It's Sunday, which means it's time for another installment of Rushmore Sunday -- a position by position look at the most important players in NFC East history. So far, I've taken a look at quarterbacks, cornerbacks, talent evaluators, running backs and wide receivers. This week, let's turn to the last line of the defense -- the multi-faceted guys who are supposed to cover tight ends, running backs and receivers one-on-one, to be effective pass rushers, to be stout in run support, and to be the last line of defense and prevent big plays: the Safeties.
The Rushmore rules are simple: pick the four who most deserve being part of the division pantheon. No more than four, no fewer than four. They don't necessarily have to be "the best" in the literal sense of the word, but they need to be an important part of the game's lore.
Ken Houston, Washington Redskins -- Houston was arguably the game's all-time best safety. He started his career in Houston, spending six years with the Oilers before being traded to Washington for five not-very-memorable players. He played eight more years with the Skins. Houston made the equivalent of 12 consecutive Pro Bowls, and was selected All-Pro three times. He was a ball hawk (49 interceptions and 21 recovered fumbles), who also returned kickoffs and punts at various times in his career. He was superb in coverage and a terror in run defense. His signature play was a colossal hit on Cowboys running back Walt Garrison at the goal line. My best memory of Houston was the time he knocked Dallas fullback Robert Newhouse over the Dallas bench. He retired after the 1980 season and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986.
Brian Dawkins, Philadelphia Eagles -- A second round pick in 1996, Dawkins took over the starting free safety position and didn't relinquish it until he departed in 2009 for Denver's free agent dollars. He and fellow rookies Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent formed an Eagles secondary that was the backbone of one of the league's top defenses for nearly a decade. He went to nine Pro Bowls, and a Super Bowl (a loss to the Patriots). His final game with the Eagles was the 2008 NFC Championship game -- a loss to the Kurt Warner-led Arizona Cardinals. Known as a big hitter and fierce competitor, Dawkins in 2002 became the first player in NFL history to record a sack, an interception, a forced fumble and a touchdown reception in the same game.
Cliff Harris, Dallas Cowboys -- Undrafted in 1970 (he had attended a tiny NAIA university), Harris received a training camp invitation from the Cowboys where he outplayed the team's third round pick, Charlie Waters. Harris ended up missing a chunk of the regular season because of military duties, but came back to play in the team's Super Bowl VI win over the Dolphins. He remained the team's starting safety until he retired after the 1979 season. In his career, he played in five Super Bowls, went to six consecutive Pro Bowls and was voted All-Pro four times. A devastating hitter, Harris was called "Captain Crash." He wore place kicker pads in an effort to maintain speed and quickness. His hard hitting intimidated opposing offenses and ushered in an era of big hitting safeties.
Darren Woodson, Dallas Cowboys -- In many ways, Woodson owes his career to a scouting trip to Arizona State by then-Cowboys defensive coordinator Dave Campo. Largely dismissed as an undersized linebacker, Campo saw a future safety. Dallas snagged him in the second round, gave him a year on special teams, and then promoted him to the starting strong safety role. Woodson promptly set the team record for tackles by a defensive back. Woodson had the run-stuffing skills of a linebacker, and the pass-coverage chops of a corner. In nickel situations, he typically covered the slot receiver -- a job usually done by cornerbacks. The Cowboys often positioned him close to the line of scrimmage where he could play the run like a linebacker, attack the QB, or use his speed to get back in coverage. He went to five Pro Bowls and was named to three All-Pro teams. He was part of all three Dallas Super Bowl championships in the 1990s. In 2002, Woodson set the franchise career tackles record -- a feat mostly overlooked because it happened in the same game that teammate Emmit Smith set the NFL's all-time rushing record.
Mel Renfro, DAL
Sean Taylor, WAS
Charlie Waters, DAL
Emlen Tunnell, NYG
These are the guys who were close to the pantheon, but not quite there. While they don't get their likeness dynamited into the side of a cliff, they at least rate a high-quality commemorative plaque hung at a popular viewing area. The plaques go to:
Mel Renfro, Dallas Cowboys
Sean Taylor, Washington Redskins
Charlie Waters, Dallas Cowboys
Emlen Tunnell New York giants
So, that's the Rushmore List of NFC East safeties. Who should move from the "commemorative plaques" section and who should come down from the cliff? Who's not on the "commemorative plaques" list that should be there? Post your list in the comments. Just remember, you get only four selections, so if you want to add someone, one of the guys I chose needs to come down. There's only room for four.