Patrick Willis became a star the second he stepped onto the football field in college. During his first extended playing time at Ole Miss, Willis notched 15 total tackles. He’d go on to have at least 13 tackles in all but two starts for the rest of the season.
After his junior season at Ole Miss, Willis put himself on the NFL’s radar. He cemented his status as a first-round talent as a senior. Willis’s tackling prowess continued, as he only had one game in the single digits as a tackler.
But the game-changing plays, such as tackles for loss, sacks, forced fumbles, and pass breakups, led to the consensus All-American being selected 11th overall by the San Francisco 49ers.
During the early to late 2000s, teams began flirting with the idea of taking linebackers early in the first round as the game was evolving. You needed to be able to run and cover. Gone were the days when linebackers needed to take on blocks from fullbacks and play the “thumping” role.
Before we get to how dominant of a player Willis was for the 49ers, the one argument against him is that he didn’t play the position long enough. I went back to 1996 and looked at the players drafted 11th (where Willis was drafted) to see how long their careers lasted:
#2 overall, Kevin Hardy, Jacksonville - 1996-2004
#4 overall - Peter Boulware, Baltimore - 1997-2005
#9 overall - Chris Claiborne, Detroit - 1999-2006
#2 overall - LaVar Arrington, Washington - 2000-2006
#9 overall - Brian Urlacher, Chicago - 2000-2012
#7 overall - Dan Morgan, Carolina - 2001-2007
#5 overall - A.J. Hawk, Green Bay - 2005-2016
#9 overall - Ernie Sims, Detroit - 2005-2013
#11 overall - Patrick Willis, San Francisco - 2007-2014
While it sounds like common sense for most, when your job is to run full speed into another human for 60-70 plays a game every week for 16 weeks, your shelf life isn’t the same as other positions. We have firsthand information from Willis speaking about his specific injuries. Playing linebacker takes a toll on you, unlike any other position in football.
Furthermore, focusing on playing a specific amount of years and ignoring eight prime years of dominant football is silly.
Did we need to see Jerry Rice in Oakland for the final few seasons of his career to crown him as the best wide receiver to ever play? Did Joe Montana playing with the Chiefs cement his status as a Hall of Famer? Of course not.
We always focus on what a player did during his prime years, and, in the case of Willis, it shouldn’t be any different.
Focus on Pat’s prime
I struggle to see how Willis playing eight prime years of football hurts his candidacy as a Hall of Famer. For most stars, the twilight of their careers are forgiven for their poor play — Peyton Manning as a Denver Bronco comes to mind.
If we’re using games played, the average modern-day Hall of Famer played around 185 games. Willis registered 112 games, thanks to missing half of the 2014 season with a toe injury.
Focusing on the games Willis appeared in and ignoring him being a 7-time Pro Bowler, 5-time All-Pro, Rookie of the Year, and on the All-Decade team comes off as ignorant.
In 2008, Willis was a second-team All-Pro member. He had two seasons where he was seventh and fifth in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. Willis was a transcendent player who changed how the NFL views the position.
The league got away from the “thumping” linebacker and trended toward smaller, athletic linebackers. Willis fit the mold for both. He could turn and run with a wide receiver or knock the helmet off a running back mid-game with a ferocious hit.
Willis is penalized as his career was unique. We’re not used to having these types of debates, and your first inclination when something isn’t “how it’s usually done” is to fall back on the norm. Unique is not a bad thing.
Seven players made the Pro Bowl in each year they were a starter in the NFL. All of those players are Hall of Famers. Willis has accomplished the same feat.
If anything, Willis should be rewarded for making as many All-Pro teams as he did in a short span of time. A quick google search proves that Willis has more All-Pro appearances than 66 percent of the modern-era linebackers in the Hall of Fame, despite having played five fewer seasons than each.
The only other point you’ll hear is moot as it pertains to Super Bowl rings. Willis impacted the game in a way that few have before him. Despite playing eight seasons, he was arguably the best player at his position from the second he stepped onto the field to when he retired.
That’s the mark of a Hall of Famer.