Hall of Fame Debates: Julius Peppers and the Sack Pack
Julius Peppers is a surefire Hall of Famer. I'll stop short of calling him a "first-ballot Hall of Famer," because folks who understand how Pro Football Hall of Fame balloting works rarely throw that term around. But Peppers won't have to wait long, if at all, after he becomes eligible in 2024. We're not really here to debate about him today.
Instead, let's discuss the logjam of pass-rushers queuing up behind Peppers. Jared Allen was a first-time Hall of Fame finalist on the 2021 ballot (last year's ballot, to be clear). Robert Mathis and DeMarcus Ware become eligible this year. Dwight Freeney becomes eligible on the 2023 ballot, Terrell Suggs in 2024. All of them played similar defensive roles during the same era and posted similar statistics. That will make sorting among them difficult, and it is almost certain to cause lots of "snubs" and hard feelings in the years to come.
The Sack Pack
Let's start with a quick tale of the tape to demonstrate just how similar Suggs, Ware, Allen, Freeney and Mathis are, according to the leaderboards and the stars-and-crosses test:
|Peppers and Other HOF-Candidate Edge Rushers|
|Player||Sacks||Rank||All-Pro||Pro Bowl||10+ Sacks|
Sacks became an official statistic in 1982, and the sack leaderboard only recently matured to the point where the top is not loaded with active and recently retired players. The four players besides Peppers with 150-plus sacks—Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Kevin Greene, and Chris Doleman—are all in Canton. It's dangerous to think in terms of statistical plateaus when discussing the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but 150 sacks feels safe, especially since active sure HoFers Von Miller (106.0 sacks) and J.J. Watt (101.0) are unlikely to approach it.
Things get trickier as we move down the top 20. John Abraham (133.5 sacks), Leslie O'Neal (132.5), and Simeon Rice (122.0) have similar statistics to the sub-Peppers bunch listed above but never mounted serious Hall campaigns. So there's precedent for finishing in the top 20 or higher on the all-time sack list and not getting enshrined, (or, in Kevin Greene's case, waiting forever). That's especially true if a pass-rusher's portfolio, from a historic perspective, boils down to "lots of sacks and not much else."
That said, all the members of our Sack Pack have more to offer than just strings of double-digit sack seasons:
- Allen led the league in fumble recoveries and tackles for a loss and recorded four career safeties, in addition to leading the league in sacks twice.
- Freeney was named to the Hall of Fame's All-2000s team, played for a Super Bowl winner, forced 47 career fumbles (third on an all-time list that only dates to 1999) and possessed a legendary spin move that provided many of the "signature moments" some voters look for.
- Mathis forced 54 fumbles, making him the all-time leader. He led the league in forced fumbles three times.
- Suggs was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, helping the Ravens win the Super Bowl the next year. He also played for a legendary defense, which could work for him or against him.
- Ware led the NFL in tackles for a loss three times and helped the Denver Broncos win a championship, recording a pair of sacks in Super Bowl 50. (See: "signature moments.")
All of the awards and accomplishments beef up the portfolios of our Sack Pack, but no one tumbles into the "overwhelmingly qualified" category. In fact, Super Bowl rings, forced fumbles, and awards just make Allen, Freeney, Mathis, Suggs, and Ware look more similar to one another. That's a problem, because it's very likely that five solid Hall of Fame-worthy edge rushers will get stuck Three Stooges-style while trying to walk through the door to Canton at the same time and end up keeping each other from being enshrined for years.
A logjam occurs when three or more players with similar portfolios reach the finalist stage of the Pro Football Hall of Fame ballot at the same time. Such players inevitably split the ticket, resulting in none of them getting in for a year or three, followed by most of them trickling in over the course of many years once the jam is unclogged.
Offensive linemen Tony Boselli, Alan Faneca, Steve Hutchinson, and Kevin Mawae were stuck in a logjam recently. Faneca, Hutchinson, and Mawae in particular had similar resumes: interior linemen with long careers as Pro Bowlers for multiple teams. Based on my conversations with voters, nearly everyone agreed that all four players are worthy, but each voter prioritized them slightly differently. Mawae was enshrined in 2019, Hutchinson in 2020, and Faneca this year; Boselli is still waiting for his knock on the door.
Steve Atwater, LeRoy Butler, and John Lynch were stuck in a safety logjam for years, which was exacerbated by the fact that better-qualified safeties such as Brian Dawkins, Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed, and Charles Woodson kept getting shunted in front of them. Atwater is a member of the Class of 2020, Reed 2021. Butler, like Boselli, has a very strong chance of getting enshrined in 2022.
The most infamous Hal of Fame logjam was the Tim Brown/Cris Carter/Art Monk/Andre Reed fiasco of the mid-2000s. Each year, some combination of these receivers cancelled each other out on the final ballot. Carter got trapped in finalist purgatory from 2008 through 2012, Reed from 2007 until he was finally enshrined in 2014. That logjam was complicated by attitudes among some of the older voters of that era about modern receiving statistics; there was a lot of "these flag football receivers couldn't hold a candle to Paul Warfield" sentiment. Everyone eventually got in, but the selection committee took a lot of heat for taking so long on Carter in particular. This particular logjam coincided with the rise of the modern blogosphere, which gave hometown fans and gadflies like me lots of forums to publicly vent our frustrations.
Voters have told me that they do not really conspire to clear up logjams: "I'll vote for my guy this year if you promise to help my guy next year" is rarely if ever a thing. They also cannot tell by the tone of the committee meeting how a vote will go. Faneca was singled out as a player who would get glowing reviews in the group discussion, then end up sixth or seventh in the final vote. Some voters try to prioritize players who have been waiting for years, others stick with the players they think were the best of the group, which of course just clogs things up more. The committee meeting vote narrows the finalist list from 15 to 10 before whittling the list down to the five inductees, creating another instance where the voting method impacts the results. Sometimes, only one of the logjammed players cracks the top 10 and sails into the Hall of Fame. Other times, three of four of them clonk heads and fail to reach the top 10.
Logjams always result in local fans howling about "snubs." That's almost certainly what will happen when our Sack Pack starts to queue up. Someone with 125-plus sacks and lots of other accomplishments is going to wait many years before reaching the Hall of Fame. And one or two of them might not make it at all.
Take a Number
Here's my breakdown of how the Sack Pack will queue up:
DeMarcus Ware has the best portfolio of the group and may have the clearest path to enshrinement. Dallas voters don't have anyone better to focus upon right now, and Denver voters should be happy to pile on. Allen and Mathis are Ware's primary obstacles before others reach the ballot. Mathis will probably stall at the semifinalist stage this year, allowing the voters to either wave Ware or Allen (or both) through.
When I spoke to voters about the 2021 ballot in January, most simply said "not this year" when Jared Allen's name came up. With Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson, and Charles Woodson on the docket, there were only two available slots and lots of John Lynch types who had been waiting forever, so it was easy to pass on Allen. This year, the committee will have to take his case more seriously. I think Ware was a better player with a better case.
Dwight Freeney's peak was not as high as Ware's or Allen's, but he played on more memorable teams. "Innovator of the spin move" could actually be a big deal to many voters, both because it marks him as someone who redefined his position and because it captures the imagination.
Freeney could get in on his first ballot, though that ballot will be stacked with Joe Thomas and Darrelle Revis, as well as potentially teammate Mathis, Allen, and/or Ware and lots of others. If Freeney gets held up, he's likely to get blocked by Peppers in 2024 and could end up the No. 6 guy on the final ballot for a few years, resulting in lots of "what the hell were they thinking?" takes.
Robert Mathis is the Reggie Wayne of edge rushers: overshadowed by a teammate at the same position, hampered by the fact that most of his signature seasons occurred after his team's peak. (I call players such as Wayne, Mathis, and Torry Holt "Sammy Hagar" candidates). He could be on the Kevin Greene plan of having to wait over a decade. It's possible that he never makes the cut.
Terrell Suggs reminds me of Simeon Rice in many ways as a candidate. By the time voters get around to him, the rest of the Sack Pack will be on the docket (or will have just cleared through), and voters may decide that Ray Lewis and Ed Reed tell the story of the great Ravens defenses without the need of a third voice.
It's worth mentioning that Mario Williams is on the ballot this year and James Harrison will be among the 2023 class. Williams is not a serious candidate. Harrison, on the other hand, has two Super Bowl rings, a Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008, and both a supersized tough-guy reputation and a signature Super Bowl moment. He wasn't included among the Sack Pack because his career shape is different: high peak, relatively low career sack total. Harrison is at least likely to end up among the finalists a few times and could squeak past Mathis and Suggs in the minds of voters, who have a soft spot for larger-than-life characters (who were also awesome for several years). At any rate, Harrison will keep the logjam well jammed for the next decade or so.
The impending bottleneck of edge rushers illustrates just how high the Pro Football Hall of Fame bar is, and how the voting rules and practices inevitably force qualified candidates to wait years longer than they should. The order in which Allen, Freeney, Harrison, Mathis, Suggs, and Ware enter Canton (if all of them enter) will have less to do with their accomplishments, or even what year they retired in, than with who they share the ballot with and the vagaries of a voting procedure that's almost purposely designed to create split tickets.