ATLANTA -- Apparently, the latest IS the greatest.
For the second straight year the Pro Football Hall of Fame elected three first-ballot choices to its modern-era class – with safety Ed Reed, tight end Tony Gonzalez and cornerback Champ Bailey named Saturday to the Class of 2019.
So what’s the big deal?
This: Of the past 15 selections in the past three years, eight – or over half the class – have been elected in their first years of eligibility. That means that only seven of the remaining 37 choices have gone to candidates with two or more years of eligibility.
One of those was former cornerback Ty Law, who was in his fifth year, and his selection Saturday marks the third straight year two players have been chosen at one position.
A year ago, the Hall inducted two linebackers (Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher) and two wide receivers (Randy Moss and Terrell Owens) to the Class of 2018. And the year before that, it was two running backs (LaDainian Tomlinson and Terrell Davis).
Now it’s two cornerbacks. Consider that a trend.
The fifth spot went to former center Kevin Mawae, and hallelujah. His selection not only breaks the logjam of offensive linemen (four of them have been Top-10 picks the past two years); it makes him the first center to be inducted since Dermontti Dawson in 2012 and only the second in the past 21 years.
In addition, former Kansas City safety Johnny Robinson was elected as the senior candidate, and Denver owner Pat Bowlen and former Dallas executive Gil Brandt were named as the senior inductees.
TONY GONZALEZ -- I know, he was a dead-bolt cinch. Nevertheless, that's big stuff, and here's why: He becomes the first-ever tight end to be a first-ballot choice. It took John Mackey 15 years to reach Canton. It took Mike Ditka 12. And it took Kellen Winslow three. It took Gonzalez seven-and-a-half hours.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN – Three were finalists in 2017. None got in. Four were Top-10 finalists a year ago. None got in. The same four were Top-10 finalists Saturday, and Mawae broke the gridlock. Consider that an achievement. But there’s still a pileup at the position, with Tony Boselli, Alan Faneca and Steve Hutchinson waiting to have their names called … and the clock is ticking on Boselli’s candidacy.
THE COACHES – Don Coryell and Tom Flores were sentimental choices, but that’s about it. Their candidacies had no traction – even though there were prolonged and animated debates involving each. Coryell has now been in the room five times, with one Top-10 finish. This was Flores’ first time as a finalist, and let’s call it what it is: Candidacies that won’t go anywhere until or unless the Hall makes coaches contributor candidates – an idea that’s under discussion.
CANDIDATE WHO SHOULD BE CONCERNED
S JOHN LYNCH – He’s been a finalist the past six years, and that’s the good news … and the bad. The good is that he continues to return to a select group. The bad is that only one candidate in the past 50 years (former lineman Bob Kuechenberg) has been a six-time finalist six consecutive years and not been elected. And now comes the worst: Lynch’s candidacy is moving in the wrong direction. He was a Top-10 finalist in 2016-17. The past two years he’s failed to make it to the Top 10. The last time I saw that kind of direction the Vikings’ Jim Marshall was picking up a fumble and scoring … for the San Francisco 49ers.
ED REED and TONY GONZALEZ. They had the two shortest discussions, and there’s a reason: They were slam-dunks before the meeting even began.
EASIEST CALLS, II
JOHNNY ROBINSON, PAT BOWLEN and GIL BRANDT. Robinson was the senior candidate. Bowlen and Brandt were the contributors. Though Brandt was the longest debate it was hardly contentious. Ditto Robinson and Bowlen who, combined, were discussed less (29:56) than Brandt. The last senior nominee not to make it was Dick Stanfel in 2012, but he was later elected in 2016. Six of seven contributor nominees have been elected since the category was created in 2014, with former commissioner Paul Tagliabue the only candidate not to make it.
LET’S KEEP IT SHORT
The meeting lasted 7:40, but the debates and discussions were shorter … and considerably shorter than a year ago. That’s when Terrell Owens checked in at 45:15, Randy Moss at 34:45 and Kevin Mawae at 32:05. This time there was only one candidate (Gil Brandt) who eclipsed 30 minutes (34:06).
THE LAST GOODBYE
This was the last selectors’ meeting for executive director Joe Horrigan, who retires June 1 from the Hall after 42 years, and it was emotional – with voters giving Horrigan gifts and two standing ovations for his service. “It’s been a great 42 years,” said Horrigan, dabbing at his eyes. “If there’s anything I enjoy more than you guys, I don’t know what it is. You made my job easy.”
FIVE LONGEST DEBATES
34:06 – GIL BRANDT
27:10 – TY LAW
26:10 – TONY BOSELLI
24:53 – KEVIN MAWAE
22:35 – DON CORYELL
FIVE SHORTEST DEBATES
2:22 – ED REED
6:16 – TONY GONZALEZ
8:12 –ISAAC BRUCE
8:25 – RICHARD SEYMOUR
9:52 – EDGERRIN JAMES
CUTTING FROM 15 to 10
Cat Stevens said the first cut is the deepest, and these are the candidates who know ...
WR ISAAC BRUCE. He was the only wide receiver on the ballot and the star of the Rams’ last Super Bowl appearance in Atlanta. Both were supposed to help him. They didn’t. Bruce has been a three-time finalist but never made it to the Top 10. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s that he doesn’t moan about it, I dunno. But something isn’t connecting with voters.
DON CORYELL. This is the fifth time he’s failed as a finalist, and let’s be honest: His candidacy has no momentum … until or unless coaches are considered as contributor candidates. Former quarterback and Hall-of-Fame selector Dan Fouts made an impassioned speech on Coryell’s behalf, and I thought it might carry him through the first vote. I was wrong.
TOM FLORES. At 82, he was the oldest modern-era candidate. But he's not the oldest ever. That distinction went to former Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson, inducted into the Class of 2009 at the age of 91. This was Flores’ first crack at the Hall, and, sadly, it didn’t last as long as Raider Nation … or his legions of supporters … had hoped.
S JOHN LYNCH. His candidacy is in deep kimchi (please see above). In 2016 he was a Top-10 finalist. In 2017 he was a Top-10 finalist. Now this: The past two years he’s moved backward, failing to advance to the top 10. With Troy Polamalu in the Class of 2020 and Charles Woodson in 2021 Lynch’s candidacy is imperiled.
DL RICHARD SEYMOUR. This was his first year as a finalist and second year of eligibility, so it’s no surprise he didn’t get farther. But watch him in future years. He was a first-team defensive line choice from the 2000s’ all-decade team, and that’s significant. Three other defensive linemen from that unit already are in Canton (Michael Strahan, Warren Sapp and Jason Taylor), with Dwight Freeney and Seymour waiting. One difference: Freeney isn’t eligible for the Hall. Seymour is.
CUTTING FROM 10 TO 5
This is where it gets tough, with a glut of offensive linemen again canceling each other out …
S STEVE ATWATER. Consider this a breakthrough. Atwater’s in his 15th year of eligibility and only his second year as a finalist … but he cracked the Top 10. That’s a big step. But with Lynch still in the queue and Troy Polamalu up next year he continues to competition at his position … and not much time to move forward.
T TONY BOSELLI. I’m starting to worry about Boselli. This was his 13th year of eligibility, and his third straight Top-10 finish. All I know is that he better get to the finish line before 2023 -- or, when Joe Thomas becomes eligible.
G ALAN FANECA. I don’t get this guy. He’s a nine-time Pro Bowler, an eight-time All-Pro, a first-team all-decade choice and someone who missed only one game in his career. Yet voters aren’t buyers. Not yet, they’re not. This was his fourth year of eligibility and, yeah, I know, he has plenty of time. But what’s the problem, people? He checks all the boxes.
G STEVE HUTCHINSON. This was his second year of eligibility and his second year as a Top-10 finisher. I don’t worry about him. He’ll make it. And maybe sooner rather than later.
RB EDGERRRIN JAMES. Here’s the good news: In his third trial as a finalist, he finally made it to Top 10. Now the better news: Of the top 16 all-time rushers eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame only one isn’t in Canton … and you’re looking at him. Edge is getting closer.
NOW THE GOOD NEWS ….
Finalists can’t be too worried. Not yet they can’t. Because, according to Hall CEO and President David Baker, 89 percent of two-time Hall-of-Fame finalists are elected.
LOOKING AHEAD TO …
2020. Polamalu heads a class that includes Reggie Wayne, Patrick Willis and Maurice Jones-Drew.
2021. Good luck breaking into this lineup: Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson, Calvin Johnson, Justin Tuck and Jared Allen.
2022. Anquan Boldin, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, Demarcus Ware, Vince Wilfork and Tony Romo.
2023. Dwight Freeney, Devin Hester, Jason Witten, Joe Thomas, Nick Mangold and James Harrison.