Baltimore Ravens fans are going to get used to the route to Canton, Ohio, with Ray Lewis inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018 and Ed Reed being enshrined this coming summer.
Another player instrumental to the Ravens' defensive success for much of the past decade, Haloti Ngata, announced his retirement earlier this year in dramatic, original style. Might Ngata one day join his former teammates in Canton as a homegrown Ravens Hall of Famer?
Ngata doesn't present the slam-dunk case of first-ballot choices Lewis or Reed, but given his longevity, his five Pro Bowl appearances and his role in the Ravens' tradition of defensive dominance that helped secure a second Super Bowl title for the franchise, Ngata "deserves some Hall of Fame consideration," says longtime Baltimore sportscaster and Hall of Fame voter Scott Garceau.
Ngata played 13 seasons in the NFL, including his first nine with the Ravens after they leapfrogged the Cleveland Browns to snag the former Oregon star with the No. 12 overall pick in the 2006 draft. (The Ravens sent the No. 13 pick and a sixth-rounder to the Browns in the deal.)
That came not long after Lewis had publicly called out the Ravens for lacking bulk and strength up front, getting away from a formula that had helped them become the league's most feared defense. With massive Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams tying up offensive linemen, Lewis was free to wreak havoc on the way to a Super Bowl title after the 2000 season.
In drafting the then-347-pound Ngata, the Ravens got back to their roots with a player whom current general manager Eric DeCosta, then the team's director of college scouting, described as "a big block of granite."
Throughout his nine years in Baltimore, Ngata delivered as advertised.
The Ravens ranked in the top five in rushing defense during each of Ngata's first six seasons. His ability to occupy multiple offensive linemen allowed a long line of inside linebackers to thrive, as they could often take unimpeded routes to a ball carrier or quarterback.
"It was so easy to have a Haloti in front of you, because he just dominated the offensive line's attention," said former Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain, who played with Ngata for six years. "Not just the offensive line, but he dominated the offensive coordinator's attention. You had to prepare for where he was and what he could do."
"If some [offensive lineman] ever came up on me fast," McClain added, "I'd be like, 'What happened to Haloti? Oh, he wasn't in on that play.' I mean, this guy was a freak of nature."
Ngata missed just nine games in nine years with the Ravens, battling through a slew of injuries along the way. His combination of toughness and physical play epitomized the organizational mantra to "play like a Raven."
To be hit by Ngata was to know it. Ngata broke the nose of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2010 when his forearm raked across Roethlisberger's face during a sack, and Ngata's clean, downfield hit on then-Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III sidelined him with a knee injury and altered the course of Griffin's career.
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox
Throughout 13 NFL seasons -- nine with the Ravens, three with the Detroit Lions and then one with the Philadelphia Eagles -- Ngata played 180 regular-season games, totaling 32.5 sacks, 515 tackles and seven forced fumbles. He earned five Pro Bowl appearances and two first-team All-Pro honors.
With Ngata now officially retired -- which he announced earlier this year by unfurling a banner that read, "I'M RETIRING FROM THE NFL ON TOP" from the summit of 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania -- the clock has started on his Hall of Fame eligibility. Does he have Hall of Fame credentials?
"In my book he's a Hall of Famer," McClain said. "And," he added with a smile, "he saved my life once."
McClain recounted a Utah trip with Ngata and others to attend a charity event with former Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger. While there, the group decided to ride all-terrain vehicles, something McClain had never done.
"We're going up this big Utah mountain," McClain recalled. "I don't know how I slipped off the [ATV], but Haloti happened to be behind me ... and Haloti stops the bike with one hand. On this slanted hill. He probably saved my life. I would have just tumbled down. He got behind me and held it up with one hand. That's how much of a freak of nature he was."
Lifesaving maneuvers aside, Garceau thinks Ngata's Hall of Fame candidacy might be a tough sell, based on the increasingly stiff competition for busts in Canton as well as the difficulty in evaluating a position that doesn't put up eye-popping numbers.
"I think part of it is position," said Garceau, one of the 48 members of the Hall of Fame selection committee. "Those guys aren't sexy. Your middle linebackers and your corners, we watch those guys make spectacular plays. Those guys like Haloti, what are they doing? They're taking on a double team so Ray Lewis can make the spectacular play. It's hard to quantify that."
The Hall of Fame lists 17 interior defensive linemen among its 318 inductees, including Warren Sapp, who was inducted in 2013. Sapp registered 96.5 career sacks -- basically triple Ngata's number -- and was a first-ballot selection. Garceau says another member of that 2013 Hall of Fame class is a better case study for Ngata: former Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Curley Culp.
Culp played 14 years; Ngata played 13. Culp made the Pro Bowl six times, Ngata five. And, like Ngata, Culp was part of a tenacious defense that won a Super Bowl title, and his play up front helped a dominant, future Hall of Fame inside linebacker (Willie Lanier).
"His game was similar to Haloti's," Garceau said.
If Ngata's Hall of Fame candidacy follows the path of Culp's, it will be a long wait. Culp was inducted via the Seniors Committee, which looks at candidates who have been out of the game at least 25 years. Culp's career ended in 1981, and when he was a candidate on the regular ballot, Culp was never among the finalists for consideration. And with each passing season, another group of talented players is added to the discussion. Ngata could one day end up on a very crowded ballot alongside former Ravens teammates Terrell Suggs and Marshal Yanda, among others.
"I think it's a way-above-average career that deserves some Hall of Fame consideration," Garceau said. "My quick take without really getting in and digging is, maybe hall of the very good, maybe not a Hall of Famer.
"If he gets in, it might be one of those long waits," Garceau said, noting that, as with Culp, it's possible Ngata might end up in front of the Senior Committee someday, "and they go, 'Hey, man, this guy played on some great defenses and he was a special player.'"
Photo Credits: Sabina Moran/PressBox
Issue 253: April 2019
Originally published April 15, 2019