A couple weeks ago during the Bears Monday Night game against the Dallas Cowboys, ESPN color man and noted optimist Jon Gruden casually mentioned the sure fire Hall Of Famers on the Chicago Bears defense. He brought up defensive end Julius Peppers, who was named to the NFL All Decade Team for the 2000s, and has been a disruptive force on the defensive line since being drafted in 2002. He's still playing at the top of his game, and I believe he'll be a lock.
He also pointed to mike backer Brian Urlacher, who has been the face of the franchise for over a decade, with 8 Pro Bowls under his belt. I'll admit I was on the fence about Urlacher until a couple years ago, but now there's not a doubt in my mind. When I think of a Hall Of Fame player, I think of a player that is one of the very best at his position for a decade. Coming back from his 2009 injury with 2 more Pro Bowls cemented his Hall credentials in my opinion. He's another lock.
The third name that Gruden so flippantly dropped was weakside linebacker Lance Briggs. Lance Briggs?
The Tuesday following that Monday Nighter saw this topic kicked around the water cooler at my job from department to department. The debate prompted a few calls from my "football guy" to weigh in on Briggs and the Hall. Yesterday on Chicago's 670 The Score the topic was broached, and I also took place in a lengthy discussion via Facebook.
I never seriously thought about Briggs as a Hall of Famer until that night, but now it makes perfect sense. I don't see it as an obvious slam dunk like Gruden does, but I think another year or two from Briggs playing the way he plays, and they couldn't make a valid case to keep him out. Going back to what I look at first, a decade of being on top, and you could argue that he's been the best 4-3 OLB in the game, highlighted by his 7 straight Pro Bowls. It already looks like as though an 8th is on the horizon, in this, his 10th year in the NFL.
But there still does seem like there's a split on his worthiness, with the three main points of his detractors being; One, he's a system player. Two, that he's played next to Urlacher his entire career. And three, that he isn't picking up the sacks. I say poppycock to all three.
Lance Briggs is a system player and so what. He's a perfect fit for the Tampa 2 as a weakside linebacker, but that shouldn't be held against him. He still has to go out there and do his job, and week in and week out he's doing his job at an elite level. In 10 years he's only missed 4 games, and he's started 142 of the 145 games he's played in.
He's one of the better coverage LBs in the game today, with 15 interceptions in his career, and no linebacker has more than Briggs' 5 interceptions returned for touchdowns in the last 10 years. He has also amassed 69 passes defended as a Bear.
Briggs isn't a one trick pony like some LBs in the league. He's good in pass defense, but he's one of the best against the run. Since coming into the NFL, no player has more stuffs than Briggs. A 'stuff' is the less sexy cousin of the 'sack', and is credited when stopping a runner for negative yards.
His speed and instincts always place him around the ball, as his 15 forced fumbles and 7 fumble recoveries can attest. He's also a tackling machine, recording over 100 tackles in all but 2 seasons in his career.
It's true that playing next to Urlacher is good for him, but imagine how inflated his stats would be had he been next to an average player these last 10 years. The company you keep on a football field should never be used as a negative. If that were the case then it's time to get all those Steelers out of the Hall.
The last issue some have is is lack of sacks. Only 11.5 so far, but Briggs isn't an edge rusher. When it's a passing situation, you'll usually find Lance patrolling his zone, not blitzing. The system he plays in doesn't ask him to get to the QB, which leads us back to the whole "system player" thing. But you know what... The Hall Of Fame is full of system players.
The West Coast Offense allowed Hall Of Fame QB Joe Montana to best utilize his skills. Hall Of Fame tackle Gary Zimmerman picked up his last 2 Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl ring in a Zone Blocking system to cement his Hall credentials. New York Giant great Lawrence Taylor was an incredible 3-4 outside linebacker racking up sacks at an alarming rate, but that was his primary job. The system he played in asked him to rush the QB. Rarely did he drop in coverage, rarely was he tasked with back side contain, and he didn't have to maintain gap integrity. His job was see ball, attack ball.
There's another player that played the exact same position as Briggs, and he becomes Hall eligible next year. WCG member JP Hochbaum brought up former 11 time Pro Bowl Buccaneer Derrick Brooks in our Facebook chat, and both Brooks and Briggs played the weakside OLB in the Tampa 2 system. If Brooks picks up solid support in his quest for the Hall, then Briggs will no doubt have his supporters when he's eligible. If neither garners enough votes, then the Hall voters are simply over thinking the process.
If Lance Briggs can add another couple Pro Bowls to his resume, he belongs with the Greats in Canton.