Hardy Nickerson Belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

When most sportswriters chronicle a franchise’s turning point its usually attributed to the hiring of a coach or a number one draft pick QB who goes on to a Hall of Fame career. One where the culture of an organization completely shifts as the team has a pivotal player & focal point to build around. Enter Hardy Nickerson.

Most try to equate the turnaround with the drafting of Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks when the direction was set in motion several years before these two Hall of Famers were drafted in ’95.

Let’s take you back to the early 1990’s Tampa was a desolate outpost no one wanted to play for. It was a rudderless franchise that had just finished 1992 having set an NFL record with their 10th straight double digit loss season.

The culture was so demoralized just 8 years before 1st round draft pick Bo Jackson refused to play for Tampa. He elected baseball instead. USFL refugee Steve Young was so disheartened with the situation he only played 2 seasons. After a 3-16 record as the starter in ’85 and ’86, Young asked owner Hugh Culverhouse to allow him to leave. His trade paved the way for a Hall of Fame career out in San Francisco and the chance to draft ’86 Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde.

Testaverde toiled in Tampa for six seasons, never winning more than 6 starts and exited in the first season of free agency for a backup assignment in Cleveland. Yet before the door shut Hardy Nickerson was the first big free agent to sign on and step through.

Nickerson became the centerpiece of Defensive Coordinator Floyd Peters’ 4-3 at Middle Linebacker and a terror was set loose. He became a sideline to sideline tracker and hit everything in sight. In ’93 he led the NFL in tackles with a team record 214 while making his 1st Pro Bowl and voted 1st team All Pro. It was only the 4th time a Tampa Bay defender was voted to the Pro Bowl in Hawai’i and the 2nd all pro selection since the team’s inception.

His play was so dominant he broke the team season tackle record in a week 15 win over Chicago. There were still 3 games to go in 1993! So his 1st season ended with 214 tackles, recorded a sack, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and had an interception.

Or think of it like this… he recorded 96 more tackles than his Hall of Fame teammate Derrick Brooks (118) recorded in ’02 when he was NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Chew on that for a second…

He brought an intensity that was infectious and the Bucs began to stand and fight with their foes instead of conceding defeat. In 1993 Nickerson and the Bucs weren’t highly ranked but held 4 teams to 10 points or less. A Taylor Blitz defensive staple. To match this total,  not including season finales where teams and the Bucs had packed it in… you have to go back 6 years to 1988 to tally 4 teams held to 10 or fewer covering a year time period.

Earlier in his career he shared the inside linebacking duties in the Steelers 3-4. Yet now he became the successor to Mike Singletary’s Middle Linebacker throne in the old NFC Central. Over the next 7 years Nickerson averaged 119 tackles 2 forced fumbles every year as he led his young teammates in to battle as they chased the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North who had become league champion.

From that point on the organization geared their personnel decisions on teaming Nickerson with blue chip defensive talent. Gone were the high profile offensive players that turned the “Yucs” into the laughing stock of the NFL. Replaced by one forged of grit and toughness that thrived on the visceral edge of football. This culiminated with the 96 draft and twin #1 selections Derrick Brooks & Warren Sapp along with promoting SS John Lynch up from special teams.

The season opener in ’97 saw the seminole moment Nickerson’s defensive mates had grown to match his intensity and tenacity. Perennial power San Francisco came to Tampa and were hammered 13-6 as Steve Young was sacked and knocked from the game by Sapp. He returned a few quarters later where Nickerson sacked him again along with his 6 tackles on the game. Brooks had 10 tackles and Sapp finished with 2 1/2 sacks.

With playmakers all over the field in Tony Dungy’s new “Tampa 2” Nickerson’s stats took a hit. Yet in ’97 he recorded his 2nd highest career total with 147 tackles, the 1 sack and 2 forced fumbles. Hardy made 2 different All Pro teams while being named to the 1st unit and made the 3rd of his 5 Pro Bowl appearances.

However had he made the ’95 Pro Bowl he would have finished on the last 5 straight Pro Bowl teams to finish the 90’s with 6 overall.  Yes Ken Norton and Jesse Tuggle were great that year but…

  • Nickerson – 143 combined tackles, 1 1/2 sacks 3 forced fumbles 3 fumble recoveries
  • Ken Norton – 96 combined tackles, 1 sack, 1 ff, 3ints for 2 TDs (same game)
  • Jessie Tuggle – 152 combined tackles, 1sack, 1ff, 3ints

Kenny, Kenny, Kenny Norton…. sigh..  yet this is what the players voted and he was on a #1 defense in San Fran that year. This catapulted Norton’s profile that year and Nickerson was robbed.. I meant snubbed. Yet I digress

The ’97 Bucs finished 3rd in defense and made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years where they lost to the Packers. Ushering in the era where the Bucs finished in the top 3 in both 98 and 99.

Unfortunately ’99 was the last season for Nickerson with the Bucs. Although he was 34 he finished with 110 combined tackles, 1/2 sack, 3 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions. He made his 5th and final Pro Bowl. His final game in Tampa was the NFC Championship where the Bucs held The Greatest Show on Turf to 11 points and held a 6-5 lead in the 4th quarter.’

Nickerson left Tampa after that stellar defensive performance and played for both Jacksonville and Green Bay before retiring.

Yet the men he helped usher in defensive excellence with went on to win Super Bowl XXXVII a few years later. Once the final minutes counted down the first two members of the Tampa Bay family I thought of were former head coach Sam Wyche and Nickerson. It was the late Wyche who signed Nickerson and set him loose in his defense.

For his career Nickerson made All Pro 4 times, the Pro Bowl 5 times and was a member of The All Decade Team of the 1990’s. Do you realize he is the only true Middle Linebacker on the all decade team?

Where Heisman Trophy winners Vinny Testaverde, Bo Jackson, and Hall of Famer Steve Young failed to change the culture of the organization, Nickerson succeeded. The relative wealth and fortune of the franchise changed from the moment he took the field.

Name a better and more consistent Middle Linebacker from the NFC side of the ledger from the 1990’s?? I’ll wait here

His signing at the advent of the 1st season of true free agency (1993) you have to think of his signing as important as Reggie White in Green Bay. It resurrected a franchise and led to Super Bowl triumph ultimately.

To see his number isn’t retired nor in the Buccaneer Ring of Honor is a complete travesty. The relative wealth and prestige took off the moment Nickerson signed on and they should have a statue out front. Well one place this historian believes he should be is in Canton.

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame I present to you Hardy Nickerson.

Thanks for reading and please share the article.

The Chancellor’s past articles advocating for players to be inCanton prio induction:

 

With Kevin Greene after the Induction ceremony.

Kevin Greene

 

 

Terrell Davis

 

“Hey big guy!” The laughs at the Hall of Fame party were priceless.

Jerry Kramer

Randy Moss

Andre Reed

Edgerrin James

Ken Stabler

Cris Carter

Robert Brazile

 

brazile.chancellor

Met Robert Brazile after the Gold Jacket Dinner. Great time.

nickersoncommentnickersoncomment2nickersoncomment3nickersoncomment4

hardy.comments.3

hardy.comments.4

hardy.comment.5

hardy.comments5

 

 

Warren Sapp Makes The Hall of Fame

Warren Sapp as a Miami [[_]] Hurricane!!

Warren Sapp as a Miami [[_]] Hurricane!!

When you think back to Tampa Bay’s Super Bow XXXVII win over the Oakland Raiders, you knew it was a win that was years in the making. It was born when Buccaneer coach Sam Wyche made two critical moves that solidified the franchise. The first thing he did was turn the organization into a defensive minded outfit, by signing free agent Middle Linebacker Hardy Nickerson as it’s  impenetrable core. This was the first year of NFL free agency in 1993 and this was where the Buccaneers re-invented themselves. Second was anointing Wyche’s assistant coach to Head Coach, Tony Dungy who selected Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks in the draft of 1995. Brooks was a slightly undersized linebacker from Florida St.  But Warren Sapp??

Twin draft pics in 1995 turned the fortune of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Twin draft pics in 1995 turned the fortune of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After a sterling career at the University of Miami, Sapp was in line to make an impact on the NFL when before the draft, a report was leaked that Sapp had failed drug tests which affected his status. Even though he was the Big East Defensive Players of the Year, an All American, and winner of both the Nagurski and Lombardi Awards, 11 teams passed on him on draft day. He was projected to go number 1 and fell to the “Yucs” at #12. You could see the disappointment in his face. The picture above was once they were in Tampa for the press conference.

Why the “Yucs”?? This team had been laughingstocks for most of their history up to that point. For 12 years, from 1983-1994 the team had double-digit losses.

What didn’t bode well for Warren Sapp that day was the fuel to what burned as motivation for Sapp the rest of his career. He started slowly but by his 2nd season, he made his presence felt with 51 tackles, 9 sacks and 1 forced fumble. Since he was one with a big mouth and part of the “in your face generation” that hit the NFL in the mid to late 90’s it took time to gain acceptance. He should have made the Pro Bowl in ’96 but the Buccaneers were 6-10 and still a loser.

Sapp was a larger than life defensive tackle that Tony Dungy built his defense around. Pictured here celebrating in Super Bowl XXXVII.

Sapp was a larger than life defensive tackle that Tony Dungy built his defense around. Pictured here celebrating in Super Bowl XXXVII.

All that changed in 1997 as the team rolled out to a 5-0 start. In the opener against San Francisco, they knocked out both Steve Young and Jerry Rice in a 13-6 win. Sapp had relentlessly been involved in both plays. He began the season on everyone’s radar with a 2 1/2 sack performance.  In a frightening display of power and speed, Warren and the Bucs in their new uniforms showed a new day was dawning in Tampa.

They had throttled an offense that had been one of the NFL’s best for two decades and knocked Jerry Rice out for the season. Those two points alone had NFL shows talking about the 49ers, the Bucs, and especially Warren Sapp. No longer was he just one for on-field antics that made a few defensive plays, he was maturing into the best interior lineman in football. In ’97 he finished with 58 tackles, 10 1/2 sacks along with 3 forced fumbles and 1 recovery. They finished with a 10-6 record and a defensive ranking of #3.  Earning Tampa its first playoff berth in 14 years.

After defeating the Lions for their first playoff win since 1979, they made the pilgrimmage to Lambeau Field for a divisional playoff against the defending Super bowl Champion Packers.  Many weren’t taking the Bucs too serious. You have to understand the stigma they were trying to shed. Further evidence was the fact that 5 of their 6 losses had come from within the NFC Central. Sure they beat an inconsistent Detroit in the Wild Card 20-10. Many thought the Bucs would be happy just getting to the divisional round. Where Favre, White, Joyner and company were eyeing back to back championships and should plow through the neophyte Bucs. Besides, it would be 27* and Tampa hadn’t won a game where it was under 40* ever.

Sapp chases down Favre for one of his 3 sacks in the 1998 NFC Divisional Playoff in Lambeau.

Sapp chases down Favre for one of his 3 sacks in the 1998 NFC Divisional Playoff in Lambeau.

What took place on a dreary day in Green Bay was a young Lion standing toe to toe with an old warrior for 60 brutal minutes of football. In the signature game that defined his career, Sapp was all over Brett Favre and the Packer offense. He amassed 3 sacks and a fumble recovery. After each time he stopped a running play or harassed Favre, the two talked trash to each other and a national television audience witnessed the coming of the Bucs.

Inspired by Sapp’s lead by example, the Bucs, who had fallen behind 13-0, refused to be buried and began to believe they could win. Although they fell just 21-7, many saw a future champion in Tampa. On this day, he wrested the defensive leader mantle from Nickerson and placed it on himself. He was the face of the franchise and the entire off-season, his performance in that playoff loss to Green Bay seemed to be all people were talking about.

What we saw that day were two of the NFL’s best playing high stakes football as though it were being played in a backyard somewhere. The little brother Bucs led by Warren passionately jawing and playing with the favored big brother Packers led by Brett. Tony Dungy had tuned his team to the point they needed to catch and beat Green Bay in their growth as a club. So the playoff game was played like it was a Super Bowl.

In 1999, Sapp had the best season of his career. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year for his 41 tackle, 12 1/2 sacks, and 4 forced fumble performance. He led the Bucs back to the NFL playoffs, this time making it to the NFC Championship Game. Although an 11-6 loss to the Rams kept them from Super Bowl glory, Sapp led his team there at the conclusion of the 2002 season.

The calm before the storm before Super Bowl XXXVII.

The calm before the Super Bowl XXXVII storm. Tampa won 48-21. The Raiders never knew what hit them.

The victory in Super Bowl XXXVII validated many careers and vindicated one Warren Sapp. Eight years before he was embarrassed at the NFL draft amid rumors of drug use and having his character in question after his years in Miami. To some they still saw him as a big-mouthed player that was more show than substance. That Super Bowl victory made them have to acknowledge him as a champion. Critics had to give him his due as the best “three” technique defensive tackle of his time.

300_110727For his career he amassed 573 tackles, 96 1/2 sacks, 19 forced fumbles, 12 recoveries, and 4 interceptions, returning one for a touchdown.  Since the NFL is about sack totals for most pundits, he’s second only behind former Viking and Hall of Fame member John Randle. Whom he played with many times in Hawai’i where he made 7 trips to the Pro Bowl. Sapp wanted to be remembered like a Joe Greene. A true giant of the game.

Right after Super Bowl XXXVII, Sapp said we had to put his Bucs up there with the greatest defenses to play in the NFL. Can that point be argued??

  • ’85 Chicago Bears – #1 defense / allowed 258.4 yards per game /allowed 198 points for the season / 64 sacks / 34 ints / scored 6 TDs defensively
  • ’00 Baltimore Ravens -#2 defense / allowed 247.9 yards per game /allowed 165 points for the season / 43 sacks /23 ints/  1TD scored defensively
  • ’02 Tampa Buccaneers – #1 defense / allowed 252.8 yards per game / allowed 196 points for the season / 43 sacks/ 31 ints /scored 5TDs defensively
  • ’78 Pittsburgh Steelers – #3 defense / allowed 260.5 yards per game /allowed 198 points for the season/  / 27 ints /1 TD scored defensively

On second thought an argument can be made for the 2002 Tampa By defense as among the best of the Super Bowl era. One point that can’t be is the selection of Warren Sapp as a Hall of Famer.

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, from The [[_]], Warren Sapp aka QB Killa

Thanks for reading and share the article.

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!