For nearly nine hours on Saturday, we debated the merits of two contributors, one senior and 15 “modern era” candidates and their worthiness for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As my fellow selectors have said, it’s a complicated process. We’re to consider only what happened on the field during the careers of the players eligible. Where the field starts and stops is a debatable question. Statistics help, but if it was just about stats, they could feed them into a computer and let some accountants say who gets in and who doesn’t.
But it’s more than that and that’s why it’s complicated. In my 23rd year on the committee I was asked to present a player to the assembled media for the first time. I was honored to do so with such a talented player to present as Tony Boselli.
I’m including much of what I talked to the committee about here as well as some thoughts on Tony’s chances to eventually be selected to the Hall in the future.
Anytime anybody talks about Boselli and the Hall, the first question, and usually the only question is about the brevity of his career. But the perception is that Tony played a few years but actually he played seven seasons in the league. Ninety-one regular season games plus six starts in the playoffs.
The varying length of seasons, 12 before 1960, 14 from 1961-1977 and 16 since 1977 makes comparing “games played” a good measuring stick.
Players who played about a modern 16-game season more than Boselli who are in the Hall of Fame include:
Lynn Swann 116
Earl Campbell 115
Dwight Stephenson 114
Kellen Winslow 109
Paul Hornung 109
In addition to the two players we discussed on Saturday, Kenny Easley and Terrell Davis, there are 30 players with less than 100 games played are already in the Hall including:
Gale Sayers, Dick Stanfel, Doak Walker, and Cliff Battles.
In terms of performance, Boselli was a dominant player in the era of his career, He shut down celebrated Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, the 1996 Defensive Player of the Year in the ’96 playoffs, holding him to 3 innocuous tackles and no sacks in a 30-27 Jaguars win in Buffalo.
He shut down Jason Taylor on national television on a Monday night, another finalist in 2017 who was elected to the Hall. Taylor said last week, “Boselli beat me down on a Monday night. An epic beat down. Surprising it didn’t knock me into retirement.”
And closed down Derrick Thomas, a story best told by Phil Simms.
“Thomas had 6 sacks the week before for the Chiefs and were facing the Jaguars the following week. I was doing the game for CBS and in the production meeting prior I asked Coughlin how he was going to slow down Derrick Thomas: Double teams, chip him, whatever. Coughlin said, “I’m going to put my guy Tony Boselli over here. They’re going to line up their guy Derrick Thomas, and we will let them go one on one, then we’ll see who wins that battle!” I remember thinking, ‘That’s trouble for Jacksonville. No way is anyone going to match up against Derrick Thomas. As we broadcast the game the next day, Tony Boselli dominated Derrick Thomas from start to finish. For the period he played in, Tony Boselli was as dominating an offensive linemen that I have ever seen.”
That’s just one of the testimonials from former players and coaches who believe Tony belongs in Canton.
The man who drafted and coached him and went on to win two Super Bowls in New York, Tom Coughlin said, “Tony was simply the best offensive tackle in the game throughout his career. I never had to worry that his guy would make a play. Ever.”
Celebrated NFL personnel expert Gil Brandt said, “He’s in that same category with Willie Roaf and Anthony Munoz and Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones – he’s equal to all those guys. If you put all of those guys up you’d have a hard time deciding who you were going to take number one.”
Many long-time football watchers consider Anthony Munoz the greatest tackle of all-time. Munoz said, “My opinion, after watching Tony Boselli play during his NFL career, is that he is one of the best offensive tackles I have observed.”
And even Willie Roaf, a contemporary of Tony’s and a member of the Hall of Fame said, “I would always watch film of other players at my position. Even though I had two years on him, he was someone I would watch and gauge my game after.”
Perhaps being a good teammate counts in this process, so talking to his teammates, to a man they said he had no peer. Boselli made the guys around him better through his play and work ethic.
I asked Mark Brunell, who said Boselli was easily the best player on the Jaguars, if Boselli was the best football player he’d ever played with. The 19-year veteran and teammate of Boselli for Tony’s entire career said “I wouldn’t say Tony was better than Brett Favre, Reggie White or Drew Brees, but those are the guys he’s in the conversation with.”
He was the sheriff on those teams as well, and its no coincidence that when the Jaguars were relevant when it came to the post season it was during Boselli’s career. They went to the post-season four times in his first five seasons and twice played in the AFC Championship game.
You could call the era Boselli played in the “Golden Age of Tackles” in the NFL. Willie Roaf, Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones, Orlando Pace, and Tony Boselli. Joe Jacoby is still on the Hall of Fame ballot and his career started in 1981. There might not be another tackle for 10 years who get consideration for the Hall among the current group. Perhaps Joe Thomas and possibly Tyron Smith 15 years from now. So we’re talking about a special time from 1992 when Roaf came into the league and until Pace retired in 2009; all five of their careers were included in that time span. Tony Boselli played from 1995-2002.
Statically, Tony compares favorably with all of those HOF’ers. Gil Brandt’s statistical analysis of sacks allowed, yards rushing and other hard number show Boselli’s as an equal or above those other four.
In terms of accolades, Boselli was All rookie 1995, All Pro three times, 4 if you count the 1996 selection by Sports Illustrated and played in 5 pro bowls. He was named All-Decade first team of the 90’s at Tackle despite only playing five years in the decade and one was his rookie year. He passes the eye test. If you saw him play, you knew you were watching a special talent. Gary Zimmerman was the other All Decade Tackle, Willie Roaf was second team. Every other offensive first-team All Decade Player of the ’90’s we’ve elected to the Hall.
Everybody I talked to from Boselli’s era agreed that he was Hall of Fame material during his playing career. The brevity of his career, 97 games, should be viewed in its perspective. It wasn’t so brief after all. There are now 32 of the 265 players in the Hall who have less than 100 games played.
What’s changed for Tony is the selection of Terrell Davis to the Class of 2017. If the selection committee was willing to look past Davis having played only 78 games it helps Boselli’s chances exponentially.
As I mentioned, it’s a complicated process. In 2018, three players, Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher and Randy Moss are eligible for the first time. Are they all first-ballot Hall of Famers? If so, that will leave two spots for 12 players. In 2019 Ed Reed, Tony Gonzalez and Champ Bailey will be eligible. Sometimes it’s a slotting process, sometimes, as it was this year with LaDanian Tomlinson, the player’s greatness dictates that he be selected as soon as he becomes eligible.
I thought Tony had a 50-50 shot at getting in this year and the fact that he advanced to the final 10 proved me right. But the committee surprised me by selecting Jason Taylor in his first year of eligibility. Tony’s domination of Taylor is one of his credentials for admittance to the Hall. Nobody argues Boselli’s greatness. At some point I believe he’ll be wearing a gold jacket. When that is, as difficult as the process is, as I’ve said, is hard to predict.