Until Ed Reed was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last month, Kenny Houston was the last pure safety to reach Canton on the first ballot.
And that was 1986.
But here’s a prediction: History is about to repeat itself. In 2020 Troy Polamalu joins Reed as the second safety in two years to be inducted in his first year of eligibility.
Granted, that’s not exactly tiptoeing out on a ledge. Polamalu was a decorated leader for a championship team. Except for decades the Hall had a blind spot for safeties, with seven elected in the first 54 years, and don’t ask me why. It just happened.
Then along came Kenny Easley in 2017, and all that changed.
Easley was a senior candidate, but so what? He broke the barrier, becoming the first safety … period … to be elected since Paul Krause, the NFL’s all-time interception leader, in 1998. Then in 2018 it was modern-era candidate Brian Dawkins, elected on his second try … followed last month by Reed and Johnny Robinson, also a senior candidate.
That makes four safeties in three years, and that's not a coincidence. It's a trend. And there’s every reason to believe it will continue when Polamalu becomes the fifth in four years when modern-era ballots are counted for the Class of 2020.
First of all, he was an all-decade safety, and that’s a plus. Second, he was a two-time NFL champ, and that helps, too. Over two-thirds of Pro Football Hall of Famers were members of championship teams. He was also the 2010 Defensive Player or the Year, and, yep, that’s another bonus. Of the last 10 players eligible for the Hall who were named to the award, nine are in Canton.
Only Bob Sanders is not.
But don’t stop there. Let’s compare him to Reed, who was a no-brainer for the Class of 2019. Reed was first-team all-decade. Polamalu was second-team. Reed was a nine-time Pro Bowler and eight-time All-Pro. Polamalu was an eight-time Pro Bowler and six-time All-Pro. Reed was a Defensive Player of the Year. So was Polamalu. Reed played on one championship team. Polamalu played on two.
I think you get the idea. Both were special.
But here’s the clincher: Over the past three years eight of the 15 modern-era inductees to the Hall have been first-ballot choices. So its board of selectors not only is more receptive to safeties; it can’t wait to name first-ballot candidates.
Now look at the list of choices for the Hall’s modern-era Class of 2020, and tell me how many are first-ballot worthy. I can think of one.
Former teammate Hines Ward once called him “one of the greatest safeties that ever played the game,” and he may be right. He not only approximates Reed in accomplishments, but he’s at the right place at the right time … and let me explain. Two years ago the Hall’s board of selectors made Jason Taylor a first-ballot choice, and, like Polamalu, he wasn’t a first-team all-decade pick. He was a second-teamer. But voters love edge rushers, and Taylor was the lone candidate that year.
Now they seem to love safeties, and Polamalu is far-and-away the best of the six first-time safeties in the Class of 2020. In fact, earlier this year one voter told me that Polamalu is “a slam-dunk” for election in February.
Once upon a time I didn’t think that would happen. Now, I not only do; I’d be surprised if it didn’t.