What Took So Long
Although his career on the field was full of skill, technique, power and passion, Tony Boselli’s path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame was a numbers game.
This was the sixth consecutive year Boselli has made the finalists list. The last five years he’s made the first cut to the final ten. In the time I’ve researched the nuances of Boselli’s career for his presentation to the other forty-eight members of the Selection Committee, nobody every says to me “he wasn’t good enough.” It’s only ever “did he play long enough.”
So here are a couple of quick numbers about the length of Tony’s career
Boselli played ninety-seven games. There are 300 players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and nineteen percent played either fewer games or less than one more full season than Boselli. Twenty-three percent of all of the tackles in the Hall played less than a hundred games.
It’s not unprecedented for a player with the length of career like Tony’s to be elected to the Hall of Fame. It’s not even unusual.
In the Hall’s Class of 2017 both Terrell Davis and Kenny Easley were elected. Davis played eighty-six games and Easley ninety-five.
It was after that year that former Times-Union reporter and columnist Vito Stellino, a writer in the Hall of Fame himself, penned an open letter to the Selection Committee suggesting that if Davis and Easley were Hall-worthy even with short career’s, Boselli should earn some consideration. Boselli had been a finalist for the first time that year and Stellino, then an at-large member of the Selection Committee, gave credence to the idea that as the dominant Tackle of his era, Tony’s case had some merit.
Besides the length of his career, other numbers were working against Boselli’s case. In 2018, five of the fifteen finalists, one third of the total, were offensive linemen. Joe Jacoby, Alan Faneca, Steve Hutchinson, Kevin Mawai and Joe Jacoby. All had longer careers than Boselli and only one of them, Jacoby, played tackle. It was clear it would be an uphill battle for Tony to leapfrog those other players, all with strong cases for admittance to the Hall. In addition, Committee rules at the time had the players presented by position and by alphabetical order. That meant Boselli was always first, a distinct disadvantage. Those rules were changed the following year, with players now presented in random order.
Tony’s candidacy also ran up against an odd stretch of other players becoming eligible who were considered ‘first-ballot’ selections. While I don’t think ‘first-ballot’ is a thing for the Pro Football Hall of Fame (unlike baseball) it has become a measuring stick in the last twenty years as the makeup of the committee has gotten younger. In the last five years, half of those elected to the Hall have been first-ballot selections. With only five spots available each year, the numbers didn’t work for Tony.
When the Hall announced a ‘Centennial Class’ for 2020, it appeared Boselli would be a front-runner. But with some momentum as a ‘modern-era’ candidate, the committee put together to select the Centennial Class was looking for players no longer under consideration.
Included in that Centennial Class was Jimbo Covert a tackle for the Chicago Bears. Covert had a similar career to Boselli’s. An All-Decade player, Covert made two All-Pro teams compared to Tony’s three (four unofficially if you count Sports Illustrated’s selections). An perhaps most importantly, Covert played one hundred and eleven games, less than one full season longer than Boselli.
By 2022, Jacoby had moved to the Senior Pool and Faneca, Mawai and Hutchinson had all be elected to the Hall. That left Boselli as the last offensive lineman from that group still on the ballot.
Including Boselli there were six great tackles in his era: Willie Roaf, Jonathan Ogden Orlando Pace, Walter Jones, and Gary Zimmerman.
In the last fifteen years, all have gained entrance to Canton. Hard to believe there are only thirty-one true tackles in the Hall and we’ve put six of them there in recent history.
There were three years where all six of those tackles played together in the NFL. On the All-Pro team for those three years the one constant at tackle was Boselli. The others rotated through the other tackle position.
While researching Tony’s presentation to the Selection Committee, I’ve had a chance to talk to opponents of his era as well as those tackles who played in the same years.
Walter Jones told me “Are you kidding? I wore 71 because of Boselli.”
Willie Roaf said he’d have the video department for the Saints cut up Boselli plays from the previous Sunday and watch them during the week.
“Even though we weren’t even in the same division or even the same conference, I wanted to check my game against his,” he said.
Anthony Munoz considered perhaps the best tackle of all time said of Boselli, “Tony was the best in the era he played. He should be in Canton.”
John Hannah, considered the best guard of all time said of Boselli: “I thought he was the best tackle I’d ever seen play.”
Tony told me that John Randle was the toughest opponent he faced. Randle couldn’t say enough good things about Tony, saying Boselli easily was the best he faced.
“He had the versatility if you combined Gary Zimmerman and Walter Jones,” Randle said.
“Plus, he was just a tough guy.”
Jason Taylor, a first-ballot Hall of Fame defensive end from Miami said it was such a classic beat down Boselli gave him on a Monday night, “If they didn’t turn the lights off, he’d still be kicking my ass. I’m surprised he didn’t beat me all the way to retirement.”
Bruce Smith, whom Boselli handled singlehandedly in the playoffs, after five years of asking said, “He was a stud. He gave me all I could handle. In that era of football, there was none better.”
Tony was on the All-NFL Rookie Team in 1995. The NFL Alumni Association and the NFLPA had an award for the top offensive lineman in the league while Boselli played. He won that award from both organizations in back-to-back years. The only other player to do that was Munoz.
Boselli made five straight Pro Bowls, three straight All-Pro teams and a fourth by Sports Illustrated. The Hall of Fame Selection Committee put him on the All-Decade team of the 90’s even though he only played half the decade.
Well respected Mike Giddings from Pro Scout rated him with five blue seasons, their top rating.
Tony ranks first or second in nearly every quantifiable stat about tackles in the run game, yards per carry to his side. And in the passing game when it comes to sacks allowed.
And he made everybody around him better.
With Boselli at left tackle, the Jaguars had four consecutive winning seasons, went to the playoffs four straight years, and played in two AFC Championship games with him anchoring the offensive line. Head Coach Tom Coughlin, who drafted Boselli, called him “the cornerstone of the franchise.”
The Jaguars won about 60 % of their games with Boselli in the lineup. Without him, well, you know the rest. They’ve won about 25% of their games.
Since tackle is not a quantifiable position with a ton of stats, I talked with Kent Stephenson, the former Seattle, and Steelers OL coach during Boselli’s career. The Jaguars and the Steelers were in the AFC Central when Tony played so they faced each other twice a year. Stephenson said he watched more tape of Boselli than anybody, studying the common opponents every week.
“I have two of my boys in the Hall, Faneca and Dawson, “Stephenson told me. “Tony was in their class He was a great, great player. Did everything well and did it with ease”
“Since we were in the same conference, we played similar opponents I saw him every week,” he added. “You couldn’t help watch him perform, he jumped off the film. He could do it all.”
“There are certain guys that when the lights go on and when the game is on the line, they have something extra. Faneca had that, Dawson had that. Boselli was the same way. They have a little bit of a competitive edge that shows up during competition.”
He played a premium position at left tackle. He handled players like Bruce Smith and Derek Thomas one-on-one. Boselli was athletic, fierce, and could run block or pass protect among the best.
He’s the consensus best tackle of his era by coaches, media, and his peers, and he remains the best player ever to wear a Jaguars uniform. So forever, Tony Boselli will be the first Jaguar to be selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.