INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 04: Former Pittsburgh Steeler Jack Butler speaks after being elected into the 2012 Class during the Pro Football Hall of Fame News Conference at the JW Marriott on February 4, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The Pro Football Hall of Fame will induct six players for the class of 2012 on Saturday. Fans should welcome the opportunity to experience the game's roots.
Former NFL defensive end and 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Chris Doleman drew in long a breath and then said exactly what you might expect from a self-described throwback player.
"The game has really changed," Doleman reflected. "I don't like the brand of football coming out of the NFL today. I don't want to see these 50, 60 point games. I want to see good football, a good defense versus a good offense, a chess match."
Doleman played his last snaps more than a decade ago, in 1999, as players like Brett Favre and Kurt Warner pushed the evolution of the game to where it is today, something Doleman compared to the NBA. He spoke to the press on a poorly attended conference call recently, ahead of Saturday's Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Despite his preference for a different era of professional football, Doleman and most of the other six players being inducted this year were part of the game's evolution. The changes to the sport that Doleman and his peers were a part of fueled the NFL's ballooning popularity and profitability. The link and his role in the shaping the contemporary NFL is not lost on the former Viking.
"The NFL is one of the greatest organizations in Amercia," Doleman said. "They certainly know how to make money. My era and the guys who went before created an industry that is really hard to replicate. I'm proud to be a part of that."
More people than ever are watching football these days. All you have to do is pick up that week's Nielsen ratings. Everything from the normal Sunday slate of games to the NFL Draft are by millions of people. Even the Pro Bowl, the least watched NFL broadcast last season, garnered nearly 13 million viewers.
The Hall of Fame induction ceremony is unlikely to pull numbers anywhere close to that. Last year's induction ceremony, one that featured household names Deion Sanders and Marshall Faulk, pulled in one of the event's largest broadcast audience. It was seen by some 516,000 viewers, a 16 percent jump from the year before.
To borrow Doleman's disappointed tone, it really is a shame more fans are not taking advantage of a rare opportunity to connect with the game's rich tradition and proud history.
The prominence of left tackles, like 2012 inductee Willie Roaf, can be partly attributed to Doleman. He recorded two sacks to upset the 49ers in the division round of the 1987 playoffs. That game, legend has it, led to Bill Walsh's revelation of just how important left tackles were.
Roaf, who played for the Saints and the Chiefs, has as much in common with the modern NFL as any player in this year's class. Lanky and athletic, the 11-time Pro Bowler would not be out of place with the offensive tackles being selected in the first round of the NFL draft these days.
Pittsburgh Steelers center Dermontti Dawson, who played from 1988-2000, helped to redefine the center position. Once upon a time, offensive linemen only had to be big, with enough strength to move defenders out of the way for running backs. Relying more on his athleticism and explosiveness rather than sheer mass -- Dawson played at less than 300 pounds -- he was one of the first centers to pull, requiring the center to snap the ball and beat the running back to the corner to lead him into the second level.
Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy was Dawson's counterpart on the other side of the ball. Skilled blockers like Dawson were needed to take on explosive interior pass rushers like Kennedy. He could swallow up the run, but his ability to rush the passer stands out. His 14 sacks in 1992 is a rare feat for contemporary interior linemen. Both Dawson and Kennedy were first-team all-decade players for the 1990s.
Cornerback Jack Butler, another former Steeler, is a product of an era even more bygone than Doleman's. Playing from 1951-1959, thing's were less specialized in Butler's era. He is one of three players in the game's history to have four touchdown receptions and four pick sixes. As Gil Brandt notes, Butler did not even play high school football.
The most well-known of this year's inductee class might also be one of the most throwback player of all. From 1995 through 2005, running back Curtis Martin averaged almost 320 carries per season. In 2004 at age 31, not long before experts started writing the obituary for the do-it-all running back, Martin carried the ball 371 times for 1,697 yards, both career highs. Martin's name can be mentioned in the discussion along with Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith as to who was the game's best and most prolific running back.
Martin has another important connection to this year's Hall of Fame class. He started his career in New England under Bill Parcells, following the coach to the New York Jets in 1998. Parcells was eligible for this year's Hall of Fame class, but did not make the final cut. His exclusion has stirred partisans of all stripes to chime in on the Hall of Fame discussion.
The curtain came up on the 2012 NFL season roughly a week ago as teams opened training camp. Already, judging by the sheer volume of practice coverage, it looks like fan interest is poised to reach a new high. Hall of Fame speeches will not get the same breathless coverage as last week's goal line drills. Instead, these six players offer a break from the second-by-second coverage as well as, perhaps more importantly, the chance to reflect and see the game from a broader historical perspective. Soak it in. You might just be reminded why you enjoy football so much in the first place.