There are few surprises among the 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame's modern-era Class of 2019, with safety Ed Reed, tight end Tony Gonzalez and cornerback Champ Bailey included in their first years of eligibility.
But that was expected. This was not: Tom Flores made it, too, and it’s about time.
The former quarterback and coach, who turns 82 in March, is a finalist for the first time ever, and what’s so unusual about that is that he was a four-time Super Bowl winner – once as a backup quarterback (Kansas City), once as an assistant coach (Oakland) and twice as a head coach (Raiders).
What’s more, he was the first Hispanic to win Super Bowl rings as a quarterback and as a head coach. Yet he not only hasn’t been a Hall-of-Fame finalist until now; he was never a Hall-of-Fame semifinalist until two months ago, either.
Unusual? You bet. And Flores admitted his frustration when we caught up to him three years ago for a Talk of Fame Network broadcast.
“I do wonder,” he said then. “I felt like I have accomplished a lot in my career, and it’s been a long career. Winning two Super Bowls as a head coach -- one in Oakland and one in L.A. -- and living in a hotel room 14 months in doing so … and working for Al Davis alone, I should be in the Hall of Fame.
“But even when Al and I would get together -- and he was my biggest backer -- but he said, ‘Maybe that’s the wrong thing for me to do -- is to back you.’ I seemed to get overshadowed in his shadow. Al was such a dynamic personality that it was never my team. It was always his team. That’s just the way it was, (and) I accepted that.
“But I don’t accept what the facts prove. It’s kind of confusing and frustrating at times. But what am I going to do? I’m not a voter. A lot of first things that I did in this league that were the first things in this league.”
Flores isn’t the only head coach on this list. Don Coryell is back for the fifth time as a finalist after a three-year run was interrupted in 2018. And while Flores, Reed, Gonzalez and Bailey are making their first appearances as finalists, they're not alone. Former defensive lineman Richard Seymour joins them.
But enough already. Let’s stop there and see what happened Thursday.
Defense took the biggest hit with the move from 25 semifinalists to 15, with the list of 13 defensive candidates cut by more than half to six. Offense went form nine candidates to seven, while two of the three head coaches survived. Only Jimmy Johnson failed to make the cut.
THE EASY CALLS
Reed, Gonzalez and Bailey were dead-bolt cinches to get here. In fact, Reed and Gonzalez almost certainly are first-ballot Hall-of-Famers, and Bailey could make it three. But they're joined by all five players who made the cut from 15 to 10 in 2018 – offensive linemen Kevin Mawae, Tony Boselli, Steve Hutchinson and Alan Faneca as well as cornerback Ty Law – and 2018 finalists Edgerrin James, John Lynch and Isaac Bruce.
Tom Flores is one. But former safety Steve Atwater is another. He was a first-team all-decade choice but has been a finalist only once. And that was back in 2016 when he failed to make the cut from 15 to 10. That means voters moved on from him … until, of course, they didn’t. Now he’s back and for good reason. He and semifinalist LeRoy Butler, another all-decade safety from the 1990s, are the only first-team choices on that team – offense or defense – not inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That bodes well for Atwater. But this doesn’t: He’s one of three safeties in this group, with Reed a slam dunk to make it. Then there’s Don Coryell, and, though he’s been here four times before, he’s a mild surprise, too. Reason: Voters never have rallied behind him because of his failure to reach a single Super Bowl. Yeah, I know, he was a Top-10 choice in 2016. But then he wasn’t, failing to make the cut from 15 to 10 a year later. And then in 2018 he didn’t make it as a finalist, period. That seemed to signal the end of his candidacy … until this.
TRYING TO GAIN TRACTION
Lynch, Bruce and James are back, but none was a Top-10 choice in 2018. For Bruce and James, that’s nothing new. Both have been two-time finalists, with neither gaining enough support to advance in the first reduction vote. Lynch has. In fact, in his five years as a finalist he was a Top-10 finisher twice – including 2017. But that’s the good … and the bad … news. Because Lynch’s candidacy weakened in 2018, with the former Tampa Bay and Denver star failing to survive the first cut. And that could mean his candidacy is losing momentum.
BREAKING THE GRIDLOCK
There are, as I said, four offensive linemen – all of whom were Top-10 finishers a year ago. That is also good and bad news because it’s possible … as happened in 2018 … that they cancel each other out, with each gaining support among their followers but not enough support to carry the room. Something has to give here, as it did when Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Andre Reed split votes at wide receiver earlier this decade. Eventually, Carter was enshrined in 2013, with Reed following in 2014 and Brown a year later.
THE LONE RANGER
As the only defensive lineman among the finalists, Seymour is not so much a surprise. First of all, this is only his second year of Hall-of-Fame eligibility. Second, he’s a three-time Super Bowl champion. And, third, he’s a first-team all-decade choice. All that helped him get this far. But this is where it gets tough for a couple of reasons: 1) Voters love pass rushers, and he wasn’t a guy known for sacking the quarterback (57-1/2 for his career) and 2) there are too many Hall-of-Fame worthy candidates ahead of him, waiting to hear their names to be called.
THE HARDEST HIT
Nobody suffered in this cut more than the linebackers. There were four among the 25 semifinalists. There are none on this list. That means former Denver star Karl Mecklenburg, in his 20th—and last – year of eligibility as a modern-era finalist moves on to the senior pool, where he joins former teammate Randy Gradishar and far too many qualified candidates who have been ignored or forgotten.
That's going to do it. Here, then, is the list of the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s Class of 2019 finalists:
RB (1) – EDGERRIN JAMES.
WR (1) – ISAAC BRUCE.
TE (1) – TONY GONZALEZ.
OL (4) – ALAN FANECA, KEVIN MAWAE, TONY BOSELLI, STEVE HUTCHINSON.
DL (1) – RICHARD SEYMOUR.
DB (5) – ED REED, JOHN LYNCH, TY LAW, STEVE ATWATER, CHAMP BAILEY.
COACHES (2) – DON CORYELL, TOM FLORES.
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