The Pro Football Hall of Fame next week announces its Class of 2019 modern-era finalists, with today’s list of 25 semifinalists reduced to 15 candidates that will be discussed – and decided --- on Feb. 2.
There are prohibitive favorites, like first-ballot entries Ed Reed, Champ Bailey and Tony Gonzalez, as well as all of the four offensive linemen, all of whom were Top-10 finalists this year.
But the cut is never easy.
Fifteen of the 22 players (there are three coaches included) are all-decade choices. Eleven have been finalists before. And three positions – defensive back, linebacker and offensive line – comprise over half the group.
There are 16 of them, including eight defensive backs.
Nevertheless, we’re here to offer an insider’s look at what could … and maybe should … happen next week. It’s not definitive, but it’s based on trends, preferences and history -- both of voters and the candidates.
We already mentioned Reed, Bailey and Gonzalez. They’re not only slam-dunks to make it to the next round but could be first-ballot choices for induction, too. The Hall’s board of selectors isn’t as patient as it has been in the past, with three first-ballot candidates (Brian Urlacher, Ray Lewis and Randy Moss) elected last year and two (Jason Taylor and LaDainian Tomlinson) in 2017.
I mentioned four returning offensive linemen. They are Kevin Mawae, Tony Boselli, Alan Faneca and Steve Hutchinson, and all were Top-10 finishers a year ago. So figure all make this cut – with one ... maybe two ... reaching the final five. Reason: There’s gridlock at the position that must be broken, with Boselli and Mawae Top-10 finishers the past two years.
Cornerback Ty Law is the other returning Top-10 finisher. In fact, he’s been in the top 10 the past two years. So he’s a gimme to make it to 15, too. Now the question: How will Bailey’s appearance on the ballot affect his chances to reach Canton next month? Good question.
Voters have supported multiple candidates from the same position the past two years – including two (wide receiver and linebacker) this year. So having two cornerbacks inducted in the same class wouldn’t be a surprise, except … well, except there’s that pileup at offensive line that must be addressed.
You have to believe that wide receiver Isaac Bruce and Edgerrin James make it, too. Both have been finalists the past two years, with James reaching it the past three. James is the lone running back, so that helps. Bruce is one of three wide receivers, so there’s competition there. But neither Torry Holt nor Hines Ward has been a finalist before.
So that gives us 10, and here’s where it gets interesting.
THE QUESTION MARK
There’s no candidacy I question now, more than ever, than that of former safety John Lynch. Normally, he’d be a lock. And maybe he should be. After all, he’s been a finalist the past five years, and he’s been a Top-10 finalist twice.
But that’s the problem.
He was a Top-10 finalist in 2016-17. His candidacy took a U-turn this year when he didn’t make the cut from 15 to 10, and that’s a sign that voters cooled on him. With the competition so tight at defensive back … and with five safeties among the 25 semifinalists … I’m not sure that Lynch’s candidacy isn’t running out of gas.
Clearly, voters believe he’s Hall-of-Fame worthy. He twice was one vote from reaching Canton. But his support waned this year, and maybe that’s because another safety -- Brian Dawkins -- was on the ballot. But Ed Reed’s there in 2019, and he’s all but a lock to make it as a first-ballot Gold Jacket.
A run of four consecutive years with a head coach among the 15 finalists was broken in 2018 when neither Don Coryell nor Jimmy Johnson re-appeared. They’re semifinalists again, and there’s support for each.
But there wasn’t enough support for either this year. So why would voters warm up to them now – especially when they’ve been discussed before?
Coryell has been a three-time finalist and one-time Top-10 finisher, but sentiment seems to favor his election as a contributor … if and when the Hall makes coaches part of that group.
Coryell made it to the Top 10 in 2016, then failed to make the cut from 15 to 10 a year later. And then in 2018 he wasn’t a finalist. So his candidacy has lost momentum. The same goes for Johnson, who was a one-time finalist in 2015.
That leaves former Raiders’ and Seahawks’ coach Tom Flores, and he might have the best shot of the group to make the next cut. First of all, he hasn’t been discussed – and that can be a good thing. Voters want to hear what he’s all about.
Second, he’s a two-time Super Bowl champion. That helps, too. If there’s one thing that sabotaged Coryell it was his playoff record. He never reached a Super Bowl.
And then there’s the social aspect, with Flores a pioneer here as the first Hispanic to win a Super Bowl ring as a quarterback (with the Kansas City Chiefs) and as a head coach. That will do nothing but help him.
ON THE BUBBLE
There’s been a lot of support voiced lately for first-time semifinalist Zach Thomas, an all-decade choice for the 2000s, and maybe he has the legs to make it to 15. But there’s so much competition at the linebacker position, including former Denver star Karl Mecklenburg.
He’s in his 20th … and last try … as a modern-era candidate and has never been a finalist before. A year ago, voters embraced a similar candidacy – that of former defensive back Everson Walls – and made him a finalist. But the sentiment didn’t last long, with both Walls and Joe Jacoby failing to reach the final 10 in their final tries as modern-era finalists.
Safeties LeRoy Butler, Steve Atwater and Darren Woodson are intriguing choices, too. The problem they have is twofold: 1) There is, as I mentioned, a glut of safeties on the ballot, and 2) only one of the three (Atwater) has been a finalist before, and that was 2016.
He hasn’t been back since.
But keep this in mind: Atwater and Butler were first-team choices to the 1990s’ all-decade squad. So what? So they’re the only first-team members of that team – offense and defense – not elected to the Hall.
Then there’s cornerback Ronde Barber, another all-decade selection. He’s appealing because he’s one of two players ever to produce 40 interceptions and 20 sacks (Charles Woodson is the other), and that could resonate with voters. Plus, he has longevity on his side. He holds the record for most consecutive starts (224, including the playoffs) by a defensive back. Furthermore, he played on a Super Bowl winner.
But he has Law and Bailey in line with him, and that could be a problem.
Former defensive tackle Richard Seymour is a former first-team all-decade choice, a three-time Super Bowl champion and a five-time All-Pro. Not only that, he’s the only defensive lineman on the ballot. All that will help. But this won’t: He didn’t compile a lot of sacks (57-1/2), and, I know, he was moved up and down the defensive line in New England where sacks weren’t the focus. Disruption was.
Nevertheless, he’s been a semifinalist twice in the two years of his candidacy, and that’s a good sign.
THE LONG SHOTS
Linebacker Clay Matthews returns for his third time as a semifinalist, and there’s a tidal wave of support from fans. But will there be enough support from voters? I’m not sure 1) because he wasn’t an all-decade choice, and 2) because he didn’t play on a championship team.
Granted, those aren’t qualifications for entry to Canton. But they help … especially if you’re in your 18th year of eligibility, as Matthews is. Over 75 percent of Hall of Famers are all-decade selections, and over 65 percent played on championship clubs.
That Matthews’ candidacy is running out of time could benefit him. It did with Jacoby in his 18th year. He not only reached the finals then; he made it to the Top 10.
Torry Holt and Hines Ward are returning semifinalists, and both have Hall-of-Fame credentials. But there doesn’t seem to be a groundswell of support for either at this time, though Holt was an all-decade choice and Ward played on championship teams.
The same goes for linebacker Sam Mills, who returns for the second time as a semifinalist (2016 was his first year). Carolina retired his number, New Orleans put him in its Hall of Fame and he was part of a championship team.
OK, so it was the USFL Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars. It wasn’t the NFL. But this isn’t the NFL Hall of Fame, either.
Results will be announced next Thursday, Jan. 3, with the final 15 joining contributor nominees Pat Bowlen and Gil Brandt and senior candidate Johnny Robinson as finalists for the Class of 2019.