Handicapping the finalists for the Hall’s Class of 2017
HOUSTON – There are two guarantees for this year‘s Hall of Fame vote: 1) First-year candidate LaDainian Tomlinson will get in, and 2) as many as seven all-decade players will not.
That’s because Tomlinson, one of 11 all-decade players up for election, is the overwhelming choice in this year‘s class, with quarterback Kurt Warner – who was not an all-decade choice – not far behind. But that leaves three spots for 10 all-decade players.
And that’s where the intrigue comes in.
Seldom in recent years has there been a more unpredictable class. After Tomlinson and Warner, there are three spots that are wide open – with four offensive linemen, two wide receivers, one running back, one kicker, four defensive players and coach Don Coryell competing for them.
So who makes it? Keep reading.
Tomlinson is the favorite to make it in his first try and for good reason. He was one of the greatest running backs in recent history, holding a battery of records and named the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year and league MVP in 2006. Warner was a two-time league MVP who won a Super Bowl and was named the game’s MVP. Better yet, he raised the Titantic twice – putting St. Louis and Arizona in the championship game. Neither has returned since he left.
VERDICT – Consider Tomlinson a virtual lock, with Warner a favorite. But Warner is no sure thing. The middle of his career was less than Hall-of-Fame worthy, and, yes, that is an issue.
Offensive lineman Joe Jacoby has to be the next consideration for this reason: In his 18th year of eligibility last February, he became a first-time finalist. But that’s not all. He vaulted into the final 10, which means there was unexpected support within the room. The Hall has elected a left tackle in four of the past five years and an offensive lineman in 10 of the past 11, which bodes well for Jacoby.
What doesn’t is that there is a raft of competition. Three other offensive linemen are among the finalists, including first-timers Tony Boselli and Kevin Mawae. Alan Faneca is back for his second turn in two years, but, unlike Jacoby, he didn’t reach the final 10 in 2016. That means there is more support among voters for Jacoby than there is Faneca.
Could more than one offensive lineman make it? Yes. But it’s not likely. The last time that happened was 2007, and it was the only time in the past 11 years. Could the four cancel each other out? Yes again. Remember what happened when Cris Carter, Andre Reed and Tim Brown were finalists. They kept splitting votes so that no one made it until Carter finally was admitted.
VERDICT – Make Jacoby a better-than-even choice, but competition at the position could split votes and leave him on the outside looking in.
THE FAVORED POSITION
Make it a pass rusher. One was elected nine of the past ten years, and this year Jason Taylor is that pass rusher. A first-time finalist, Taylor ranks seventh in career sacks, was a Defensive Player of the Year and an all-decade choice. One problem: He never played in a championship game, and 69 percent of Hall of Famers have rings. Something else to consider: Kevin Greene ranks third in career sacks, yet it took him 12 years to reach Canton. However, Greene always had competition at the position. Taylor does not. He’s the lone pass rusher in this class.
VERDICT – A possibility, particularly based on the position, but remember what happened with Greene.
THE POISONED POSITION
That would be safety. The Pro Football Hall of Fame last elected a pure safety in 1998 when Paul Krause, the career interception leader, reached Canton after 14 years. But the last pure safety to play? That would be Kenny Houston, who retired after the 1980 season. That means we’ve gone 36 years without a Hall-of-Fame safety on the field, and maybe that changes this year because there are two in the queue, plus senior nominee Kenny Easley..
One is John Lynch, who reached the final 10 a year ago, and the other is first-time finalist Brian Dawkins. Lynch has momentum, but he wasn’t an all-decade choice. Dawkins was, and his presence could split the vote. But Lynch won a Super Bowl. Dawkins did not. With Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu on the horizon, one of these two better make a move … and soon.
VERDICT – Lynch seems the favorite, but Dawkins could hurt his chances by splitting the vote.
THE LONGEVITY FACTOR
As long as Terrell Davis is a finalist this will be a question. He, Boselli and senior candidate Kenny Easley each played seven years or fewer – with each having productive seasons of five years or fewer. With Davis, it was four – with three off the charts. With Boselli and Easley, it was five outstanding seasons each. Davis was an all-decade choice, two-time Super Bowl winner, Super Bowl MVP and league MVP. Easley was an all-decade choice and 1984 Defensive Player of the Year. Boselli was a five-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro and all-decade selection.
So all are qualified.
But longevity could hold Davis and/or Boselli back, with Hall-of-Famer Kenny Houston insisting that “it should apply.” It might not matter with Easley, considered a favorite despite a relatively short career. With Davis, it’s not as clear … though he moved into the final 10 a year ago for the first time. That makes him someone to watch. So does this: He won championships. And while Boselli is a first-time finalist and does not have a ring, he’s been getting enough late support that his candidacy bears watching.
VERDICT – Easley makes it. Davis and Boselli are less-than-even money, but either … or both … could surprise.
The most qualified player in this class is not Tomlinson or Warner. It’s Morten Andersen. He not only was an all-decade choice for two decades, but he’s the league’s leading all-time scorer and the career scoring leader for two franchises – New Orleans and Atlanta. So what’s the knock? Simple: His position.
He was a kicker.
The Hall is blind to specialists, with one kicker and one punter admitted in 53 years. If Andersen is to reach Canton – and there is no professional sports Hall of Fame that doesn’t include its leading scorer – this may be his last best chance. With a wave of Hall-of-Fame wannabes ready to break down the doors in 2018, the longshots must make their moves now.
And Andersen is a longshot. In his three years as a finalist he never reached the final 10.
VERDICT – History and the board are against him. The Hall has never warmed up to specialists. But he is gaining momentum this week, with voters realizing it’s now or never for Andersen.
THE T.O. FACTOR
There are few candidates more polarizing than wide receiver Terrell Owens, back for a second try as a finalist. He has Hall-of-Fame numbers but a Hall-of-Shame reputation. When I asked one of his former coaches if he would recommend him for Canton, he said, “It depends on what the Hall of Fame is all about. If it’s based solely on productivity, he’s a first-ballot choice. If it‘s based on being a good teammate, he’s the last guy I‘d put in.”
And therein lies the problem. Owens has the numbers, but this isn’t the Fantasy Football Hall of Fame. He also has a legion of detractors, with Hall-of-Fame general manager Bill Polian saying this about him: “The Hall of Fame ought to be for those who make their teams better not those who are disruptive and make them worse.”
VERDICT -- Owens did not make the cut to 10 last year, either, so it’s hard to imagine him catapulting into the top five this time around. Consider him another longshot.
THE HEAD COACH
Though he reached the final 10 last year for the first time in his three previous years as a finalist, Don Coryell is considered a reach. Reason: The playoffs. He was 3-6 in them and never reached a Super Bowl. But the guy was a winner, taking the Cardinals to their only division titles in St. Louis and leading San Diego to three straight division championships after the Chargers missed the playoffs 13 consecutive years.
Plus, there is this: So Coryell couldn’t win in the playoffs. He was an innovator who shook up football so dramatically that former coach Mike Martz called him “the father of the modern passing game.” And that 3-6 record that bothers so many? George Allen was 2-7 in the playoffs, and while he went to a Super Bowl he did not win it.
Nevertheless, Coryell has an uphill climb, but, like others, there’s an opening for at least one wild card and maybe more. Consider this his last, best shot at Canton.
VERDICT – The board never has gotten past that playoff record. And while Coryell made a move a year ago, he probably lacks the momentum to reach the final five now.
Ty Law and Isaac Bruce, come on down. It’s a relief finally to have them in the room. As the only cornerback, Law has an outside shot. But he’s a first-time finalist, which means there are a lot of people to leapfrog. Bruce is a first-time finalist, too, and he has the qualifications. But he wasn’t an all-decade choice like Owens. That’s the bad news. The good? He won a title. Owens did not. Plus, he wasn’t divisive. He was a team leader. And, yes, both make a difference.
VERDICT -- One or both of these guys will have trouble getting to the top 10. That doesn’t mean they aren’t Hall-of-Fame worthy. It just means they have a long road to travel in a very short time.
Jerry Jones and Paul Tagliabue are the two contributor nominees, and expect a filibuster with at least one -- with Tagliabue the leader in the clubhouse. This is his fourth time in the room, and it could get ugly -- with impassioned voices on both sides of the aisle. Reason: Because that is precisely what happened the last time he was a finalist, which was 2009. With Jones, it could be (should be?) easier ... though not by much. While he changed the league forever -- showing it how to make money -- his franchise also won two playoff games the past two decades.
VERDICT -- This could be a photo finish, but the smart money is on both making it -- with Tagliabue the closer call.