Will Shields is here to see old friends and find out if he is to receive the greatest honor possible for his old profession and it’s an entirely awkward state. Not just the waiting, either.
He is an old offensive lineman, a species of grand size and strength and undying dedication to anonymity. So the feeling of hearing your Pro Football Hall of Fame case debated is a bit jarring. But it’s more than just that.
Shields is a 12-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro with what finally feels like some momentum for induction in his fourth year as a finalist. But he is also a guard, which makes him part of an overlooked and underappreciated subset of, well, overlooked and underappreciated offensive linemen.
“There’s a problem in getting what you could say is a simple respect level of what you do as an interior lineman,” he says.
Consider some numbers. The Pro Football Hall of Fame website lists 40 offensive linemen in the modern era, which is defined as a majority of a career coming after 1946.
That’s more than any other position. But if the inductees represented how the games are played, using the most traditional lineups — two running backs and two receivers on offense; four linemen and three linebackers on defense — there would be seven more offensive linemen already enshrined.
That’s a difference of almost 20 percent. Among offensive and defensive positions, only defensive backs are more under-represented.
“They say the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Shields says. “Maybe we should start squeaking a little more and then maybe we’ll get more respect for what we do.”
The problem is even bigger for a guard trying to get in when you look at the positions of the men already inducted.
Five are difficult to categorize. Lou Groza was a left tackle and a kicker, for instance, and Chuck Bednarik played center but was better known as a linebacker. Take those five out, and it leaves us with a nearly even split of the remaining 35 — 17 played exclusively or nearly exclusively as tackles, and 18 played exclusively or nearly exclusively as guards or centers.
If the spots were distributed evenly, of course, there would be only 14 tackles, and 21 interior linemen. Even the interior lineman subset leans slightly away from guards, as seven are centers.
Digest all of that and what you see is that Shields is part of an underrepresented subset of one of the Hall’s most underrepresented groups.
That’s a hard climb into the Hall of Fame.
Tackles — specifically left tackles — have always been the stars of the offensive line, but the voters who spoke for this column all said they felt no bias against interior linemen. The specifics of what happens in the voting room are well-kept secrets, but one pointed out that Dermontti Dawson, Russ Grimm and Randall McDaniel were part of the six most recent induction classes.
The voters have a very difficult job singling out a maximum of just five great players each year, a job made even harder when coaches are added. This year, for instance, Shields is not just competing with Junior Seau, Charles Haley, Kurt Warner and Marvin Harrison, but also coaches Jimmy Johnson and Tony Dungy.
That the Hall is short on offensive linemen in general and interior linemen in particular is a function of many things that have nothing to do with any sort of intentional downgrading of interior linemen.
There are no real statistics, for starters, so the induction cases for linemen are built around honors like Pro Bowls (which are increasingly watered down) and All-Pro selections, as well as anecdotal testimony from peer players and coaches.
Whether it’s conscious or not, Shields has a few things going against him aside from playing an underappreciated position.
Among his most likely competition for those induction spots is Orlando Pace, a left tackle. Even on his own team, there is an argument that Shields was the Chiefs’ third-best lineman, behind Willie Roaf, who is in the Hall of Fame, and Brian Waters, who will be eligible in 2018. Also, the Chiefs’ lack of playoff success could work against him.
None of that matters, officially, but any of it could be used as a sort of subconscious tie breaker against Shields.
This is all part of the difficult and subjective process of Hall of Fame selection, a hard balance on many different levels, but without being in the room it does appear that Shields’ case is encouraging.
Vince Wilfork, the Patriots’ star defensive lineman, played against Shields and the Chiefs in 2004 and 2005. Those were Wilfork’s first two seasons in the league, and Shields retired after the 2006 season.
But asked this week about Shields, Wilfork leaned back in his chair, his eyes popping wide open and his voice rising.
“What stood out to me was how strong he was, just so strong,” Wilfork says. “I think he deserves to be in it.”
Warren Sapp, the former Buccaneers and Raiders star defensive tackle, was inducted in 2012. He jokes that he is done saying who should and shouldn’t be in — a reference to the controversy he once started by saying Michael Strahan didn’t deserve induction — but calls Shields the fourth-best guard he played against.
McDaniel and Larry Allen (who played every offensive-line position but center) are in the Hall, and Waters will be eligible starting in 2019.
“I played that position and faced a bunch of guards,” Sapp says. “It ain’t easy to pick those guys out.”
Sapp was speaking in broader terms, but those last eight words are true on another level, too.
There is a level of optimism around Shields’ case that hasn’t been matched in recent years. But he still must not only be picked out among other great players, but able to punch through what history says is a reluctance to induct linemen in general and guards specifically.