Voting for the Pro Football Hall of Fame is like tending bar at the hottest, busiest nightclub in town.
Every few minutes, a fresh batch of bold and beautiful patrons bursts through the door. They belly up to the bar before you can finish serving the previous bunch. You pour a few drinks and start a few tabs, then you remember that some folks have been waiting patiently three-deep at the bar for longer than they should. You serve just enough of the parched-and-desperate to give the rest hope, then turn back to the new arrivals just as they start to grow impatient. Just when you feel caught up, whammo! The door opens and the next wave of thirsty customers arrives.
Inevitably, someone is going to wait too long. His friends and supporters might insist that he is getting snubbed. Snubbed! Marvin Harrison should not be kept waiting. No one puts Kurt Warner in a corner.
But look around the bar. The staff is in the weeds. The waitress and hostess are trying to get to everyone. You just have to be patient.
Warner and Harrison did not get snubbed when the Pro Football Hall of Fame Voters met for their annual induction synod on Saturday. John Lynch and Orlando Pace were not victims of some grudge or conspiracy. Voters don't "have it out" for Tony Dungy and have not categorically rejected the idea of enshrining Morten Andersen.
With 15 overwhelmingly qualified finalists leaning over the bar, the voters chose to focus mostly on the candidates who have been waiting a while.
Charles Haley, who has five Super Bowl rings and 100.5 career sacks, has been waiting 11 years for service.
Tim Brown, Raiders legend, nine-time Pro Bowler, fifth on the all-time reception list, has been waiting his turn for six years.
Jerome Bettis, eight-time 1,000-yard rusher, former Walter Payton Man of the Year, a player so famous in his prime that your great aunt could probably identify him, has been patient for five years.
Will Shields, a 12-time Pro Bowl guard, one of the greatest players ever at his position, was forced to wait three years.
None of them can complain in the presence of Mick Tingelhoff, center for four NFC champions, who never missed a start in 17 seasons and was named first-team All-Pro five times. Tingelhoff has been waiting for a drink for 32 years. The Seniors Committee finally bought him a beer.
The late Junior Seau, a figure of inspiration on the field and a cautionary tale of health risks the NFL has been far too slow to acknowledge, was the only first-ballot selection. After inducting one player too important to overlook, the committee dealt from the back of the deck. Warner and Pace were forced to wait through their first ballot, Dungy and Harrison their second, Lynch and Andersen their third. The voters had some old business to clear off the agenda.
It seems ridiculous, almost insulting, to make the likes of Warner and Harrison wait another year, but only if you get caught up in the "first ballot" nonsense that never had much meaning for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The whole first-ballot Hall of Famer concept was borrowed from baseball, with its Machiavellian enshrinement politics. Those inducted in their first year of eligibility, so the erroneous thinking goes, dwell within some inner circle of the regular Hall of Fame, the best of the best of the best. The concept became ingrained in our minds years ago, after baseball had enshrined its entire backlog of overwhelmingly qualified candidates and before voters declared themselves sacred defenders of some steroid-free religion (which has created an all new backlog of overwhelmingly qualified [but blackballed] candidates).
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a universally acknowledged "obvious" baseball Hall of Famer hit the ballot roughly every year. From Hank Aaron in 1982 through Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken in 2007, it was usually easy to spot the clear-cut legends on the docket. There was a neat succession of inarguable candidates, and because the first Hall of Fame class was elected in 1936 and voters/committees had been generous for decades, there was little unfinished business to tend to.
"First Ballot Hall of Famer" became a magical title, and then an expectation for the most famous and beloved of baseball's greats. But no real analogy exists in the NFL. The Pro Football Hall of Fame's first ballot is reserved for a mix of the insanely hyper-qualified, some special cases like Seau, and an eclectic group of individuals who managed to get the bartenders' attention just long enough for immediate service.
Yes, Joe Montana was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. So were Jack Lambert, Eric Dickerson, Dan Marino, Darrell Green, Derrick Brooks and a total of 73 players, including Seau. But there are many, many highly qualified inductees who did not make it on their first ballot: Kellen Winslow, Joe Namath, Bob Griese, Jim Taylor, Mike Webster, Otto Graham, Howie Long, Michael Irvin, Sam Huff, Paul Hornung, Frank Gifford and a raft of recent stars like Michael Strahan and Cris Carter. Warner, Pace and Harrison are in outstanding company.
All of these players were sure-fire Hall of Famers but not first-ballot Hall of Famers, because the Pro Football Hall of Fame has always been a very busy nightclub. Voters never get a chance to clear out all of those old tabs. Baseball had a 30-year head start in the Hall of Fame business, plus an incredibly active veterans committee that spent the '60s and '70s enshrining every old timer with a gaudy batting average and a cool mustache. Football's Hall of Fame voters have been bailing a boat for decades.
In the late 1980s, when baseball writers were jockeying to get Carl Yastrzemski 95 percent of the vote and the Veterans Committee was making sure the world never forgot Rick Ferrell, Pro Football Hall of Fame voters were still cleaning up Lombardi Packers like Hornung (1986) and Willie Wood (1989) while scooping up 1950s legends like Doak Walker (1986) who were not quite great enough to crack the first charter classes. All the while, they still had to make sure they did not fall too far behind on the likes of Terry Bradshaw (1989, first ballot).
In the last decade, when the Baseball Writers Association of America sometimes took a year off to examine chicken entrails that would separate steroid pariahs from the Truly Deserving, the football selection committee was enshrining players in bunches to accommodate Joe Gibbs' Redskins (Art Monk and first-balloter Darrell Green in 2008; Russ Grimm in 2010) and great defenders on so-so teams of the 1980s (Andre Tippett in 2008, Ricky Jackson and John Randle in 2010) before they got swamped by an incoming wave of 1990s stars.
While baseball's Veterans Committee was sheepishly inducting 19th-century catchers and umpires to spackle the holes left by the BBWAA's inquisition in recent years, football's Seniors Committee has been desperately dusting off deserving 1970s candidates left behind in the rush to induct Steel Curtain Steelers and undefeated Dolphins: Tingelhoff this year, Claude Humphrey last year, Curley Culp in 2013, Chris Hanburger in 2011. The Seniors Committee and general committee have done their best to keep anyone deserving from falling off the back of the ballot. Still, there is not enough time to get to them all using the voting process that currently exists.
There are only 46 individuals on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. There is no room for vanity votes, no leaving someone off the ballot and knowing he will still get 92 percent of the vote. Voters cannot check off 15 names and call it a day. They must prioritize and compromise. A voter representing a city with a great team from the last decade, like the voters from St. Louis or Tampa, must lobby for his region's best candidate and worry about a split ticket (Warner versus Pace, Dungy versus Lynch) or resistance when the representatives from other cities demand their turns. Everyone must carefully compare apples to oranges: quarterbacks to defensive ends, stalwart linemen for 15 years to MVP meteors like Terrell Davis.
Even when there is no question about a player's eventual worthiness, there are almost always pressing questions about a bunch of other worthies who were held over from the last ballot, who got stuck behind holdovers from the previous ballot, and so on through the middle of the last century.
When we do get a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it is often not the type of player you would expect. Offensive linemen are inordinately represented among recent first-ballot selections: Jackie Slater (2001), Larry Allen (2011), Bruce Matthews (2007), Jonathan Ogden (2013), Walter Jones (2014). Pace could not benefit from the trend this year, but like Shields and Willie Roaf (2012), his wait is sure to be short.
Blockers have often been pushed to the front of the line ahead of the famous men they blocked for. That's partly because the warts on an offensive lineman's career are not as easy to spot: Anyone can see the five-year gap in Warner's career, but offensive linemen exist in a statistics-free environment where a great reputation can reign.
But offensive linemen also get waved through to Canton because they must be. No one is going to forget about Warner, a media celebrity with a highlight reel that will be replayed for eternity. He will remain atop agendas until the day he is enshrined, probably this time next year or the following. But the voters know that if a lineman slips through those first ballots, like Tingelhoff, he could slip for decades. The ballot is often more about triage than greater-than-greatness.
There will still be first-ballot selections to the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis are all going straight in. But other greats like LaDainian Tomlinson, Randy Moss, Champ Bailey, Brian Urlacher, Brian Dawkins, Ed Reed and perhaps even Tony Gonzalez will have to wait a year or two.
Sacrilege, you claim? Snubbage, you cry? Tomlinson and Urlacher will only be waiting for Warner and Harrison, who had to wait for Brown and Haley, who had to wait for Shannon Sharpe, Randle and Richard Dent, who got stuck behind Lynn Swann, James Lofton and Carl Eller. It's a proud tradition dating back to Otto Graham and Sid Luckman, who had to wait two years because the 1963 charter class had Jim Thorpe and George Halas to worry about. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is in its sixth decade of playing catchup.
Congratulations to Bettis, Brown, Haley, Shields, Tingelhoff, contributors Ron Wolf and Bill Polian, and to the Seau family. Warner, Harrison and many of the rest of this year's finalists will soon get their turn. There is no reason for them (or their fans) to feel dishonored or shunned. They just need to be patient. And stay thirsty.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.