The Best NFL HOF Class of All Time Debate… Walsh, Noll, and Payton Clinch the Best Class

Read the opposing arguments from Bleacher Fan and Loyal Homer.

This debate almost seems ridiculous. I mean, how can you possibly narrow down the best overall class in the history of the NFL Hall of Fame? Just thinking about this made my head want to explode. So, I dug down deep and determined that history – history not just of the players, but of the development of the league overall – had to play a major role in the best class ever.

Two comments of caution before I give the full blown reasoning for why 1993 blows away the Hall of Fame competition.

The preeminent, in-your-face mantra that sports media hits us all in the face with day in and day out is “what have you done for me lately.” It is precisely that faulty reasoning that entraps my two esteemed competitors today. Recent classes lack the context of history that helps bring accomplishments and overall impact into focus.

My second word of caution when evaluating a great Hall of Fame class? Fight the urge to simply reward good players, or even great players. Sure, they deserve recognition and Hall of Fame status. But, did they do anything to the game of football that left a lasting impact, besides a smattering of personal accomplishments and records? Did they help shape the modern game? Good Hall of Fame classes are comprised of solid players with the right list of accomplishments to warrant a bronze bust. Great classes – the best class ever – must do something over the top, something greater than personal accomplishments.

With those two cautionary comments in mind, I submit only one choice for the best NFL Hall of Fame class ever –1993.

One reason why this class sticks out is that it only had five inductees. Folks, less is more when it comes to Hall of Fame inductees. Quality beats quantity everyday.

This class had boatloads of quality. First, quarterback Dan Fouts, one of the two great quarterbacks the league has ever seen that also failed to win a title. Next was legendary guard Larry Little, one of the greatest stories in the Hall of Fame considering he was undrafted out of Bethune-Cookman College. He was a member of some of the great Dolphins teams of the 1970s as well.

But, while those players are both nice stories, they pale in comparison to the 1993’s final three inductees.

My affection and admiration for Walter Payton has been chronicled before at The Sports Debates. In fact, I believe him to be the greatest running back of all time. He accomplished more in less time – with an unmatched toughness and grace – than any other running back in the history of the league. And, if you got back and look at the stats from a past debate, our most loyal readers overwhelmingly agree with me. Payton changed the perception of the running back position. Payton was tougher and more versatile than his predecessors, and his lasting impact on the game is still felt today. The idea that running backs have to be great pass catchers and great runners is part of our professional football understanding now because of the standard Payton set.

The fourth member of the class is Chuck Noll. If you don’t know much about Noll, learn. Noll rightly gets a great deal of credit for racial integration in the NFL as the head coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He made Joe Gilliam, and African-American, one of the league’s first black starting quarterbacks. Noll put another African-American in at starting running back, a guy named Franco Harris, who won the 1975 Super Bowl MVP. Noll helped shape the career of Tony Dungy, who played for the master coach and also was part of his staff for many years, including a position as a defensive coordinator. Noll was not only a great coach who won four Super Bowls and 209 career games, he left an impressive mark on the game by spearheading its inclusiveness, helping to shape the game we all enjoy today.

The final member of the class is Bill Walsh. Some sports fans know Walsh as the mastermind of the San Francisco 49ers teams that won three Super Bowls. That alone is enough for a Hall of Fame bust. But while Noll’s legacy has faded into the background of a fast evolving modern society, Walsh’s impact on the game is still seen every Sunday by any team running the famed West Coast Offense (yes, it has its own Web site). That’s right – Walsh invented the offense that has confounded defensive coordinators for decades. Well, perhaps he did not invent it. He perfected it, though, as a student of the inventor of modern professional football, Paul Brown.

If that legacy is not enough, consider the coaching tree he has left behind. Twelve current NFL coaches are linked back to Walsh. And the list of 12 current coaches does not include guys like Mike Holmgren, Sam Wyche, Dennis Green, Mike Tice, Brian Billick, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci, and many more. Walsh’s impact on the game is, in many respects, even larger than that of his teacher. Not only did he perfect a now dominant offense and achieve personal accolades, he also trained the majority of minds that are still positively impacting professional football today. No other Hall of Famer has the credentials Walsh has.

While Walsh alone is enough to give the 1993 class the nod of superiority, adding in Noll, Payton along with Fouts and Little makes this the highest quality, most well rounded NFL Hall of Fame class in its history.
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