The road to the Hall of Fame for Charles Tillman will be long and ultimately may end in disappointment. That isn’t because he wasn’t good enough or didn’t prove it on the field. It’s because Hall of Fame voters are largely the same group that votes for the end-of-season honors like Pro Bowls and All-Pros and members of the media overlooked Tillman for much too long. His signature game that led to the signature move getting an iconic name all happened during his signature season near the end of his career. He established himself as one of the best in the minds of the voters when it was too late to rack up the honors.
Maybe if Charles Tillman was a 1st round pick and came from a power conference school, his pedigree would have focused members of the media on him sooner in his career. Like in 2005 when he intercepted 5 passes, took one to the house, and added 4 forced fumbles to his ledger. Or maybe in 2006 when he was an integral piece of an NFC Championship defense, posting another 5 picks and a defensive score. A Pro Bowl nod in either of those seasons triggers more Pro Bowls as he consistently put up excellent takeaway statistics while showing up in the run game with authority. Simply put, the writers made a mistake by not showering Tillman with more love and appreciation early in his career. As a result, the same people that left him off those lists will largely be responsible for determining if he gets a bronze bust in Canton. Many would need to admit their mistakes and we as humans aren’t always great at that.
A hyper-focus of the media on man-to-man cornerback play in Tillman’s early career seems at least partially to blame. The obsession with one style of play over another simply ignores large swaths of the football ecosystem. The post-season honors conversation is still full of major issues, but with voters exposed to more in-depth analysis, it’s somewhat better now than it was during Tillman’s career. Maybe the modern Twitterverse would have celebrated Tillman’s achievements better, giving him credit for executing his responsibilities in the defense at an extremely high level while adding a new, unique element to the position.
Pro Bowl and All-Pro counting stats are incredibly important to Hall of Fame voters. It basically gets you in the conversation as the voters try to whittle down the list. If you look at the history of players to be enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame with only 2 Pro Bowls, the list is pretty bleak. For those players that ended their playing career in 1960 or later with a similar lack of honors there are only a few that we can look at as similar to Tillman.
Paul Hornung made two Pro Bowls and 2 1st Team All-Pros for the Packers (1986 enshrinee, 20 years after playing career). Hornung won a bunch of championships and an MVP and had the pedigree as the first overall pick in the draft. To be honest, it’s surprising it took him as long as it did to make it.
There are a number of players with less impressive resumes than Hornung but with the argument that they were integral members of championship teams putting them over the top. Bullet Bob Hayes for the Cowboys (3 PB, 2 AP), Dave Robinson for the Packers (3 PB, 1 AP), John Riggins (1 PB, 1 AP) and Art Monk (3 PB, 1 AP) for Washington, and Isaac Bruce (4 PB, 0 AP) for the Rams are all in the Hall despite not racking up post-season honors. Even two pieces of the great ‘85 Bears owe a similar argument to get into the Hall in Jimbo Covert (2 PB, 2 AP) and Richard Dent (4 PB, 1 AP).
There’s really only one player that has a similar lack of post-season honors and made it into the Hall of Fame and interestingly enough, played the same position as Tillman. Dick LeBeau made 3 Pro Bowls and no First Team All Pros for the Lions in the 60s with no championships. LeBeau remained in the minds of football people for years as a great defensive coordinator but he is in the Hall of Fame as a player, not a coach.
Alas, there’s still a pathway albeit slimmer than most Chicago Bears fans would hope it to be. That path is paved with records and the narrative that Charles Tillman changed the way the game is played.
The Signature Move: The Peanut Punch
Very few NFL players are associated with a specific move. Even fewer are blessed with a great name that is synonymous with the player. Only one move uses the player’s nickname as part of the nomenclature.
The Peanut Punch, knocking the ball out of the hands of the ball carrier through the use of a balled fist punched directly onto the football, is Charles Tillman’s signature move and gift to NFL defensive backs. He wasn’t trying to create fumbles by colliding with so much force that it separated the man from the ball. No, he was surgically removing it. Now you have it, now you don’t. But the use of the term Peanut Punch is used every single Sunday when a player uses the technique, keeping Tillman’s name alive.
The Signature Game: 4 Forced Fumbles
Tillman’s signature game against the Titans in 2012 was one of the best games a defender has had in the history of football. He forced four fumbles, a single-game record that is hard to imagine ever getting matched, let alone broken. A record for the ages.
The Signature Season: 10 Forced Fumbles
Tillman co-owns the single-season record with 10 forced fumbles. Building off that signature game against the Titans, Tillman forced another 6 to tie the league record with double digits. There are plenty of defensive backs that play long careers in the NFL and don’t force 10 fumbles in their entire career.
An Outlier: Forced Fumbles for Defensive Back
Tillman is so far out on a chart with his career forced fumbles that he is a statistical outlier. Statistical outliers are good for Hall of Fame cases. It means he was so much better as a skill than everyone else it deserves attention.
He Changed the Game: Attacking Defensive Backs
This one is probably the most interesting. Because voters preferred to focus on man-to-man corners, they ofter ignored Tillman when the time came for praising the best at the position. Tillman played his position with unique effectiveness and brought a takeaway mentality unlike anyone before him. There are corners today that incorporate that play-style as the Peanut Punch is taught to defensive backs around the league. Marlon Humphrey forced eight fumbles in 2020 while his teammate Marcus Peters added four himself. When someone changes the way the game is played that should force voters to go back and evaluate his impact on the game.
I wish Tillman’s 2012 came in 2005 and he could have been rewarded early on in his career with post-season accolades. If you swapped those two seasons, I think Tillman makes at least 5-6 Pro Bowls and 2 1st Team All-Pros and we’re having a very different conversation. As it stands, I think it will be difficult for Tillman to stay on the ballot and will likely need to be put up for consideration by the senior committee. Unfortunately for all of us Peanut fans, that means at least another 15 years before it can happen. Until that time, we need to keep the memory of his greatness alive so that he can one day take his rightful place at 2121 George Halas Drive in Canton, OH.
Do you believe Charles Tillman will make the NFL Hall of Fame? Make your case in the comment below or find me on Twitter @gridironborn.