to be frustrated," says NBC's Peter King, an at-large voter. "You've been mentally sort of trained to think the best pass rushers are coming from the defensive right side because they want to get the quarterback on his blind side.

"But that's not necessarily the case anymore. Pass rushers come from everywhere. Smart teams game plan by playing people all over the place. I think your right tackle is equally as important and it's very clear right now this guy was an absolutely dominant player."

So was Munoz, now the chief football relationship officer for the Hall. Regarded as the best left tackle ever whose dominance at the height of the blindside mentality of the 1980s helped force great pass rushers to move around, Munoz sees no sides to the argument and thinks Anderson should be the next right tackle in.

"Willie is the only one who has been worthy. If a guy is worthy, he's worthy," Munoz said. "Had he been at right guard, he would have been worthy."

Another Bengals left tackle who could also join Munoz in Canton, Andrew Whitworth, spent his first two seasons learning under Anderson. Whitworth, eligible in three years, would like to see his mentor already in there if he gets the call.

"Without question," said Amazon Prime's Whitworth as he checked in on Radio Row this week. "A lot of guys who are in the Hall of Fame as linemen that if Willie isn't in, it doesn't make sense. If you look at his era, he was the best right tackle in football. To me, if you're one of the best at what you do, you're a Hall of Famer.

"You see plenty of defensive linemen, plenty of linemen, say that. The best right tackle in his era. So you should be in the Hall of Fame."

Two of them who have endorsed Anderson are in the Hall-of-Fame, end Michael Strahan and tackle Warren Sapp. Strahan is in that group Anderson has blanked in head-to-head matchups, which consists of seven of the top eight sackers of all-time. He never went against Freeney, but Anderson did shut down Peppers, No. 4 on the all-time sack list.

Anderson has also been endorsed by two Hall-of-Famers who competed against him twice a year in both the old AFC Central and AFC North, Ravens exec Ozzie Newsome and former Steelers head coach Bill Cower.

"Willie has been a strong candidate since he became eligible and I just get the sense there is more and more momentum building for him. In my opinion, I think he gets in," says NBC Bay Area's Matt Maiocco, the San Franciso selector. "Now it's just a matter, is it going to next year, the year after, or the year after that? It kind of has to line up, the time has to be right. Who are the other 14 modern guys? I don't think there is any question his time is getting closer."

More proof his time is coming? This was Anderson's 11th year of eligibility while Willis was in his fifth, Johnson and Hester in their third, and Freeney in his second.

"I think it's trending positively," said Howard Balzer of Sirius NFL Radio who has the Rams vote. "Certainly because he made the reduction to ten, that is usually a good sign. We all know, you never know. But I think it's going to happen at some point."

Anderson, 48, isn't going to run and answer the phone.

"I kind of told myself after the first year, when I saw that 330 phone call, I don't want to get too up or too down," Anderson said. "They called me this year and told me I didn't make it and I kind of had the same feeling. You can say you get used to it, but you're always wondering how it's going to be. It dwindles down to 25 to 15 and we sit and wait.

"I wait two seconds every year before I pick up the phone. 'Here it goes,'" Anderson said. "The last three years, I sort of remember how I felt the previous year before I picked it up and I'm going to try and remember that feeling if I ever get in."

The winds are saying he will. But he's just looking at what has been and he's honored.

"There are still so many guys I looked up to in my career and me following those guys and they got to the point were I am and these are guys I looked up to as a young player," Anderson said. "I'm grateful to be in that position."