In less than a month, the Pro Football Hall of Fame classes of 2020 and 2021 will add 28 members. While the men inducted will be celebrated, the ceremony will once again inspire discussion of players who have been snubbed over the years. Among the biggest omissions for not only the Minnesota Vikings, but the entire NFL, is former defensive end Jim Marshall.
After playing his rookie year with the Cleveland Browns, Marshall joined the expansion Vikings in 1961. Over the next 19 seasons, Marshall never missed a game, starting a then-record 270 consecutive regular-season games. He also appeared in each of Minnesota’s 19 playoff games over his career and was one of 11 players to play in each of the team’s four Super Bowls.
Despite the Iron Man streak, Marshall has been largely overlooked by the Hall of Fame selection committee since retiring in 1979. The closest he got was being named a finalist in 2004. Unfortunately, he missed the cut. However, a fellow member of the Purple People Eaters, Carl Eller, was finally inducted.
For years, fans have had to rely on old NFL Films highlights and stories from Marshall’s former teammates to form an opinion on his Hall of Fame eligibility. The NFL Network’s Missing Rings series featured three representatives of the 1969 Vikings: head coach Bud Grant, quarterback Joe Kapp, and Marshall. “When God was making defensive ends,” Kapp said, “they made Jim Marshall and then everything followed.”
Bud Grant put Marshall in a leadership position on a team that featured six other Hall of Famers and numerous Pro Bowlers. Grant said that when Marshall arrived, he was trying to preach a message, and what he said resonated with Marshall. From there, Marshall was essentially another coach on the field. The famous “Vikings Formation” during the national anthem, where every player had their toes on the line and helmet under their arm, was concocted by Grant and enforced by Marshall.
These things are all fine and dandy for a standup teammate, but when Marshall stepped onto the field, he produced. Thanks to Pro Football Reference recently releasing sack numbers dating back to 1960, defensive linemen like Marshall finally have a tool to measure how they stacked up against their contemporaries.
Marshall accumulated 130.5 sacks, tied for 22nd all-time on the unofficial list. This is more than Hall of Famers Randy White (111), Elvin Bethea (105), Charles Haley (100.5), Fred Dean (92), and Lee Roy Selmon (78.5). Of the 21 players above Marshall on the all-time list, 14 players are already inducted and four more (Julius Peppers, Terrell Suggs, DeMarcus Ware, and Jared Allen) are almost certain to get in soon.
Some fans actually saw Marshall’s unofficial sack numbers as a deterrent to getting inducted. He only posted four seasons of 10-plus sacks over 20 years. Alan Page, for example, had eight such seasons as a defensive tackle. Eller delivered seven seasons of at least 10 sacks. In fact, after Marshall racked up a career-high 14 sacks in 1969, he never reached double-digits again.
While many will look at his final 10 seasons and believe that it reinforces the decision not to induct him, I believe it proves the opposite. Marshall still piled up 101 sacks in his first 12 seasons. His 101 sacks would be tied for 51st all-time with J.J. Watt and still place him above Bethea, Haley, Dean, and Selmon.
Keep in mind that Marshall only played two seasons in the 16-game era, so his single-season numbers are more significant than meets the eye. He had three seasons where he didn’t crack 10 sacks but would have been well within striking range with two more games. Fans become so enamored with milestones that we sometimes forget to use context with the data we are presented. Ten sacks by Jared Allen? Business as usual. Nine sacks by Jim Marshall in 1962? Disappointing because it isn’t a round number.
Finally, Marshall’s 30 fumble recoveries rank second all-time among non-quarterbacks. He returned one for a touchdown, but it was one other infamous recovery that may have left a stain on his career. In a 1964 game against the San Francisco 49ers, Marshall picked up a loose fumble. Seeing nothing but green grass in front of him, he sprinted forward, believing he was about to score the easiest touchdown of his career. By the time he reached the end zone and chucked the ball into the stands, he knew something was amiss. It was the wrong end zone. Marshall had given the 49ers a safety, and his blunder still lives in NFL infamy. Many believe that the play has left a Leon Lett-like cloud over his otherwise spectacular career.
Every player makes mistakes. It’s how that player responds that defines their career. Many forget the Vikings won that game against San Francisco. Late in the game, Marshall forced a fumble that Eller ran back for a touchdown to seal the victory. He could have hung his head in shame. Instead he iced the game.
In 2008, NFL Network released its Top-10 Players Not In the Hall of Fame list. Jim Marshall was on it. However, in the 13 years since its release, six of the players have been enshrined in Canton. With stats to now back him up, hopefully some more voters’ minds clear up and right their wrong. It’s time that the Hall finally gives the last deserving member of the famed Purple People Eaters defense his due.