ATLANTA – Before there can be Super Bowl Sunday, there’s Selection Saturday … and if you have no idea what we’re talking about you haven’t been paying attention.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s board of selectors on Saturday chooses its Class of 2019, with 15 modern-era candidates, two contributors and one senior nominated. The day begins at 7 a.m. and lasts into the middle of the afternoon – with presentations, debates and, eventually, votes taking as long as eight hours.
The top of the class isn’t the issue. There are two likely choices. But then the field becomes crowded, with four offensive linemen hoping this is the year one of them breaks free to ease the congestion. So what are the chances?
Safety Ed Reed and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Both defy tradition. The last pure safety to make it as a first-ballot choice was Ken Houston in 1986, and the last tight end to do it was … was … there wasn’t one. But Reed is as certain this year as former teammate Ray Lewis was last. He checks all the boxes and was one of the few defenders who frazzled Tom Brady. Gonzalez is a virtual certainty, too, though – unlike Reed – he never played on a championship team. But he did everything else, including reach 14 Pro Bowls and 10 All-Pro teams and miss only two games in 17 years. Oh yeah, he’s also the second all-time leading pass receiver, with more catches than everyone but Jerry Rice.
THE X FACTOR
Cornerback Champ Bailey. He’s the third candidate who’s a finalist in his first year of eligibility, and when we spoke to him on the Talk of Fame Network he was adamant that he’s first-ballot worthy. He is. But that doesn’t mean he makes it. And I’ll be honest: It’s going to be a photo finish, with Bailey controlling the board. If he makes it, only two modern-era vacancies are left for 12 finalists who aren’t in their first years of eligibility … which is why I think Bailey waits. Because if he doesn’t make it this year, that allows voters to start clearing the backlog of offensive linemen, as well as make a move on cornerback Ty Law, who – like the linemen – was a Top-10 finisher a year ago. In fact, he’s been a Top-10 finisher the past two. Could both Law and Bailey be elected, even though they played the same position? Absolutely. We elected two wide receivers and two linebackers a year ago and two running backs in 2017. But there’s no need for Bailey to jump the queue unless you believe he’s that much better than Law and/or all-decade offensive linemen. One word of warning: Voters have fallen in love with first-ballot choices, with five the past two years. Reed and Gonzalez will make it at least seven in the past three.
THE PILE THAT NEEDS TO MOVE
Two years ago we had three offensive linemen in the Top 10 … and none made it across the finish line. Last year, there were four in the Top 10 … and that’s where they finished. There’s a problem here, and it’s called gridlock. Tony Boselli, Kevin Mawae, Alan Faneca and Steve Hutchinson are all Hall-of-Fame worthy, but that’s the problem. Voters can’t decide among them. So they split so many votes that no one gets through. Of the group, Boselli is the most senior (this is his 13th year of eligibility) and Hutchinson the most junior (this is his second). And while Boselli played only 91 games, with his career cut short by injuries, he played the most popular offensive-line position among current voters – left tackle, with four inducted in the last seven years. Mawae, however, plays the least popular – center – with only one (Dermontti Dawson) inducted in the past 20 years. And then there are Hutchinson and Faneca, who, like Mawae, were first-team all-decade choices from the 2000s … but first-team choices as guards, another position that doesn’t get a lot of love from voters. The evidence: Guard Will Shields: In 14 years he was named to 12 Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro teams. Moreover, he never missed a game. Not one. Yet it took him four years to reach Canton. One of these guys needs to make a move, and at least one should … with the smart money on Boselli and/or Mawae.
THE ONE GUY I CAN'T FIGURE
There are six defensive players among the 15 finalists, and all but one are defensive backs. The lone ranger? Defensive tackle Richard Seymour. This is his first crack as a finalist … and it comes in only his second year of eligibility. That's positive. So is this: He's the only defensive lineman, and the last two times that happened the candidates hit the jackpot. And he's the only first-team all-decade defensive lineman from the 2000s' team who's eligible for Canton but who isn't already in. One problem: Sacks. He doesn't have many (57.5), and voters love sacks. As a first-time finalist, Seymour is something of a long shot. But I wouldn't be surprised if he made into the Top Ten.
Someone needs to tell me why running back Edgerrin James has no momentum … because he doesn’t. Or he hasn’t. Yet, as one voter described him, he was the Le’Veon Bell of the Colts. The guy could do everything. Run. Catch. Block. Everything. What he can’t do is get the attention of voters. This is his third try as a finalist, and he hasn’t moved into the Top 10 yet. Neither has former Rams’ star Isaac Bruce, who actually won a Super Bowl (here in Atlanta) with a 73-yard TD catch with two minutes left, and who ranks fifth in all-time receiving yards. He was the star receiver on an offense that was so proficient it was labeled “The Greatest Show on Turf,” yet he was bypassed last year by Randy Moss and Terrell Owens – neither of whom won a Super Bowl. Bruce is the only wideout on the board this time, and he needs to move his candidacy forward. Maybe having the Rams here will help, but I don’t feel it. And then there are safeties John Lynch and Steve Atwater. Lynch is a six-time finalist who seemed this close to induction two years ago. And then … well, then his candidacy went in the wrong direction, with Lyynch failing to make the first cut in 2018. So now there are questions how and if it can be resuscitated – mostly because another safety (Reed) is a dead-bolt cinch. I don’t expect Lynch to make it this time (sound familiar?), but I am curious if he can return to the Top 10 … mostly because yet another safety, Troy Polamalu, is eligible next year. Then, of course, there’s the curious case of Atwater, a first-team all-decade choice from the 1990s. I mention that because only two first-team selections from that club aren’t in Canton … and both are safeties – Atwater and LeRoy Butler. Don’t ask me why. They just aren’t. For some reason, neither seems to have the attention of voters. This is only the second year for Atwater as a finalist (he was here in 2016), while Butler has never been discussed. For that reason, consider Atwater the longest of shots.
There are two up for election, Don Coryell and Tom Flores, and while they competed in the same division they’re very different choices. Coryell is a five-time finalist who was a Top-10 choice in 2016 … but who disappeared two years later. Now he’s back, but I don’t sense a groundswell of support for him. Yet there’s enough that voters brought him back after failing to consider him a finalist a year ago. Nevertheless, I can’t see him making it. Flores is a former quarterback and coach who won two Super Bowls, which will carry weight with voters, and who was the first Hispanic quarterback, first Hispanic head coach and the first minority, period, to win an NFL championship. In fact, he won two. So his place as a social pioneer will help his candidacy. So do the rings. But he fizzled later in Seattle, and that’s bound to come up. Bottom line: I make him a longshot, too, even though there’s a chance for a wild card Saturday – especially if the offensive linemen can’t move forward.
THREE MORE FOR THE MONEY
That would be senior candidate Johnny Robinson and contributor candidates Gil Brandt and Pat Bowlen. I have little doubt that all make it, though I do expect considerable discussion. Robinson should have been in decades ago, and it’s a tribute to the senior committee that it revived his candidacy while he’s still alive. I can’t imagine much turbulence for Brandt or Bowlen, either, with only one rejection among the six contributor nominees since the category was created. That was former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, shot down after a contentious … and lengthy … debate.
THE WAY I SEE IT
Reed and Gonzalez are no-brainers. The guessing starts with Door No. 3, and I believe Law makes it in over Bailey – mostly because he’s been waiting for years, won three Super Bowls and was slightly more productive (53 picks to Bailey’s 52). Bailey will get in at some date. Maybe it’s now. Maybe it’s next year. But for him to jump the queue Saturday, there must be proof that he was appreciably better than Law … and that’s a tough argument to make. After that, I can see two offensive linemen or one lineman and one wild card. Two offensive linemen in a modern-era class is unusual, but it's not rare. We inducted two (Larry Allen and Jonathan Ogden) in 2013.and in 2012 (Dermontti Dawson and Willie Roaf), but that was the only time it happened in the past 14 years. The only certainty is that Reed and Gonzalez make it. Then what? Well, then I hope at least one offensive lineman makes it ... and I think one does. Reason: Voters must begin to look at them as they did the Cris Carter-Andre Reed-Tim Brown bottleneck years ago, resolving to break it up so all could move forward. And all did.