Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
01 Aug 2014
by Scott Kacsmar
No matter which players are voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, several deserving candidates are always kept waiting each year. Logic and the numbers game guarantee it. Their wait can often be extended by the eligibility of a similar player. Sometimes the wait just makes no rational sense to many fans and analysts.
Last year, for the second year in a row, I predicted 13 of the 15 modern-era finalists. Paul Tagliabue and Zach Thomas did not make the cut, but Morten Andersen (a kicker) and Tony Dungy (a first-ballot head coach) surprisingly did. I correctly picked four of the five modern-era inductees. Choosing two wide receivers was nuts, but at least Andre Reed is out of the room after eight years as a finalist. Tim Brown waits, and in the spot I reserved for him is Aeneas Williams.
We'll enjoy their ceremony this weekend, but we're already trying to figure out who will follow this class next year.
No class since 1970 has had more than three first-ballot selections, but we have a pretty strong group this year of players who last played in the 2009 NFL season. The following list includes the most notable names (players in bold are ones I feel confident will be in the Hall of Fame some day).
There are plenty of lists out there for grouping Hall of Famers, but I have never seen one that groups players by their first year of eligibility. Seven players who last played in 2009 sounds pretty high. Some will even say Edgerrin James deserves the honor, but I think his ACL injury in 2001 moved him from the Hall of Fame to the "Hall of Very Good" with backs like Tiki Barber, Fred Taylor, Corey Dillon, Ricky Watters, Eddie George and Clinton Portis.
Marshall Faulk is about to get some company as Canton may need to build the Rams their own wing for the Greatest Show on Turf. That was clearly one of the best offenses in NFL history, so they deserve recognition. The Rams were the first team to score 500 points in three consecutive seasons (1999-2001). All four players should get in eventually, but we know Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are going to have to wait due to the wide receiver logjam. Marvin Harrison and Tim Brown are already waiting, and only five modern-era receivers have ever gone on their first ballot. Holt and Bruce aren't up to that caliber, but they belong.
Bruce ranks seventh all-time in receptions (1,024), fourth in receiving yards (15,208) and 10th in touchdown catches (91). After this season he will rank lower in catches and touchdowns, which is why he needs attention for other achievements. His breakout season in 1995 was phenomenal: 119 receptions for 1,781 yards (still the third-highest season total ever) and 13 touchdowns, with Chris Miller and the ghost of Mark Rypien as his quarterbacks. Bruce did not receive a Pro Bowl nod that season, which was the pass-happiest in history to that point. Still, that just goes to show how ridiculous the process can be. Most people will admit a five-time Pro Bowler sounds better than a four-time Pro Bowler. Yet adding the label of "Pro Bowl season" to Bruce's 1995 does nothing to make it better than it actually was on tape (or in the numbers). Bruce made the Pro Bowl in 1996 after leading the league in receiving yards. He made three more Pro Bowls in 1999-2001 when he finally had a top quarterback in Kurt Warner. If you're into the "signature play" argument, then Bruce has you covered. His 73-yard game-winning touchdown, including a great cut to pick up 35 yards after the catch, won Super Bowl XXXIV for the Rams.
Holt only played 11 seasons, but he was more dominant than Bruce. He gained at least 722 receiving yards in all of his seasons, including eight in a row with at least 1,188 yards. He wasn't a physical receiver, but he ran smooth routes and had great hands. He didn't scare defenses as much as Randy Moss or Terrell Owens, but few ever have. Holt was one of the best of his era, and his peak should serve as a great crux to his argument.
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St. Louis' best chance of getting a player in this year is left tackle Orlando Pace, the first pick of the 1997 draft. He was part of a great era for left tackles with Tony Boselli (1995), Jonathan Ogden (1997) and Walter Jones (1997). Those players are the reason people talk about drafting a franchise tackle and having him lock down that position for the next decade. Ogden and Jones were selected on their first ballot, and Pace should be the same way. Leading the line for one of the best offenses ever (balanced with running and passing too) gives him a push over Ogden and Jones in my view.
Then there's Warner, who we covered in great detail on Wednesday. I feel good about Warner's chances this year, but I also thought the prosecutor in the Casey Anthony trial nailed his case, and we know how that one turned out. You never know what will happen once people start deliberating, but at least there will only be a few Florida residents in this process.
It would not come as a surprise to see Warner have to wait three or four years. Some will keep a hard line against his first-ballot induction. Some voters seem to have this weird thing about not putting in players from the same position in the same class, so how dare Lord Favre share the stage with any other quarterback in 2016, especially Warner, a former practice squad backup (1994) of his. Canton also has been unofficially the "NFL Hall of Fame," so Warner's induction into the Arena Football Hall of Fame or the fact that he led all quarterbacks in yards and touchdowns in NFL Europe (1998) won't carry any weight.
There hasn't been a quarterback inducted into Canton since 2006. The last eight put in were all first ballot, so maybe that will continue here. A record-setting, championship-winning quarterback with an incredible story like Warner should be very tempting.
This first-ballot case is a slam dunk. Seau made 12 consecutive Pro Bowls, six first-team All-Pro selections, the 1990's All-Decade Team and is universally regarded as one of the best linebackers in NFL history. He was the main attraction in San Diego. My earliest memory of Seau is the 1994 AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh. Some still exaggerate that he had 20 or 25 tackles that day, because it felt like he was in on every play. He had 16 official tackles and the Chargers pulled off the upset. He had an All-Pro season on the 1998 Chargers. That year Seau led a defense that allowed the fewest yards in the league, ranked second in DVOA and was the best at forcing three-and-out drives and punts. No one noticed because the terrible offense, led by you know who, put Seau's unit in the worst average starting field position that year.
Unfortunately, Seau's story has already met a tragic ending. He committed suicide in 2012 at the age of 43. Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of chronic brain damage we're becoming more aware of after the concussion lawsuits against the NFL. Posthumous inductions are always tough to watch, but Seau's will be especially somber.
If Law doesn't thank Peyton Manning during his future Hall of Fame induction speech, then that's just poor manners. In his career Law intercepted Manning nine times -- four more than any other player has against the five-time MVP. Five of those picks came in the postseason, including three in the 2003 AFC Championship Game. Manning has two playoff games with at least three interceptions, and Law was the opponent in both. No one defended Manning to Harrison better than Law. After the Patriots' roughhousing of Harrison and Indianapolis' receivers in that championship game, the league made an emphasis on illegal contact in 2004. Mel Blount may have the origin story for the "Blount Rule," but Law had the "Ty Law Rule" in his day.
He did more than just defend the best better than anyone. Law made five Pro Bowls, two first-team All-Pro selections and is a member of the All-Decade Team for the 2000s. He intercepted 53 passes, which is impressive in this era when they're harder to come by. When not terrorizing Peyton, he also made one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history: a pick-six off Kurt Warner to lead an upset win. Most observers of that game will tell you Law, not Tom Brady, deserved to be Super Bowl MVP. That might have put him over the top for Canton, but if we acknowledge his impact on New England's Super Bowl wins in 2001 and 2003, then we're looking at a Hall of Fame cornerback. He was also a starter on the 1996 Super Bowl team.
Law won't be first ballot, because defensive backs have to have absurd resumes to get that honor.
Hey, it's an eight-time Pro Bowl, three-time All-Pro center. Let's make him wait 19 years! Okay, maybe the process hasn't been that unkind to interior linemen, but you do pause when it's one of them. There are only nine centers inducted, and that includes Bruce "I'll play anywhere on the line" Matthews.
Mawae did not particularly play on great offenses or in many memorable games, but he was one of the best centers of his era. He had solid media visibility when he served as president of the NFL Players Association. His tenure extended past his 2010 retirement as a player and he was there for the players during the 2011 lockout. He also had ridiculous longevity with 238 career starts and succeeded with multiple franchises.
Unless your name is Jerry Kramer, Mick Tingelhoff or Dick Stanfel, the Hall of Fame has been very kind to interior offensive linemen with Mawae's number of Pro Bowls and All-Pros on their resume. Mawae has the fourth-most Pro Bowls for a center. He'll likely get in, but no one's going to be in a rush to make it happen. Will Shields (OG), a finalist the last three years, should have more priority than Mawae.
There are several new names to consider, but looking at the past six years of finalists can help us determine who has the best odds for 2015. Names in caps and yellow were inducted that year. Names in red are still not in the Hall of Fame. Senior nominees have an asterisk in front of their names. Names in gray are only eligible to be senior nominees in the future as they have been retired for more than 25 years. The number in parenthesis is the number of times that person was a finalist.
We also have data on who made the cut from the top 15 to the top 10. This isn't always helpful. Cris Carter originally made it to the top 10 in 2008-09, but didn't survive the first cut in 2010-11. Then again, Andre Reed made the top 10 the last four years before finally getting through.
Perhaps this will be a telling fact: Tim Brown has been a first cut every time in the last five years, but Marvin Harrison made the top 10 on his first ballot. That gives us reason to think the voters value Harrison more, which they probably should. Harrison's eight-year peak (1999-2006) was just absurd. He averaged 103 catches, 1,402 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns per season. The presence of Peyton Manning, a Belgian handgun, and an embarrassing postseason history make for rough edges on Harrison's resume, but he has the best case of any receiver in the queue.
Jerome Bettis has crept up to the top 10 the last two years, but the first-ballot guys may push him to the back of the pack. A player to watch is Charles Haley. He's been a finalist the last five years, and he's been in the top 10 the last three years. Warren Sapp and Michael Strahan were better choices the last two years, but Haley might be the pass-rusher of the 2015 class. Eddie DeBartolo has been a finalist the last three years, but he's also been a first cut. With all the first-ballot nominees this year, DeBartolo should be an easy omission from the 15 finalists in 2015.
Tony Dungy surprised me by making the top 15 on his first ballot, because head coaches historically get no love from the voters. Not even Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh made it on their first two ballots. Bill Cowher and Mike Holmgren, who have similar resumes to Dungy, can't even crack the top 25 semifinalists. Dungy recently received a lot of criticism for his remarks about Michael Sam, so it will be interesting to see if his campaign takes a step back.
My hardline stance: until Jerry Kramer and Ken Anderson are put through, I refuse to worry about any other nominee. Punter Ray Guy is finally in, so maybe they can turn their attention to getting the best available guard and best available quarterback enshrined.
Here are my projections for the 15 modern-era finalists:
I thought I could keep Andersen out this year, but needed one more name. Maybe Guy's induction will keep kicking specialists in vogue. Law could have been a choice for my 15th guy, but I recalled the similar case of Aeneas Williams, who was only a semifinalist in his first two years of eligibility (2010-11) before becoming a finalist the last three years. These things take time.
Without further ado, my predictions for the 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame class:
For the first time since 2007, it's a class with only one defender, but they can make up for that with the senior nominees. Bettis was my last choice and that's the only one I really struggled with. I wanted Haley, but there's no way they're going to have a class with Haley, Seau and Harrison. So Bettis, a nice guy from Detroit, it is.
Next year, we'll get our popcorn and tobacco ready for Terrell Owens and Brett Favre. In an ideal setting, 40 percent of that class is already filled, but these things rarely go as planned.
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