Okay Bears fans — this is going to be one of those "don’t shoot the messenger" stories.
There is a strong possibility that Charles Tillman, one of the greatest players at his position during his career, won't be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In fact, I'd say he faces an uphill climb to Canton.
Like Will Hunting before him, it’s not his fault. There’s a rhyme and reason to the Hall that does not always end with the players most deserving of induction getting a bust.
I personally think Tillman’s career is Hall of Fame-worthy. I also understand how the Hall of Fame works. If Peanut does not get enshrined, one or more of the following five factors will be the reason.
Lack of Pro Bowls
Cornerback is one of the trickiest positions to evaluate in a historical context, because a corner’s excellence can manifest itself through the non-accumulation of the position’s best known statistic: interceptions.
There is no scenario in which a running back gaining minimal yards can be deemed impressive on an individual basis, but when a corner is such a threat that QBs don’t throw toward him, that is the ultimate compliment.
Meaning traditionally, the other biggest statistic for distinguishing cornerbacks is Pro Bowl berths. And there’s Peanut’s first problem — he only went twice.
The lowest Pro Bowl count for any of the 14 CBs elected to the Hall of Fame without aid of the senior committee is five, held by Jimmy Johnson of the 49ers, Mel Blount of the Steelers, and Herb Adderley of the Packers and Cowboys. Peanut did not make his first Pro Bowl until his 9th season, and then became an All Pro in year 10, which was the first year that anyone legitimately discussed him as a possible Hall of Famer.
The problem here is that Tillman regularly got jobbed. He could have been a Pro Bowler every year from 2006 to 2010. If he grabbed even two of those to up his total to four, the conversation around his career would have been markedly different.
Why didn’t he go to the Pro Bowl those seasons? For a number of reasons we’ll get to shortly, but lack of interceptions was a big one. Peanut was the definition of dependable and, until 2012, the antithesis of flashy. Tillman’s career high in interceptions was 5, which he hit three times. Stripped of any other context, that’s an unexciting total. From 2005 to 2010 — the first six years of his eight-year prime — Tillman was repeatedly knocked out of the Pro Bowl by players having career years.
Look at the list of guys in that period who beat Tillman (38 career INTs) for a Pro Bowl slot — guys about whom we are definitely NOT discussing as possible Hall of Famers:
- Nathan Vasher, 2005, 8 interceptions (20 career interceptions)
- DeAngelo Hall, 2005 and 2010, 6 (43)
- Lito Sheppard, 2006, 6 (19)
- Marcus Trufant, 2007, 7 (21)
- Dominique Rogers-Cromartie, 2009, 6 (24)
The same holds for players who beat Tillman for All Pro status:
- Deltha O’Neal, 2005, 10 (34)
- Rashean Mathis, 2006, 8 (32)
- Antonio Cromartie, 2007, 10 (31)
- Nnamdi Asomugha, 2008, 1 (15)
- Cortland Finnegan, 2008, 5 (18)
- Asomugha, 2010, 0
The two players who pop off this list, at least to me, are Hall and Asomugha. Hall is the only one here who ended with more career interceptions than Tillman — 43 to Tillman’s 38. But Hall’s Pro Bowl credentials were always one dimensional compared to Tillman. Hall beat Tillman for a 2010 Pro Bowl slot, for instance, on the strength of six picks to Tillman’s five, and that was the season when Hall had four of his six picks in one game (against Cutler and the Bears, of all teams), giving him a week where he was the talk of the league, similar to the bump Tillman received in 2012 after the Titans game. (More on that later.)
Then there’s Asomugha, whose eight picks in 2006 put him on the map. He didn’t make the Pro Bowl that year but soon became one of the standard bearers at the position. He intercepted three passes total over the next four seasons as perhaps the league’s premier "shutdown corner," had two underwhelming seasons with the Eagles, played only three games with the 49ers in 2013, was waived and then retired.
Tillman has a much better HOF case than Asomugha, even though there was a period where Asomugha was considered the class of the position.
An unfavorable narrative
The Asomugha comparison epitomizes Tillman’s uphill road to the Hall — we spent so much time thinking about Asomugha’s Hall creds from 2007 to 2010 because of a single stat (eight picks in 2006) and a single trait ("shutdown corner") that we missed a more nuanced view of Tillman’s excellence.
And that's a huge part of becoming a Hall of Famer: the amount of time we spend thinking about you as a Hall of Famer. That’s why Cris Carter’s HOF wait from his retirement in 2002 to his induction in 2013 was simultaneously so agonizing and baffling — Carter started feeling like a Hall of Famer in either 1994 or 1995, depending on your opinion, and kept that feeling through 2000.
This is all about perception, and if you really want to see the impact, look at the early season comparisons of Tillman and teammate Nathan Vasher.
After Tillman’s strong rookie year, capped off by The Randy Moss Pick, he struggled in Year 2 and missed eight games to injury. Meanwhile, the new rookie Vasher captivated Bears fans with his five picks in 2004, including a game-clinching 71-yard pick six in a nationally televised game on Halloween against the Niners.
The next year, Vasher had a true breakout season: eight picks, an 108-yard field goal return touchdown that was at the time the longest play in NFL history, a game-clinching pick six against the Packers, and a Pro Bowl berth.
Let me be clear: I love Nate Vasher! Great player for this team and a good dude. His performance in 2004 and 2005 was not a fluke. And I respect Asomugha and don't mean to begrudge him his own excellence. But both men are great examples of the limitations to evaluating corners strictly by interceptions (or even targets) and the ways in which those evaluations can prevent a player with a valuable yet atypical skill set getting the spotlight.
Like Troy Vincent with the early 2000s Eagles, Ronde Barber with the early 2000s Buccaneers, or Cortland Finnegan with the 2008 Titans, the perception of Vasher’s performance benefited tremendously due to the context of the brilliant overall defense — and team success — of the 2005 Bears. The eight interceptions bound Vasher to the team success in a way not extended to Tillman in 2005 and 2006.
No knock on either Vasher or Asomugha — just a nature of narrative and perception. And Tillman’s by no means the only corner who suffers in this way. Ever since Deion Sanders recast the definition of excellence at the cornerback position as the "shutdown corner," guys considered the best at the position have typically fit that mold.
That leaves players whose dominance is multi-faceted — like Tillman, Ty Law, and Ronde Barber — underappreciated and improperly evaluated.
Forced fumbles — not interceptions — and other flaws of evaluation
One of Peanut’s original HOF weaknesses actually became a strength in 2012 when his signature maneuver — forcing fumbles by punching the ball — became a branded move. Two games brought Tillman national recognition for his now famous Peanut Punch:
- Week 6 vs. the Lions, a nationally televised game in which Tillman held Calvin Johnson to three catches for 34 yards despite 11 targets
- Week 8 vs. the Titans, in which Tillman forced four fumbles in a 51-20 Bears romp
Tillman forced an NFL record 10 fumbles in 2012 (tied with Osi Umenyiora in 2010), and his defense against Johnson — the game’s best receiver at the time — included a ball punch in the endzone that broke up a touchdown.
Again, Tillman’s problem here is perception and narrative — the general public did not start thinking about Tillman’s fumble forcing as a Hall-worthy skill until 2012, his final great season.
Tillman also loses points on perception because he was never viewed as a "shutdown" guy, even though he routinely defended the opposition’s best receiver. There’s just no way to quickly encapsulate the totality of some of Tillman’s signature successes, like the Calvin Johnson game, or holding Plaxico Burress to 4 catches on 11 targets with no scores, or just his fearlessness and willingness to compete against Hall of Fame receivers like Randy Moss and Marvin Harrison.
No love for special teams
The biggest barrier to Tillman’s Hall of Fame induction is most likely the same barrier to Devin Hester’s would-be induction (we’ll get to this in a few weeks): a disrespect of special teams.
Peanut is not often thought of as a special teams player because he was not a return man or, ya know, a kicker. But Tillman was a standout performer on this crucial "third" phase of football. Look at Tillman’s blocks on these return touchdowns (click on the year to see the play):
- Vasher, 49ers field goal return, 2005
- Hester, Packers punt return, 2006
- Hester, Giants field goal return, 2006
- Hester, Vikings punt return, 2006
- Hester, Lions punt return, 2011
Remember the famous win over Denver in 2007 when Devin returned a punt and later a kickoff for touchdowns? You might also remember that game for Rex Grossman’s needle-threading pass to Bernard Berrian for a game-tying touchdown on 4th and 3 with under a minute to play in regulation. The Bears won 37-34 in overtime…
…but we never would have gotten to OT had Peanut not blocked a Denver punt in the fourth quarter with the Bears down 34-20.
Tillman was a complete player, not just defensively (as a pass defender AND a tackler AND a scorer) but in special teams as well. It just so happens that the Hall of Fame hasn’t traditionally cared about those traits in corners.
The Hall of Fame just doesn’t love corners, period.
Football may be touted as a game of 53 men, all hands on deck, but the Hall of Fame definitely has its favorite positions, and corner is not one of them. Since 2000, here is the positional breakdown of inductees, removing those getting the nod from the senior committee:
- offensive line: 15
- defensive line: 13
- wide receiver: 11
- quarterback: 8
- linebacker: 8
- running back: 7
- defensive back: 6
- tight end: 2
Of those six DBs, two (Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders) were also outstanding return men, and another two (Ronnie Lott and Aeneas Williams) spent time at safety along with corner. For whatever reason, cornerbacks frequently gets the shaft in the HOF process.
To make matters worse for Tillman, Champ Bailey will be eligible the year before him, and Charles Woodson will be eligible his year. Three big-name safeties — Brian Dawkins, Ed Reed, and Troy Polumalu — also become eligible before Tillman. And two big names — Steve Atwater and John Lynch — failed to get in this year after being named finalists.
Just looking at pure numbers of total big names, Tillman becomes eligible the same year as Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson, and a whole mess of other potential HOFers, as indicated by this nifty SportsCenter tweet.
Voters might decide to treat defensive back the way they did wide receiver this year, in which Marvin Harrison made it but Randy Moss and Terrell Owens did not.
OKAY, HERE’S THE GOOD NEWS (and it involves Curtis Martin)
Tillman has three items in his favor.
Factor #1: He is universally beloved. I’m talking teammates, coaches, opponents, media, and fans. Part of the deluge of "Is Charles Tillman a Hall of Famer?" articles comes from so many people wanting Tillman to make the Hall of Fame because he would be a feel-good story. Everyone wants Tillman in the Hall.
AARON RODGERS, for goodness sake, wants Tillman in the Hall.
Look at how quickly he won over the fans in Carolina and became a full-fledged member of Panthers lore. Fans LOVE him in Charlotte, and his career there lasted 12 games.
Factor #2: Fans and media are just now starting to recognize the ways in which Tillman was ALWAYS worthy of induction, even though we didn’t collectively figure that out until 2012. Among the many breakdowns of Tillman’s credentials, I dig this one from CBS Chicago’s Tim Baffoe.
Factor #3: The impact of the Peanut Punch, which goes beyond Tillman’s production. This is now a defined football skill that can be both taught and game-planned against. Tillman contributed to the art of defense, just like Deion’s shutdown skills, Lawrence Taylor’s pass rush from the linebacker position, or the Deacon Jones head slap.
By the time Peanut is eligible for induction, we will have a much clearer perspective on the way he impacted not just the NFL but all levels of football, another factor that could play in his favor.
The player whose candidacy comes to my mind when I think of Tillman is not a fellow corner, but running back and 2012 inductee Curtis Martin. Like Tillman, Martin was an excellent player throughout his career whose talents were overshadowed by bigger names and flashier play.
Like Tillman, Martin was as respected off the field as he was on it. I’ve never read a negative story about Martin, and his HOF speech was one of the few that affected me.
And like Tillman, Martin received a historic bump when he rolled all of his steady traits into a career year at age 31, when he lead the NFL in rushing. Like Tillman in 2012 — who was also 31 — Martin bagged his first and only All Pro honor not long before retiring, giving Hall of Fame voters a season that allowed them to re-contextualize everything that came before. I know for me at least, Martin's 2004 was the first time I thought, "Ya know what? Curtis Martin is a Hall of Famer."
Will Tillman end up in the gold jacket too? Say this for the man: he’s got a puncher’s chance.
*** JULY 28 UPDATE ***
Along with a tweet from Peanut (see comments), former Packers foe Donald Driver drops in his two cents on Peanut's ball-stripping skills: