Three former Bears will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year: Devin Hester, Steve McMichael and Julius Peppers. All of them are incredibly deserving and made major contributions to the team. But at least one more Bears player should join them in Canton: Charles “Peanut” Tillman.
Tillman burst onto the scene as a rookie when he intercepted four passes and forced two fumbles enroute to a fifth-place finish in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. One play made him a fan favorite in an instant however. Late in the fourth quarter of a game against the Vikings, with the Bears nursing a 13-10 lead, Tillman ripped a ball out of Randy Moss’ hands in the endzone for an interception to seal a Bears win.
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That play was the perfect example of what to expect from Tillman for the rest of his career. He was a player who gave maximum effort, harassed opposing skill players and created takeaways. Lots and lots of takeaways.
The number that jumps off the page the most on Tillman’s resume are his 44 forced fumbles. That’s tied for sixth-most in NFL history, and are by far the most among cornerbacks. Charles Woodson is second among all CBs with 33. Tillman's four forced fumbles against the Titans in Week 9 of the 2012 season are an NFL record. He ended with 10 forced fumbles that year, which is tied for an NFL single-season record.
Tillman’s 38 interceptions are “only” tied for 91st in NFL history, but they make him the closest player to notching 40 takeaways in each category. No player in NFL history has ever recorded 40 forced fumbles and 40 interceptions, but Tillman was only two away. No other player is even close.
It’s that combo of interceptions and forced fumbles that is particularly impressive. Tillman’s 82 interceptions and forced fumbles rank third in NFL history behind just Charles Woodson (98) and Rod Woodson (91), per Stathead.
Here are the guys who round out the rest of the top 10:
Paul Krause: 81 (played before forced fumbles were recorded)
Ronnie Lott: 79
Emlen Tunnell: 79 (played before forced fumbles were recorded)
Ed Reed: 75
Brian Dawkins: 73
Eugene Robinson: 72
Darren Sharper: 71
Of that list, only Tillman, Robinson and Sharper are not Hall of Famers.
Taking the ball away is great, but scoring with the ball is even better. Once again, Tillman ranks among the best in NFL history. His eight pick-sixes are tied for eighth-most all-time.
Tillman was not a one-trick pony, though. He was effective at defending the run from the edges, which was a must to succeed in Lovie Smith’s defense. He was fearless when attacking a ball carrier much bigger than him. No one could ever accuse Tillman of making a “business decision” if the ball came his way. Tillman’s 922 total tackles are fourth-most among all cornerbacks.
So the numbers say Tillman should be in the Hall, but numbers aren’t everything. Tillman also deserves to be entered into Canton canon for the impact he made on football overall.
The term “game changer” gets thrown around a lot. In nearly every case it’s a gross overstatement, but not for Tillman. The way Tillman attacked the ball carrier with his “Peanut Punch” was so effective that it’s a technique taught across the league. With many teams it’s not sufficient to simply wrap up a player and bring him to the ground. Players are urged to swipe and strike at the ball while they make a tackle to try to force a turnover like Tillman did so often over his career.
Now “Peanut Punch” is as much a part of the football lexicon as phrases like “Hail Mary,” or “icing the kicker.” How many players can say they changed the game like that?
Tillman has been a Hall of Fame nominee four times. He’s never been named a semifinalist, let alone a finalist. There are some factors that suggest he’ll continue to be overlooked, like his two Pro Bowl nods and one All-Pro honor. For some reason he’s never received Hall of Fame buzz at the national level, despite the impact he made on the game. Maybe that’s because Tillman was never known as a flashy, trash-talking corner like many of his peers. Whatever the reason, Tillman’s resume and lasting impact in the league speak for themselves.