There are certain mysteries in life we simply cannot explain because they defy logic.
Why does the dentist talk to you when you are under local anesthesia, mouth agape, unable to respond, as he fills a cavity?
Why are Kim, Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian rich and famous for no apparent reason and with no discernible talent?
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Why isn’t Zach Thomas, the all-time great Miami Dolphins linebacker, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
Why hasn’t he even come close?
It makes zero sense. If it doesn’t meet the parameters of travesty or plain injustice, it’s close.
The thought occurred one year ago, again, when teammate Jason Taylor sailed into Canton, Ohio, in his first year of eligibility while his career-long running mate Zach, in his fourth year on the ballot, again failed to advance even to the semifinal round.
And the thought occurred two days ago, again, when former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher was elected for enshrinement as a first-time eligible — Urlacher, whose career so closely mirrored that of Thomas.
It isn’t that I begrudge Taylor, who absolutely deserved the Hall. He’s the greatest defender in Dolphins history, and sacks are sexier than tackles. Sacks are shiny toys to Hall voters; tackles demand a more nuanced appreciation.
I do not begrudge Urlacher his newly minted place in NFL history, either, although I was a bit surprised he was a first-ballot guy.
But the induction of both men begs a reappraisal of Zach Thomas’ career — an appreciation that evidently is egregiously lacking. Thomas, now 44, might still get in someday, might, via a pity nod from the senior selection committee that essentially is safety net and last chance for the men who didn’t get their due when they should have from the main 46-person voting panel. He shouldn’t have to wait that long.
Thomas made seven Pro Bowls to Taylor’s six, by the way, and was first-team All-Pro five times to JT’s three. They were inseparable as essential cogs in those Dolphins defenses, as forever-linked a tandem in club history as the Marks Brothers. Yet only one is blessed by football history while the other is ignored.
Thomas’ and Urlacher’s careers also are so, so close. The respected website pro-football-reference.com has an “approximate value” system that rates a player’s overall career. Based on this, every player has another player listed as most similar. For Urlacher it is Thomas. For Thomas it is Urlacher. Yet one man is a darling of Hall voters and the other gets shunned.
There are 29 linebackers in Canton. Only one had more career tackles than Zach Thomas. It isn’t Urlacher. It is Ray Lewis, who just got elected and might be better than anyone to ever roam the same middle linebacker position Thomas and Urlacher played.
Thomas and Urlacher both had 13-year careers for similarly successful teams. Urlacher made eight Pro Bowls and Thomas seven. Thomas was first-team All-Pro fives times to Urlacher’s four. Both scored four defensive touchdowns. Urlacher’s career approximate-value rating is 150; Thomas’ is 149.
Almost forgot, in a nearly identical number of career games, Thomas had a combined 1,727 tackles and assists. Urlacher had 1,354 — 22 percent fewer. Tackling the other guy is sort of the fundamental point of playing defense, is it not?
They are the same player, apart from the fact the 6-4 Urlacher arrived to expected stardom as a first-round draft pick while the 5-10 Thomas was the little known fifth-round draftee forever fighting for respect. (And still fighting...)
I was speaking with Zach about motivation once and I’ll never forget the story he told, because he was fighting tears to tell it, 20 years later.
In the middle of his rookie training camp in 1996 he showed up at the Dolphins’ preseason luncheon. There were tables of 10, with one player at each table, surrounded by fans.
“I remember seeing the disappointment of the table’s faces when the fans saw me sitting at their table,” he said. “They didn’t think I was a player.”
Zach Thomas was a player, all right.
One of the best ever.
He doesn’t need the validation of Canton to make that true, but it sure would be nice.