Why not Zach. Don’t put a question mark after those three words, please. No. Make it a declarative demanding an exclamation point instead.
Why not Zach Thomas for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
There is little indication the Dolphins’ great middle linebacker will ever get inside the Canton, Ohio, shrine without buying a ticket. In three previous years on the ballot he has yet to even make the cut to the semifinal round, let alone be a finalist. He seems to have been consigned to the Hall of Very Good, but here comes another chance to correct that too-easy misappraisal.
It is time to see Thomas, his career and candidacy, with new eyes.
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Then again, this uphill climb of his is only fitting. He arrived in Miami in 1996 as an underdog, a too-small, too-slow, fifth-round draft pick out of Texas Tech, and he never stopped climbing, never stopped proving himself good enough and better than most.
Dolfans had never heard of Zach Thomas when then-coach Jimmy Johnson selected him. In the middle of his rookie training camp he showed up for the team’s preseason luncheon, an event at which one player sits at every table of 10 surrounded by fans. And, even 20 years later, the memory — the embarrassment — is still on him like a tattoo.
“I remember seeing the disappointment of the table’s faces when the fans saw me sitting at their table,” he told me recently. “They didn’t think I was a player.”
The Hall of Fame’s 2017 nominees were announced last week, and there are 94 names. Thomas is among them, again, and so is his longtime Dolphins running mate, defensive end Jason Taylor — eligible for the first time. The list will be pared to 25 semifinalists in November and then to 16 finalists in January.
There is little doubt (and should be none) that Taylor will sail into Canton, perhaps even as a first-ballot inductee. The case for him is clear. His 139 1/2 sacks rank sixth all-time. He was NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2006. He returned nine of his 29 recovered fumbles for touchdowns, a league record. He spent 13 of his 15 seasons with Miami and (sorry, Nick Buoniconti) had the greatest Dolphins career of any defensive player to wear the uniform.
“If I ever make it to Canton it’d be amazing,” Taylor said. “But if I don’t, I still had the time of my life.”
Voting for the Hall of Fame can be mercurial, inscrutable. For example, Johnson, who drafted both Thomas and Taylor for Miami, was a semifinalist in 2014, a finalist (but not elected) in 2015, and then back to only a semifinalist again in 2016.
The unpredictability of voting is why not even Taylor can be called a guaranteed lock — but also why Thomas still might have an outside shot.
I reached out to Thomas this week to discuss his Hall chances for this column. He was appreciative but declined to talk about it. Why? Because he didn’t want to be perceived as promoting himself or campaigning. Wanted to let his career résumé speak on his behalf. Perfect. That’s him.
Neither Thomas nor Taylor won a Super Bowl and both played on a lot of average Dolphins teams, but they also led the last Fins teams that did anything in the postseason, making five consecutive playoffs together and helping win wild-card games in 1998, ’99 and 2000. This franchise hasn’t won a playoff game since.
As the current team led by new coach Adam Gase tries again in New England on Sunday to move past a decade-plus of mediocrity, Taylor and Thomas represent the club’s most recent good old days.
Both of their career résumés have equal heft, but Taylor’s pops and sizzles in a way Thomas’ does not, because quarterback sacks are sexier than tackles after a 1-yard gain. Taylor played a glamor position on defense; Thomas did the hardhat-and-lunch-pail work.
Mirroring their roles, Taylor is the guy who sashayed on “Dancing With the Stars.” Thomas is the guy who didn’t want to talk about Canton.
Their careers were equally important to Miami, though — brothers-in-law, brothers in arms. Thomas (who played all but one of his 13 seasons for the Fins) retired with 1,100 tackles. No current Hall of Fame linebacker retired with more. And aren’t tackles the very point of defense? Thomas had also had 17 interceptions — four returned for TDs.
Something else: Thomas, in a slightly shorter career, made more Pro Bowls than Taylor (7-6) and was a first-team All-Pro more often (5-3). Both made the NFL’s All-Decade second team for the 2000s.
And this: the respected Pro Football Reference website computes something it calls “weighted career approximate value,” a system that assigns a comparative overall value to careers of all players at all positions since 1960. Taylor’s number is 119. Thomas’ is 118. Dan Marino and briefly-a-Dolphin Junior Seau are the only former Miami players with a larger number. And of the only 42 players rated above Thomas’ 118, 29 already are in Canton and most of the rest will get there.
Peyton Manning was asked prior to the 2013-season Super Bowl what defender caused him the most problems in his career.
“Zach Thomas was one,” began his reply.
Plainly, Hall voters who see Taylor as Canton-worthy need to blink and reevaluate why they don’t feel the same about Thomas. They were peanut butter and jelly, ranking with the Marks Brothers among tandems linked inseparably in franchise history.
I asked Thomas last summer what he sees as his Dolphins legacy.
“That’s hard to put in words,” he said. “Among my teammates, I don’t believe you will have one guy who would say I didn’t put everything on the line. I loved the game and loved the team.”
He paused, eyes glistening.
“That’s something that’s called respect,” he went on. “I think I got that. I get emotional, but that means more to me than anything. That’s legacy to me.”
So is this, and it should happen:
Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas. In the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Together.