Predicting the 2014 Pro Football Hall of Fame Class

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Predicting the 2014 Pro Football Hall of Fame Class
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No matter which players are voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, several deserving candidates are always left out 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 most fans and analysts.

In my attempt last year to predict the 2013 class, I was able to nail 13 of the 15 modern-era finalists.

I went with two safeties (Steve Atwater and John Lynch) while the voters picked two owners (Art Modell and Eddie DeBartolo Jr.) instead. The Hall of Fame does not like safeties for some reason. They may like the film, Safety Last!, as some of the unwritten voting rules seem to come from 1923. Only seven pure safeties are in Canton.

It’s a pretty important position, as Rahim Moore would tell you.

My five picks of modern-era finalists for enshrinement were Larry Allen, Cris Carter, Charles Haley, Jonathan Ogden and Michael Strahan.

Congratulations to the real 2013 Pro Football Hall of Fame class: Larry Allen, Cris Carter, Jonathan Ogden, Warren Sapp, Curley Culp, Dave Robinson and Bill Parcells.

That means I was able to get three out of five, which might not be that bad, relatively. It was always going to be a toss-up between Strahan and Sapp as both were eligible for the first time. No class since 1970 has had more than three first-ballot selections.

Keep that fact in mind as we size up the field for next year’s class.

 

And The (First-Ballot) Nominees Are…

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Players eligible for the first time this year last played in the NFL in the 2008 season. The following list includes some of those notable names (players in bold I feel confident will be in the Hall of Fame at some point):

  • Shaun Alexander (RB)
  • Willie Anderson (OT)
  • Derrick Brooks (LB)
  • Kevin Carter (DE)
  • Tony Dungy (Coach)
  • Warrick Dunn (RB)
  • La’Roi Glover (DT)
  • Trent Green (QB)
  • Marvin Harrison (WR)
  • Rodney Harrison (S)
  • Sam Madison (CB)
  • Willie McGinest (DE/LB)
  • Zach Thomas (LB)

Compared to last year, this is a thinner group, which isn’t a knock on the weight of trench players. This should allow for more debate over past players waiting to get in this time.

Three key pieces to New England’s dynasty defense are eligible with Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Rodney Harrison. The only player with a legitimate shot would appear to Harrison, though his dirty style of play may not sit well with some voters. It would have helped if Harrison rightfully won the Super Bowl MVP against Philadelphia instead of Deion Branch.

Zach Thomas is one of the most successful late-round picks ever, especially for the linebacker position. However, it’s bad luck to gain eligibility the same year as a superior player in Derrick Brooks. Thomas was also overshadowed, fair or not, in his career by players like Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher and Junior Seau. The wait for Thomas begins.

Tony Dungy has a sizeable connection with this group. He was in Tampa Bay when the Buccaneers drafted Warrick Dunn in 1997. Dunn had a nice career (10,967 rushing yards and 64 total touchdowns), but it was more of a “Hall of Very Good” journey. It’s hard to imagine he’ll ever get in given the lack of voting support for Eddie George, Ricky Watters, Tiki Barber and Corey Dillon to name a few running backs.

Dungy will get in eventually, but it’s incredibly hard for a head coach to crack the Hall of Fame right away. Check the facts. Legendary coaches like Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh and Paul Brown all had to wait three-to-five years for induction. Excluding the charter member class of 1963, only Tom Landry (1990), Chuck Noll (1993) and Don Shula (1997) have got in as a first-ballot head coach.

Bill Cowher has been eligible for the last two years and has yet to make the cut to the final 25 semifinalists (note there were 26 in 2011 and 27 due to a tie last year). He has a similar case to Dungy’s. Both have that “He was a nice guy who won a Super Bowl and always had his teams in the hunt, but man did he blow some golden opportunities, especially at home” reputation.

Oddly enough the swing game in their careers was the 2005 AFC Divisional when Ben Roethlisberger saved Jerome Bettis’ legacy by tackling Colts cornerback Nick Harper on a fumble return. That allowed Cowher to go on to win his Super Bowl while Dungy had to wait another year.

What helps Dungy is his impact with the Tampa-2 defense, the turnaround of the Buccaneers and of course the racial barriers he broke as an African-American coach in the NFL. However, don’t expect voters to jump on putting him in next year. It’s just not how things work.

Derrick Brooks was drafted a year before Dungy arrived in Tampa Bay. Along with Warren Sapp, a 2013 inductee, Brooks set the foundation for that dominant defensive era the Buccaneers eventually rode to a Super Bowl win in 2002.

With 11 Pro Bowls, five First-Team All-Pro selections, a Defensive Player of the Year (2002) on a Super Bowl team and member of the 2000s All-Decade Team, you would think Brooks is an easy first-ballot choice.

That may happen, but voters historically favor offense. However, they have a strange bias against wide receivers. Look no further than the repeated votes against Cris Carter before finally getting in as a sixth-time finalist this year. Andre Reed and Tim Brown continue to wait.

How will voters feel about the odd character that is Marvin Harrison? Our parents always said to “watch out for the quiet ones.” On the field, Harrison ran his routes to his precision and kept his mouth shut. He had no problem sitting alone on the Colts’ bench. He was the quiet mouse in the era of big-mouth receivers.

Off the field, it depends what you want to believe.

There was a 2008 shooting involving a Belgian-made gun owned by Harrison, but it was never proven he pulled the trigger. An innocent bystander was shot and claimed Harrison was the shooter. The real target in that shooting, who was a drug dealer, was shot to death in July 2009 just two blocks away from the sports bar Harrison owns in Philadelphia. No one has been held accountable for the murder.

With all of that shadiness clouding the end of Harrison’s career, voters are going to hear a lot about the Aaron Hernandez case in the next year and that negativity could really hurt Harrison’s candidacy.

However, it’s not like O.J. Simpson has been removed from Canton. Harrison still deserves to make it based on his playing career as one of the most prolific receivers in NFL history, but he’s likely going to have to wait longer than he had to for those pinpoint passes delivered by Peyton Manning.

Whenever he gets in, that will be one hell of an awkward speech to watch.

 

Miscommunication Between Wide Receivers and Voters

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By now everyone knows about the struggles of wide receivers in getting into the Hall of Fame, which has created a logjam problem with voting.

They often are among the most egotistical players in the game, but despite the popularity and attention, it seems like the receivers have rubbed voters the wrong way for decades.

Maybe it’s just a matter of evolution where the rise of the passing game has put the ball into the receivers’ hands more often, but voters have been slow to keep up with the shift towards a pass-first league. They’d still rather vote in a running back, who admittedly does touch the ball more often.

That may be the problem with wide receivers. Even the best ones are only going to catch an average of six or seven passes a game.

The 2012 Lions set a NFL record with 740 pass attempts. Calvin Johnson had 122 receptions on 204 targets. Those are absurd numbers, but even that was just 27.4 percent of Detroit’s completions and 27.6 percent of the attempts.

Regardless of how much of an impact they have, clearly some great ones have come along over the years to help their teams have success. Still, we recently saw Michael Irvin have to wait three years to get in. Cris Carter is only going in after six years despite catching 130 touchdowns, which was double that of Irvin.

Now we face the very real possibility that Marvin Harrison, who is third in receptions (1,102), sixth in receiving yards (14,580) and fifth in touchdown catches (128), may have to wait for enshrinement as well.

Questionable character and off-field issues certainly do not help these guys, but the Hall of Fame has a strong history of shafting wide receivers even if they were model citizens and multiple-time champions.

Just 22 wide receivers from the modern era have made it in. We couldn’t even fill up the league with a Hall of Fame wideout on each team. The following table charts just how long it took them based on eligibility data from the Hall of Fame’s website. The eight most recent selections are highlighted in color.

Only Jerry Rice was a first-ballot pick, and if anyone voted otherwise they should have been booted and fired from their job immediately. Only five modern-era receivers have gone in on their first ballot. Only Largent and Rice really played the bulk or all of their careers in the post-1978 era with 16-game seasons and the “Mel Blount Rule” for illegal contact.

Some of the longest waits in Hall of Fame history for a non-senior candidate were wide receivers. Of the 11 people who were finalists at least eight times before getting in, four were wide receivers.

Lynn Swann made the cut to the top 15 finalists for 14 straight years before finally getting the nod. That’s a record. Don Maynard, John Stallworth and Art Monk aren’t too far behind with eight years as a finalist. Bob Hayes is one of the two senior candidates along with Tommy McDonald.

Andre Reed has been a finalist seven times already, still hoping to get in. Tim Brown is a four-time finalist. Other receivers like Cliff Branch, Harold Carmichael and Drew Pearson must rely on the senior committee should they ever get into Canton.

Then you add Harrison into the mix, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This ship is going to sink fast when in the following year, both Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt become eligible. Going a few years ahead, it doesn’t feel too likely that Terrell Owens and Randy Moss will be welcomed with open arms into the Hall of Fame, even if their dominance clearly warrants a first-ballot vote.

That’s why something has to be done before this becomes too much of a problem. There are strange, unwritten laws when it comes to Hall of Fame voting. For whatever reason, voters just don’t like to elect players of the same position in the same class. They also don’t want to load up too much on one team.

This wide receiver problem can screw up other positions as well. For example, the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams will be eligible with four players next year with Kurt Warner and Orlando Pace joining those two wide receivers.

“No, that’s just way too many Rams. We’re going to have to split you up over a 12-year period.”

If Warner does not get in on first ballot, then god forbid they put him on the same stage as Brett Favre the following year. Pace will have direct competition with Seattle’s Walter Jones. This will get ugly.

Instead of getting the best players, regardless of position or team, in as quickly as possible, there is this idiotic push to create a “balanced” class each year. That’s not just offense and defense, but that’s “good guys” and “bad guys” as a balance of different stories and backgrounds.

Look, it’s just a Hall of Fame ceremony. You’re not filming for presentation at Cannes. Put the best players in. If that means three wide receivers in one year, then so be it.

 

Recent Finalists

A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The wide receivers have been the recent problem, but let’s take a look at the last six years of finalists. This data comes from the Hall of Fame website too.

Players in caps were inducted that season. Players in red are still not in Canton. Senior candidates have an asterisk in front of their names. Players in gray are only eligible to be senior candidates in the future as they have been retired for more than 25 years. The number in parenthesis is the number of times that player was a finalist.

We see 12 names of people who have not gotten in. That includes Jerome Bettis, Tim Brown, Andre Reed, Paul Tagliabue, Charles Haley, Kevin Greene, Roger Craig, Will Shields, Aeneas Williams, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., Art Modell and Michael Strahan.

These finalists tend to get in eventually as you can see from 2008-13. While coaches get the shaft, an owner or commissioner finds it even harder to get in as a non-player. Voters prefer guys who played the game, unless they played safety that is.

Modell was a finalist for the second time last year, but did not get in. He passed away in September at the age of 87. It’s not clear how that impacts a future vote on his candidacy. DeBartolo Jr. likely has a better shot to get in with the resurgence of a San Francisco team he once owned, though if it hasn’t happened yet, you wonder if it ever will.

The non-player with the best shot is former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who returned to the spotlight recently with his role as arbitrator in the bounty scandal involving the New Orleans Saints.

You can count on many of these dozen names to fill up the finalist list again in 2014.

 

Senior Candidates

As is my custom on the topic of senior candidates, I refuse to mention any other names until the injustices of guard Jerry Kramer and quarterback Ken Anderson are corrected.

Just this week my study of quarterbacks through five seasons further showed the incredible numbers Anderson had in the ‘70s, which was before he won a MVP and led Cincinnati to a Super Bowl.

This year defensive tackle Curley Culp and linebacker Dave Robinson were the senior candidates and both were voted in. What’s preposterous is how some feel Kramer has been excluded due to too many of Vince Lombardi’s Packers being in already, yet they just added another with Robinson.

Kramer was there for the entire glory days of the Packers and easily had a more decorated career than Robinson. This continues to make no sense.

 

2014 Hall of Fame Predictions

So it’s time to put the money on the table and make my predictions. First, here is my projection for the 15 modern-era finalists:

Update: On the evening of August 2, Clare Farnsworth at Seahawks.com posted that Walter Jones is in fact eligible for the 2014 class due to spending all of 2009 on injured reserve. This obviously changes my predictions as Jones should be a first-ballot choice.

  • Jerome Bettis (RB)
  • Derrick Brooks (LB)
  • Tim Brown (WR)
  • Eddie DeBartolo Jr. (Owner)
  • Kevin Greene (LB)
  • Charles Haley (DE)
  • Marvin Harrison (WR)
  • Walter Jones (OT)
  • John Lynch (S)
  • Andre Reed (WR)
  • Will Shields (OG)
  • Michael Strahan (DE)
  • Paul Tagliabue (Commissioner)
  • Zach Thomas (LB)
  • Aeneas Williams (DB)

Terrell Davis has had seven straight years of making it to the top 25 semifinalists, but has yet to crack the top 15. I had him doing so, but not with the Walter Jones news.

You have to expect the key first-ballot players all have a great shot at getting to the cut of 15 this year. Again, Tony Dungy fails to make it this far in year one. The man beat racial prejudice to have a great career, but he can’t get past the coaching prejudice when it comes to Hall of Fame voting.

Without further ado, the 2014 Pro Football Hall of Fame class:

  • Derrick Brooks (LB)
  • Tim Brown (WR)
  • Walter Jones (OT)
  • Andre Reed (WR)
  • Michael Strahan (DE)

In a moment of enlightenment, the voting room realizes they better chuck these old wide receivers off the chalkboard. Harrison may be the most deserving, but he’s going to be the victim in this one for at least a year.

Strahan can celebrate after missing out on last year while Brooks and Jones go first ballot.

No matter how much research I collect on the Hall of Fame in each passing year, I still feel no more confident in predicting what the voters will do. All I know is we have a good collection of worthy candidates, but a lot of silliness keeps them out.

The bad news is it’s about to get a whole lot sillier too. So when you see a player break down upon news of his selection, understand that not only has he achieved the ultimate respect an individual can receive, but he has made it through one of the toughest selection processes around.

 

Scott Kacsmar has written for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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