By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — We’ve all got our verbal tics, our crutches, our worn-out phrases — the things we say more often than we realize. It’s a part of the human experience. And in the case of Vince Wilfork, the phrase most commonly uttered by the big man was a simple one: “Point blank.”
It may have mostly been something he said reflexively, but it also showed that when it came to speaking publicly, Wilfork didn’t like to mince words. He said what he said, and it didn’t need to be repeated. Point blank.
And so, in that spirit, let’s go ahead and get to the point: Vince Wilfork is absolutely a Pro Football Hall of Famer. There should be no doubt.
Of course, given the political nature of the Hall of Fame voting process (Terrell Owens, who’s top-three in receiving yards and touchdowns but is somehow not a Hall of Famer, says hello), nothing can ever be a guarantee. But there is no earthly reason that Wilfork should be kept out of Canton.
Admittedly, it’s a bit of a bold claim to say that a defensive tackle is an absolute lock for the Hall of Fame. After all, there aren’t many full-time defensive tackles from the modern era who have busts in Canton. In a world that’s become increasingly concerned with statistics, it figures to be a difficult journey these days for a player to get enshrined without an eye-popping number of sacks.
Yet Wilfork’s game was never about sacking the quarterback. It was about disrupting everything the opposing offense wanted to do. And to anyone that watched him play, it was not difficult to find a dozen or so instances of Wilfork succeeding in this endeavor every single week.
It certainly helped Wilfork’s case that many people were able to watch him play, as the Patriots from 2004-14 played in prime time anywhere between four and six times per season. Playing in four Super Bowls and winning two of them also helps brighten the spotlight.
While certain plays were obvious to anyone watching — like his interceptions against Oakland and San Diego, as well as his punishing hit vs. Buffalo — adept commentators would point out several plays per game where Wilfork’s surge in the middle of the line allowed the Patriots to make a defensive stop.
For myself, I’ve always written a Monday morning collection of “leftover thoughts,” and Wilfork’s impact managed to make an appearance in nearly every single edition. I’ve gone searching back through some old columns to find some instances of these plays.
Here’s Wilfork against the Texans in 2012 — the famed “Letterman Jacket Game” — busting through Pro Bowl/All-Pro tackle Duane Brown en route to making a tackle in the backfield.
Wilfork had three tackles (two tackles for a loss), a sack, a forced fumble, and a pass defensed in that game. He was dominant. After that game, I wrote this:
With the Texans on the New England 23-yard line on first down, Wilfork shed his block, shuffled to his right and perfectly wrapped up Arian Foster with a textbook form tackle at the line. Wilfork weighs more than 325 pounds, and Foster is one of the game’s most elusive backs, but that didn’t matter on that play.
Then, on the final offensive play of the first quarter, Wilfork broke through the line and was essentially tackled on his path to Schaub. Wilfork still managed to put his arm on the football and knock it free from the quarterback’s grip, all while falling to the turf, setting up Houston with a not-so-manageable fourth-and-32 from their own 19.
It was just one example of what Wilfork could do.
Here’s another, from the rematch with the Texans in the playoffs that same season:
First-and-10 from the Patriots’ 49-yard line in the middle of the first quarter. Wilfork bullies left guard Wade Smith into the backfield before violently throwing Smith aside. Wilfork then wrapped up Foster for a loss of a yard.
First-and-10 from the Houston 45 at the start of the second quarter. Wilfork lines up on the outside shoulder of Smith and draws a double team from Smith and left tackle Duane Brown. Wilfork somehow slips between the two Texans, who weigh a combined 627 pounds, and dives into the backfield to stop Foster at the line.
On the very next play, Wilfork again lined up on Smith’s outside shoulder, this time putting a swim move on the guard and blowing past him. Wilfork burst into the backfield and forced Schaub to rush a pass that sailed over Owen Daniels’ head and nearly into the bread basket of Devin McCourty.
The long and short of it: Vince Wilfork is a menace.
Here’s Wilfork tackling Fred Jackson in 2014 using just one hand:
Here’s Wilfork — all 325 pounds of him — in a spy type of role on Geno Smith, who ran a 4.59-second 40 in college, preventing the quarterback from running for a first down.
Instead of trotting for an easy first down, Smith threw an interception. Wilfork deserved an assist.
These are all from later in Wilfork’s career, but he made an impact in his very first NFL game. In Week 1 of the 2004 season, with the Colts threatening on the goal line to take a late lead in Foxboro, Wilfork helped force an Edgerrin James fumble and then recovered the ball:
One more, in one of the most famous plays in football history, it is no surprise that Wilfork’s the one who made it happen:
And those were the plays that Wilfork directly impacted; there were countless more where his presence drew double (and occasionally triple) teams, thus allowing his brethren in the front seven some space to operate and make plays.
Of course, to spotlight some of the plays that don’t necessarily come through on the stat sheet is not to suggest that Wilfork didn’t compile some impressive stats. He averaged more than 50 tackles from his rookie year in 2004 through 2012. In 2011, he compiled 3.5 sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, and two interceptions. In 2012 he had three sacks, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.
On the whole over his career, he averaged about three tackles per game, compiled 16 sacks, and forced eight turnovers. Obviously those numbers pale in comparison to Hall of Fame defensive ends, who were able to stack up attractive sacks numbers. But for a man whose job was to clog the middle, nobody in the past 15 years has been on Wilfork’s level.
Two other important elements of Wilfork’s excellence that go hand in hand are his health and his longevity. He played in 189 of a possible 208 regular-season games in his career, only missing significant time in 2013. In his other 10 seasons, he played in 185 of a possible 192 games — better than 96 percent. He also played in 24 playoff games in his career.
Typically, ankles and knees and hips don’t stand up well to the wear and tear that comes with playing defensive tackle in the NFL. But Wilfork’s freakish athleticism extended into the health realm as well.
Awards-wise, Wilfork may be a little lacking. He made the AP’s First-Team All-Pro once and made the Second Team three times. Haloti Ngata has the same number of Pro Bowls but two appearances on the First Team, however his PED suspension in 2014 casts a different light on some of his own career accomplishments.
Again, there’s no such thing as an easy case when it comes to the Hall of Fame. Enshrinement heavily favors those who handle the football — there are 182 offensive players in the Hall of Fame, compared to just 88 defensive players — so it would be disingenuous to say that Wilfork is a lock for Canton. But he should be.
There’s been no player in the NFL over the past 15 years like Wilfork. His induction into Canton would admittedly be nontraditional, but anybody who really appreciates the game of football has had no difficulty appreciating Wilfork’s play over the past 13 years. At his position, he’s been great — at an all-time level — and for that, he’s earned his spot among his peers.