Patrick Willis

Why Patrick Willis will have a difficult time getting into the Hall of Fame

Patrick Willis Super Bowl Media Day

Patrick Willis was an incredible player from the moment his professional career started. He won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007. He was named a First-Team All-Pro five times. Pro Bowl nods don’t matter all that much based on how many people get in and why, but he was named to that roster in each of his first seven seasons.

After retiring this week, citing foot problems as a major reason, he’s got some roadblocks. And since Dave Flemming called me out for saying Willis wouldn’t make the Hall of Fame, I’m going to go the lazy route and embed my responses to Flemming here.

Here’s that list:

Hall of Fame linebackers

Here’s a slightly larger version of that image, which shows similar players through seasons three-through-eight, as well overall career: 

similar players patrick willis

The statistics

Willis isn’t helped by the position he played, or what he was asked to do.

  • He never led the league in tackles. We all know that tackle numbers can be inflated, but these are things voters look at. (Update No. 1: According to Pro-Football Reference he never led the league in tackles. According to ESPN, he led the league in tackles in 2007 and 2009 … for its part, Pro-Football Reference says tackle numbers are “unofficial”)
  • He was never asked to rush the quarterback all that often (20.5 career sacks). Again, that wasn’t his position so he shouldn’t be dinged for his sack numbers, but the Hall of Fame likes sack artists.
  • He intercepted eight passes in his career.
  • He scored two defensive touchdowns.
  • He only forced 16 fumbles in eight years — not bad, but nothing that’ll jump off the page, either.

Later in his career he was asked to take extremely difficult assignments in coverage, guarding beefy wide receivers masquerading as tight ends. Willis was one of the best coverage linebackers in the game during the midpoint of his career, but only those who watched every single 49ers game would know this. 

Comparisons — modern day

Willis will suffer when placed next to his contemporaries, namely Ray Lewis (who played over twice as many games as Willis and won two Super Bowls) and Brian Urlacher, who played 70 more games. As noted above, both players were named Defensive Player of the Year (Lewis won the honor twice).

Both Lewis and Urlacher were also named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-2000s team, as were Derrick Brooks (in the Hall) and Zach Thomas (Hall-eligible, but hasn’t been voted in). Willis wasn’t a member of that team, although he was at a clear disadvantage considering when his career started. 

Comparisons — past cases

Many have mentioned names like Gale Sayers, Terrell Davis or even Sandy Koufax as players who were known as being either at or near the top at their respective positions and had their careers cut short due to injury. Sayers is a better comparison than Koufax, who won three Cy Youngs, three championships (and was named World Series MVP twice), and one MVP. 

Davis isn’t a comparison at all, as he only played four full seasons. He had 23 touchdowns and over 2,000 rushing yards in his last injury-free season, and two Super Bowls wins, but Davis’ exclusion from the Hall doesn’t necessarily mean Willis will suffer the same fate. 

Like Willis, Sayers was named First-Team All-Pro on five occasions. He also burst onto the scene as a rookie, scoring 22 touchdowns (14 rushing, six receiving, two as a returner). Sayers is also a mythical figure in Chicago and throughout the country, and had his career ripped away when he tore several knee ligaments in his fourth season in a game against the 49ers — he was leading the league with 6.2 yards per carry at the time. Although he led the league in rushing a year later, by all accounts he was never the same and he only played two games in each of the next two seasons. 

Willis is well-known, well-respected and well-liked, but Sayers’ predicament tugged at heartstrings. Part of football is withstanding injury. Only a fool would begrudge Willis for leaving now so he can maintain a normal lifestyle instead of limping throughout the rest of his days, but seven full seasons and leaving due to feet issues isn’t going to register like Sayers’ tragic tale. 


Let’s get one thing clear: I absolutely loved watching Willis play. Who was the best 49er from 2007 on? Willis, no question. Who was the best middle linebacker in the game from 2007-12, as a whole? Willis, no question. 

However, if he’s going to make it to the Hall of Fame — and it’s clear that he hopes that’ll happen, based on the fact that he brought it up at the end of today’s press conference in an “aw shucks, I already feel like a Hall-of-Famer” kind of way — it’s probably going to take a while. He would’ve been a slam dunk first-ballot Hall-of-Famer if he had played three more seasons at a high level. He would’ve had a pretty decent shot, despite retiring now, if the 49ers won Super Bowl XLVII.

His current resume is Hall of Fame-worthy in the hearts and minds of many right now, but I’m not sure enough voters will agree due to longevity. However, as I told Flemming, in several years I could be proven wrong (and part of me hopes that happens). 


Update No. 2: Willis’ comments on the Hall of Fame from today’s press conference:

“And just so you all know, people talk about the Hall of Fame and all that kind of stuff. And just to let you all know, I’m so blessed to be up here today to be able to have this opportunity again. I thank the 49ers and [Director of Communications] Bob [Lange] and them for allowing this, but I honestly feel, and I told my dad this earlier, people talk about the Hall of Fame and all that good kind of stuff and don’t get me wrong, the Hall of Fame to me would be amazing to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. But, there are going to be some people who are going to look at me and already think I’m a Hall of Famer. And the way I went and approached the game, every year I said to myself, if I’m going to be in the Hall of Fame someday then I’ve got to play like it, right. So, if I only just continue to be OK, be OK, be OK, and then all of a sudden my last year, I have an amazing year and now that’s enough to get me to the Hall of Fame, I’m not like that. I want to be continuously great, from the time I come in from the time I end. That’s why it’s important for me to understand what is going on with me now so that I don’t take that away from myself. Because, in my head, I’m already in the Hall of Fame. This today, this closure of this chapter to me feels like a Hall of Fame-type environment to me already. So, if the Hall of Fame is anything more than this and I get to be a part of it, hooray. But if not, this right here has been truly amazing. So, I thank you guys.”

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