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The Case for Cornelius: When will Bennett make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

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While most agree it’s not a matter of “if” but “when,” the former Crimson Tide linebacker has yet to make it past the semifinalist round for the game’s most prestigious honor

Colts V Bills
Bennett and cohort Bruce Smith formed one of the most feared pass rushing tandems of all time.

When one thinks back to the long and illustrious history of the linebacker position at the University of Alabama, a few names always come to mind. There was the tough and gritty, hard-hitting Lee Roy Jordan, one of Bear’s Boys. There was possibly the greatest ‘backer to play the game at any level in the legendary Derrick Thomas. There is a litany of more recent names from the Saban Era such as Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley, Rolando McClain, and Courtney Upshaw. Some have made their marks on the pro ranks, while others remain works in progress.

But one former Crimson Tide linebacker who distinguished himself not only during his time at Alabama but as a prolific pro defender in the NFL is Bama’s beloved “Biscuit,” Cornelius Bennett. Bennett was easily one of the most heralded linebackers to play at the Capstone, and he parlayed that potential into a dominant career in the NFL which saw him play for a Super Bowl five times with two different teams. Bennett was a fixture on the Buffalo Bills “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” teams of the late ‘80’s and early ‘90s, when the Bills dominated the AFC but just couldn’t make it over the hump to get a Super Bowl ring.

Despite being a dominant player on a dominant team, through 13 years of eligibility for the Pro Hall of Fame, Bennett has never made it beyond the semi-finalist round. Why is that? Could it be that he never won a Super Bowl? Were there just that many more qualified linebackers ahead of him in the pecking order? Do recent successful nominations portend well for Bennett’s chance of eventually making it into the Hall? Let’s take a closer look…

NFL Career stats

Any Alabama fanatic worth his salt knows well the exploits of Bennett in the crimson and white. Had it not been for running mates Derrick Thomas and Keith McCants sharing his era at Alabama, Bennett would have undoubtedly been considered the best linebacker to play for the Tide in the decade of the 1980s. He was larger than life, with iconic moments on his resume as well as a career filled with accolades. The three-time All-American and defender was the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1986, a year in which he also won the Lombardi Award in his swan song season in Tuscaloosa.

In the 1987 NFL Draft, Bennett was one of the most coveted prospects available, easily the best linebacker in a draft full of top-flite linebacking talent. He was drafted with the second pick of the first round by the Indianapolis Colts, making him the highest-drafted Alabama player since Joe Namath was selected 12th. He remains the highest-drafted Alabama defender ever selected. He ultimately never played for the Colts, as the two parties couldn’t come to terms before Bennett was traded to Buffalo in a three-way trade that included the legendary tailback Eric Dickerson.

After arriving in Buffalo, Bennett immediately made an impact. He played primarily at the left outside linebacker spot, where he would spend most of his career (he played inside for one season in Buffalo in 1995). By 1988, Bennett was considered one of the most feared defenders in the league, and it was in that season that he made his first Pro Bowl and earned one of his three All-Pro honors. That season, he recorded a startling 103 tackles with 9.5 sacks, two interceptions, three forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries. It was arguably his best year as a pro, and the performance earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Over the course of his 14-year career (nine seasons with Buffalo, three with Atlanta, and two with Indianapolis), Bennett went on to earn five Pro Bowl selections, and he was named to the All-Pro team on three occasions. His career stats are impressive to say the least: He played in 206 games (204 starts) with seven interceptions (one returned for a TD), 31 forced fumbles, 27 fumble recoveries (which ranks third-best in NFL history), 71.5 sacks, and 1,190 tackles.

While amassing those elite numbers, Bennett played on five Super Bowl teams (all of whom lost the big game, which ties Bennett with former OL Glenn Parker for most lost Super Bowls), played in 21 playoff games (seven times with Buffalo, once with Atlanta, and once with Indy), and won AFC Defensive Player of the Year twice (1988 and 1991). He was also named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-Decade team for the 1990s.

The Case for Biscuit

While those accolades are impressive indeed, the Hall of Fame selection committee doesn’t always look only at the stats posted by a player during his career, or the level of success his team enjoyed. In fact, there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the selection process, with few discernable criteria which guide the decisions regarding nominees.

That said, there is some merit in comparing Bennett’s career with those of others who have similar numbers and success as professional players at the position. From a standpoint of statistics, there are several linebackers whose careers are reasonably like the one enjoyed by Bennett. That list includes:

· Larry Grantham

· Andy Russell

· Lee Roy Jordan

· Dave Robinson

· Takeo Spikes

· Chris Hanburger

· Roy Winston

· Darryl Talley

· Seth Joyner

· LeVon Kirkland

· Joey Porter

· Robert Brazile

· Bryan Cox

· Dexter Coakley

· Chris Spielman

Of that long and illustrious list of peers, only three of those players have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And one of them, Robert Brazile (of Mobile), was only inducted in the Class of 2018. The other two, Robinson and Hanburger, were inducted by the Seniors Committee in 2013 and 2011, respectively...decades after retiring from the game.

How does Bennett’s career compare to those of Hanburger, Robinson, and Brazile? Bear in mind that there are scant tackle and sack stats for Robinson and Hanburger given the nature of defensive record-keeping during the eras in which they played. Those two categories represent two of the primary measurements of the effectiveness of defensive players. That said, here is the story, by the numbers:

· Robinson: 12 seasons (10 with Green Bay, two with Washington), 155 games (132 starts), 27 interceptions (one TD return), 12 fumble recoveries, won three NFL titles and two Super Bowls with Green Bay, 3-time Pro Bowler, 1-time All-Pro, played in 10 playoff games

· Hanburger: 14 seasons (all with Washington), 187 games (177 starts), 19 interceptions (two returned for TDs), 17 fumble recoveries (three returned for TDs), 9-time Pro Bowler, 4-time first-team All-Pro, played in seven playoff games

· Brazile: 10 seasons (all with Houston), 147 games (147 starts), 13 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries, 11 sacks, 7-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro, played in seven playoff games

Reviewing those stats, one can plot trends that seem to encapsulate and separate the players who made it into the Hall of Fame. These three aforementioned players spent the bulk of their careers with the same team, which could indicate loyalty and leadership. They started most of the games in which they played over the course of their careers, which points to durability and resilience. All three played for perennial playoff contenders, which could mean they were critical leaders on teams that excelled. They were all multi-time All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections, which indicates not only did pundits believe them the cream of the crop during their playing years, but fans, members of the media, fellow players, and NFL executives thought them at the top of the class.

In most of these measures, Bennett holds his own, with similar accolades and records of service with the teams for which he played. First, let’s look at his raw stats:

· 14 seasons (nine years with Buffalo, three years with Atlanta, and two years with Indianapolis), 206 games (204 starts), seven interceptions (one returned for a TD), 31 forced fumbles, 27 fumbles recovered (one returned for a TD), 71.5 sacks, and 1,190 tackles. (Bennett’s 27 fumbles recovered ranks third in NFL history.)

While the lack of tackle and sack stats for Hanburger, Robinson, and Brazile makes that point of comparison impossible, Bennett’s other stats dwarf those of his counterparts at linebacker. He was a prolific generator of turnovers, and he had a knack for coming up from the bottom of a pile with the ball. While he didn’t have as many interceptions as some of his peers, much of that has to do with the defenses he played within and the more limited coverage responsibilities he enjoyed.

His accolades match well with the trio of ‘backers with similar careers in the Hall of Fame. Bennett was elected a first-team All-Pro three times, and he was selected for the Pro Bowl five times. He was twice selected as the AFC Defensive Player of the Year (an honor bestowed on none of the other aforementioned players even once), and he played in a whopping 21 playoff games in seven trips to the playoffs (five times with Buffalo, once with Atlanta, and once with Indianapolis). He played on the game’s biggest stage five times, a mark matched only by Robinson (among the aforementioned trio), though unlike Robinson, Bennett never got a Super Bowl ring.

When one looks at the stats of those with careers like Bennett’s who are in the Hall, it’s hard to find a statistical reason that he should be excluded. His numbers match well with those three who are enshrined in Canton. He shares several of the other traits that span the careers of the other three inductees. He spent almost a decade with Buffalo before moving to another team, and he was part of playoff-contending teams at each of his stops. In fact, two of those teams played for Super Bowls. In a 14-year career, Bennett only missed starts in two of the 206 games in which he played, making him one of the most durable linebackers the game has seen in the last half-century. Bennett was a steady fixture in the conversation about post-season accolades through the late 1980s and early 1990s, as evidenced by the multiple honors he received.

Given the favorable comparison between Bennett, Hanburger, Brazile, and Robinson, one has to believe that number 55’s inclusion in Canton is more a matter of “when” than “if.” After all, Robinson and Hanburger both waited decades after retirement to see themselves enshrined in bronze, and Brazile, though he retired in 1984, only recently made it into the Hall in the Class of 2018.

Brazile’s case offers some foresight into Bennett’s, in fact. The former Oiler LB known as Dr. Doom was previously named to the Pro Hall of Fame 1970’s All-Decade Team as a second-teamer, joining Jack Ham, Ted Hendricks, and Bobby Bell. All those men preceded Brazile in their inductions by nearly two decades, but the Hall’s Senior Committee righted that slight by getting Brazile in the most recent class.

Similarly, Bennett was named to the Hall’s 1990’s All-Decade Team as a second-teamer, along with Kevin Greene, Junior Seau, Derrick Thomas, LeVon Kirkland, and Hardy Nickerson. Greene, Seau, and Thomas are all members of the Hall, while Bennett, Kirkland, and Nickerson are still awaiting induction. If past trends bear true, the members of the 90’s All-Decade roster will eventually make it to the Hall, even if the task falls to the Senior Committee to install justice.

After Biscuit was dropped from the roster of finalists once again in the most recent class, Brazile offered Bennett words of consolation. When it was announced Brazile would be inducted, the former Oiler told al.com that he had spoken with Bennett, and to simply be patient.

“Last year at this time, people were asking me if I was deserving, or if I should be in. And I was giving Cornelius the information that I live by: There’s so many deserving football players that’s out there. Luckily, he’s one of them. All I can tell him is to be patient because if he left it on the field, if you did what you had to do on the football field, it will take care of itself. That was my philosophy for years and years…it’s bittersweet at the other end of it. If he can wait and they call him and he gets that knock on the door, he’ll understand what I’m talking about.”

Bennett, to his credit, seems to have a firm handle on the whole patience thing. After all, given the career he assembled in Buffalo, Atlanta, and Indianapolis, it’s only a matter of time before the Hall of Fame comes knocking on his door.

“I know there’s nothing I can do,” Bennett told al.com. “I left everything on the field. I feel as though I’m deserving of it, if you look at my body of work. So Brazile just gave me a piece of advice: Just be patient. It’s going to happen. And when it happens, it’s going to be the right time. So I don’t get discouraged or anything. It’s part of the journey.”

That wait may be longer than some would hope for Bennett, however, as he has seven remaining years of being considered a Modern Era nominee before being reviewed by the Senior Committee. As was the case with Brazile, the path to the Hall may be a long, winding one for the man known affectionately in Alabama as “Biscuit.”

If you want to relive one of Bennett’s most memorable moments in crimson and white, click here. And just because (F)AU, here’s one of many outstanding plays Biscuit made in the Iron Bowl during his career. Here’s a clip of Bennett and fellow “Merchant of Menace” Bruce Smith putting in work. This rather odd clip distills Bennett’s stats with all of the charm of a Cylon (though Bennett played 14, not 15 seasons). And, for your comedic pleasure, feast your ears on “Muscular MC,” a rap project featuring Bennett and Leon Seals.