Why Is Zach Thomas a Hall of Fame Snub?
NFL Offseason - Zach Thomas. Randy Gradishar. Devin Hester. Steve Smith and Andre Johnson. I solicited questions on Twitter for a Pro Football Hall of Fame argument mailbag, and folks rounded up the usual suspects! That tells me that folks really do want to hear more about some of the players who have been stuck in the finalist waiting room or have topped the all-time "snub list" for years. So let's get right to it!
Homer Suggestion (for the Pro Football Hall of Fame): Zach Thomas
That's hardly a homer selection! Thomas is a three-time finalist! He will likely queue in next year.
I assumed Thomas would get in with the 2022 class, but from what I have gathered, the Sam Mills Brigade fought with their backs to the wall, knowing (and reminding the other voters) that Mills would be remanded to the Seniors Committee if he didn't make it this year. Thomas has no such ticking clock, so he was asked to wait his turn.
Some folks on Twitter mentioned that Thomas has a glowing Peyton Manning endorsement, which is indeed true and I know has been discussed in committee. Thomas also has less-than-glowing reviews from some old-school "blood-'n'-guts" coaches who considered him a product of his system who rarely had to take on interior offensive linemen. Such negative reviews are unlikely to sabotage Thomas' candidacy, but they were enough to get him shunted behind candidates such as John Lynch, Tony Boselli, and others who had been waiting longer anyway.
@Broncos LBs Randy Gradishar and Karl Mecklenburg were both elite players in their era... why aren't they in?
—Dr. Nicholas Manning
Gradishar was the Zach Thomas of his era: some ultra-ultra-traditionalist coaches didn't like the Broncos' 3-4 defense of the 1970s much and thought it allowed Gradishar to rack up tackles/stats/accolades. He also had a relatively short peak. The enshrinement committees of the 1990s had rings on the brain, and just about the worst thing a player could do was play for a team that lost the Super Bowl (see: various Minnesota Vikings of the 1970s who were forced to wait for many, many years).
Mecklenburg's candidacy was not as strong as Gradishar's, Teammate Steve Atwater was the higher-priority player on the Broncos voters' non-Elway agenda, and it took Atwater a trillion years to get in. There really was an implicit anti-Broncos bias in the voting 20-plus years ago, born from both the Raiders rivalry and that lingering stigma about losing Super Bowls. It's important to remember that enshrinement committee membership changes over the decades: 20 to 25 years ago, it was still populated by some very provincial, somewhat catty fedoras-and-typewriters columnists from olden times (as well as some brilliant national voices).
The good news for Gradishar (at least) is that the Hall has changed the rules: three Senior Committee selections can be inducted per year over the next three years. That should create a clearinghouse for all of the usual suspects on the all-time snub lists.
Prove your "every town has its linebacker" adage. For every team, give the linebacker whose home fans claim is being snubbed by the hall of fame.
Here we go:
Buffalo Bills: London Fletcher, Cornelius Bennett
Miami Dolphins: Zach Thomas
New England Patriots: Tedy Bruschi
New York Jets: None, but Joe Klecko fills this spot in their nostalgia ecosystem.
Baltimore Ravens: Terrell Suggs
Cincinnati Bengals: Bill Bergey? Nah. The Bengals have a favorite snub at every position except linebacker.
Cleveland Browns: Clay Matthews Jr.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Greg Lloyd.
Houston Texans: None
Indianapolis Colts: Mike Curtis
Jacksonville Jaguars: None
Tennessee Titans: It was Robert Brazile (for the Oilers) before the Seniors Committee inducted him in 2018. Now none.
Denver Broncos: Randy Gradishar
Las Vegas Raiders: Rod Martin, Phil Villapiano
Los Angeles Chargers: None, though I am guessing there are Woodrow Lowe stans out there.
Kansas City Chiefs: E.J. Holub. Just kidding! The Hall of Fame has been extremely kind to the Chiefs.
Dallas Cowboys: Ken Norton, Lee Roy Jordan
New York Giants: Carl Banks, Jesse Armstead
Philadelphia Eagles: Bill Bergey, Seth Joyner
Washington Franchise: London Fletcher
Chicago Bears: All of their linebackers get in.
Detroit Lions: Wayne Walker
Green Bay Packers: Clay Matthews III in a few years
Minnesota Vikings: Matt Blair
Atlanta Falcons: Tommy Nobis (A great example of a guy only local fans think is a Hall of Famer, usually because their dads said so.)
Carolina Panthers: Sam Mills until this year. Luke Kuechly until he gets in. Thomas Davis forever after.
New Orleans Saints: Sam Mills until this year. Demario Davis if they ever let him retire in peace.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Hardy Nickerson. Lavonte David forever after.
Arizona Cardinals: None
Los Angeles Rams: Isiah Robertson
San Francisco 49ers: NaVorro Bowman
Seattle Seahawks: Bobby Wagner is too qualified a candidate. Kam Chancellor will end up filling in as an honorary homer favorite.
Yeah, some of those are reaches. (Check out Isiah Robertson though.) But many towns have their linebacker, or a gritty defensive tackle or safety. And a few that don't were only appeased over the last five years or so.
After Adrian Peterson gets in, what will be the stats and awards profile of the next running back to be inducted? Is he the last running back to get in or will the expectations change?
There has always been a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for running backs with incredibly high peaks and relatively short careers: Gale Sayers, Earl Campbell, Terrell Davis. Derrick Henry could have leapt into the Hall of Fame conversation quickly with a second 2,000-yard season in 2021. And while I doubt it will happen, he could do so this year, adding Comeback Player of the Year (he's +300—don't do it!) to his portfolio. Henry could also do a Jerome Bettis-type thing where he becomes a lovable battering ram who hangs around for years and is always in the playoffs.
Running backs with Adrian Peterson-length peaks have always been rare and will only become rarer. I don't believe there's a single active running back that's truly on a Hall of Fame track of any substance right now; saying "Jonathan Taylor might have five more great years" is as substantive as saying "Kirk Cousins could still lead his teams to three Super Bowls."
Someday soon, running backs will be as rare on the finalist ballot as specialists. That's hard to imagine, but guards were the most important players on the field 90 years ago, middle linebackers 40 years ago. The game evolves.
DeMarcus Ware should've been a first ballot Hall of Famer…so you agree? If not, why?
I wrote about Ware and other edge rushers last year. Regular readers know I bristle at the phrase "first ballot Hall of Famer" when applied to sub-Brady level humans. Ware entered the ballot in the same year as Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson, and Charles Woodson. If you think all four of them deserved to get in on the first ballot, then you must not think much of Alan Faneca, Tony Boselli, LeRoy Butler, and others who had been waiting for years at that point.
Ware was one of several finalists who lost out on the 2022 ballot when the Sam Mills bloc went into now-or-never mode and former opponents came out of the woodwork to cape for Bryant Young. He's still on pace to be inducted at some point.
Thoughts on special teams players making the hall? Vinatieri and Hester come to mind.
Based on my conversations with voters in January, I think Devin Hester will reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame sometime in the next five years. He has some enthusiastic support among both his peers and voters.
Adam Vinatieri is a Hall of Famer. He may make it in on the first ballot, because the committee will think "he's getting in eventually, so do we really want to debate about a kicker for three years?"
Justin Tucker will also be a Hall of Famer in 20 years or so.
Former Raiders punter Shane Lechler was a five-time All Pro, the first-team punter for the All-2000s Team, and the second-team punter (behind Johnny Hekker) for the All-2010s Team. I don't think that's enough for him to make the Hall of Fame, because we're facing serious wide receiver and edge rusher logjams over the next series of ballots, but anything can happen if he seeps into the finalist category. Not to be a "ringz" guy, but I would like my Hall of Fame punter to have some postseason heroics in his portfolio. (Remember that AFC Championship Game when he pinned Patrick Mahomes at his own 5-yard line three times?)
Matthew Slater and his 10 Pro Bowls as a special teamer inevitably work their way into this conversation. I love Slater, and I think he does have some postseason heroics to point to (check out the Falcons' fourth-quarter field position in Super Bowl LI), but I hate the silly "count the stars and rings" argument. If Slater's a Hall of Famer, so is Lechler, and we should look at Mike Alstott (three-time All Pro!) and Brian Mitchell (second to Jerry Rice on the all-time all-purpose yardage list!), not to mention all the role players and equipment managers who got their rings from Tom Brady.
If Patriots fans really think Slater deserves enshrinement, they should give up on other tertiary candidates such as Julian Edelman and focus a campaign on him. The end result, however, would probably be a Steve Tasker situation, where the delegates move heaven and earth to get their guy to the semifinalist stage and lose a chance to cape for someone such as Devin McCourty (Kent Hull in Tasker's case).
Mike, I'd like your view on Tony Boselli and the HOF (not Bruce Smith).
In case you missed it, Bruce Smith took umbrage to one of the planks in the platform Tony Boselli's supporters used to finally get him inducted into the 2022 class: that Boselli soundly defeated Smith when they faced off during their peaks. Smith called such campaigning "underhanded" and claimed it sets a "horrible precedent."
First of all, it did not set any precedent: voters have been building portfolios around a candidate's performance against his top rivals for decades.
Secondly, I've heard the "Boselli crushed Smith" discussion directly from voters a few times over the years. The tale may have gotten a little tall in the retelling, but there was nothing "underhanded" about it. The story was just used to prove that Boselli wasn't just one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL during his brief peak, but one of the best in history during that peak. Having watched Boselli in that era, that gibes with the perception of him at the time. But Boselli played at about the same time as Walter Jones, Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace, and Willie Roaf, who all had longer peaks, and then he got stuck on the ballot for years with Steve Hutchinson, Alan Faneca, and Kevin Mawae, all long-tenured, much-decorated interior linemen. He finally made it into the 2022 class because the queue cleared out and there were no Peyton Manning types in the EZ Pass lane, not because the voters wanted to diss Bruce Smith.
Smith's comments illustrate my point about leaving the voting in the hands of my colleagues, not ex-players. Some folks think that letting players vote would depoliticize the Pro Football Hall of Fame, because journos shun players who denied us a locker room interview in 2003 or whatever. In reality, it would give future edge rushers the chance to say, "he never blocked me without holding!" about someone like Andre Whitworth, then they'd enshrine the ex-teammates who run the best charity golf tournaments.
Some actual MAIL for Joey Huey: One thought I have had over the years is that the hall should consider units for induction. I.E. offensive line, the whole offense or defense. This addresses several issues of equity, (why so many QB's when there are 5 times as many lineman & it's hard to throw the ball when you are running for your life) that people have raised. Football is a team sport and the recognition of units would be appropriate. I know that this isn't your call, but what do you think?
That's the sort of thing that makes a great exhibit at a Hall of Fame. Come to Canton this year for the Legion of Boom Experience. Also, see how you size up next to the Hogs in our 1980s wing!
In general, I think the Pro Football Hall of Fame could do a much better job of a) providing an immersive fan experience for folks who actually visit; and b) informing fans of what the Hall itself has to offer besides a bunch of bronze busts. It would be great to visit Canton and discover a little shrine to Buddy Ryan's Eagles or a 1970s section set up like the tailgate outside a Vikings playoff game (it could be set in a walk-in freezer).
The PFHoF does not do a very good job of creating such experiences, in part because it is poorly funded, in part because while baseball's Hall of Fame is nestled beside a picturesque lake in a mountain resort town, football's is off an interstate exit with nothing else (not even a respectable sports pub) around it. Cooperstown blankets visitors in Americana. Canton makes visitors want to drive to Cleveland. That's not the PFHoF's fault—I think the hall should be moved, but that's a separate article—but it is the Hall's burden if it wants folks like me to visit as customers/tourists, something I have not done in 25 years.
Anyway, I know that many readers are concerned about the "equity" issues in the Hall of Fame. I am also aware of what our site traffic would look like if I wrote about Dion Dawkins and Josh Allen equally often. Quarterbacks are more important, valuable and famous than any other players. Their contributions to the game are significantly greater than those who block for them or try to sack them. I have no problem with their disproportionate representation in the PFHoF. And if we look at where the bar is really set, as opposed as to where Twitter attention-seekers wish to set it, I think we'll find it's in a rather reasonable place.
Do you think the voters will need to change the policy of not considering 'non-football' related aspects of a potential HOFers life? Imo there is potential for some tone deaf conversation on inductees.
I can imagine the PFHoF governors themselves declaring some candidate to be ineligible in a really extreme case, thereby taking matters out of the committee's hands. Otherwise, nobody wants the committee arbitrating morality like baseball voters do: not the Hall, not the fans, not the committee.
As for tone-deaf arguments, we're all engaging in them every day on talk shows, during broadcasts, and in comment threads. It's the bed we all sleep in. Why should the committee be exempt?
I am fascinated by the WR logjam. A lot of guys with huge numbers/accolades that aren't in. Only a few will get in before Julio, AB, Nuk, and Fitz and others retire/become eligible.How would you rate the HOF cases of: Reggie Wayne, Steve Smith Sr., Andre Johnson, Torry Holt, Hines Ward, Anquan Boldin?
Hines Ward: Not a serious candidate. Stuck in semifinalist purgatory where he belongs. Maybe if Julian Edelman climbs onto his shoulders they can go in together.
Anquan Boldin: I love him, but his career accomplishments don't really stack up. Too many of the guys in the group you mentioned have similar-but-better cases.
Reggie Wayne and Torry Holt: They keep crashing into each other on the ballot for the double knockout. Both are also overshadowed by their more famous receiver teammates (Marvin Harrison and Isaac Bruce), which is why I call them the Sammy Hagar candidates. (Boldin is also a bit of a Red Rocker.) I know some voters feel like both could easily slide into the Hall of Very Good category. Others are stanning hard for them. I think they eventually squeeze in. But as you point out, there's a problem looming:
Steve Smith and Andre Johnson: Smith may have the strongest case of this group: not statistically, but from the "wow, remember what that guy did?" standpoint. Andre Johnson is now a finalist and probably has a stronger case than Wayne or Holt.
One likely scenario is that everyone gets queued up in order of years as a finalist and they all seep in one at a time over the course of several years: Holt, Bruce, Johnson, Smith. Just in time for Larry Fitzgerald and the next wave to crash on the shore.
All love for Bill Cowher, but his HOF profile (149 wins, 1 Super Bowl win in 2 appearances) opens the door for others. Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Pete Carroll, Mike Tomlin, Sean Payton, and John Harbaugh have a similar resume now. Who do you see getting in? I think Shanahan and Holmgren should be no brainers.
That Centennial Class, with all it's loopy selections, is gonna be the gift that keeps on giving for years to come! I don't think Bill Cowher is going to establish some new (low) benchmark for coaching eligibility. But the other reason why the future door may be open for lots of coaches is that coaches/contributors have been shifted to a separate ballot since 2016. That should keep non-Belichick level coaches from getting swamped because they share the finalist ballots with players.
Bill Belichick and Andy Reid are the two obvious Hall of Fame coaches currently active. Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh, and Pete Carroll are probably next due to their winning percentages, playoff victories, etc. Whether or not they get in may be based on what they accomplish next and when they retire in relation to each other or Belichick/Reid.
Holmgren and Shanahan are interesting cases because both earn high marks as "innovators" as coaches, but both stuck around long enough to complicate their legacies a bit. Shanahan, in particular, was a pill, and may need to wait for the memories of some of his peers to fade and the accomplishments of his son and his spiritual nephews to further mount.
You didn't mention Tom Coughlin! I think he has a stronger case than Holmgren, if not Shanahan, but left an even more bitter taste in the mouths of many.
Have you written about Ronde Barber?
I will now.
Barber's name does not come up much when I talk to voters about the finalist ballot. When it does, there's skepticism about Barber's reputation as a Cover-2 cornerback. Real Hall of Famers cover their receivers 40 yards down the field without safety help! It's a variation on the same knock that keeps Thomas on the backburner and will keep slot receivers out for a long, long time: a purity test for an idealized brand of football (which only existed, if at all, for a few years in the mid-1970s), perpetrated by the older voters and the older players/coaches they talk to.
I personally think Ronde should be considered a pioneer of modern cornerback play. But it's tricky to find a place for him on the priority queue. Thomas deserves to get in before Barber. Ware too. I don't have a major problem with waving Darrelle Revis through while Barber waits. As always, it's easier to talk about who is "deserving" in an abstract sense than it is to assemble a five-player ballot that does not leave several important candidates out.
Thanks for your emails and tweets! Next week: exciting new evidence in the Ken Anderson Hall of Fame case. And in two weeks, that's right, we're doing it, hold onto your hats for…