Class of 2016 finalists out; let the countdown to Canton begin


Photo courtesy of Green Bay Packers

Kurtwarner

(Kurt Warner photo courtesy of the Arizona Cardinals)
(Brett Favre cover photo courtesy of the Green Bay Packers)

By Clark Judge

Talk of Fame Network

The field of 15 modern-era finalists is set for the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s Class of 2016, with inductees announced when the Hall’s board of selectors meet Feb. 6. But why wait? We can cut the field today and come close to – if not nail – the five choices.

There is, of course, one slam dunk, and that’s quarterback Brett Favre. No need to waste time there. He’s going in; no discussion necessary.

That leaves four more spots, with two first-year nominees (wide receiver Terrell Owens and guard Alan Faneca), five first-time finalists (Owens, Faneca, tackle Joe Jacoby, running back Edgerrin James and safety Steve Atwater) and two coaches (Don Coryell and Tony Dungy) among the possibilities.

A tough call? Not really. This class is fairly easy to figure out, with one exception. So let’s get started.

The No-Brainer

favre2

(Brett Favre photo courtesy of the Green Bay Packers)

Favre. If there’s a career passing record that Peyton Manning doesn’t own, Brett Favre does. Favre is to this class what Secretariat was to the Belmont. He went into the Packers’ Hall of Fame this season, and he’s going to Canton as a first-ballot choice next month.

On Canton’s Doorstep

Kevin Greene

(Kevin Greene photo courtesy of the Carolina Panthers)

Kevin Greene, Marvin Harrison and Orlando Pace, come on down. All three were Top-10 choices a year ago, and Green was this close to making it before getting nosed out by Jerome Bettis. Well, all good things come to those who wait, and Kevin Greene has waited long enough. His 160 career sacks are third best in NFL history, behind only Hall-of-Famers Bruce Smith and Reggie White, and he’s one of only three players to produce 10 sacks in 10 different seasons – including his last as a pro. The board of selectors proved last year it’s receptive to clearing the queue, and this is Greene’s fifth turn as a finalist. Nobody in this group has waited longer.

Harrison lost out to Tim Brown, partially because Brown had been waiting years and Harrison was only in his second turn. You don’t jump the queue unless your name is Jerry Rice, and Harrison was told to wait. Now, he’ll be told to show up in Canton in August. When Antonio Brown and Julio Jones each produced 136 catches this season, we marveled at the accomplishment … and rightly so. But they were second to Harrison, who holds the single-season record at 143.

Pace was neck-and-neck with guard Will Shields in last year’s vote, but Shields prevailed because … well, because he was the most qualified candidate in the field. Twelve Pro Bowls in 14 seasons. Seven All-Pro nominations. No missed games. That’s tough to beat, and Pace couldn’t. But Shields is off the board, clearing the spot for another dominant left tackle. Voters are partial to left tackles, with three (Willie Roaf, Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones) inducted in the last four years. Pace will join the crowd.

The Wild Card

TonyDungy

(Tony Dungy photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts)

That leaves one spot, and this is where it gets interesting. Coach Tony Dungy would appear to be the frontrunner, both because he’s qualified and because he was a Top-10 choice a year ago. You make it to the penultimate cut, and you’re probably going to make it to Canton sooner or later. It could be sooner for Dungy, who was the first African-American to win a Super Bowl and a coach who won a staggering 66 percent of his games.

Then, of course, there’s Kurt Warner. The same argument applies to him. He’s qualified, and he was a Top-10 choice in 2015. But Warner’s candidacy could be hurt by Favre, with the board reluctant to name two quarterbacks in one class. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. It did in 2006 when Troy Aikman and Warren Moon were named. And it happened in 2005, too, when Steve Young and Dan Marino were chosen. But it’s rare. In fact, since 1980, it’s occurred only one other time. Some voters can’t get over the hole in the middle of Warner’s career, wondering if a guy who’s a backup in his prime should be in Canton. The answer is: Yes. He raised the Titanic twice, putting the Rams and Cards in the Super Bowl.

Like it or not, Terrell Owens has an outside shot … mostly because of prodigious career numbers that will gain him consideration. But he has two things working against him: 1) Another receiver, Harrison, is in line ahead of him and 2) detractors. People either love him or hate him. There’s no in-between, with battle lines already drawn on his candidacy, and for good reason. There is no more controversial candidate, and there hasn’t been in years. Look for the debate on T.O. to go into O.T.

The Outsiders

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(Morten Andersen photo courtesy of the New Orleans Saints)

One of the most qualified candidates is kicker Morten Andersen, but the board is blind to special teamers. It took selectors nearly 25 years to put in the game’s best punter, Ray Guy, and then he made it as a seniors’ nominee. Andersen is the all-time leading scorer in the NFL, and that alone should get him in. It worked for Rickey Henderson in major-league baseball. It worked for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the NBA. And it worked for Wayne Gretzky in the NHL. So why not here? Ask that question again next year.

I hesitate to put Edgerrin James here because he’s Hall-of-Fame worthy, but it’s going to be hard for him to make the jump from semifinalist one year to inductee the next. That he’s here is a step forward for the former star running back; now he needs to take two more, and that will happen in the years ahead.

If James waits, so does Terrell Davis. He was the best back anywhere when he played, but that’s the problem. He didn’t play all that long. In fact, you’re talking about three-to-four years of greatness, and that’s going to make it hard for him to crack the Top 10. Having James in this field will make it even harder. If you were to take a straw poll of selectors today, my guess is they’d choose him over Davis.

Safeties John Lynch and Steve Atwater are penalized by the position they played. There hasn’t been a pure safety inducted since 1998 when Paul Krause, the league’s career interception leader, was named — and, then, it took him 14 years. But the last Hall-of-Fame safety to play? Try Kenny Houston, who retired after 1980. Granted, that’s going to change when Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu are eligible, but in the meantime, Lynch and Atwater fight the good fight. If there’s an upside here, it’s that Atwater – an all-decade choice – finally made it into the room, and hallelujah for that. He’s been long overdue.

I’ll second that for former tackle Joe Jacoby, one of the best linemen of his era on one of the best offensive lines (“The Hogs”) of any era and a finalist for the first time. Maybe, just maybe, that’s good enough to make him a serious candidate in the future, but follow the bread crumbs, people. It took him 16 years just to make it as a finalist, so this is an uphill climb. With Jacoby playing the same position as Pace, he could be one of the early casualties. I can’t see the Hall inducting two left tackles in the same class.

Like Jacoby, Alan Faneca’s candidacy is Hall-of-Fame worthy, but this is his first turn, and he’s going to have to wait. Like Atwater and Lynch, he played a position (guard) the board can ignore, with two guys (Randall McDaniel and Shields) who played guard exclusively chosen in the past 12 years. Faneca also played the bulk of his career with Pittsburgh, a franchise that has 21 Hall of Famers who spent most of their careers with the team, and you’d think that would help. It won’t. There’s a fatigue factor that may back off voters.

Former coach Don Coryell is the least likely candidate to make it — and that’s unfortunate. I know, I know, he’s a finalist for the second consecutive year and the third overall, and that’s encouraging. But his candidacy has no legs, with Coryell excluded twice when the vote goes from 15 to 10. Unfortunately, that probably happens again. What voters forget is that he was more than a head coach; he was an innovator who changed the game. What they remember, of course, is that 3-6 playoff record and no Super Bowl appearances — and I get that. But George Allen was 2-7 in the playoffs and lost the only Super Bowl he reached. And he’s in Canton.

THE FINALISTS FOR THE PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME’S CLASS OF 2016

QUARTERBACKS (2) – Brett Favre *; Kurt Warner

RUNNING BACKS – Edgerrin James; Terrell Davis

WIDE RECEIVERS – Marvin Harrison; Terrell Owens *

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN – Alan Faneca *; Joe Jacoby; Orlando Pace

LINEBACKERS – Kevin Greene

SAFETIES – Steve Atwater; John Lynch

KICKERS – Morten Andersen

COACHES – Don Coryell; Tony Dungy

*First-time candidates

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