Recap: Pulling back the curtain on the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2015


Tim Brown photo courtesy of the Oakland Raiders

Will Shields

(Photos courtesy of the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs)

By Clark Judge

Talk of Fame Network

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The line waiting at the doors of the Pro Football Hall of Fame just shrunk. That’s because the Hall’s board of selectors Saturday moved the queue forward by choosing for its Class of 2015 four modern-era candidates who’ve been waiting anywhere from four to 11 years.

Surprising? Not really. The Talk of Fame Network on Friday predicted a clean-up year, with linebacker Junior Seau the slam dunk … which he was. Then, we said, there could be as many as three holdovers joining him.

Instead, there were four.

They are pass rusher Charles Haley, wide receiver Tim Brown, running back Jerome Bettis and guard Will Shields. Haley, in his sixth year as a finalist, had waited 11 years. Brown was a six-time finalist, too, with Bettis making the final 15 five times and Shields four times.

But that’s not all. Senior candidate Mick Tingelhoff, a star center with Minnesota, waited 32 years to make it, while former GMs Ron Wolf and Bill Polian were elected on their first tries as members of the Hall’s first-ever contributor class.

Want the details? Keep reading. We were there.

EASIEST DECISION

Make this a split decision between Seau and Shields. Seau was the lock, and everyone knew it. The presentations and discussions were short, a sure sign everyone understood that this was his time. As New England quarterback Tom Brady said this week: “It has to happen. If he can’t make it nobody can.” Score one for Tom. Score two for Junior.

But then there’s Shields. He might have been the most qualified of all the candidates. In 14 seasons, he reached the Pro Bowl 12 times and was named to seven All-Pro teams. Plus, he never missed a game in his career. The Kansas City guard was the last to be presented, and the conversation was so supportive it became clear it was his time, too.

TOUGHEST CALL

Brown over Harrison. Three years ago, there was a logjam at wide receiver, with Brown, Andre Reed and Cris Carter stuck in traffic. Then Carter was elected in 2013. Reed went in last year. And now it’s Brown, who admitted that the wait was “gut wrenching.”

I can understand why. He had to compete against Harrison, an all-decade receiver, who had numbers either comparable or better than Brown’s. But Brown played in an era where inflated numbers weren’t the rule for wide receivers and where contact wasn’t strictly enforced. Nevertheless, he produced 10 years of 75 or more catches and had more Pro Bowl appearances (nine) than every wide receiver except Jerry Rice. What’s more, he was the last wideout on the all-decade team of the 1990s to make it to Canton. Carter, Michael Irvin and Rice preceded him, and read the fine print: They had Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks. Brown did not.

That was one deciding factor in the choice of Brown over Harrison, who,  incidentally, had Peyton Manning for a quarterback. Another was that Brown was a superior returner. Harrison was not. And Brown was a six-time finalist. This is Harrison’s second try. There was a feeling that if Brown didn’t clear the queue now, he might lag – especially with receivers like Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Terrell Owens and Randy Moss coming up for discussion in the next few years.

MOST POPULAR DECISION

Tough to determine, but my guess is it’s Jerome Bettis making it. “The Bus” had been stuck in traffic for years, but the Steelers … and presenter Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette … made a compelling argument when they pointed out that 77 of his 91 touchdowns were inside the 10-yard line. “Those are the toughest 10 yards in football,” former GM Ernie Accorsi once told me. “Those are the yards that win championships.”

Make Brown and Haley close seconds. We’ve had a passel of former players and coaches line up on our Talk of Fame Network radio broadcasts to pump both, with Ronnie Lott calling Haley’s choice “a no-brainer,” and Jerry Rice repeating the same words for Brown, his ex-teammate.

MOST CONTROVERSIAL DECISION

Haley over linebacker Greene. This one will be hard for the Greene camp to understand, and it’s easy to see why: Greene not only had 60 more sacks than Haley; he’s third on the all-time sack list. But Haley’s five Super Bowl rings carried weight. So did testimonials from former teammates and opponents, who swore that Haley was the “missing ingredient” that tipped the balance of power in the 1990s from San Francisco to Dallas. Be patient, Kevin. Your time is coming.

A DAY OF FIRSTS

Polian and Wolf were the first inductees from the Hall’s newly created contributor class, reserved for non-coaches and players. Both were exceptional GMs, with Wolf widely considered the best pure talent evaluator of his generation. The Hall created the category last summer to make it easier for guys like Polian and Wolf to graduate to Canton, and the idea is a good one. Until Saturday, there was only one pure talent evaluator in the Hall — former general manager Jim Finks. Under current plans, there will be two contributor candidates every other year through 2019, with one senior candidate to accompany them … and two seniors and one contributor every even year through 2019.

LONGEST WAIT

Tingelhoff was elected in his 32nd year of eligibility, and hallelujah. Few are more deserving. A seven-time All-Pro, he somehow fell through the cracks despite an ironman streak of 259 straight games during his career. Life is not fair, we keep getting told. But it is here. Finally, Mick Tingelhoff is where he belongs.

LONGEST DEBATE

Polian checked in at just over 50:40. Kurt Warner was second at 39:23 and Dungy was third at 32:48.

SHORTEST DEBATE

No surprise here: It was Seau at 7:04. John Lynch was second at 11:43, and Tingelhoff third at 12:50.

THE COUNTDOWN TO TEN

The first vote cuts the field from 15 to 10, and the decision was tougher than the reduction from 10 to five. Eliminated with the first vote were kicker Morten Andersen, coach Don Coryell, running back Terrell Davis, coach Jimmy Johnson and safety John Lynch.

15. Coryell suffers because of a 3-6 playoff record and no Super Bowls, but I don’t want to hear it. George Allen is in the Hall with a 2-7 playoff record. I look at Coryell as one of the game’s great innovators, someone who changed the landscape of the league with his imagination and his schemes, but I was in the minority. This was no surprise. Only now I’m virtually certain he never makes it. Correction, Mick Tingelhoff: Life is not fair.

14. Andersen suffers because he’s a kicker. In the 52-year history of the Pro Football Hall of Fame there’s only one pure kicker that was inducted, and that’s Jan Stenerud. Andersen deserves better. He’s the league’s all-time leading scorer.

13. Longevity hurts Davis. He produced big numbers for four years before injuries short-circuited his career. But in those four years there was no better running back, with Davis part of Super Bowl winners, a Super Bowl MVP, a league MVP and a 2,000-yard rusher. Plus, there’s this: In eight playoff games, he had seven 100-yard performances and 12 TDs. Look for him as a finalist next year.

12. Longevity hurt Johnson, too. Though he built the Dallas Cowboys into the Team of the 90s, he was gone by 1994. And while he compiled a 9-4 playoff record, including two Super Bowls (2-3/4, if you include the one Barry Switzer one with Jimmy’s players), he never achieved similar success in Miami, where he failed to win a division with a fading Dan Marino.

11. John Lynch gets burned by the position he plays: safety. Yes, he was terrific. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler. But the last safety to be discussed by the Hall was Cliff Harris in 2004. The last to be elected was Paul Krause in 1998. And the last to play was Ken Houston in 1980. No, that doesn’t make it right, but that’s the way it is … for now, at least.

THE COUNTDOWN TO FIVE

Tony Dungy, Kevin Greene, Marvin Harrison, Orlando Pace and Kurt Warner didn’t make the cut from 10 to five, and if there’s a surprise it’s Pace. Some thought he was a sure thing, and maybe that’s because the Hall inducted left tackles the past three years. But Shields’ inclusion hurt him, with Pace outpolled by another offensive lineman. Never fear, Orlando Pace fans, he will get in. Just not now.

10. The good news for Dungy is that he not only outpolled two other coaches but moved into the final 10 in only his second year of eligibility – which means he’s that much closer to the finish line. Guaranteed, he makes it shortly.

9. As I mentioned, Haley was chosen over Greene, and that has to be discouraging for the league’s third all-time sack leader. This is the second straight year that Greene, who had 160 career sacks, made the final 10, and considering the board of selectors’ concern for holdovers he has a good shot at cross the threshold in 2016.

8. One of the two wide receivers wasn’t going to make it, and that guy was Harrison. Yes, his number compare favorably to Brown, but he had Peyton Manning throwing to him; Brown had a raft of nobodies outside of Rich Gannon and Jeff Hostetler. Plus, Brown was a dynamic punt and kick returner. And then there’s this: In 16 playoff games, Harrison had just two touchdown catches, and you could feel the air go out of the room when that point was made. Harrison will get in; he just won’t get in this year.

7. As I said, Pace was the surprise, but look for him to make it in 2016 or 2017.

6. Warner was no surprise … at least not to me … and let me explain. While he raised the Titanic … twice, no less … he has that hole in the middle of his career, where he was a backup with the Giants and Arizona. That hurts him. But this won’t: that he resurrected two low-rung franchises speaks volumes, went to three Super Bowls and won two league MVPs and one Super Bowl MVP. Selectors have respect for Warner’s accomplishments, and that was apparent Saturday. Making it to the final 10 on his first try should tell Warner what everyone already knows: He will make it … and probably soon.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2016

The fireworks begin with a class next year that will include Brett Favre, Terrell Owens and Alan Faneca. Favre is a cinch as a first-ballot choice. Owens is a cinch as a first-ballot firestorm — the most polarizing figure brought before the Hall in years.

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