State Your Case: Tom Nalen

Blocked for HOFers John Elway and Terrell Davis

(Published December 2017)

Statistics provide a powerful argument for Hall of Fame induction if you’re lucky enough to play a position that allows you to amass them – like Jerry Rice’s 1,549 receptions at wide receiver, Emmitt Smith’s 18,355 yards at running back and Morten Andersen’s 2,544 points at placekicker.

Offensive linemen have no such luck because they have no such stats. Their blocking and their play allow others to amass those statistics. Like quarterback John Elway. And running back Terrell Davis. And tight end Shannon Sharpe.

All three played for the Denver Broncos. All won Super Bowls with the Broncos. All now have busts in Canton.

Tom Nalen also played for the Broncos, winning as many Super Bowl rings as Elway and Davis. As the hub of the offense at center – the only player besides Elway to touch the ball on every single play – Nalen compiled a Hall of Fame career of his own. A career that earned him a spot on Denver’s 50th anniversary team and a home in the franchise’s Ring of Honor.

But that could be the top of the mountain for Nalen. He’s been eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for five years now and has never been as much as a semifinalist, much less a finalist. His career is certainly worthy of that discussion.

In his 13 years as a starter, the Broncos won 62.5 percent of their games — and only the first four of those seasons were spent with Elway and Davis on the field. That’s a lot of winning with a lot of different players, especially at running back.

In those 13 seasons from 1995 through 2007, the Broncos had 11 1,000-yard rushing seasons by six different backs. The Broncos did not have a 1,000-yard rusher in Nalen’s final season in 2007 – a season that ended for him after five games with a torn right biceps.

Nalen was in the blocking front when Davis became only the fourth back in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season in 1998. He blocked for three other 1,000-yard seasons by Davis. He also blocked for two 1,000-yard seasons by Clinton Portis, two by Mike Anderson and one apiece by Reuben Droughns and Tatum Bell.

Denver finished in the Top 5 in the NFL in rushing nine times in Nalen’s 13 seasons as a starter. Three other times the Broncos finished in the Top 10. And that was with a rotating cast of runners.

Gary Zimmerman was also on that blocking front for Denver’s back-to-back Super Bowl championship teams in 1997-98. He was the left tackle and his Hall of Fame candidacy was pushed along by his NFL all-decade selections for both the 1980s and 1990s.

Nalen was an overlap player. He played the last half of the 1990s and the first half of the 2000 decade. Dermontti Dawson and Mark Stepnoski both played longer than Nalen in the 1990s on their way to all-decade acclaim at center, and Kevin Mawae and Olin Kreutz both played longer in the 2000s on the way to all-decade acclaim at the position. Dawson now has a bust in Canton and Mawae has been a Hall of Fame finalist. But Nalen, Stepnoski and Kreutz all wait for a call that may never come.

And that would be wrong. Nalen was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and a three-time all-pro. His blocking was instrumental on a team that advanced to the playoff seven times, won three AFC West titles, two AFC crowns and two Lombardi Trophies. His career deserves discussion. Nalen has everything you want in a Hall of Famer … except statistics.

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