The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducts an exceptional group of new members in Canton this weekend: Larry Allen, Cris Carter, Curley Culp, Jonathan Ogden, Bill Parcells, Dave Robinson and Warren Sapp. But the selection committee cannot rest for too long, because it has a lot of work ahead of it.
It's no secret that there is a backlog of qualified players waiting for enshrinement, and every year brings a fresh batch of recent retirees to gum up the already Byzantine, Balkanized voting process. (Yes, the process is so bad that it requires two Eastern Europe-derived adjectives to describe it). It is not too hard to combine the greats waiting in the delicatessen line as perennial finalists with the players who retired in the last five years and create Hall of Fame classes to last us from next year until halfway through the next presidential administration.
The following five Hall of Fame classes are based on how I think the committee will vote, not how I would vote: no Terrell Davis or Harold Carmichael, in other words. Choosing the classes requires me to psychoanalyze the 46-member Hall of Fame selection committee, and … Look, all of these people know their football, and some of them are no doubt reading this, but when they come together all of their predilections and grudges (No Signature Play™! Looked Bad in a Super Bowl! Stats are Devil Digits!) sometimes align in a harmonic convergence of contrarian reasoning. The committee has made some strange decisions, and they have a habit of making obvious choices wait for years while they play Diplomacy, but it also gets most of its choices right, and at least it has not resorted to anything inane and ridiculous like not voting for anybody.
So get those busts cast now, because these guys are as good as enshrined in the years to come:
Class of 2014
Jerome Bettis: Bettis is a three-time finalist, which makes him a little like the prom date chatting awkwardly on the sofa with his girlfriend's dad: eventually, his gal is going to strut down the staircase and tell him to put on his gold jacket. Like a kid with a corsage, Bettis has been made to wait because of a mixture of tradition and disorganization. His candidacy needs to take on a sense of urgency in the next year or so, as new Steelers and (particularly) Rams candidates are on the horizon and will divide the attention of his prime voting blocs. Bettis is highly qualified, and he passes the basic "fame" test of the Hall of Fame: your sister-in-law remembers him, and not because he was arrested for anything.
Tony Dungy: The only coaches voted into the Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility in the last 30 years were Tom Landry (1990), Chuck Noll (1993), and Don Shula (1997). Dungy is not in their league when it comes to head coaching accomplishments, but he has other things going for him: shattering racial barriers, popularizing a new paradigm of coaching discipline (stern, but not frothing at the mouth), and rebranding himself as the public face of the NFL's conscience. The Buccaneers and Colts voting blocs have Derrick Brooks and Marvin Harrison on their agendas in 2014, but Brooks can wait, and Harrison's alter ego will make him a tough sell if a high-profile, NFL-related trial happens to be going on during the selection process. Given the circumstances, Dungy will be a popular choice for a wide range of voters.
Charles Haley: Hall of Fame voters have a reliable anti-stat streak, and the statistic they view with suspicion right now is the sack, which did not become official until 1982. Two of the top ten all-time sack leaders are on the finalist treadmill, a third (Jason Taylor) will join soon, and Haley (whose 100.5 sacks rank 37th all time) has been a finalist for four years of what has been a very slow-developing campaign. There are some good reasons to pause before enshrining the sack leaderboard willy-nilly (Leslie O'Neil, bless him and his 132.5 sacks, is not a Hall of Famer, and Taylor is a middling candidate), but pass rushers are becoming what 1980-90ss wide receivers had become before recent breakthroughs: an overcrowded DMV line that leads nowhere.
I predict that the pass rusher logjam will dislodge in reverse order of sack totals. Haley's main calling cards are his five Super Bowl rings, an accomplishment so unique that it has no doubt inspired some contrarian logic. His sack totals and Pro Bowl total (five) would be higher if the 1992-93 Cowboys defenses had to play more than 20 minutes per game. He's due.
Paul Tagliabue: The former commissioner's role as the Deus Ex Bountygate improved his reputation in many circles. It was a Nixon in China moment: the hardliner who crushed the USFL and nearly obliterated the player's union suddenly became the voice of reason, giving selectors a more nuanced portrait of his career and what he stood for. Commissioners in Halls of Fame are going to be a tough sell from now on: there are no more Kenesaw Mountain Landis or even Pete Rozelle figures, and there is too much skepticism and suspicion, too many compromises and skeletons. With the help of a late-career acknowledgement that there is such a thing as too much power, Tags will slip in before all the doors bolt shut.
Claude Humphrey (Seniors Committee Selection): There are four Atlanta Falcons in the Hall of Fame, officially anyway: Eric Dickerson, Chris Doleman, Tommy McDonald and Deion Sanders. The first three guys played a total of four seasons with the Falcons; Dickerson's and McDonald's tenures were end-of-career trivia question seasons. So really, the Falcons have Sanders (more famous with the Cowboys, but you take what you get) and no one else. The team had some marginal candidates in the 1970s and 1980s, including longtime offensive linemen Jeff Van Note and Mike Kenn, but as a team that maxed out with early playoff exits in their best seasons, they did not stand a chance of getting anyone through the Steelers-Cowboys-Dolphins-Raiders blockade on the ballot.
Humphrey is the best of the old Falcons candidates; the Seniors Committee got him to the finalist stage in 2003, '05, and '06, which is further than any other old Falcons player got. He is very similar to Elvin Bethea, a former Oilers pass rusher who made the Canton cut in 2003. Both defenders played for colorful, intermittently-successful defenses (Humphrey for the Grits Blitz, as well as the 1980 Eagles). Both of their careers ended just before the sack became an official stat. The Seniors Committee enshrined Bethea's teammate Culp this year and appears to be getting around to backfilling great 1970s defenders who did not wear black, silver, or black-and-silver uniforms. Humphrey would be a great choice.
Class of 2015
Junior Seau: Seau's resume was strong enough to merit first-ballot consideration even before his suicide. He leads a diverse, provocative class in 2015.
Derrick Brooks: Highly qualified. The Dungy-Brooks-Sapp trio gives the Buccaneers of the turn of the millennium an enviable crop of inductees. John Lynch and Ronde Barber may join them at some point. Jon Gruden will not.
Marvin Harrison: This will be Harrison's second year of eligibility. Given a wide receiver with Harrison's stats and a whistle-clean reputation, the selection committee could easily get in its own way for a few years (Was he a product of Peyton Manning and the system? Were any of those catches Signature Plays ™ )? Throw in the shady stuff that happened in North Philly in 2008-09 -- a tangled mass of shootings involving a convicted drug dealer, Harrison's car, Harrison's weapon, Harrison's tavern, and (it would be reasonable to conclude) Harrison -- and we have a true boondoggle. The Harrison incident confounded the Philadelphia District Attorney's office, so the selection committee doesn't stand a chance. Eventually, Harrison will get in, because Super Bowl XLI and Running the Route Tree with Peyton will be remembered, while dead drug dealers are destined to be forgotten. This class is as likely as any.
Orlando Pace: Ogden's first-ballot induction was great news for Pace. Pace and Ogden have near-identical credentials, and the committee has processed top-tier offensive linemen far more quickly than skill-position players in recent years. That's bad news for Pace's most famous teammate, but we will get to him in a moment.
Michael Strahan: A worthy Hall of Famer according to just about everyone but Sapp, who no one takes seriously anyway. This will be Strahan's third year as a finalist, which is a fair waiting period considering the backlog: anti-sack attitudes, the Favre slide backlash, and Kelly Ripa harrumphing only go so far. With a tragic figure and a controversial figure in this class, voters will welcome the balance that comes from a jolly morning television personality who was also a great player for 15 years.
Dick Stanfel (Seniors Committee Selection): Outstanding guard for the great Lions teams of the mid-1950s; played out his career as an All-Pro for weak Redskins teams, then coached forever, leaving his mark on the 1985 Bears and other teams. Stanfel was a consensus All-Pro in a season when he played just six games. Some use this as evidence of his greatness, but it's really proof that All-Pro ballots of the 1950s need to be approached skeptically. There were only 12 NFL teams, remember, and television/media coverage was spotty. That made it easy for an established player on a great team to earn a nomination, even if he wasn't healthy enough to take the field. Pro Bowlers-by-reputation were nothing new in Stanfel's day and are still prevalent, so an odd vote should not be held against an NFL lifer. Stanfel bubbled up as a Seniors Committee finalist in 1993 and again in 2012. The Class of 2015 could use the feel-good story of an 80-something lunch-pail lineman earning kudos for all he accomplished in a bygone era.
Class of 2016
Brett Favre: The five-year waiting period before eligibility began as a way to make sure players did not get voted in on a wave of sentimentality right after their retirement. It has evolved into a mechanism for letting the backlash against players who become overexposed and annoying settle down a bit. A Favre Hall of Fame speech in 2012 would have been nails on a chalkboard. Now, with the Favre-Packers feud boiling away and the Wrangler ads relegated to the nostalgia bin with Joe Namath's pantyhose, the football world is getting ready to welcome Favre into Canton the way he deserves to be welcomed. By 2016, we will be totally ready, though I am not sure I speak for the gang at Deadspin.
Morten Andersen: A generation of great kickers is in the process of retiring, and all of those kickers have fallen short of Andersen's career scoring record. And by "fallen short," I mean "fallen about 500 points short." Jason Hanson is finally retired; he kicked forever, but fell 394 points short of Andersen. Matt Stover fell 540 points short, Jason Elam 561 points short. Adam Vinatieri is now 40 years old and 677 points short. David Akers is below Vinatieri. And so on.
In other words, Andersen not only holds the all-time scoring record, but is likely to hold it for a long time. Andersen became a semifinalist in 2013, his second year of eligibility, and comprehension of the uniqueness of his achievements will grow as the Hanson generation goes out to pasture. And speaking of Vinatieri, the New England voting bloc will want Andersen out of the way before their favorite Super Bowl hero becomes a candidate.
Walter Jones: Ogden, Pace, and Jones were the Big Three left tackles of their generation, but Pace and Ogden earned Super Bowl rings and played for teams of historic note, while Jones' Seahawks maxed out in Super Bowl XL, a game that still turns their supporters into gibbering rage ogres. So Jones has to wait for Ogden and Pace to clear through, but the wait won't be long.
Will Shields: Mind-bogglingly qualified. But as a guard for a team that always got knocked out of the playoffs, Shields was automatically relegated to slow-freight status.
Mick Tingelhoff (Seniors Committee Selection): Mind-bogglingly qualified, but relegated to the slowest possible freight status because the voting committee sometimes has fits of complete insanity. Losing four Super Bowls is worse for Hall of Fame purposes than participating in zero, which is why you have not read the name Andre Reed yet. Tingelhoff, a five-time All-Pro center for a great team who started 240 consecutive games, has never even been a finalist. Those in the know tell me that Super Bowl IV was a big problem for Tingelhoff, as he got manhandled by Curley Culp and Buck Buchanan of the Chiefs. Okay, so … Buchanan and Culp are now both Hall of Famers, so maybe this should not be over-interpreted. Also, I have watched Super Bowl IV in its entirety, and while the Chiefs won the line battle, I did not see Tingelhoff get so humiliated that his Hall of Fame candidacy needed to be tossed into a fireplace. (From the way that game was invoked, I expected to see Culp and Buchanan carry Tingelhoff out of the stadium and stuff him in Len Dawson's trunk.)
Anyway, Tingelhoff is exactly the kind of overlooked backfill great that the Seniors Committee is supposed to honor. So get moving.
Class of 2017
Kurt Warner: Warner will make it into the Hall of Fame. The question is when. Voters have historically been generous to players with injury-shortened-but-brilliant careers and champions with good-guy reps. The huge canyons at the beginning and in the middle of Warner's career come with a mythology that makes them almost work in his favor. The Class of 2017 will be his third year of eligibility. If Warner somehow does not squeeze in here, he suddenly faces some much stiffer competition, starting in 2018.
Roger Craig: The NFL Films-ation of Roger Craig is slowly building up his reputation. I contribute often to the Top Ten show on NFL Network, and Craig always seems to be one of the players on the countdown: best running backs of the 1980s, best 49ers, most versatile players, and so on. Nothing helps a player's Hall of Fame candidacy than years of film montages: Lynn Swann caught far more passes in NFL Films documentaries than he ever caught in real life. Craig has a second-tier Hall resume, which is why he is usually relegated to semifinalist status, but the hagiography is growing, and there is enough meat on the bone for him to get backfilled in during a slow year, which is what 2017 may be.
Kevin Greene: Greene is third on the all-time sack list, yet it took him years to even achieve finalist status, and he is among the least buzzy of the perennial bridesmaids. What gives? First, he played half his career for the Los Angeles Rams, a team that no longer has a home media base to stump for him. Second, Greene's Rams were the Jim Everett-Eric Dickerson Rams, so their defining players were an outstanding running back who was more focused on money than CNBC, and a dude who made Jay Cutler look like Dale Carnegie. Third, those Rams played in the NFC when Reggie White, Richard Dent, and Lawrence Taylor were stomping about, so Greene could record 16.5 sacks in back-to-back years and go unnoticed, even by Pro Bowl voters. Fourth, Greene had a long late career as a sack specialist for hire, which works against him because a) he did not set down roots in any one city and b) it makes his sack totals look "padded," though if what he did for the 1996 Panthers was padding (14.5 sacks, All-Pro, helps second-year expansion team reach NFC title game) then I want to be stuffed with it.
Eventually, the committee will notice Greene's involvement with numerous great defenses and stop sniffing at his sack totals with suspicion.
Rodney Harrison: This is an iffy selection because Harrison is one of two Chargers in the same year, but Harrison is also a Patriots standout, which diversifies his voter portfolio. Outstanding safeties will start piling up by this draft class, with Brian Dawkins joining the ballot and Lynch likely to still be hanging around the finalist pool. Harrison's Pro Bowl totals look skimpy (two), but he enjoyed several seasons as the Best Safety You Never Heard Of in the 1990s (a crown he passed to Adrian Wilson), and voters will love his Super Bowl appearances and a hard-hitting reputation that will have softened to "colorful" four years from now. This will be Harrison's fourth year of eligibility, a reasonable wait for a moderately qualified candidate.
LaDainian Tomlinson: This will be Tomlinson's first year of candidacy. Is he a first-ballot Hall of Famer? In a sane universe, yes. In this universe, there's a chance that Harrison will be the San Diego voters' top priority, Strahan will still be gumming up the New York vote, and Tomlinson supporters will have to extract favors from Shaun Alexander supporters (he really does not belong) and Clinton Portis backers (not as bad a case, but still a very iffy candidate) to get the necessary votes. Tomlinson may get some anti-stat backlash, but running backs with concentrated bursts of awesome have a pretty good Hall of Fame track record.
Randy Gradishar (Seniors Committee Selection): A favorite player of those of us who still have reliable memories of the late 1970s and early 80s and who comb the encyclopedia archives in search of overlooked greats. Gradishar was one of the three or four best defensive players in the NFL from 1977 to about 1980, but he did not play for the Steelers or Raiders, so no one cares. Gradishar bubbled up as a finalist a few times, and he is in good position to ride the wave of Culp-Bethea-Chris Hanburger types of recent years, as the Seniors Committee slowly recalls that the NFL was not a four team league in the 1970s.
Class of 2018
Ray Lewis: Let's just assume that his acceptance speech will come last. And back up a few rows before he gives it.
Andre Reed: Reed ends his era's wide receiver logjam just in time for another logjam to start. Randy Moss probably hits the ballot in 2018. Isaac Bruce will have been kicking around for a few years, hoping to capitalize on some Pace-Warner momentum. This will be Hines Ward's second season, and he has strong qualifications, though not strong enough to kick down the doors in a year or two. Oh, and Tim Brown is still hanging around the finalist queue. The selection committee should assemble a Wide Receiver Task Force and order them to pick four or five receivers in one year, just so we can establish a baseline of what a post-1980s Hall of Fame receiver is supposed to look like. Here's a hint: it is supposed to look like Reed.
Brian Urlacher: Normally, two players at a non-skill position would split Hall of Fame support. Lewis and Urlacher are more likely to create a critical mass of excitement about the concept of a two-linebacker class.
Jerry Kramer (Seniors Committee Selection): About freakin' time.
Class of 2025
Tony Gonzalez: This will be his first year of eligibility.
Class of Sun Burns Out and Earth becomes a lump of charcoal floating through an interstellar void
Terrell Owens: Though I would advise waiting another year or two.