Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Call to Canton

On Saturday, the Pro Football Hall of Fame's 44-man Board of Selectors will meet in a hotel conference room in Tampa. When they emerge, they'll announce their selections for the Hall’s class of 2009. Their process for selecting new members is as mysterious and shrouded in secrecy as the selection of a new pope. I'd like to say that I can use by profound understanding of the game's history, my keen insight into the minutiae of the process, and my inside knowledge of specific voter behavior to make a prediction about the outcome. But all any of us can do is make a wild guess. With that caveat, I offer up this quick overview of the candidates and my best speculation as to who will be getting a happy phone call on Saturday afternoon. And invite you to participate as well. Click here for details about my first annual PFHOF prediction contest.

Let's start with a quick overview of the process. In August, the nine-man Seniors Committee nominates two candidates. Anyone who has been retired for at least 25 years is eligible. This year, the Committee gave us Bob Hayes and Claude Humphrey. Following that, the Hall begins with a list of nominees from the modern era. Anyone -- including you and me -- can nominate a player by submitting their name to the Hall of Fame. That list of nominees (133 this year) is released in October and whittled down to 25 semi-finalists in November. This task is handled by a 44-member Board of Selectors, which is comprised of a beat writer representing each of the 32 NFL teams, 11 at-large delegates, and a representative of the writer's union, the PFWA. In January, they slim that list down again to 15. The board meets in person on the Saturday before the Super Bowl to consider seventeen names... the fifteen finalists and the two Seniors' nominees. The rules specify that they must pick between four and seven candidates, but that no more than five can be chosen from the modern era list. Someone will stand up and speak on behalf of each candidate, the assembled members will discuss the candidacy, and then they vote.

I wrote about this process at length in my book, and I don't want to dwell in it too much here. But it's important to understand that the nature of the process has as much to do with determining the candidates as does the consideration their individual merits. Let's start by considering the Seniors Committee. (It was originally called the Old Timer's Committee, but Chuck Bednarik complained about being called an "old timer," forcing a name change. Bednarik is 83, but I suspect he could still whoop me, so I'm not going to use the word "Old Timer" again.) This sub group was formed in 1972 to address the concern that players from earlier eras had been passed over and were not being properly considered. They nominated one candidate each year (although they opted not to put anybody's name forward in 1975) until 2004, when they were asked to nominate two candidates per year.

It would be exaggerating to say that the Seniors’ nominee is automatically inducted, but not by much. Nineteen of the last 21 Seniors’ nominees have been voted through. The success rate overall is 79%, and two candidates that were passed over got re-nominated (Lou Creekmur and Henry Jordan) and made it in. So with that backdrop, let's start with the two Senior nominees on this year's ballot. (Technically, it's not a ballot... but for the purposes of this discussion, that's what I'm going to call it.)

Claude Humphrey was a defensive end who spent most of his career with the Atlanta Falcons. He was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1968, and would be named first team All Pro five times. Although it didn’t become an official NFL statistic until after he retired, we credit Humphrey with 122 career sacks. He was traded to the Eagles in 1979 and was a key member of a defense that won the NFC title a year later. His candidacy is helped by the fact that the Falcons haven't had a player inducted in Canton (with the exception of brief end-of-career stints by Eric Dickerson and Tommy McDonald). Lahman's prediction: IN

Bob Hayes is a much more interesting case. He's a controversial pick, in part because of the passion with which some of his supporters make his case. They'll say "he changed the game by showing how speed could be a deadly weapon for a receiver." The critics dismiss that argument as hogwash, as if it presumes that nobody thought of using fast players before. Hayes was on the ballot five years ago but wasn't selected, but it says something about the passion for his candidacy that he would be nominated again by the Seniors Committee so soon. Hayes did win two gold medals in the 1964 Olympics, and there's no doubt that his explosiveness made him one of the exciting players of his era. But that argument about his impact aside, I think he belongs based simply on his production. He tallied 7414 receiving yards and 71 touchdown catches. Neither total is enough to make him a slam dunk (or else he'd already be in), but they put him in a healthy conversation. The 71 touchdowns puts him between Hall of Famers Fred Biletnikoff (76) and Ray Berry (68). His career average of 20.0 yards per catch still ranks 11th overall, comfortably ahead of contemporaries like Lance Alworth (18.9) and Don Maynard (18.7). When the voters decided not to put Hayes in the Hall in 2004, longtime Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman resigned from the Senior Committee in protest. (It's a shame, because there is no one more knowledgeable or better able to advocate for worthy candidates). Hayes died in 2002 at the age of 59, and it's too bad that he won't be around to appreciate the honor when he's eventually inducted. Lahman's prediction: IN

There are six candidates on the ballot for the first time this year. Three are long shots. Three are sure things. ESPN's John Clayton, who is one of the 44 writers in the room, says that if they spend more than 90 seconds discussing Bruce Smith's candidacy, they're just wasting time. I have him ranked as the top defensive lineman of all-time in my book, slightly ahead of Reggie White. He's the all-time sack leader and one of the most dominant defenders ever to play. He's as much of a lock as there can be. Lahman's prediction: IN

Rod Woodson also makes his debut this year, and I think he's a lock as well. He retired with 79 interceptions, second-best all-time and 2 shy of Paul Krause’s career record. His 12 interception returns for touchdowns broke Ken Houston’s all-time record of 9, a mark that was later tied by Deion Sanders. Woodson also had 20 fumble recoveries, the 3rd highest total for a defensive back. Like Smith, I have him rated in my book as the best ever at his position. Lahman's prediction: IN

Tight end Shannon Sharpe is on the ballot for the first time, and he's pretty close to a lock, too. Yeah, it's a strong rookie class. Sharpe retired as the all-time leader in catches, yards, and touchdowns by a tight end, all marks which were surpassed by Tony Gonzalez a year ago. The tight end was becoming an endangered species with the rise of the West Coast offense, but Sharpe helped to usher in an era when teams looked at their tight end as the primary pass catcher. He was a key part of three Super Bowl winners -- two in Denver and one in Baltimore. I worry that some voters, particularly the older ones, will complain that Sharpe wasn't much of a blocker. That's like complaining that Picasso was a lousy cook. Lahman's prediction: IN

If you're scoring at home, I've got the first five men in, with 12 candidates competing for the possibility of two remaining spots. And that's exactly how I expect the conversation to go inside the room on Saturday.

Next up, a pair of wide receivers. I'm hearing a lot of buzz about Cris Carter, who was widely expected to make it last year in his first year of eligibility. He even had a camera crew following him around to capture the excitement of the moment. Oops. Carter started his career with the Eagles, and was unceremoniously released after three seasons, despite leading the team in touchdown catches in years two and three. When head coach Buddy Ryan was asked why he'd release a guy who led his team in touchdown receptions, he replied curtly: "because all he does is catch touchdowns." And I guess Ryan was right. Carter went to Minnesota and caught 110 touchdowns, leading the league three times. He retired with 130, second only to Jerry Rice at the time, but since passed by Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, with Marvin Harrison (128) likely to wave by this fall. Carter is also third all-time in receptions and seventh in receiving yards. I can't really explain why those credentials weren't enough to get him through last year, but whatever argument was raised last January will come up again this weekend. Someone in the room will also argue against tabbing two receivers, which could hurt the chances for either Hayes or Carter. But my money is on both men being chosen for induction. Lahman's prediction: IN

Now we're down to eleven guys for one spot, and I'm afraid that these simple mathematics will keep everyone else from getting through. I've been stumping for Buffalo receiver Andre Reed, but his numbers don't make him a better choice than Carter. What's that you say? We should judge each candidate on their individual merits rather than weighing them against the other names on the ballot? I agree, but that's not how it works in practice. If Carter is selected, Reed's chances go right out the window. It's a shame, because the competition is only going to get tougher. Jerry Rice and Tim Brown are eligible for consideration next year, with Owens, Moss, Harrison, and Issac Bruce coming soon. Reed has an uphill climb. Lahman's prediction: OUT

There's another grouping of first-year eligibles: center Dermonti Dawson and defensive tackles John Randle and Cortez Kennedy. There are serious cases to be made for each gentleman, but none has an overwhelming case. It doesn't help that 99% of football fans couldn't pick any of them out of a lineup. What hurts them most, though, is that there are other, arguably better players on the ballot at the same position. That's not a recipe that will lead to success in the first year, but all three deserve to be considered again, and I think that Kennedy and Randle have a pretty good shot of getting it soon. Lahman's prediction: OUT, OUT, OUT

Two more defenders return to the ballot for the fifth time, linebacker Derrick Thomas and defensive end Richard Dent. I would have voted for both guys last year, but instead the call went to Andre Tippett and Fred Dean. I still think my two choices are better, but I don't get a vote, and if they didn't make it last year they won't make it this year. Lahman's prediction: OUT, OUT

The next grouping is a trio of guards: Russ Grimm, Randall McDaniel, and Bob Kuechenberg. I'm not sure why Grimm is stuck in limbo. That Redskins' offesnive line of the mid 80s had four Pro Bowlers (Grimm, Mark May, Jeff Bostic, and Joe Jacoby) and their own nickname... the "Hogs". How many other lines can say that? I like McDaniel a lot, but I'm not sure he'll ever garner enough support. Kuechenberg's biggest hurdle is the fact that two of his linemates (Jim Langer and Larry Little) are already in. It's ridiculous, but it's the same argument that has been used against players like Jerry Kramer, Chuck Howley, and L.C. Greenwood. Lahman's prediction: OUT, OUT, OUT

Finally, we have two contributors to consider. Former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue had the misfortune of following in the footsteps of Pete Rozelle, a man who was more influential and more innovative than any league executive in any sport. Tagliabue was responsible for growing the business in remarkable ways, but I think history will view his biggest accomplishments as avoiding the labor unrest and the doping scandals that plagued other sports during the era. The significance of those accomplishments will become more apparent with the passage of time, and I think he'll ultimately be inducted… just not now. Lahman's prediction: OUT

And then there is Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson. I think the strongest argument to be made on his behalf is the urgency that his age creates. He turned 90 in October, and has owned and run the Buffalo Bills since their founding in 1960. His longevity is admirable, and he was a key voice in the early days of the American Football League. However, I think there's a lot of uncertainty about his legacy. He has complained about the challenges that he faces in generating revenue in a small market, yet he disdained the idea of selling naming rights to his stadium, putting his own name on it instead. He flirted with nearby Toronto for years, launching plans to play at least one regular season game their each year starting in 2008. He has shown no interest in selling the team, but also has no succession plan in place. The folks in western New York are resigned to the fact that the team will relocate after he passes away. For me, it comes down to this question. What makes an owner a Hall of Famer? It can't just be longevity. It has to be significant contributions to the league and to the game as a whole. It has to be innovation, either on the field or off. I know what George Halas did to earn his spot, and Lamar Hunt, and Dan Rooney. Not sure I could make such a strong statement about Ralph Wilson. Lahman's prediction: OUT

So to summarize, I predict six new inductees: Cris Carter. Bob Hayes, Claude Humphery, Shannon Sharpe, Bruce Smith, and Rod Woodson. The actual results will be announced Saturday afternoon.