On Thursday, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced a list of senior and coach/contributor semifinalists for the class of 2022. What’s striking about that list from our very Falcons-centric perch is just how many former Atlanta stars have made that list of 54 men and women who have had outsized impacts on the NFL.
The Falcons’ semifinalists include longtime tackle Mike Kenn, the original franchise #1 overall pick and “Mr. Falcon” Tommy Nobis, the great and perhaps underappreciated returner Billie “White Shoes” Johnson, stellar offensive lineman Chris Hinton, legendary tackle George Kunz, linebacker Clay Matthews Jr., 1998 Super Bowl coach and all-around great Dan Reeves, and former Falcons GM and current team president Rich McKay. Chances are very, very good we see at least one former Falcon go to Canton this year.
While we wait to see who might make it to the next round of consideration, here’s a little bit of information about every worthy candidate. I’m thrilled to see so many Falcons getting their due this year.
In my humble opinion, a man who should already be in Canton. We’ve written about the reasons why many times in an attempt to help push him in to the Hall, but perhaps this will be the year.
In brief, Kenn is one of the better and more durable tackles in NFL history, having played more games for the Falcons than any other player, starting in 17 straight seasons, making the Pro Bowl five times, and being named an All-Pro once.
Kenn didn’t just trot out there at left tackle every week because the Falcons didn’t have any great options, but because he was one of the better tackles in football well into the twilight years of his career. Few tackles have more impressive resumes in league history, and every single one who does is already in Canton. It’s past time for Kenn to join them.
The original top draft choice for the Falcons, Nobis is probably hurt by the same factors Kenn has been: He was a great player on a lousy team, and statistics alone don’t capture his impact. What is true is that Nobis was among the most feared defenders of his generation, with Hall of Famer running back Larry Csonka once remarking that he’d rather face fellow Hall of Famer Dick Butkus than Nobis.
The linebacker dubbed Mr. Falcon was the original franchise great, and as biased as my viewpoint might be, I think he ought to make the Hall as well as Kenn.
Billy “White Shoes” Johnson
If you’re talking about impact on the game, Johnson belongs in the Hall. One of the original great returners, Johnson did the Funky Chicken in the end zone and was known for being one of the first players to celebrate touchdowns in league history, even though the NFL curbed celebrations in the 1980s and muted those celebrations.
It helps that Johnson was also one of the truly great returners of his era, a player whose speed and shiftiness made him absolutely lethal. For the Falcons, he was not just a really good returner but also an option on offense, memorably leading the team in receptions and yards in 1985.
Kenn has the longevity and 17 years—I still can’t get over that—with the Falcons to celebrate. Kunz split his time between Atlanta and the then-Indianapolis Colts, and while he may not have been a lifelong Falcon, he was one of the most decorated offensive linemen of his era and a truly great player.
A seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro, Kunz bulldozed defenders for those shaky early Falcons teams and the Colts over a career that spanned 12 seasons. Listed at a relatively lean (even for the era) 257 pounds, Kunz was nonetheless strong and athletic enough to be a terror throughout his distinguished career.
Also a memorable footnote: He was traded for the Colts’ #1 overall pick, which became Steve Bartkowski.
Another great offensive lineman. Hinton was a seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro just like Kunz. He followed the reverse path Kunz did, going from the Colts to the Falcons and providing a huge boost to that fun 1991 playoff team. Hinton was preposterously great at multiple positions, locking down both tackle and guard at times in a career that spanned 13 seasons.
His memorable footnote: The Colts somehow traded him and Andre Rison to the Falcons for the pick who would become Jeff George, a future Falcon in his own right.
Clay Matthews Jr.
You probably knows Matthews’ son, the former Packers great Clay Matthews III, as well or better than you know Matthews Jr. The longtime Cleveland Brown was nonetheless a truly great linebacker, piling up four Pro Bowl berths, two All-Pro nods, plus nearly 1,600 tackles to go with nearly 70 sacks and 18 interceptions. Matthews remains the oldest player ever to get a sack in NFL history with the Falcons, managing to snag one as a full-time starter for the team at 40 years old in 1995. His career began in 1978.
Unless you’re an extremely young fan, I probably don’t need to introduce you to Reeves. The coach for one of just two Atlanta Falcons Super Bowl berths, Reeves was the legend who helped push that 1998 squad past the juggernaut Minnesota Vikings that year alongside an extremely talented roster keyed by legends like Jamal Anderson and Jessie Tuggle. Reeves continued to coach into the early 2000s, and while he never achieved that success again in Atlanta, he was instrumental to Michael Vick’s early development with the Falcons.
Reeves did win Super Bowls with the Broncos Reeves did not win a Super Bowl with the Broncos as a coach as I originally stated, but did get a ring as an assistant with the Cowboys in 1978 and was a quality coach with the Giants. He also enjoyed a solid eight year career in the NFL with the Cowboys after being picked up as an undrafted free agent and won a ring as a player, as well. He’s a true NFL legend and the most distinguished coach the Falcons have ever had.
This name will stick out like a sore thumb for Falcons fans who are not McKay fans. The younger McKay—his dad John is also nominated—has been around the NFL his entire life and helped key some great Buccaneers team as their general manager before hopping to Atlanta. With the Falcons, he managed things from 2003-2007 and drafted minor Falcons legends like Justin Blalock, Jerious Norwood, and Matt Schaub, in addition to all-time greats like Roddy White and Jonathan Babineaux. Since 2008, he’s served as the team president for the Falcons, largely operating in the background but surfacing as a rumored team power in 2020 when the team moved on from Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn.
McKay also was instrumental in the negotiations for and oversight of both Raymond James Stadium for the Buccaneers and the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and has been on the league’s Competition Committee for 26 years. McKay’s nomination is clearly about his impact on two NFL franchise on and off the field, as well as his major role in helping shape the league over the past three decades.
How many of these men—if any of them—do you think will wind up in Canton in the class of 2022?