Posts

Pro Football Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame 2021 Boselli

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.

Boselli Battles COVID-19

When his best friend Mark Brunell talks about Tony Boselli, he says he didn’t like him much at first.

“He thought he was the best player on the team,” Mark says. “Which he was.”

“And he thought he was the toughest guy on the team,” Brunell usually continues. “Which he was.”

I can attest to Boselli’s toughness. Having known him for over 25 years, I’ve seen his toughness as a football player during his career in the NFL That toughness continued when I’d see him in the gym once his career ended. A different kind of toughness showed itself when he emerged as a community leader in the political arena. He values toughness in his current role as an analyst for the Jaguars radio broadcasts and nationally on Westwood One.

But no level of toughness prepared him for his latest battle with Covid-19.

“I don’t know if I ever was like I thought I was going to die,” he recalled this week. “But I remember having the conversation with myself: ‘I don’t want to die here.’”

That conversation with himself happened for Boselli while he was in the ICU at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. After a few rounds of golf the weekend The Players was cancelled, Boselli started to feel bad on Monday, March 16th. He thought it was just a cold.

Two days later he felt worse and was told he had been exposed to the Coronavirus. He called his doctor and got tested that day. Two days later the results showed he tested positive for COVID-19.

“When I first got it, I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, this is a headache,” Boselli said. “I didn’t think it was a big deal. I’m like, ‘I’m 47 and I’m healthy. This is going to be three-to-five days, then I’ll be back.'”

A couple of days later his “cold” lingered but the following Tuesday he says he was going downhill fast.

“That’s when I was like, ‘Holy cow … this is real.’ When I went to the hospital, I thought I was going to get some fluids and some meds. They took an X-Ray and said, ‘You’re not leaving. You’re going to ICU.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ You realize that this stuff gets out of control pretty quick.”

Things got serious when during his stay in the ICU, doctors were trying to get a handle on the severity of his condition.

“It was kind of fuzzy, but I remember (the pulmonologist) saying, ‘If we don’t get your oxygen stabilized, we’re going to have to go to the next level,'” Boselli said. “I remember laying there thinking, ‘What do you mean, if this doesn’t work?’ He says, ‘We don’t know what direction this is going to go.’

Doctors did get his oxygen stabilized and Boselli started to recuperate. After a few more days of recovery in the Mayo Clinic, he was discharged last Tuesday after nearly a week in the hospital and two weeks after starting to feel bad. He’s had additional tests for the virus and so far, the results have been negative.

During his hospital stay, Boselli was quarantined, only staying in contact with his family via text when he had enough energy to grab his phone. He credits the health care workers with his recovery. They were the only people allowed near him, wearing full protective gear.

“They were great,” Tony said with a strong sense of gratitude. “Those doctors and PAs and nurses and techs, everyone, they’re amazing. These people were absolutely amazing. Superstars.”

Having lost twenty pounds in the last two weeks during this ordeal, Boselli says he’s still weak but hopes to be back on his bike soon: his current choice of a cardio workout.

Tony’s wife Angie also tested positive but had much more mild symptoms. “She’s tougher than me,” Tony said with a smile. The rest of his family is also fine.

“I’m on the right side of this thing now but I can tell you, the thing is, it’s real,” he added as an alarm to those not heeding the warnings. “These health care experts and workers that are talking about this? They’re not making this up.”

“Take it from someone who was in the hospital and had these people working on me: They’re risking everything themselves to take care of people. It’s serious. It’s real. We need to do what people are being asked to do.”

Boselli Denied Again

If there’s a need to prove that the Pro Football Hall of Fame is the most difficult Hall to get into, look no further than the Modern-Era Class of 2020.

While Jaguars fans are disappointed and frustrated that Tony Boselli hasn’t gained induction to Canton yet, Steeler fans and Bucs fans feel the same. Boselli was a finalist for the fourth consecutive year. The Steelers Alan Faneca has also been a finalist for four years. And John Lynch has been discussed “in the room” by the Selection Committee seven meetings in a row.

“We’ll go to Tampa and see what happens next year,” Boselli graciously told me after he was informed he wasn’t among the Centennial Class of 2020.

There’s a lot of support for Boselli among the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He’s been a finalist four years in a row and has made the cut to the final ten in the last three years. The Committee believes he was a great player. But he’s a great player in a crowded field of other great players.

This year there were five spots available for the 15-modern era finalists. Troy Polamalu had one locked up as a “first ballot” inductee. While I don’t think that should be a thing in football based on the process, it’s become a thing and it’s hurt Boselli and other’s chances for enshrinement in Canton.

And next year the numbers are difficult for any of the finalists. Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson and Calvin Johnson will be eligible for the first time. The general mind-set of the committee over the last decade is “this guy can’t wait.”

So if you put those three guys in, that leaves two spots for 12 players. Add Jared Allen to the mix as a first-year eligible and you see what I mean. Not a lot of room for Boselli, Lynch, or Faneca. Add LeRoy Butler, Bryant Young, Richard Seymour, Zach Thomas and the six other finalists from this year and the path to football immortality gets pretty narrow.

“You are elated when the candidate you advocate for gets his gold jacket and dejected when your nominee is turned away,” said Tampa Bay’s Ira Kaufman, a selector since 2005. “You can’t help but feel you could’ve done a better job making their case for a gold jacket.”

Kaufman presented Lynch for the seventh straight year on Saturday and has brought new information to the meeting every year. That can be difficult with only five minutes allotted for a presentation.

“There was a lot of pressure,” Ron Borges, a Hall of Fame Selection Committee member who presented Ty Law for three years said after Law’s selection in 2019. “It’s difficult when you bring someone back multiple times. You have to change your approach in some form or come up with some new-found statistic. But you have to be careful. You don’t want to stray too far from the basic facts you presented before.”

“While the Pro Football Hall of Fame would be the ultimate individual honor, the comments made by people like Jason Taylor, Michael McCrary, Chuck Smith and Bruce Smith as well as several others means so much and I am humbled,” Boselli added.

Those comments were a part of my presentation for Boselli this year. Without a lot of statistical comparison for a tackle, relying on the impression Tony left on his opponents and others of his era who played his position is important. And you can’t find anybody who doesn’t say Boselli wasn’t a great player and Hall of Fame worthy.

Up until this year, Hall of Fame Defensive End Bruce Smith, was reluctant to talk about his matchups with Boselli, but endorsed him just last week.

“He was a stud,” Smith said of Boselli and how he dominated him in their playoff game in Buffalo. “He gave me all I could handle. In that era of football, there was none better.”

Hall of Famers, Walter Jones, Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden and Willie Roaf all played in the same era as Boselli and all believe he belongs in the Hall.

“I used to check my game against his every week,” Jones said.

In the five concurrent years Tony played with those other tackles, it was Boselli who was named as the All-Pro 1st Team tackle three consecutive years.

John Hannah, considered the best guard to ever play the game said, “When I watched Tony Boselli play I thought he was the best offensive tackle I ever saw.”

So if everybody thinks he’s fantastic and worthy, why isn’t he in?

While it’s a numbers game as I mentioned earlier, and those numbers are dwindling with Joe Jacoby, Kevin Mawae and Steve Hutchinson no longer on the ballot, there was a log jam among offensive linemen for the past four years.

It’s happened before. We talked about Lynn Swann and John Stallworth for nearly a decade before Swann was selected and Stallworth was enshrined the next year. Same thing with Tim Brown, Andre Reed and Cris Carter. All eventually got in but it took a while.

When matching Boselli’s career against the other finalists, the only knock is his length of service. Boselli played 91 regular season games over seven years and six more in the playoffs.

There are plenty examples of “short careers” among those enshrined in Canton. Terrell Davis played 78 games. Kenny Easley 89. Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Swann, Kellen Winslow, and Dwight Stephenson all had careers that are considered “short.” But all have gained entrance into the Hall.

For some reason, the confluence of this particular collection of members of the Selection Committee, players who have been finalists, and offensive linemen also on the ballot have so far denied Boselli a spot in Canton.

One friend of mine called it “stupefying.” Some called it “baffling.”

Being in the room and listening to the qualifications of the other finalists, I understand it. I don’t like it, but I understand it. As I’ve said many times, the most frustrating thing about being on the committee are the players I have to leave off every year that I know are deserving of a bust in Canton.

So if Tony wants me back, I’ll go next year to Tampa and see what happens. I know it’s hard on him and nothing disappoints me more than the conversation I’ve had with him the last three years.

It’s tough, which will make it that much more sweet when it happens. And it will.

Boselli’s Chance

This coming Saturday in Miami, former Jaguars Tackle Tony Boselli and Packers safety LeRoy Butler are among the 15 finalists for the remaining five spots in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s “Centennial Class.” Recognizing the NFL’s 100th anniversary and the year 2020, the Hall expanded this year’s class to include 10 seniors, two coaches, three contributors and five modern-era candidates. Those modern-era candidates are the finalists we’ll talk about this Saturday, players whose careers ended less than twenty-five years ago.

A “Blue Ribbon” Committee was appointed to select the first fifteen members of the Centennial Class. The regular Selection Committee will discuss the final fifteen Saturday and whittle that group down to the final five for enshrinement in Canton with a little twist on the rules from previous years.

Normally the Selection Committee talks about players and coaches and the final five have to endure an up or down vote. Each has to get 80% of the Selection Committee’s endorsement to gain entrance into the Hall. This year the Committee will only talk about players and there will be no up or down vote. The final five will be part of the class.

It’s the fourth consecutive year Boselli has made the finalists list. It’s the first time Butler has made it “in the room.” Making it “in the room” gives a player about an 88% chance of eventually making it to the Hall.

Because it’s his fourth year in the final fifteen, Boselli has a better chance this year than Butler but I think both deserve enshrinement in Canton. I’ll give support to LeRoy’s candidacy during the meeting. He’s a four-time All-Pro and four times was elected to the Pro Bowl. He played on a Super Bowl championship team. He was on the NFL’s All-Decade team of the ‘90’s. He has a strong case for the Hall.

But it’s my job as the Jacksonville representative to present Tony’s case to the other forty-seven selectors. The Green Bay rep will present LeRoy’s case.

The Selection Committee is a group of reporters and two Hall of Fame members who are serious-minded, smart, experienced and well prepared. They’re not swayed by flowery rhetoric or great oratory skills. They’re interested in facts they might not have uncovered. They want to hear what the candidate’s contemporaries say about his qualifications, his teammates and opponents, players and coaches.

Boselli had been eligible for the Hall for eleven years before he became a finalist. Give credit to my colleague Vito Stellino, a Hall of Fame writer himself and an at-large member of the Selection Committee for jump-starting Tony’s candidacy. His off-season reminder to Committee members that Boselli’s career exceeded the length of some recent inductee’s gave Tony’s case an early push.

There’s really not much debate about the quality of Boselli’s play. Nobody disputes that at the peak of his performance, he was among the best, maybe in the top two of those who ever played tackle in the NFL. (The consensus is Anthony Munoz is the best tackle ever. Even Boselli thinks so.)

Players from Tony’s era who have made it to Canton all believe in his qualifications.

Munoz said he thinks Boselli “is one of the best offensive tackles I have observed.”

“He had the versatility of Gary Zimmerman and Walter Jones,” said John Randle, who Boselli calls his toughest opponent. “He was patient, that’s what makes the great ones I don’t see that much these days. Tony had great feet, he never got crossed over.”

Jason Taylor suffered a beat down in a nationally televised game and said recently, “ Tony Boselli wore me out! In fact, if they didn’t turn off the lights, he would still be kicking my a**. He belongs in that (Hall of Fame) box.”

Even Bruce Smith, previously reluctant to talk about his matchups with Boselli, endorsed him this week. “He was a stud. He gave me all I could handle. In that era of football, there was none better.”

Walter Jones was a few years older than Boselli but admitted he looked at Tony’s game tape each week to compare his own game.. You could call the era that included Jones and Boselli the “Golden Age of Tackles.” Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden and Willie Roaf were all in that time frame and all are in the Hall. All also admit Boselli might have been the best of the lot.

John Hannah, considered the best guard to ever play the game said, “When I watched Tony Boselli play I thought he was the best offensive tackle I ever saw.”

Boselli ranks either first or second among the tackles of his era when it comes to sacks per game, rushing yards to his side and most other quantifiable statistics. He was named All-Pro four times by different organizations and was five times selected to the Pro Bowl. He’s a member of the NFL’s All-Decade team of the’90’s despite playing only half of the decade.

So the only question about Tony is the length of his career. Seven years. Ninety-seven games including six playoff contests.

There are numerous examples of players in the Hall of Fame who played less than ten years in the league.

Well respected NFL Historian and editor of Pro Football Journal John Turney recently named his “All-
Short Career” team perhaps in reaction to the recent early retirements of Luke Kuechly (8 years), Rob Grokowski, (9 years) Calvin Johnson (9 years) and Andrew Luck (6 years).

Boselli was an all-first team tackle on offense. The other was Jimbo Covert of the Bears, recently named to the Hall by the Blue Ribbon Committee. Covert played eight seasons and 111 games. Less than a full season more than Tony.

Names you might recognize also on that “Short Career” offensive team: Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Lynn Swann, Kellen Winslow, Earl Campbell, Terrell Davis and Dwight Stephenson, all in the Hall of Fame among others. Davis gained enshrinement in 2017 and played but 78 games in the NFL.

If you like numbers, here are some that might surprise you:

Twenty-five percent of the tackles in the Hall played less than 100 games. Thirteen percent of all players in the Hall played less than 100 games.

Pro football reference has a stat called “games as primary starter” at their position. A full 35% of the hall, 97 of the 279 players in the Hall of Fame were the “primary starter” at their position for ten years or less.

The same research lists 14 of the 30 tackles in the Hall of Famer, nearly half as the “primary starter” for their teams for ten years or less. Why?

There’s been an ebb and flow in the length of careers over the NFL’s first century. Until about 1960 it wasn’t unusual for a player’s career to be less than ten years.

There was not the same medical skill and procedures as now and certainly not the money. Guys went on to other careers. Duke Slater, a member of the Centennial Class, played nine years and ninety games before retiring at age 32. At the time he was an attorney and a judge in Chicago. It wasn’t until the very late 50’s and 60’s that careers in the NFL started to expand. Better medical attention, more money in the game. Now the trend could be shorter careers. The toll on guys bodies with a 12 month commitment, the amount of money now in the game is giving them an opportunity and for some an incentive to retire early.

So perhaps the Selection Committee will recalibrate it’s thought process when it comes to length of careers. Will they deny Kuechly, Gronkowski or Johnson entrance to the Hall because they chose to end their careers when it appeared they could still play? I would hope not. A less than ten-year career will be more the norm and not the exception in the future.

It’s still an uphill battle for Boselli with fellow offensive linemen Alan Faneca and Steve Hutchinson also as finalists again this year. John Lynch is a finalist for the seventh time.
Eight of the fifteen to be discussed in the room are finalists for the first time. Troy Polamalu is considered the only favorite to gain entrance this year.

While I think Tony has a strong case for the Hall, especially in light of the precedents set by the selection in recent years of players with short careers, I can tell you that in my twenty-five years on the Committee, in that room on that Saturday, anything can happen.