The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014 gets inducted on Saturday. Shutdown Corner will profile the seven new Hall of Famers this week, looking at each of their careers and their impact on the game.
Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals, 1991-2000, St. Louis Rams 2001-2004
Williams spent a decade mostly toiling in the desert as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL without the notoriety that should have come with it. NFL insiders knew just how good Williams was — he later would be named to the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 1990s — and opponents of the Cardinals mostly did their best not to throw in his direction.
So the Rams, wanting to upgrade their defense after a down season in 2000, sent secon- and fourth-round picks to the Cardinals to free Williams and give the Rams the sticky cornerback they so badly needed. Despite being 33 at the time of the deal, Williams was coming off a season in which he had five interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries (one of which he returned for a touchdown).
It was a terrific move for the Rams, and Williams had one of his finest seasons. He picked off four more passes in the regular season, running two back for touchdowns, and recovering four fumbles as the Rams were the class of the NFC field and once more the favorites to win the Super Bowl
For Williams, getting the to the playoffs was notable enough. He played in two postseason games in 1999 with the Cardinals, picking off three passes in those games, but otherwise experienced a lot of losing. So in his first postseason game with the Rams, Williams once more put his best foot forward. He had two of the Rams' six INTs of Brett Favre, and Williams ran both his picks back for touchdowns in the game, adding seven tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in one of his finest games as a pro.
Williams would pick off another pass in the NFC championship game a week later, although the Rams would lose to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Impact on the game
Williams entered the league just a few years after Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders and often lived in their shadows as a highly respected player by his peers but perhaps never quite put on that same level of greatness. But Williams totaled 55 regular-season interceptions (and six more in six postseason games), which placed him tied for 12th all time in NFL history. The fact that Williams played on so many mediocre and bad teams in Arizona and still had so many takeaways (throw in 23 fumble recoveries and nine forced fumbles in the regular season) speaks to just how gifted he was.
And though Woodson and Sanders were the more flashy players who also returned punts and kickoffs, Williams is right behind those two in the all-time rankings with 13 non-offensive touchdowns. He was a short but incredibly feisty and tough corner who was as gifted defending the pass as he was coming up to support the run.
"He should be in the Pro Bowl every year," former Cardinals head coach Vince Tobin once said, and Williams almost was — eight invitations in 14 NFL seasons.
Williams also made the successful transition to safety his final two seasons without much notable dropoff in his play. Consistency was also one of his big keys: He didn't miss a game in his first 11 seasons and made Pro Bowls from age 23 as a rookie corner to age 35 as a veteran safety.
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Case against his bust in Canton
Because Williams did not return kicks or moonlight on offense, he rarely received the attention he deserved in the dawn of the TV highlight era, and the Cardinals' long stretch of being out of contention often meant that Williams' games — and his immense skills — often were not on display for wide audiences the way other, more competitive teams were.
But there's little in Williams' football resumé that suggests he should not have made it to Canton. The cornerback crop is an elite group in the Hall of Fame, but his contemporaries wouldn't have a great argument to keep him out for too long.
Case for his bust in Canton
From his NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign through his seventh NFL season, when he was named first-team All Pro, Williams had five seasons with at least six interceptions, including an NFL-best nine in 1994.
Williams had at least one interception in every season except his last and logged five or more INTs in six seasons. He also was extremely dangerous once he got his hands on the ball, returning those 55 interceptions for 807 yards with nine pick-sixes, which tied him for second all-time when he retired. In addition, Williams holds the shared record for longest fumble return in league history with a 104-yard score against the Redskins in 2000.
For as little team succcess as Williams enjoyed in his first decade in the league, there was little doubting his individual prowess.
"I have stated repeatedly Aeneas Williams exemplifies everything a player in the NFL should be," former Cardinals head coach Dave McGinnis once said.
And he was right.
"When I was a kid, I made a tape recording on one of those Mr. Microphone toys. On it I said I am going to be the best defensive back in the NFL." — Williams, via Pro Football Hall of Fame
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