This week the Pro Football Hall of Fame will reveal the Class of 2021. They’re hoping to keep it a secret until the NFL Honors show on Saturday night before the Super Bowl but with Hall President David Baker knocking on doors this week giving those selected the good news and making phone calls to those who aren’t in this year’s class, word might leak out.
Ten days ago, the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee met on a Zoom call to discuss and vote on this year’s class. This was my twenty-eight year on the committee representing Jacksonville, and the first time we’ve ever met virtually. Usually it’s a day-long meeting the Saturday before the Super Bowl in the host city. This year the call lasted eight hours and forty-seven minutes.
I don’t know who’s in this year’s class as the PFHOF changed the voting procedure to keep the final five selected a secret. By now you’re probably familiar with how it goes.
From the thousands of players who put on an NFL uniform, the hundred or so who are eligible or nominated for the Hall in any given year are culled down in a Selection Committee vote by mail to twenty-five semi-finalists. Those twenty-five are cut again, by vote, to fifteen finalists. The finalists make “the room” where, in a live meeting, the Selection Committee discusses the merits of their career. There’s then a vote to ten, and then down to five. The final five then have to survive an up or down vote again by the full committee. Those receiving eighty percent ‘yes’ votes are selected to the Hall of Fame. This year they didn’t tell us who the final five were. We just voted up or down a second time on the final ten. As it sounds, it’s an arduous process. Maybe the toughest Hall of Fame in all of sports.
There were fifteen ‘Modern Era’ finalists to discuss, players whose career ended less than twenty-five years ago. This year we also talked about a senior candidate, receiver Drew Pearson, a Contributor, scout Bill Nunn from the Steelers and a coach, Tom Flores. They’re in their own separate categories and it would be a surprise if any of those three were denied entrance into the Hall. They also needed eighty percent of an up or down vote from the Selection Committee.
The fifteen Modern Era finalists are vying for only five spots, which makes it very difficult to gain entrance and I can tell you it’s tough on the selectors. Once you get into the room, a player has about an eighty-eight percent chance of eventually getting into the Hall. But deciding who’s essentially not getting in that year is daunting. All are qualified or they wouldn’t have made it through the morass of eligible players and into the final fifteen. I’ll find out along with everybody else who was denied entrance to the Hall this year. And again, it won’t be a good feeling.
Making the decision about which players move forward is a multi-faceted process. If it was just about statistics, you could just send out a spreadsheet and put in the top five. But a player has to have had an impact in his era that exceeds all others at his position. As one selector famously put it, “Could you write the history of the NFL in his era and not include him?”
Which players are on the finalists’ ballot in any given year also has an impact. How many ‘first time eligible’ players are listed on the ballot? And were they good enough to gain entrance in their first year of eligibility?
That ‘first ballot’ moniker has become a thing recently. I’m in the minority I’m sure but I don’t think first ballot is even a thing in the PFHOF. Baseball? Yes. The voting procedure is totally different. Football? No. Nobody ever asks how many years it took to get in. The first ballot idea in football has been pressed by sports networks and social media and has put pressure on the committee to acquiesce. That’s not a secret.
In the past decade, the Selection Committee has admitted forty-per cent of all first ballot nominees. Far more than any other ten year stretch in the history of the Hall since the start of the Modern Era in 1970.
Is Jerry Rice’s gold jacket any shinier than Lynn Swann’s? It is not. Rice was elected in his first year of eligibility, Swann in his fourteenth. I think first ballot players are when the presenter stands up and says, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Joe Montana.” Or “Ladies and Gentlemen, Don Shula.” And sits down. It’s no secret that Peyton Manning is getting in this year in his first year of eligibility. His presentation took twelve seconds. And Charles Woodson looks like a first ballot selectee this year as well.
First-year finalist Calvin Johnson said publicly that if he wasn’t selected in his first year he’d be “insulted.” Nine years in the league, a great nickname in ‘Megatron’, Johnson ended his career voluntarily, citing the wear and tear on his body. I’ve got news for you, anybody with a near ten-year career in the NFL has plenty of wear and tear on his body.
Is Johnson worthy of the Hall of Fame? Absolutely. Does he have to be a first ballot guy? Not really. It’s one of those factors that has to go into the Selectors decision making. If you add Johnson to Manning and Woodson as ‘first ballot’ guys this year that leaves twelve finalists for two spots. If you keep doing that, year after year, deserving players are left behind.
John Lynch was a finalist this year for the eighth time. Alan Faneca was in the final fifteen for the sixth straight year. And the Jaguars Tony Boselli has been ‘in the room’ for five years.
Nobody doubts the greatness of those players or their Hall of Fame credentials but with the committee getting younger and relying more and more on statistics instead of the ‘eye test,’ and putting first-timers in at a record pace, those three are good examples of what can happen.
As the Jacksonville representative it’s been my job for the past five years to present Tony Boselli’s case for induction. Each year the presentation has to be different, building on what the committee already knows about his career. When Tony was first eligible, there were five offensive linemen on the final ballot and they were all presented, in alphabetical order. That put Boselli, starting with a ‘B’ at a disadvantage by always going first. By the time we got through the other four, his career impact was undeservedly diluted. Luckily, the Hall has changed the procedure, randomly pulling players names out of a hat for the order of presentation.
And although Boselli is listed as an Offensive Lineman, he’s a tackle and the only tackle on this year’s ballot. Tackles play a high value position. They’re very different than guards or centers. We don’t consider defensive backs in one lump, a nod to how different safeties and cornerbacks are.
You can’t compare what Boselli did as a player with Faneca’s game. Both were dominant at their position in their era and both are worthy of Hall of Fame status. But what they were asked to do was very different. Faneca was pulling and blocking and handling defensive tackles while Boselli was charged with handling Hall of Famers like Bruce Smith and Derrick Thomas. By himself. Both great, both very different.
The perceived brevity of Boselli’s career has been the only knock on his candidacy for the Hall. Tony played ninety-seven games through seven seasons. Swann, Dwight Stephenson, Jimbo Covert and a host of other members of the Hall had comparable career year numbers. Even an iconic NFL player like Paul Hornung only played one hundred and four regular season games.
Thirteen percent of all players in the Hall played less than one hundred games. Twenty five percent of all Tackles in the Hall played less than a hundred games. Gayle Sayers was always the outlier as a member of the Hall with a short career. Sayers only played sixty-six games in the NFL before a knee injury ended his playing ability. But his greatness wasn’t denied, and he was elected to the Hall in 1977 at thirty-four years old, still the youngest player ever inducted.
Recently, the Selection Committee put Terrell Davis and Kenny Easley in the Hall. Davis played seventy-eight games and Easley eighty-nine. So, length of career isn’t a reason to keep Tony out.
“It’s hard to deny somebody who played nearly a hundred games and is considered one of the top two or three to ever play his position,” one non-Selection Committee scribe said to me last week. There’s really not much debate about the quality of Boselli’s play.
Will Boselli gain entrance to the Hall this year? I really don’t know. It’s a numbers game for Tony, again. Of those five offensive linemen who were on the ballot when he first was a finalist five years ago, two, Kevin Mawae and Steve Hutchinson are in the Hall. Joe Jacoby is in the senior pool. Tony and Faneca remain as finalists. Will they grab one of the two or three available spots for this year? And what about Lynch. Jacksonville’s native son LeRoy Butler has already been told he didn’t make it this year.
You could say Tony played in the ‘Golden Age of Tackles’ in the NFL. Willie Roaf, Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones and Gary Zimmerman were all contemporaries of Boselli. All are in the Hall. And all, in one way or another, have told me Boselli was the best of the bunch. Walter Jones said he wore 71 because Boselli wore 71. Willie Roaf said he checked his game against Boselli’s every week. Even though they weren’t even in the same conference.
I honestly don’t know but I’d call Tony’s chances 50-50 based on the numbers. If the committee thinks Calvin Johnson is a first ballot guy that cuts down the numbers and the chances. We did talk about Tony for over thirty-one minutes last week, third longest of all the candidates.
Based on the current criteria, I believe Boselli is a Hall of Famer. Without statistics, although there are now some metrics for offensive lineman, he’s subject to the eye test. And some of the committee never saw him play. The Jaguars sent out video clips this year to committee members showing Tony’s dominance. And it was a good reminder of just how dominant he was.
They say being selected to the Hall of Fame is a life changing experience. I hope it happens soon for Boselli and I hope it’ll be worth the wait.