Kenny Easley was a Hall of Fame player who had a Hall of Fame career. One day he will bust will be on display in Canton, Ohio.
What makes a Hall of Fame player and why hasn't Easley already been inducted?
To be a Hall of Fame player, you have to be great at what you do. Not good, but great. You have to be the best of the best. Easley exceeds this criteria.
Only four safeties since 1974 have been awarded an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award and Easley is one of them.
This award has been consistently given to defensive players on the front seven through the years. It is rare for a defensive back to win it. When it happens, you know it must have been an especially special season.
One great season does not define Hall of Fame credentials or a two-time Pro Bowl safety like Bob Sanders, the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, would be a lock for the Hall of Fame. That isn't going to happen.
However, if you look Easley's seven year credentials, you will see a Hall of Fame player.
1981: AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year
1982: Pro Bowl
1983: AFC Defensive Player of the Year
1984: NFL Defensive Player of the Year
1985: First Team All-Pro
1986: Played in only 10 of 16 games due to knee and ankle injuries
1987: Second Team All-Pro
I wrote a previous article arguing for Hall of Fame admittance for Easley. Essentially, he, Kellen Winslow, and Dwight Stevenson had identical careers at their respective positions in the 1980s. They played a similar number of seasons, total games, All-Pro teams made, Pro Bowl appearances, and each was forced into early retirement. Please feel free to read that argument here.
The only difference between the three is that Winslow and Stevenson are deservedly in the Hall of Fame, whereas Easley is not. This needs to change.
I asked Easley about what should be the criteria for the Hall of Fame and he said, "I look at a Hall of Famer as a game changer. ‘Did this guy change the game when he played?' I know I changed the game when teams started to split the tight end out to the far sidelines because they knew based on our defense, the strong safety would follow. ‘Why did they do this?' They did it to get me away from the action by splitting the tight end out to the far sidelines. They wanted to play ten on ten football. Name another safety in the league whereby they had to do that against him?"
There wasn't another safety in the NFL teams did this against. Easley was it. That is greatness.
The only other possible explanation for Easley not being in the Hall of Fame is the position he played. There are a disproportionate number of safeties in Canton in comparison to most other positions.
I asked Easley about this and he said, "I don't know what the deal is about safeties."
For some reason, safety seems to have been devalued. It's like when Tim Ruskell devalued Steve Hutchinson because he was "just a guard." Not smart.
If you look at the NFL All-Decade First-Teams of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, you will see how the safety position has been almost ignored for unknown reasons. Every first-team defensive lineman, linebacker, and cornerback from these decades are in the Hall of Fame.
Of the six first-team safeties, only two of them are in Canton (Ronnie Lott and Ken Houston). Just as the odds are historically against a safety being named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, so too are the odds against safeties gaining entry into the Hall of Fame.
When Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu retired last season, many people called him a first ballot Hall of Famer. I agree.
In Polamalu's 12-year career (158 games), he finished with 32 interceptions. Easley picked off the same number of passes in only 89 games. He may not have had the long career he planned on, but he certainly made an impact in the years he did play.
It's rare that a player such as Easley could dominate the way he did in run support and still have the flashy interception totals of someone like Ed Reed, who is considered one of the great pick-off machines in NFL history.
If you look at their career statistics, Reed averaged an interception every .37 games and Easley almost matched that by having a pick in every .36 games.
Reed is known for scoring a variety of defensive and special teams touchdowns, including one as a punt returner. Reed returned 30 punts during his career and averaged 6.8 yards. Easley returned 26 punts and averaged 11.6 yards.
Tyler Lockett was named first-team All-Pro kick returner this past season. He averaged 9.47 yards per punt return. Hopefully this gives some context to young Seahawks fans as to how versatile and talented Easley was as a football player.
It is well known that Reed is one of the best big play defensive talents in the history of the game. It's just unfortunate how people have either forgotten or simply don't know better that Easley was one of the greatest talents of his era, too.
Reed and Polamalu are the two premier safeties since the turn of this past century. At strong safety, Polamalu was amazing in coverage and equally fantastic in run support, while Reed was an able tackler who left his mark making big plays.
Easley was a combination of the physical toughness of Polamalu in run support and coverage, yet had an uncanny ability to combine physical intimidation and toughness with the ability to change the game by picking off passes at an elite level like Reed. Easley returned three interceptions for touchdowns in his career (3% of games played), while Reed returned seven interceptions to the end zone (4% of games played).
One aspect of Easley's career that has been underappreciated is the fact that he unselfishly played strong safety for the Seahawks because that's what was best for the team. He was a free safety coming out of UCLA and was a centerfielder at heart.
One of the questions I asked during these interviews was which current Seahawks he most enjoys watching. The answer was Kam Chancellor and Russell Wilson. He stated, "I would have loved to suit it up with Chancellor at strong safety and me at free safety playing back in the 1980s."
Ronnie Lott is generally considered to be the greatest defensive back in NFL history and he has always sung the highest praises for Easley.
The week prior to Super Bowl XLVIII, Lott gushed in praise for how Chancellor was playing at such an elite level. He said, "...there was only one guy that I know that's better and that's Kenny Easley. He was defensive player of the year and best player to play the safety position, ever."
Lott previously referenced Easley in his Hall of Fame speech in 2000 when he said, "And to the players, to the players of this great game, the warriors, the guys who love to hit people. I'm talking about the giants like Dick Butkus. I'm talking about Jack Tatum. Guys like Reggie White, Kenny Easley, and Jack Lambert..."
Lott is considered one of the great hitters too, but admitted that he wasn't better Easley. In addition, Easley averaged more interceptions per game than Lott.
Lott has said, "When I look at Kenny and I look at myself, the only thing that separates us is Kenny didn't get a chance to do it as long. That's the only thing."
Kenny Easley was a great player who did the dirty work, made his teammates better, was someone whom opposing teams had to account for on every snap, and yet he still made more big plays than most. That is the definition of greatness and that is why Easley should be getting his long overdue yellow jacket in the near future.