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.
In 2013 I predicted three of the five modern-era players, and I had four correct in 2014. Last year I was only able to correctly predict Bettis and Seau. The latter was a given and the former is a controversial pick, but Bettis had unique size for a featured back to go along with durability and longevity, and his rushing success rate was great. I do not conceal the decade of fandom I had for Bettis in Pittsburgh, but his induction always felt like a lock and it was only a matter of time before he got the nod.
We'll enjoy the ceremony this weekend, but we're already trying to figure out who will follow this class next year.
The First-Ballot Nominees
No class since 1970 has had more than three first-ballot selections, and that is all but guaranteed not to change in 2016. In fact, three is the maximum number of players I expect to make the Hall of Fame from this first-ballot group of players who last played in the 2010 NFL season. The following list includes the most notable names with the players that should eventually make the Hall of Fame in bold.
- Flozell Adams (OT)
- Alan Faneca (OG)
- Brett Favre (QB)
- Joey Galloway (WR)
- Kris Jenkins (DT)
- Lawyer Milloy (SAF)
- Terrell Owens (WR)
- Julian Peterson (LB)
- Clinton Portis (RB)
- Trevor Pryce (DL)
- Darren Sharper (SAF)
- Fred Taylor (RB)
- Brian Westbrook (RB)
- Jamal Williams (DT)
- Pat Williams (DT)
Brett Favre has probably been a HOF lock since I was in sixth grade (1997-98). He will be the first quarterback inducted since Troy Aikman and Warren Moon in 2006. Yes, it has been that long since we watched a quarterback give an induction speech.
Alan Faneca actually joined Favre as his left guard on the 2008 Jets, but he may have to wait a few years to join Favre in Canton. His nine Pro Bowls and six first-team All-Pro selections mostly earned in Pittsburgh's run-heavy offense make him a lock, but not a first-ballot lock. Even Randall McDaniel (12 Pro Bowls and seven AP1s) had to wait three ballots. Voters are rarely in a hurry to put in a guard.
Let's get the elephant out of the room. Darren Sharper was a borderline candidate to begin with, and while the voters are told not to consider off-field incidents, there is no way a serial rapist is going to Canton. Even before the despicable news broke, Sharper faced the general struggle safeties have with getting into the HOF. This just gives the voters an easier time of casting him aside. The interesting part is whether or not Sharper will be on the preliminary list of nominees, which he should be given the rules of the process. A total of 113 names appeared on last year's list. Sharper's playing career was also likely good enough to make the top 25 semifinalists, but that seems improbable now, though it is something to keep an eye on. Even Jim Tyrer, who killed his wife and then himself in 1980, was a Hall of Fame finalist just a few months after the tragedy. But times have changed.
Clinton Portis, Fred Taylor, and Brian Westbrook were three really good running backs many of us enjoyed watching. Some better health and maybe one or two of them would be headed to Canton, but it's unlikely we'll see them move beyond the preliminary list.
The Case of Terrell Owens
Put Terrell Owens in the Hall of Fame? For who? For what?
OK, those last four words were famously uttered by another sanctimonious 49er-turned-Eagle in Ricky Watters, but you have to wonder how much Owens' ego will hurt him in the voting process. He did his share of damage to several locker rooms, most notably the way he handled the 2005 season in Philadelphia. After ripping management and clearly not getting along with quarterback Donovan McNabb, Owens was suspended by the Eagles and deactivated for the rest of the season. It's kind of funny he is on the same ballot as Favre, since in 2005 Owens said the Eagles would be undefeated if they had Favre instead of McNabb at quarterback. Owens didn't always insult his quarterbacks, and he finished his career quietly with the Bills (2009) and Bengals (2010). A comeback with the Seahawks in the 2012 preseason was short lived.
Strictly on the field, Owens was a HOF wide receiver. He had six top-eight finishes in DYAR, or as many as Marvin Harrison. Owens still ranks second in NFL history in receiving yards (15,934) and fifth in touchdowns scored (156). It's going to be a long time before someone scores 150 touchdowns again. Andre Johnson might pass Owens in receiving yards in a couple of years, but that's far from a given. Owens' numbers are going to be there, as will the memorable moments like his game-winning touchdown in the playoffs to beat Green Bay, the various touchdown celebrations, and his valiant effort on one leg in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Owens lacked the great hands of someone like Cris Carter, and didn't run routes as sharply as Marvin Harrison, but he was a bigger threat than either receiver, especially with the ball in his hands. Since he moved to new teams so often, we got to see him excel in multiple systems with various quarterbacks. The biggest knock on him was how good of a teammate he was (or, more accurately, was not), but there's no denying his production was great and helpful to his teams.
The other problem for Owens is that he's a wide receiver and he's entering a queue that already has Harrison, Torry Holt, and Isaac Bruce waiting for the same honor. The last three classes finally put in Cris Carter (2013), Andre Reed (2014), and Tim Brown (2015) after their long waits. There are 24 modern-era wide receivers in the HOF, and only five were chosen on their first ballot.
I think we'll see Owens inducted eventually, but based on history, he's going to have to eat a lot of popcorn as a spectator when these votes go down.
Senior Nominees and Contributors
The process has changed in regards to senior nominees and the new contributor category. Mick Tingelhoff is the only senior nominee going in this year, and Ron Wolf and Bill Polian are the first two to go in via the contributor category that allows for non-players and non-coaches to get a fairer shake. In 2016 and 2018, the classes will include two senior candidates and only one contributor, while 2017 and 2019 will have this year's setup of two contributors and one senior nominee.
My hardline stance: Jerry Kramer and Ken Anderson are the best guard and quarterback, respectively, not enshrined. They deserve to be the senior nominees, while I have no real insight (or input) on the contributor. It could be someone like former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue or George Young, five-time NFL Executive of the Year.
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The recent passing of quarterback Ken Stabler makes me wonder if he'll get a look as a senior nominee now. Stabler, Charlie Conerly, Ken Anderson, and Kurt Warner are the only four quarterbacks to ever be a Hall of Fame finalist, but not get inducted. Warner is likely to drop from that list, but Stabler remains one of the best quarterbacks not in the HOF. His best arguments may be the inclusion of George Blanda and Joe Namath. I'd rank Stabler ahead of both. They threw a lot of interceptions too, but unlike those guys, Stabler had all of his peak years in the NFL in the 1970s, the league's toughest defensive decade. He won an MVP (1974) and a Super Bowl (1976) with the Raiders and was great for a seven-year stretch (1973-79). Seven years may not sound long, but it really is when it comes to all-time quarterbacks. When I adjusted postseason passer ratings in 2014, Stabler ranked second between Anderson and Warner. He had the "big-game resume" and he was involved in several famous games that even have names. Clearly Stabler's exclusion has not been fully related to on-field performance, but with new voters, The Snake could slither his way into Canton eventually.
Tracking the Recent Nominees
Wanting to get a better feel for the paths that players take in the process, I collected data for each round of voting. Nominees are first put on a preliminary list that usually has at least 100 names. Since 2004, that list is whittled down to 25 modern-era semifinalists, or sometimes 26 or 27 given ties. Since 2007, 15 finalists are chosen to go along with the senior/contributor nominees. This is the group that gets voted on just before the Super Bowl in February. Voting results are available for the reduction vote that gets down to 10 nominees, then finally the last cut down to the five candidates who will ultimately be voted on for induction.
The following charts the path that each of the last 32 modern-era players (no coaches or senior nominees included) inducted into the HOF have taken for all the years they were eligible. Players are eligible five years after retirement and this goes back to the class of 2009. The first four ballots for Russ Grimm appear as "N/A" because I could not track down the preliminary list of nominees for 1997-2000. If anyone has these, please contact us.
On average these players waited through 4.1 ballots, with 12 first-ballot players hardly anyone would try disputing. Warren Sapp over Michael Strahan is the most debatable decision, but Strahan made it on his second ballot, making it 16 of the 32 players inducted after two ballots.
The name that sticks out like a sore thumb is Rickey Jackson. That red "UNL" means he was not even on the preliminarily list of nominees in 2001-03. There are over 70 names on those lists, but not Jackson. Even Al Smith (1987-1996 Oilers) made the list in 2003 instead of Jackson, who did not appear until 2004. Excluding Grimm, who likely was a preliminary choice early as one of The Hogs, the other 30 players all started out as a top-25 semifinalist.
Jackson's path to the Hall of Fame was unique for several reasons. You'll notice that most players either stay in the same round or advance in the process. Not many take a step back, though we did see Richard Dent go from top 10 to top 15 to a semifinalist, back to the top 10 for four years before finally getting the call. That's rare. Only seven of these 32 players moved back in the process. Usually a player moves up from being a semifinalist to the top 15, then the top 10 and in. Again, that's not Jackson's path.
The shocking part is how Jackson seems to have just "cut the line," if you will, in 2010 when he got inducted. He was a semifinalist in 2008, but never a finalist. For some reason, in 2010 he was picked for induction over players who were finalists multiple times like Cris Carter (three), Dermontti Dawson (two), Richard Dent (six), Cortez Kennedy (two), Andre Reed (four), and Shannon Sharpe (two). With all due respect to Jackson's career, he should have waited longer while the players considered more deserving got in first. I put on my Philip Marlowe hat and tried to do a little detective work on what happened in the Jackson vote, but did not find any revelations yet. Sometimes things just happen, but Jackson's induction sure looks way out of line with the usual process.
Studying the process for recent semifinalist players should help with predicting this year's class. Here are the paths of the 22 players who have been a semifinalist since 2004 and are still eligible.
Roger Craig flirted with the top 15 once, but the eight players listed above Kevin Greene all seem to be long-shots at this point. Greene has had a Haley-like climb to the top 10 in each of the last two votes. Meanwhile, Marvin Harrison, Orlando Pace, and Kurt Warner have all been in the top 10 in their four combined ballots.
If a player makes it to the top 10, he's likely to return the next year as the following table illustrates since 2007.
Top 10 Y+1