The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the 27 modern era semifinalists for the 2013 induction class late last week. Unlike the balloting for the baseball Hall of Fame, which often generates significant steroid-tinged strum and drang, the Pro Football HoF finalists receive minor fanfare and muted debate. A selection committee of 46 distinguished sportswriters will whittle the list from 25 to 15 to 10, and then to five, and finally vote to determine which of the five can earn the 80% majority vote for enshrinement. In the process, the selection committee will invariably foul up, badly.
I know several members of the committee, and individually they are knowledgeable and passionate about the NFL and its history. As a group, though, the committee acts like Congress, except with no transparency and bigger egos. Veteran observers of the Hall of Fame selection process know that for players who fall below the Joe Montana level of obviousness, enshrinement rests on uneasy truces among Balkanized fiefdoms of experts fiercely loyal to certain regions, eras, or players.
Grudges linger forever, and idiosyncratic table tendencies linger longer. There are "pet project" players who never fall off the ballot. There is lobbying. There are nutty assertions and backwards attitudes. Worst of all, there is a huge backlog of worthy players, and it is only getting larger.
As we sift through the 25 finalists, I will try to touch on two related-but-different issues: whether the player should be inducted in the Hall of Fame, and whether he is likely to be inducted in the Hall of Fame. The former is a complicated issue, since we all have our own Hall of Fame criteria. I try to marry statistical evidence, reputation, and contribution (including playoff and Super Bowl performances), but the marriage is often pretty messy.
As to whether a player is likely to go in, we know that the committee loves Super Bowls, hates statistics with a passion that burns like the core of a dying sun, goes on "runs" of positions or teams, and has an unhealthy obsession with the "signature moment," a single highlight that defines the player, like Lynn Swann's Super Bowl catch or Marcus Allen's change-of-direction Super Bowl run. Character and reputation matter to a degree, and it takes about 15 years of retirement for a player to go from "troublemaker" to "colorful," but a reprobate with a bubbly personality has a better chance of enshrinement than someone who allegedly had a "bad attitude."
Keeping all of these things in mind, let us touch on the semifinalists. We will revisit the finalists when they are announced in January.
Larry Allen, Guard/Tackle, Cowboys: Overwhelmingly qualified. The best guard in the NFL from about 1995 to 2001, and one of the five best for several years after. Allen was a tail-end member of the Cowboy's 1990s dynasty, and he was one of the Clean Boys whose personal life didn't make you feel the need for an antibacterial scrub. Allen was legendary for his weightroom strength: did you know that he could squat six trillion pounds? The weight lifting tales help personify Allen, which counts for a lot when the committee tries to choose among linemen.
Morten Andersen, Kicker, Saints/Falcons: The NFL's all-time scoring leader, and likely to stay there for a while. Andersen is 437 points ahead of Jason Hanson, so Hanson would need to keep having 100 point seasons until age 45 to catch Andersen: possible but not probable. There is no active kicker under 35 within a thousand points of Andersen.
Jan Stenerud is the only modern-era kicking specialist in Canton right now, and Andersen is qualified to join him: the safe perch atop the scoring leaderboard is impressive, he is famous and well regarded, and his overtime field goal to win the 1998 NFC Championship for the Falcons fulfills the silly "signature play" requirement. Andersen's chances are hurt by the huge number of qualified non-specialists likely to line-jump him.
Steve Atwater, Safety; Terrell Davis, Running Back; Karl Mecklenburg, linebacker, Broncos: The Broncos were underrepresented in Canton for years, but now that Shannon Sharpe, Gary Zimmerman, and Floyd Little have been enshrined, there's a risk that overcorrection will set in. Davis has a tremendous peak, but his short career freaks people out. The selectors were lenient about short-career players in the past (Gale Sayers is the obvious example; Dan Hampton and Lee Roy Selmon were only truly great for about four years each), but have recently begun to assume that a Hall of Famer must surround his four signature years with a decade of moderate-quality statistical compilation.
Atwater was a great player from 1990 to 1993 and a reputation guy for years after that; he's a marginal candidate. Mecklenburg, the Snow Goose, is an intriguing player from the lost 1980s Broncos, a team whose storyline has crumpled into "Elway Tries Hard, Loses Super Bowl," with all other details forgotten. The Snow Goose is reasonably qualified, but the fact that there are three Broncos candidates renders the point moot: they will split their delegates.
Jerome Bettis, Running Back, Rams/Steelers: A lovable guy with great raw numbers and a great story: highly qualified and a shoo-in, if not this year then next. All of those 3.8 yard-per-carry seasons at the end of his career might make statisticians blink, but Football Outsiders' metrics are kind to Bettis in those seasons: he was asked to handle a lot of short-yardage work, which lowered his per-carry averages, but he was very good at what he was asked to do. And his great years were truly special.
Tim Brown, Wide Receiver/Kick Returner, Raiders; Andre Reed, Wide Receiver, Bills: If there is one position that causes a collective brain camp among Hall of Fame selectors, it is wide receiver. More counterintuitive, anti-statistical logic is applied to wide receivers than players at any other position. It is a mind-boggling phenomenon that cannot be done justice in a paragraph, but here is the elevator explanation: the selectors are Paul Warfield damaged. Many of them believe that a great receiver must be Warfield-like: catch one 50-yard bomb per game (in slow motion on 35-millimeter film), win Super Bowls, and possess some kind of magical quality. Show the Hall of Fame committee a player who caught 100-passes per year or was part of an offensive sea-change, and they react like you are a used car salesman offering 0% financing: they will automatically assume that the stats are some kind of shell game.
Brown has the chance to end run Canton's wide receiver confusion because he has some Warfield qualities: he was a deep threat, with college superstardom to add to his allure. Reed was the kind of player who makes some selector's hands shake: his numbers were the product of a pass-happy offense that always came up short in the Super Bowl, and he caught too many short passes, which is bad for some reason. Both are solid candidates, and both were better receivers than Michael Irvin, who skated into Canton on the Warfield "less is more, plus rings" path. Neither will make it in this year, which is fine, because the committee must fix its brain sprain about one particular player before it deals with these two:
Cris Carter, Wide Receiver, Eagles/Vikings: Overwhelmingly, painfully, embarrassingly qualified. If Carter is not enshrined this year, it will damage the credibility of the committee.
Don Coryell, Coach, Cardinals/Chargers: Coryell should be relabeled a "contributor." His head coaching record is not close to Hall of Fame worthy, and he never served as an NFL offensive coordinator. Coryell's Hall of Fame candidacy is shrouded in the mists of history: legendary coaching clinics he held at San Diego State in the early 1960s, where Al Davis, John Madden, Sid Gillman, Jerry Garcia, George Lucas, and Ronald Reagan would come to him for advice. (Those last three may be fictitious; the significance of these 1960s jam sessions grows every year). Coryell is the John Adams of the Founding Fathers of modern NFL offense, and while everyone respects Adams, you rarely see his face on money. His credentials are a little smoky and tweedy for me, like giving the Oscar to someone who ran an acting school.
Roger Craig, Running Back, 49ers: Has the 1,000-1,000 rushing-receiving season and the 1980s 49ers luster, but Craig's Hall of Fame candidacy boils down to four outstanding seasons. Craig is no more qualified than Terrell Davis.
Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., Owner; Art Modell, Owner; Paul Tagliabue, Commissioner; George Young, Contributor: Nothing brings on the yawns like a discussion of Hall of Fame executives.
Kevin Greene, Linebacker /defensive end, Steelers/Panthers; Charles Haley, Defensive end/linebacker, Cowboys/49ers, Michael Strahan, Defensive end, Giants: The official Pro Football Hall of Fame website is getting a little cute with the position designations: Greene and Haley are the green-blue and the blue-green of the Crayola box. The Hall may want to consider the blanket term "pass rusher," especially since the committee is lately on a quest to enshrine each and every last one of them.
Many Hall of Fame committee members cramp up if you present them with any argument that sounds even slightly statistical. But now that they have 30 years of accurate sack data to work with, they have gone on a little tear, enshrining Chris Doleman, John Randle, Richard Dent, Rickey Jackson, and Derrick Thomas in recent years to go along with inarguable choices like Bruce Smith, Reggie White, and Lawrence Taylor. It is as if the committee is trying to backfill the all-time sack leader chart; Greene and Strahan can make sure spots one through five are covered, and Leslie O'Neal is the only qualified player in the Top Ten who has not at least been a semifinalist.
All of the recent pass-rushers were fine players, but many carried a "sacks-or-nothing" label during their careers, including Greene. (Dent, Doleman and Thomas earned similar criticism). That charge just doesn't seem to stick anymore, so Greene may make it in, even though Pro Bowl voters ignored many of his 10-12 sack seasons because he was regarded as a one-dimensional player.
Haley played for the two great dynasties of his era, though his five Super Bowl rings may work against him by making him look more like an effect of greatness than a cause. In a world where Doleman and Dent are Hall of Famers, Haley is one, too, but it may not be wise to indulge both the committee's shiny ring obsession and its "we just discovered the sack leader list" phase.
Strahan was known as a more complete player and is now a cuddly television personality; his credentials and his chances are better than the other two. There is no telling if someone in the committee has a bone to pick with the Brett Favre "phantom sack" and is willing to filibuster against Strahan. Oh heck, there almost certainly is.
Joe Jacoby, Tackle, Redskins: Left tackle for the Hogs. Jacoby bubbles up as a semi-finalist every other year or so. If Jacoby had not played for a line with a cute name, he would not be taken seriously as a Hall of Fame candidate. The Hogs were great from 1982 to about 1987, but that does not mean all five belong in Canton. (Russ Grimm, the best of the Hogs, is already in).
Albert Lewis, Cornerback, Chiefs/Raiders; Aeneas Williams, Cornerback, Cardinals/Rams: Regional favorites: cornerbacks with long careers and a handful of standout seasons. Williams is far more qualified than Lewis, who is a truly marginal candidate: more Pro Bowl berths, more interceptions, and a Super Bowl appearance with the Rams. Williams and Deion Sanders were the two best cornerbacks in the NFL in the mid-1990s; I would vote for Williams ahead of Bettis, Andersen, or any of the Broncos, and about 20 times before I voted for Greene.
John Lynch, Safety; Warren Sapp, Defensive Tackle, Buccaneers: The Bucs won a Super Bowl in 2002, and their only serious Hall of Fame candidates from that team are now entering the selection process. Sapp was a dominant defender in the early 2000s but also had a reputation as a nitwit, one which he has failed to refute in his second career as a bankrupt loudmouth and child support conscientious objector. No one will vote him into the Hall of Fame under these circumstances.
Lynch is Steve Atwater, Part Two. Once a safety has two or three outstanding seasons, he's in the Pro Bowl until his legs disintegrate, so it is best to be wary of the "Nine Time Pro Bowler" argument. (His last two appearances were particularly ridiculous.) If the committee wants to enshrine a defensive back from Lynch's era, Aeneas Williams is the best choice, but he is also the least sexy.
Jonathan Ogden, Tackle, Ravens; Will Shields, Guard, Chiefs: Two great linemen from the late 1990s-2000s. Odgen has the better resume: he and Orlando Pace were the two best offensive linemen of their generation, and each has multiple All Pro selections and a Super Bowl ring at the top of his resume. (Pace is two years away from eligibility).
Shields reached the Pro Bowl 12 times, played for Chiefs teams that produced some uncanny offensive statistics, and was one of the few offensive linemen of his era - or any era - with national endorsement deals, which help his "fame" value. Shields' candidacy is beset on all sides: by Larry Allen, who is a better candidate at the same position from the same era; by Ogden, who will split the line vote; by Willie Roaf, Shields' linemate, who was enshrined last year and may have fulfilled some unspoken quota for early 2000's Chiefs; and by the fact that his team had a reputation for going 13-3 and losing in the playoffs, which takes way some benefit of the doubt for many voters.
Bill Parcells, Coach: Overqualified.
Steve Tasker, Special Teamer/Wide Receiver, Bills: A credibility-straining binkie selection by the Bills delegation. Putting Steve Tasker in the football Hall of Fame is like putting Craig Counsel in Cooperstown. Tasker was an exceptional role player, but he was a role player, a backup, whose fame rests on the fact that television announcers can only talk about one special teamer in the NFL per year, and Tasker was in the postseason every year, so he could count on one "what a tough, scrappy, unheralded contributor" rant per week for 20 weeks for about seven peak years.
Tasker was a quality player and seems to be a great guy, but the fact that he is a semifinalist for the sixth time reveals just how flawed the selection system is. Tasker is the pork-barrel tax bill who gets wedged into every piece of legislature. His continued candidacy represents a wish-fulfillment fantasy and the abandonment of common sense by someone who has gotten drunk on toughness-grittiness-swagger juice and won't let a little detail like the fact that Tasker was not a starter keep him from getting a punt gunner into Canton.
While Tasker's ability to force fair catches is debated, teammates Kent Hull, Darryl Talley, and Cornelius Bennett, Pro Bowl starters for those great Bills teams, could not even reach the semifinalist round this year. This is a case of misplaced energy, and of contrarian reasoning gone completely haywire.
Given five players to enshrine this year, I would select Cris Carter, Larry Allen, Aeneas Williams, Jerome Bettis, and Michael Strahan, plus Bill Parcells.