By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
The Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2017 finalists features seven candidates who never made it this far – including first-year eligibles Brian Dawkins, Jason Taylor and LaDainian Tomlinson. Add Tony Boselli, Isaac Bruce, Ty Law and Kevin Mawae to the uninitiated – with the list cut to five on Feb. 4, the day before Super Bowl LI – and you have nearly half a class of modern-era finalists that never have been discussed.
But those candidates have speed bumps to overcome, including holdovers Kurt Warner, Joe Jacoby, Don Coryell, John Lynch and Terrell Davis – all top-10 finalists a year ago. And that's where this gets tricky. Having a place in line often counts for something, and sometimes it counts for a lot.
So who has the inside track? Well, keep reading … because that’s why we're here.
Tomlinson is the surest thing in this group. He's the fifth-leading rusher of all time and a guy who absolutely dominated at his position – with five Pro Bowl selections, six All-Pro nominations, an MVP award and all-decade acclaim. But Warner is in the rear-view mirror. He's been a top-10 finalist for the first two years of his eligibility and raised the Titanic twice -- first, with the woebegone St. Louis Rams; then with the downtrodden Arizona Cardinals, putting both in Super Bowls and winning one with the Rams. Granted, there's a hole in the middle of his career, but there's also a compelling argument to make this the year to push him through.
(Kurt Warner photo courtesy of the Arizona Cardinals)
THE OUTSIDE FAVORITE
That would be Jacoby, and for two reasons: 1) He not only broke through as a first-time finalist in 2016 in his 18th year of eligibility, but he made it to the top 10. That was a surprise and it’s a promising sign. But then 2) he's running out of eligibility, and voters may figure it's now or never … with now holding the early lead. Hall-of-Fame voters love tackles, particularly left tackles, and Jacoby is next in line here.
A year ago, former tackle Tony Boselli finally made it as a semifinalist for the first time. Now he's one of the top 15, and while his chances to make it to the top in his first year as a finalists aren't promising, it’s a relief to have him in the room. Reason: People need to hear his case. Boselli might have had a relatively short career, but while he played he was one of the best anywhere – with five Pro Bowl nominations and three All-Pro choices in seven NFL seasons. Boselli is one of three candidates with short careers -- with Terrell Davis and senior candidate Kenny Easley the others. That may be a signal that voters are willing to be more lenient when it comes to questions of longevity. If so, that could help not only Boselli, but Davis. And Easley? Just a hunch, but I think he has the easiest path to Canton of these three, with the former Seattle star going in next summer.
(Tony Boselli photo courtesy of the Jacksonville Jaguars)
CLOSEST COMPETITION AT ONE POSITION
It's probably at safety where John Lynch, who broke through to the top 10 a year ago, faces Dawkins. There are voters who believe strongly in respecting the queue – that is, deferring to those first in line – unless there's a superior choice that just joined the party. Well, Dawkins might be that guy. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro and an all-decade choice -- and I mention that last accolade because Lynch was not. That’s going to make his bid difficult, but, remember: It's going to be difficult for any safety to make it. The Hall has a blind spot at the position, with only seven pure safeties inducted and Ken Houston the last to play. He retired after the 1980 season.
CLOSEST COMPETITION, PART II
This isn’t exactly at one position, but it is at one area – the inside of the offensive line, where guard Alan Faneca and Mawae are Hall-of-Fame worthy. Faneca is a returning finalist who didn't graduate to the top 10 a year ago. Mawae, who played center, is a first-time finalist. Both are all-decade choices and are deep in NFL decorations. Faneca was a nine-time Pro Bowler and eight-time All-Pro. Mawae was an eight-time Pro Bowler and eight-time All-Pro. The Hall has been tough on centers and guards, with guard Will Shields – a guy named to 12 Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro teams in 14 years and who never missed a game -- waiting four years before he was inducted. Faneca and Mawae will get into the Hall, but it may be later rather than sooner.
(Alan Faneca photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers)
THE T.O. QUESTION
Here we go again. Owens has the numbers to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but, as one of his former offensive coordinators said, "If the Hall if about being a teammate, he's the last guy I'd put in." And there are enough people on the board of selectors – at least there were a year ago – to make Owens wait. His candidacy consumed 50 minutes of debate in 2016 before one voter mercifully called an end to it, saying T.O. wasn’t going to get in; so let's move on. And we did. I don’t know that anyone changed his vote in the 12 months that passed, so I don’t see his candidacy advancing. As Hall-of-Fame GM Bill Polian told the Talk of Fame Network a year ago, "The Hall of Fame ought to be for people who make their teams better; not who disrupted their teams and made them worse."
THE DESIGNATED PASS RUSHER
The board loves pass rushers, inducting at least one (if you consider defensive tackle Warren Sapp, a pass rusher for his position) in the past nine years and two each in 2014 (Michael Strahan and Claude Humphrey) and 2009 (Bruce Smith and Derrick Thomas). Jason Taylor is the only pass rusher among the finalists, so you have to like his chances., except … except, remember this: It took Kevin Greene 12 years to get in, and he's third on the career sacks' list, behind only Bruce Smith and Reggie White. The board isn’t committed to naming a pass rusher, and my feeling is that, as a first-time finalist, Taylor will wait ... though not for long.
(Jason Taylor photo courtesy of the Miami Dolphins)
I'll make them Morten Andersen, Ty Law, Don Coryell and Isaac Bruce … but with this caveat: There is room for a wild card this year, and I believe there will be one. I also believe it could come from this list. Law and Bruce are first-time finalists, so their chances of going immediately to the top are slim. But Andersen is the league's career scoring leader, and tell me what other major pro sports Hall of Fame doesn’t include its all-time leading scorer. You can't. That will help his cause, though he hasn’t made it past the top 15 in any of his three years as a finalist. Then there's Coryell, and he continues to defy the odds. He was a top-10 finalist in 2016 for the first time, and he's back again this year. That tells me two things: 1) He has a substantial support group and 2) that group is not giving up. Stay tuned.
THE LEFT OUTS
A year ago, safety Steve Atwater made his first trip to the finals, as did running back Edgerrin James. Today, both are off the ballot, and don't ask me why. With Atwater, the fear is that his candidacy wont be revived until he's eligible as a senior, and that’s the Island of Forgotten Players -- one that is very, very tough to get off. With James, he has plenty of time left to reach the Hall and could -- and maybe should -- return a year from now with L.T. off the ballot. But going backward is not a good sign. For some reason, his candidacy just lost momentum.