Hall of Fame Debates: Julian Edelman and the B-List Patriots
Julian Edelman is a Twitter Football Hall of Famer, which is very different from being a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
A Twitter Football Hall of Famer is a player who was successful and accomplished enough to convince hometown and casual fans that he has a case for Canton, and is also famous enough to "trend," in industry parlance. When such a player enters his retirement cycle, it immediately sparks a debate, because Hall of Fame content is incredibly easy to produce [winks at camera], and because stumping for a local hero is a great way to earn some regional engagement on a blog or podcast.
Some Twitter Football Hall of Famer arguments are sincere, especially when a hometown blogger or podcaster is making the case. A few are even well-informed, providing context about how the Pro Football Hall of Fame actually works, though most take the form of "he was really good and therefore omitting him would almost be a war crime." Some of the cases even have merit. When Edelman's contract with the Patriots was terminated in April, it prompted a Hall of Fame debate that was moderately sincere (there's hay to be made in my business from pandering to both the huge Patriots fanbase and haterbase), mostly ill-informed, and almost totally without merit.
Yes, Edelman ranks second to Jerry Rice in both playoff receptions and playoff yards. These are significant accomplishments, and all of the receivers in his neighborhood on those leaderboards are either enshrined, still active (Rob Gronkowski), finalists (Reggie Wayne), or frequently get mentioned as near Hall of Famers (Hines Ward, Cliff Branch).
Edelman's postseason and Super Bowl accomplishments would make a very strong line item in a Hall of Fame portfolio. Unfortunately, they are his entire Hall of Fame portfolio. Remove Edelman's "I'm with Brady" tee-shirt and he's a weaker candidate than Golden Tate or Emmanuel Sanders, two somewhat similar contemporaries with much better stats (and Super Bowl rings) who won't come within a mile of a finalist vote. Edelman is not a borderline candidate. He's on the borderline between being a borderline candidate and just another name to fill out semifinalist lists for a few years.
But in addition to being a Twitter Football Hall of Famer, Edelman is also a 1960s-style Pro Football Hall of Famer. His case comes down to the fact that he was an important contributor to great teams, which is about all that Lynn Swann, Paul Hornung, or John Stallworth have to offer. As I talked about in the Bengals essay, playoff performances were a big deal 50 years ago, when fans and even national media members had limited opportunities to watch out-of-market regular season games. In a less-sophisticated era, Edelman might have built a case out of being a clutch big-game player, with voters waxing poetically about his Super Bowl achievements and overlooking the fact that his team replaced him with a similar guy for entire seasons with no noticeable dropoff. Or he might not have: even the most dedicated Cheesehead historians don't really stump for Max McGee or Boyd Dowler as Hall of Famers.
As we sort through Hall of Fame debates for the Brady/Belichick Patriots, we need to be wary of applying circular reasoning: the Patriots deserve lots of Hall of Famers like the Steel Curtain Steelers and Lombardi Packers, and this guy belongs in the Hall of Fame because he played for the Patriots. Just because a not-that-historically-great player or three rode into Canton on a dynasty train doesn't mean that the committee should keep compounding that mistake.
At any rate, the Brady-Belichick Patriots will be well represented in Canton without the need to get silly.
Hall of Fame Patriots: Beyond Brady and Belichick
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will be, of course, first-ballot Hall of Famers. Rob Gronkowski will also be a first-ballot selection. Adam Vinatieri is destined to join Morten Andersen and Jan Stenerud as the only pure kickers in the Hall of Fame (Justin Tucker will become the fourth in about 20 years, but that's a separate article). Robert Kraft will someday be inducted, and you are welcome to have feelings about owners in the Hall of Fame. (I have none.)
Randy Moss, Ty Law, and Junior Seau already represent the Brady-era Patriots; Seau's contributions to the Patriots were relatively minor, but he was a regular for the 16-0 team in 2007, so he counts. That's seven non-ownership Hall of Famers—not a bad haul, but perhaps a little light for a team that dominated the NFL for 20 years. So let's see who else might make the cut.
Richard Seymour will be a fourth-time finalist on the 2022 ballot. Voters are aware that Seymour is "better than his stats" and have heard glowing testimonials about him from coaches/teammates/opponents, so they know he is great. Seymour is basically stuck in the DMV line at this point; eventually, he'll move to the front of the long-time finalist queue the way Alan Faneca and John Lynch did on this year's ballot. I would not be surprised if Seymour is inducted in January.
Vince Wilfork enters his first year of eligibility this year. He could sneak into the Finalist stage right away, which would only cause confusion and delay for Seymour. It's more likely that Wilfork hovers in semifinalist limbo for many years.
Based on articles such as this one and this one, many Patriots observers think Wilfork is a surefire Hall of Famer. (Again: hometown, context-free, "he was really good" reasoning.) One major stumbling block is that Kevin Williams and Haloti Ngata, among others, were considered better defensive tackles than Wilfork during his late-2000s peak. Williams is currently working his way toward the finalist stage; he'll be inducted into the Vikings Ring of Honor this year, which will jog some memories.
Wilfork's candidacy, like Edelman's, boils down to the fact that he played for the Patriots. It won't be a miscarriage of justice if he gets in. It WILL be a miscarriage of justice if he gets in before Kevin Williams.
Wes Welker is probably never going to mount a serious Hall of Fame campaign, and that's illustrative both of just how high the bar for enshrinement is and how skeptical voters are about certain types of players.
Welker led the league in receptions three times, played with both Brady and Peyton Manning, and can lay a reasonable claim to being one of the pioneers of the slot receiver position. I am 100% certain that a few of the folks who stumped for Edelman as a Hall of Famer in early spring were lumping Welker's accomplishments together with Edelman's in their minds, adding Danny Amendola and maybe Danny Woodhead to the mix to create a Fan Favorite Slot Gundam.
A receiver with Welker's regular season numbers and Edelman's postseason accomplishments might well be a Hall of Famer. But neither Welker (whose Super Bowl "defining moment" is a critical drop) nor Edelman is that player. Also, voters have long been wary of possession receivers who pile up high catch totals, and that skepticism will likely carry over to slot receivers in the years to come. Voters like deep threats at wide receiver because the coaches, personnel guys, and defenders they talk to generally single out the deep threats as guys they most worried about each week. Lynn Swann made the Hall of Fame mostly because of opponent's testimonials, with five billion NFL Films reruns of Super Bowl X also playing a role.
I would vote for Welker before Wilfork and well before Edelman. But I have never heard similar sentiment from an actual voter.
Tedy Bruschi is not remotely qualified for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Nor are Mike Vrabel or Willie McGinest. None are likely to ever mount serious campaigns. Devin McCourty is in a similar predicament: he has been a heart-and-soul guy on the Patriots defense for years, but he flunks the black ink and stars-and-crosses tests. I'm sympathetic to these players, and I believe they might have been named to All-Pro teams in the 1960s or 1970s by virtue of being leaders on great defenses. But they are simply underqualified as Hall of Fame candidates.
Rodney Harrison is a more interesting case. I believe that Harrison was underrated for most of his Chargers career; he earned All-Pro status in 1998 but was playing at a similar level in 1996 and 1997, when he was overlooked because he played for weak Chargers teams. (For a similar example, Jessie Bates might earn an All-Pro nod with another great season in 2021 but has deserved consideration for at least two years.) Harrison went on to All-Pro-caliber seasons for the 2003 and 2004 Patriots Super Bowl teams and was still a productive starter as of 2007. His headhunter reputation made him few friends and makes him a dicey player to endorse nowadays (cheap shots went from charming to abhorrent in 1990 or so), but Harrison could get picked up by the Seniors committee in some far-flung future.
Stephon Gilmore has built the kernel of a rather strong Hall of Fame argument over the last three years. I could see him generating real buzz about a decade from now if he has a few more strong seasons. I have trouble thinking of Gilmore as a "classic" Brady/Belichick Patriots contributor, but that's neither here nor there: the Patriots neither reach Super Bowl LII or win LIII without him, so he's a Patriot forever.
Logan Mankins made the Hall of Fame's All-Decade Team for the 2010s. He earned seven Pro Bowl berths, one with the Buccaneers, so his candidacy is by no means ridiculous. Anyone who remembers the hubbub when the Patriots traded Mankins just before the start of the 2014 season, however, realizes that there's an inherent contradiction undermining his claim to all-time greatness. If your team can replace you without missing a beat, it's hard to argue that you were that much more than a product of the system. It's the same issue that hampers any Welker case and torpedoes Edelman.
And now we have arrived at nine-time Pro Bowl and two-time All Pro special-teamer Mathew Slater.
I love Slater. He has been one of my favorite Super Bowl week and post-Super Bowl interviews. He indeed belongs with Steve Tasker and Bill Bates on the all-time short list of special teams greats. I hope he retires to a television gig, a chain of preowned vehicle dealerships, and decades of happiness surrounded by loved ones. That said:
- The Pro Bowl balloting for special-teamers is a name recognition contest. Even the most unabashed Patriots homer knows that Slater now gets Pro Bowl votes for being the only famous special-teamer in the league. Pounding the table and shouting "nine-time Pro Bowler" will only make well-informed folks toss Slater's case in the same bin as three-time All-Pro "fullback" Mike Alstott.
- Stanning for Slater, Tasker, Devin Hester, Cordarrelle Patterson or anyone else is fun until the moment you have to tell LeRoy Butler, Tony Boselli, Zach Thomas, Richard Seymour, or some other career starter "yeah, sorry, you must wait as a finalist for another year while so we can honor the guy who played 20 snaps per game."
Career special-teamers, like career middle relievers or utility infielders, make contributions to their teams which, while significant, do not qualify them for Hall of Fame consideration except under unusual circumstances. (To strain this analogy, kickers are more like relief aces).
Seymour will give the Patriots eight on-field Hall of Famers. My guess is that they will end up with 10: Wilfork or Mankins will work their way onto the ballot, Gilmore will cement his reputation, Slater may succeed where Tasker failed, Welker's reputation will grow as memories fade, or so forth.
The Lombardi Packers have 14, but what's done is done: lots of guys have airtight resumes because they were All-Pros for the greatest team of the century in a 14-team NFL, and I'm not going to argue against any of them except the one who was suspended for betting on his own games. The Steel Curtain Steelers are represented by 11 Hall of Famers. but the final choices were a little dubious. The Joe Montana/Steve Young 49ers, on the other hand, are represented by just eight Hall of Famers as of now. The more sophisticated our stats, the better our access to actual film, the more egalitarian our daily/weekly coverage of teams, the harder it gets for a dynasty to just churn out Hall of Famers. And that's a good thing.
The Patriots Way
The Belichick-Brady Patriots are ultimately victims of their own reputation when it comes to Hall of Fame discussions. Brady benefitted from playing with Moss and Gronk, but he is best known for the interchangeability of his weapons, from Troy Brown and Deion Branch through all the aforementioned slot guys to the many not-so-greats he threw to at the end of his Patriots career. Belichick the defensive genius is known for being able to adapt his scheme to the available talent, and Belichick the personnel guru was a master of renting the services of late-career veterans or failed prospects, and of letting apparent stars turn into role players after signing elsewhere. The vaunted Patriots Way, even with all the hornswoggle pumped out of it, was all about creating a whole much better than the sum of its parts. It's hard to worship at the altar of Brady, Belichick, and the "do your job" philosophy for 20 years, then turn around and demand that all of the rank-and-file "cogs" who were shuffled in and out the lineup get singled out for recognition.
From a "story of the NFL" standpoint, the Patriots will be well represented in Canton without Edelman or the other lower-tier candidates. Digging into their second tier of stars simply to flesh out their total number of Hall of Famers is a little like burying scribes and servants to attend to pharaoh in the afterlife. Brady's bust won't need anyone to throw quick slants to. Belichick's bust won't need linebackers and safeties to move around the chessboard. And the Patriots don't need to add any almost-greats to the Hall of Fame for validation of their greatness. Two decades of absolute dominance should be all the validation they need.