Preliminary ballots for the Pro Football Hall of Fame are in the mail, and we are left to ponder whether the committee finally will enshrine the most obvious candidate on the list.
That would be Eddie DeBartolo, the former owner of the 49ers.
You can argue forever about who is the best at a particular task. Whether Joe Montana or John Elway or Tom Brady was the best recent-era quarterback, or whether Barry Sanders or Walter Payton was the best running back, or whether Joe Greene or Reggie White was the best defensive lineman of the modern age.
But you can’t argue who was the best owner of the NFL’s modern era.
Randy Cross, in a segment of NFL Network’s “A Football Life” (which debuts today at 5 p.m.), put it this way: “He belongs in the Hall of Fame right next to the other owners who have won five Super Bowl championships.” (Wry smile, pause.) “That would be none.”
Defining DeBartolo’s career by championships, however, would be an injustice, kind of like saying, well, Joe DiMaggio had a nice streak that one year in 1941.
Continuing the baseball analogy, DeBartolo was the Babe Ruth of modern owners. He set the standard for those who followed.
One of them was Jerry Jones, who said DeBartolo “was a great owner, not a good owner, a great one, and what he did really helped the NFL be what it is today.”
The NFL Films piece, and this shouldn’t surprise anyone remotely familiar with that brilliant operation, is a well-done portrayal, and it plays it straight down the middle. DeBartolo acknowledges it was stupid to pay a bribe to former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards that led, eventually, to the end of DeBartolo’s NFL career.
“I should have just walked away,” DeBartolo said. “I was old enough to know better.”
In the NFL Films piece, former 49ers president Carmen Policy says that DeBartolo, who had a famous temper, told him “seven or eight times” to fire Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh.
Yet what also came through was that DeBartolo and Walsh were so good for each other, and that’s what fueled the 49ers’ dynasty. And if DeBartolo’s end was fueled by a stupid act, he’s hardly unique among football greats. Paul Hornung was suspended for a year for gambling, and that goes straight to the integrity of the sport. Al Davis sued the NFL and sided with the league’s opposition in another lawsuit. Even Pete Rozelle had brainlock once and permitted the league to play three weeks of games with scab players. George Preston Marshall would not integrate the Washington Redskins. But they are all in the Hall of Fame.
You don’t define a career by one act. When I take my seat around the Hall of Fame selection committee, the first question I ask about any candidate is a simple one: Can you write the history of the game without that person?
You surely can’t write it without DeBartolo.