(Neil Smith cover photo courtesy of Denver Broncos)
By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
There are 98 all-decade players from the 1920s through the 1990s not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including 20 from the all-decade team of the 1990s, and if that seems like a lot its only because it is.
But here's the most staggering number of all: Of those all-decade players from the 1990s, nine – or virtually half – do not appear on the preliminary list of 94 modern-era candidates for the Hall's Class of 2017, and these are guys who, in many cases, played fewer than two decades ago.
Players like tight end Ben Coates, tackle Richmond Webb, center Mark Stepnoski, defensive end Neil Smith and defensive back Carnell Lake are omitted from the ballot, and, yeah, I know guys can slip through the cracks. But nearly half the class?
Webb was someone who made the Pro Bowl seven consecutive times – more than the quarterback he protected, Dan Marino, and more than any player in Dolphins' history. He was also a four-time All-Pro and, now, is a member of the Dolphins' Honor Roll. Yet he can't get on the preliminary ballot for Canton?
Then there's Neil Smith. He reached the Pro Bowl six times, was a four-time All-Pro and two-time Super Bowl champion. He, too, is a member of a Hall of Fame, but not the one in Canton. The one in Kansas City for the Chiefs, who retired his jersey number 90.
We talk about the impact players had on the game, and Smith's reach extends beyond his 105 career sacks. He has a rule named after him – "the Neil Smith rule," passed in 1998 to prevent defensive linemen from flinching to induce a false start by an opponent.
But why stop there? Former defensive back Carnell Lake was a five-time Pro Bowler, a four-time All-Pro and so accomplished that he not only made the Pittsburgh Steelers' all-time team but gained a 1997 MVP vote from Sports Illustrated's Peter King when Brett Favre won the award.
I guess that’s a long way of saying there are many … too many … deserving candidates who have been forgotten when they should not have been.
We started an Outsiders series last month on the Talk of Fame Network that features some of them, starting with Webb. Like us, they're at a loss to explain why they can't make it on a preliminary list for Canton … when it was the voters at Canton who put them on the all-decade team in the first place.
"It's been on before," Webb said of his name, "but I try not to focus on that because I've seen how it's really impacted or affected a couple of guys who felt they were deserving to be in there. And it kind of eats away at them.
"The way I look at is this: I think my career and my resume speak for themselves. I don’t understand the whole process and how it works, but that’s what kind of gives me confidence. I try not to focus on (that) I should be here or I should be there. I definitely think I'm worthy; I just don’t know how to get on that list or what the process is or how they determine that. So I just try to keep it moving."
Well, we do know the process, and we'd like to keep these guys from disappearing. But how? Our Rick Gosselin has proposed making all-decade choices immediate semifinalists in their first years of eligibility, and I'd second that. There's no reason for someone like Webb, who retired after the 2002 season, to be forgotten less than a decade after he became eligible (candidates must first wait five years) – and with Gosselin's idea that wouldn’t happen.
Here's why: Voters would know the resumes because they'd have no choice. When selectors make the cuts from 25 semifinalists to 15 finalists, the decisions can be difficult … which means research is involved. So someone like a Richmond Webb or a Ben Coates – who was a three-time All-Pro, Super Bowl champion and member of the Patriots' Hall of Fame – would not disappear from Canton's consciousness long before their eligibilities as modern-era candidates expire.
Something must be done. There are too many players who deserve better. They wonder what happened, and, frankly, I don’t know. What I do know is that the Gosselin Plan is a good one, and, until I hear a better idea, should be considered to give nine deserving candidates from the 1990s' all-decade team more than they’ve gotten today.
Which is nothing.