Devin Hester, First-Ballot Hall of Famer?
NFL Super Bowl - Devin Hester sounded like the longest of the Pro Football Hall of Fame longshots among the 15 finalists in the 2022 class until I spoke to a few of the actual voters last month.
"In my mind, the closest thing to a lock is Devin Hester," one voter told me, prior to the annual Hall of Fame selection meeting a few weeks ago. "I am very bullish on him. I'm going to vote for him all the way through. I think that he's one of the most electric players that I ever watched."
Wow. But that's just one voter. Others rely more heavily on the testimonials they solicit from their contact lists of old players, coaches, and executives.
"It shocks me how much support Hester is getting," a second voter said. "He has earned an enormous respect among folks who played the game."
Gosh. So should we brace for a truly shocking announcement this week: the enshrinement of the PFHoF's first-ever full-time return specialist?
Not so fast. "I think he will get in at some point," the second voter cautioned. "But I will be 100% absolutely shocked if he gets in on the first ballot."
Hester's support among all-time great coaches and players—which carries enormous sway among voters—may be artificially inflated by the way most folks think of the Hall of Fame. Like fans, an old coach might see three linebackers on the ballot and select one to be "his guy." Torry Holt, Reggie Wayne, and Andre Johnson? Pick your horse. That same coach then sees Hester's name and thinks, "Wow, he was amazing!" without considering how his accomplishments might stand up to others at the same position or at other positions.
Hall of Fame voters, on the other hand, are forced to make exactly those considerations.
The second voter, again: "When you step back for a moment you think: Devin Hester, greatest return man of all time, amazing player. But was he better than Torry Holt? They tried to make Hester a wide receiver. He couldn't do it. They tried to make him a cornerback. He couldn't do it. How do you reward that? If we made Steve Smith a return man for his entire career, how phenomenal would he be?"
A persuasive argument, but it won't necessarily sway everyone. "I think Hester was a more impactful player than the receivers on this list," the first voter said.
It seems as if the Hester debate among the voters on this year's Zoom call sounded a little like the Hester debate on the Football Outsiders comment threads, on Twitter, and anywhere else such things are discussed.
One thing is certain: none of the voters laughed off Hester's candidacy.
A Wide-Open Ballot; A Solemn Oath
Normally, I dial up seven or eight voters each January and chew their ears about the finalist class. But this year, the folks in charge of the voting changed the procedures: voters left the Zoom call knowing the names of this year's enshrinees. (In the past, the final ballots were tabulated after voters left the physical conference room.) As such, voters were sworn to absolute secrecy, and I canceled many of my calls, lest I ask a friend or colleague to violate omertà.
Still, I was able to chat with a few voters before the Cone of Silence fell. Also, I have been doing this for years, giving me a backlog of past opinions to draw from.
As usual, it sounded like this year's voters entered the chat with relatively open minds, a belief that most or all of the finalists deserve enshrinement and no clue how things would turn out.
"This is going to be one of the big mystery years," one voter told me.
"It's the wildest, most wide-open race I've ever seen," another said. "There's no clear runaway top guy. But it's wide-open with a caveat: it's a great cleanup year, so guys who have been sticking around a while will probably get in."
"Anyone who has paid attention to the process for a number of years would be able to look at this ballot and say: 'I can see who's actually going to make it,'" that voter continued. "But to any Joe Fan who doesn't pay attention to the process, it looks more wide open."
In other words, my gut instincts are likely to be correct, and this will likely be a clearinghouse year for several longtime finalists, starting with Tony Boselli.
One voter: "Boselli made Derrick Thomas disappear. He drove Bruce Smith to insanity. He made Jason Taylor look like a child. But he had to wait behind guys who he was every bit as good as, if not better, because they all played longer. They all deserved to get in ahead of him. But after a while, you have to recognize pure greatness."
Another voter is less optimistic: "This is a big year for Tony Boselli. How many times is he going to get knocked off? At some point you say, 'you know what? We're not voting for Boselli, so let's move on.' Kevin Mawae and Alan Faneca [who, along with Steve Hutchinson, split the offensive line balloting with Boselli for many years before each was enshrined] basically killed Boselli. And they both deserved to get in. But maybe this year a bunch of people will say, 'hey, Willie Anderson's career was twice as long as Boselli's.' Who knows?"
Speaking of Anderson, Boselli's candidacy will have a direct impact on the first-time finalist. "If we don't get Boselli off the list, Willie Anderson might never make it," one voter said, noting a potential split ballot at tackle. "Willie Anderson should be praying right now that Boselli gets in."
"I voted for Willie Anderson to reach the finals," said another voter, speaking before the wild-card round of the playoffs. "He was a really good player for a sh*t franchise. I'm not sure if he belongs, but I'd like to hear his case."
Longtime finalist Zach Thomas, like Boselli, may benefit from the arrival of Patrick Willis on the ballot. Willis is not a strong enough candidate to leapfrog Thomas, but he is strong enough to spur the committee to start processing linebackers. "Is Willis a more menacing, prototypical middle linebacker than Zach Thomas? Yes. Was Thomas a better overall player because he did it for 15 years? Yes. So Willis will wait, and 49ers fans will scream. But that's how it works."
Along the same lines, Bryant Young could be the player who pushes Richard Seymour over the top. "I've had a lot of people call about Bryant Young. I get calls from people who I never hear from, which tells me a lot about how good he is. But I've got Richard Seymour on the ballot. So it's hard to envision Young jumping over everybody "
One voter said that either Torry Holt or Reggie Wayne is likely to get in this year because of Andre Johnson and the backlog of solid receivers (Steve Smith, Anquan Boldin, others on the way) growing in the semifinalist pool. But I sense another logjam coming at wide receiver.
"I'm more bullish on Andre Johnson than Reggie Wayne or Torry Holt, even though he's not as impressive numbers-wise," our first voter told me. "We have to look at receivers well beyond statistics at this point. We have to ask, who was really a dominant player? Who was a handful?"
Again, not everyone is as bullish. Another voter: "Andre is just Andre. As a little bit overrated as he is, Andre is still Andre."
And then there are the edge rushers.
"People have to determine how significant sacks are. When someone gets to X sacks, is it like 500 home runs? Is there a magic number of sacks that gets DeMarcus Ware and Jared Allen in?" We discussed this very concept in Walkthrough back in summertime.
Another voter: "DeMarcus Ware is the closest of the first-year guys to being a first-ballot selection, but he's not really close. Bill Parcells drafted him, and he's a player out of a Parcells wet dream. He's the guy who gets off the bus and everyone says, 'Holy shit.' And he lived up to that rep. But he's not Bruce Smith."
And so it goes.
It does not sound like Sam Mills has the support to pierce this ballot. Mills has been a fringe finalist for years, and his case will soon be remanded to the seniors committee. Ronde Barber's name has barely come up in conversations over the last two years, which is a bad sign for his candidacy. One voter warned me that LeRoy's Butler's support among old-timey legends is not as strong as his support on Twitter: Butler may get processed through as a longtime finalist like Boselli and Thomas, but he's lower on the priority queue.
Seniors finalist Cliff Branch, coaching finalist Dick Vermeil, and contributor's finalist Art McNally are in, as the main committee's main role in their enshrinement is ceremonial.
Beyond that, there's a sense that the voters were more eager to discuss Hester and Anderson for the first time than to rehash old Boselli stories again. "I have a feeling that some voters want to get some different candidates and cases in the room," one voter said.
Whether that means the voters wave the Boselli-Thomas group through in a year with no Peyton Manning to deal with or washes their hands of them is a closely guarded secret. But I am guessing it's the former: the committee has been unofficially queuing players as a survival strategy for dealing with the backlog of qualified candidates for over a decade, and it would be strange for them to suddenly draw the line now.
Walkthrough's Ballot (If I had one): Tony Boselli, LeRoy Butler, Sam Mills, Richard Seymour, Zach Thomas.
Walkthrough's Prediction: Jared Allen, Tony Boselli, Torry Holt, Richard Seymour, Zach Thomas.
Around the League
It has been quite a week in NFL news, and Walkthrough was dodging raindrops in Mobile for the Senior Bowl (check out some coverage here and here) or drying out in the home office for much of it. Let's catch up, briefly.
Jaguars hire Doug Pederson as Head Coach
Here's former Packers exec Andrew Brandt on Pederson:
On a more serious note, have known Doug Pederson for over 20 years, since we were negotiating his contract every year (always one-year deals, no agent). He was a joy to have at the Packers and always a calming influence on Brett. Jags got a good one.
Good coach, better guy.
— Andrew Brandt (@AndrewBrandt) February 4, 2022
Many folks who followed the Eagles closely during Pederson's tenure would agree that Pederson is a good coach/better person. The Jaguars might have tried to hold out for a better coach/better person. But of course they are coming off Urban Meyer, a horrendous (NFL) coach/irredeemable person. And Pederson must offset general manager Trent Baalke, whom the Jaguars might be locking in one of those safe houses that Tony Stark built for Bruce Banner for everyone's protection.
Pederson's presence means agents will once again pick up the phone when Baalke calls. Beyond that, Pederson is a delegator who relies on his assistants. The Jaguars could be a serious playoff contender in two years if Pederson assembles another 2016-2017 Eagles coaching dream team. Even if Pederson settles for the 2018--2020 Eagles coaching leftovers, the Jaguars will climb back to respectability but may struggle to go much further.
Vikings Hire Kevin O'Connell as Head Coach
As McVay-Shanahan clones go, he's very clonetastic.
Jim Harbaugh Nope's out of Vikings Head Coaching Search
Harbaugh reportedly believes that he was more enthusiastic about the Vikingsthan they were about him. That may be most Vikings thing ever. Hold yer horses there, Mister. We don't wanna generate too much excitement with a former Super Bowl coach, don't ya know? Just tell us your plan to get us to second place in the NFC North and the second wild-card berth, ya?
It's also likely that Harbaugh thought for two nanoseconds about becoming the first coach hired after the Brian Flores lawsuit dropped and figured: You know what, I'll hide out here in the NCAA and live like a feudal archduke with zero consequences for a few more years instead.
Ravens Hire Sashi Brown as Team President
He has risen, Sashifarians!
Brown remains a hero to a fringe group of analytics extremists because of the purity of his, ahem, rebuilding philosophy with the Browns. Brown was ousted from the NFL and exiled to the NBA, where "let's stink on ice for three years" is dogma rather than self-flagellating, counterproductive asceticism. But you know the old bumper sticker: Heaven didn't want him, hell was afraid he would take over.
Brown replaces Dick Cass, who was never really a front-facing member of the Ravens' football operations. Per the Ravens' press release, Brown will be responsible for "overseeing every area of the organization, including player and staff personnel, coaching, corporate sales, operations, communications, and business ventures." In other words, while general manager Eric DeCosta will answer to him, Brown will have to diffuse an administrative role to engineer any galaxy-brained Brock Osweiler trades.
(And before you leap into the comments to cape for the Osweiler trade: spending millions of dollars, cap space, and starter's practice reps on an objectively terrible quarterback in exchange for a future second-round draft pick makes as much sense as buying an expensive lemon on purpose and driving it for a year in exchange for a rebate on your next car.)
Anyway, Brown is somehow still under the analytics tent, as somehow am I, so best of luck to him. He could turn out to be a beneficial voice in the room, so long as he is not THE voice in the room.
The Washington Commanders
There's a trope in sci fi/fantasy/superhero storytelling that characters named "Captain" tend to be heroes—Captain America, Captain Marvel, etc.—while characters named "General" tend to be evil, like General Zod or the many generals who are always chasing down the Hulk or the X-Men. There are exceptions, such as Captain Boomerang or General Leia Organa (notice that honorific never resonated for her character), but we typically equate captains with leading the troops or ship bravely into battle, while generals remain safely in the rear echelon, un-heroically ordering others to do their dangerous bidding.
As for "Commander," few memorable fictional characters have held that title unless it was their explicit military rank (i.e., Riker) and a role as sidekick/runner-up was integral to their characterization. That's because "commander," ironically, does not denote anything particularly commanding. From a marketing/connotation standpoint (not to be confused, please, with an actual military standpoint), they might as well have named the team the Washington Functionaries Working Their Way Up the Chain of Command.
Walkthrough is gonna keep calling them the Washington Football Team for a few more months.
The Brian Flores Lawsuit
OK, let's keep this brief:
- Implicit racial bias in the NFL's head coaching and executive hiring practices has been prevalent, obvious, and damaging for decades.
- The details of Brian Flores' lawsuit are almost certainly true, though the "Stephen Ross offered me a bonus to tank" thing was probably more of a nod-wink than it is being framed as. (Flores may have been offered a bonus to rest starters or play rookies, for example).
- Item 2 does not appear to come within an area code of proving (or even providing a preponderance of evidence for) Item 1 in any meaningful legal sense.
- The end result of this lawsuit will likely be a settlement and an astronomically high thinkpiece-to-actual-impact ratio, not some Curt Flood watershed moment.
- Wishing really hard that Item 4 were false will not make it any less true.
Super Bowl Shuffle
Covering a typical Super Bowl is like attending a grueling corporate convention and a destination wedding simultaneously. You are expected to work hard and party harder, with the lines blurring between the two. By the time of the game itself, you feel both privileged and inconvenienced, exhausted yet exhilarated. The typical Super Bowl is a once-in-a-lifetime event that many NFL writers are fortunate enough to experience once per year.
The last two Super Bowls have been anything but typical, however. There will be much less hoopla this year than when I last covered the Super Bowl from Miami after the 2019 season. "Media Night" has now been replaced by a virtual fan experience, perhaps permanently. In-person player interviews will not occur until Friday. Radio Row might not be a ghost town, but there would be little payoff for a small potato like me to haunt its cramped warrens. Walkthrough will be reporting live from the big game on Sunday, but we aren't flying out until Thursday. If you see me on our Football Outsiders podcasts or hear me on the radio, it will probably be from the home office.
That's fine. There's no reason to burn money and energy chasing stories that aren't there. And frankly, I'm still searching for my pre-COVID travel legs. Reporting "Live from L.A." sounds more prestigious than it is, anyway: two hours on a shuttle for 10 minutes in a gaggle around Trey Hendrickson, long nights in hotel rooms hoping for two quotes to add to a story that doesn't need them, three hours at a sponsored cocktail party (when you are DONE with drinking) to get 30 seconds of face time with an agent who might let you interview their client next summer ... it's all useful, but it's also inessential.
(Listen carefully and you can hear me talking myself into something.)
Long story short, look for a midweek Walkthrough live from South Jersey, then a Super Bowl Walkthrough after the game itself, plus some podcasting glory and plenty of chatter on the @MikeTanier Twitter feed. I promise to provide all the sights and sounds from Sofi Stadium and other glamorous locations, like the media hotel. And rest assured that I will be having a wonderful time, wishing you were there, and looking forward to a time when Super Bowl week is once again a sprawling, tiring, bloated week of extreme excess (if not access). Because by the time that happens, I should be ready to plunge headfirst into it again.