At the age of 72, Former Bengal cornerback Ken Riley passed away earlier this week. He remains Cincinnati’s leader in interceptions as well as still being fifth all-time with 65 total picks. Despite producing at that level whilst playing 15 years through the 70’s and early 80’s, Riley’s legacy egregiously remains outside the walls of the Hall of Fame.
Cris Collinsworth isn’t in the Hall of Fame either, but the Sunday Night Football analyst and owner of Pro Football Focus is arguably the most well-known personality to ever don the orange and black. Collinsworth recently came out in support of rectifying Riley’s absence from the Hall.
“I don’t know how you put a number on intelligence. And I don’t know how many touchdowns he saved the Bengals because he knew what was coming,” Collinsworth told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “But how many times in your life have you been told that football games are decided by the turnover margin? And here’s one of the greatest to ever do it.”
Collinsworth showed up in Cincinnati in 1981 towards the end of Riley’s career. He spent a pretty good amount of time not only watching him play, but he also practiced against him just about every day during that time. It really showed just how knowledgeable Riley was, and why he was so adept at creating turnovers.
“You’d think there was this young guy with fresh legs coming in, but Kenny wasn’t a speedster, anyway, and you couldn’t get away from him,” Collinsworth said. “Nothing you could do could fool him. Not only would you not fool him, afterwards he would tell why you didn’t fool him. Then you would try something else and he’d tell you why that didn’t work, either. He was a coach on the field is what he was.”
That gives you a really good idea at just how good Riley was. Even in those last three seasons, the player commonly referred to as The Rattler added 18 more interceptions. Players whose performances remain at a high level over multiple decades are usually reserved a special place in Canton, Ohio.
How would Riley stack up to the PFF grading today’s players have tracking their every play? Collinsworth is confident that his former teammate would’ve only aided by being graded.
“He would have killed it. No doubt in my mind,” Collinsworth said. “He would be one of those guys like Chris Harris for us. They’re different players, but they’re the kind of guys nobody knows about until someone starts keeping score and now (Harris) is one of the highest-paid defensive backs. Until someone started to watch and grade and would see the positive impact with so few negative plays and then you start to look at that number and that’s when you know you have the Richard Shermans of the world.”
It is much harder for today’s quarterbacks to get recognition for being good at what they do. First, there are far more rules in place that allow offenses to play wide open. There is also the issue that offenses are just generally designed better, and there are plenty of plays that designed to be easy competitions that would’ve never been thought of back in Riley’s era. The game has evolved to the point where the all-time interception list will remain unchallenged for some time.
Still, Riley was one of the best players at creating interceptions during his era, and that was how cornerbacks were measured back then. Not only did he just have a high number of interceptions, but he also played at that high level for his entire career. In 1983, his last season, Riley had eight interceptions, which was the second highest season total of his career.
Really no matter how you shake it, the fact Riley has been snubbed for the Hall of Fame is absolutely terrible. It shouldn’t have taken his death for the national attention to be shined on this injustice. The Bengals have only ever had one player be inducted into Canton—offensive tackle Anthony Munoz—and that doesn’t seem to be an accident. They may not have been one of the hottest teams over those eras despite a couple Super Bowl appearances, but to claim those teams didn’t have Hall of Fame caliber players like Riley is ridiculous.
When you look at the players with the most interceptions, Riley is surrounded by players who got their chance to wear the jacket. Unfortunately, he will never get that day, but it isn’t too late to honor his career.