(Photo courtesy of Dallas Cowboys)
by Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
There is no fraternity in sports more difficult to join than the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That is as it should be.
Barely one percent of all players who ever wore an NFL uniform – from the Decatur Staleys to the Dallas Cowboys – have been welcomed into Canton. It is not the Hall of Very Good. It is the Hall of the Unbelievably Good, as we were reminded when this year’s list of 26 semifinalists for the gold jacket was announced Tuesday.
By January it must be culled to 15 by the Hall’s 46 selectors (of which I’m proudly one), and then down again on the eve of the Super Bowl to no more than five. Divide that list into any group of five, and try to tell yourself you didn’t leave some deserving candidates off. In fact, the semi-final list was 26 names not 25 because, if there is a tie vote for the final spot, all names are brought forward — meaning even getting to 25 proved daunting.
You could make a compelling case for any of the 26 and supporters around the country will — but in the end at least 21 won’t survive this time. That is the essence of the process and what makes it so daunting.
Occasionally, there are one or two names that seem to be mortal locks, although nowhere near as often as some outside the process would suggest. Who doubted Johnny Unitas would be elected or John Elway? Who wasn’t sure Jim Brown or Jerry Rice would go in on roller skates?
This is not such a year. Of the eight first-time eligibles, Junior Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowl performer, seems the most likely to join that select group. Others, like Hall-of-Famer James Lofton, suggested it’s former St. Louis Rams’ left tackle Orlando Pace, whom he called the clearest pick. Regardless of anyone’s opinion, in the end a number of people will scratch their heads, incredulous at the Committee’s “blindness” or “bias.”
Neither criticism will be true. The simple fact is there are more worthy candidates than available seats. That being the case, let’s handicap the field based on past history and voting patterns.
THE LONG SHOTS (20-1)
STEVE ATWATER, DARREN WOODSON – Only seven pure safeties are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For whatever reason, it has become an undervalued position. Hall-of-Famer Ronnie Lott told Talk of Fame Network recently that Kenny Easley is the best safety in football history. He should know. He played the position and against him. Yet Easley, a former Defensive Player of the Year whose career was cut short due to kidney disease after seven seasons, has never even been a finalist. So Atwater and Woodson are up against it from the start.
MORTEN ANDERSEN – How does the NFL’s all-time leading scorer not merit inclusion? That’s a question that baffles TFN co-host Rick Gosselin. Gosselin recently said during an NFL Network interview that Andersen is the best candidate on the list based on his production. Yet only one pure kicker in football history, Jan Stenerud, gained entrance to the Hall. So to view Andersen as anything but a long shot seems foolhardy. Fortunately, he was the master at making long shots, so maybe he will again after falling short last year as a finalist.
DON CORYELL – Although Coryell was one of offensive football’s most innovative minds, his teams in St. Louis and San Diego never won so much as a conference championship. Only 22 coaches have been elected to the Hall in 51 years, so getting through the door carrying only five division titles will be difficult — especially when you consider that two-time Super Bowl winners Tom Flores, George Seifert and Jimmy Johnson have yet to be discussed.
MIKE KENN, JOE JACOBY – Both are deserving and have been long ignored. But offensive linemen are always difficult because there are few statistical ways to analyze their play. One would think the Redskins’ Super Bowl teams whose backbone was “The Hogs,” would have more than one enshrined. Perhaps Jacoby will join Russ Grimm but it won’t be easy. The road for Kenn will be tougher despite five Pro Bowl appearances because the Falcons of his time never won. That wasn’t his fault, but it makes the difficult road for offensive linemen even more uphill.
KARL MECKLENBURG – Many who saw him play would argue Mecklenburg was the most versatile playmaker on an outstanding defense. He was like a Swiss Army knife: He could be used to solve many problems. But he’s been a candidate for 20 years without breaking through to the finals, and each year that passes makes it harder to get there.
ROGER CRAIG – One of the most versatile backs in NFL history, Craig was a great pass catcher and very productive runner on Super Bowl-winning teams. But he’s up against the sixth and 11th all-time rushers in Jerome Bettis and Edgerrin James, as well as a guy who was more productive than any of them over a four-year period, Terrell Davis. Craig ranks 42nd all-time in rushing. Tough argument to win.
SPRINTER IN A MARATHON EVENT (15-1)
TERRELL DAVIS – Davis is the modern Gale Sayers, a brilliant star who went into nova too soon. A big part of ability is availability, and injuries limited Davis to four great seasons before his body gave out. That didn’t stop Sayers, who played only seven years himself, but the Kansas Comet is the rare exception. Davis might be the next, but longevity is a valued commodity in the NFL. The game’s history is filled with comets who burned bright for a year or two, then flamed out. Davis was certainly more than that. But the debate will be: Does his four years of utter dominance negate the short span of time in which his body held up?
DARK HORSE CANDIDATES (10-1)
EDGERRIN JAMES, TY LAW, KEVIN MAWAE, JIMMY JOHNSON – The first three are first-time eligible. With all the worthy candidates ahead of them, that lessens their chances. Because of the need for some sort of reasonable order to this thing, only a few get to jump the queue. How, for example, do you tell Jerome Bettis to hold the door for James? What may help Mawae is that he was a Pro Bowl center on three different teams. That gives him what every center needs to be successful: A wide base of support. As for Johnson, he’s one of three coaches to win two Super Bowls and not yet gain induction (three others are still active coaches). So not even good jewelry is a guarantee. The fact is he built the Cowboys of the 1990s. He not only coached the players but drafted them. His place among coaches is secure, but a bust in Canton this year may not come because some argue he did not win more in Miami with Dan Marino at quarterback.
CAUGHT IN A BUNCH (10-1)
ISAAC BRUCE, TORRY HOLT, KURT WARNER, ORLANDO PACE – Four guys from the same team at the same time? That’s unprecedented and would seem to assure most will not advance to the final 15 this year. Many football people will argue Pace is the most dominant player of the bunch, but it’s still a bunch. Do Bruce and Holt split votes? Do you prefer Warner or the guy who protected his back side? Like them all? Well, how many non-Rams are you willing to send home to bring them all forward? Those are some of the questions voters will have to answer as they pare down the list. When they do, several will be pruned. The favorite is probably Warner because he plays the glamour position. Warner took two different franchises to the Super Bowl a total of three times, winning once. He was both a league and Super Bowl MVP. All that hardware should be enough to gain admittance even before you get to his compelling story of personal perseverance before getting a chance. But this is his first time up, so he’s no lock. That should tell you how difficult the process is to reach Canton.
INSIDE TRADERS (5-1)
JOHN LYNCH, KEVIN GREENE, TONY DUNGY, JEROME BETTIS – They’ve all been in the room as finalists before, so they have a leg up on the process. Most names that get that far eventually enter the Hall. But not always. Jerry Kramer has been a finalist 10 times but has yet to gain entry despite being named to the league’s 50th year anniversary team. Some mysteries simply cannot be solved by logic or common sense.
Lynch, like Atwater and Woodson, will also be hurt by his position. Greene has more sacks than any linebacker in history (160) and is the only sacker in the top five not in the Hall. But he played on four teams, and that troubles some voters. Others view him as a one-dimensional player, although many who coached him argue otherwise. His sack numbers are compelling, and he’s been close several times. So maybe this is the year. Dungy was a finalist last year, and the NFL’s history cannot be written without him. His teams in Tampa and Indianapolis won 66.8 percent of their games, and he is the first African-American to coach a Super Bowl champion. His time is coming, but one seldom knows when.
Bettis has been a finalist four times and seems sure to be back. His numbers speak for themselves. He retired with 13,662 rushing yards, sixth all-time. He’s also a six-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion. But is this his year? Hard to know.
TIME HAS COME TODAY (4-1)
TIM BROWN – He’s been a finalist five times and retired as the fifth leading receiver all-time with 1,094 catches. He was also a dangerous return man for much of his career, so his total yardage numbers (19,682, 5th all-time) are astronomical. Brown’s credentials are clear, but he’s been unlucky. First, he was caught in the backwash of a group of receivers that included Jerry Rice, Cris Carter and Andre Reed. Now he’s sandwiched in coverage again between Bruce, Holt and Marvin Harrison. They won’t all make it at once. If a pecking order is followed, Brown has next. But if Harrison jumps ahead of him, the odds get longer that he’ll ever make it.
WILL SHIELDS – He’s been a finalist three times, and every time his name comes up voters agree he’s a for sure Hall of Famer…next year. Guard is one of the least represented positions in the Hall, even if you did go to 12 Pro Bowls in 14 years and never missed a game. Deserving guys like Shields eventually have their moments, and it feels like his is now. The only cautionary tales are Kramer and Bob Kuchenberg (eight-time finalist), who are still awaiting entry decades after retirement. What Shields’ supporters fear is that his candidacy becomes more difficult each year he’s put off.
ODDS-ON FAVORITES (EVEN MONEY)
JUNIOR SEAU – Seau was a force during his 20-year career. He was a difference maker who could take over a game. He also died under tragic circumstances. Human nature being what it is, that will be difficult for voters to ignore. Seau doesn’t need sympathy votes, but there could be a feeling that making him first-ballot is warranted by his stellar play and a final honor for someone who gave all he had for the game.
CHARLES HALEY – Many football people remain baffled that a guy with a record five Super Bowl rings and is credited by people in both San Francisco and Dallas as being the difference in their teams becoming champions remains on the outside looking in. They should be. Haley’s got the production, the jewelry and the endorsements of nearly everyone who ever played against him. Even Law, a semifinalist himself, told TOF recently his first choice is Haley.
ORLANDO PACE – Dominant left tackles have been gaining admittance lately (Walter Jones, Willie Roaf, Jonathan Ogden), so that alone puts Pace among the favorites. There are two other tackles and three of his teammates on this list, but it’s hard to imagine he won’t become a finalist.
MARVIN HARRISON – The leading edge of the next wave of receivers, Harrison’s remarkable numbers may shoot him to the head of the receiver pack. He’s third all-time with 1,102 receptions and seventh in yardage with 14,580. The problem is that when there are four candidates at your position, each can cancel out the other. Brown has long been a victim of that and is now at the back end of a new wave which will soon include Randy Moss and Terrell Owens. This position has created a logjam for a decade. A new one may be emerging if Harrison doesn’t make it this year.