Wednesday, January 29, 2014

NFL Hall of Fame Class of 2014

By Dan Trammel

On Saturday, the NFL Hall of Fame will announce the members of the Class of 2014. While last year was one of the most difficult classes to predict, this one will be easy. With three first-year eligible locks, a 2nd year candidate caught in a numbers crunch last year, and a candidate who has been gaining momentum in recent elections, this is a simple class to assess.

Last year, the voters, for only the ninth time since the 1970 NFL-AFL Merger, selected three players in their first year of eligibility. We believe the voters will do so again.

This year’s first-time nominees are Buccaneer linebacker Derrick Brooks, Colt wide receiver Marvin Harrison, Seahawk tackle Walter Jones, and head coach Tony Dungy.

Brooks teamed with fellow finalist John Lynch and Hall of Famer Warren Sapp to form one of the great defenses in NFL history and help Tampa end a streak of 14 consecutive losing seasons with 6-straight seasons with a winning percentage of .500 or better, which included 5 playoff appearances.

In a 14-year career, Brooks’ accolades are as follows:

11 Pro Bowls
5-time 1st Team All-Pro
4-time 2nd Team All-Pro
2002 NFL Defensive Player of the Year
Member of the 2000s All-Decade Team
Member of the Super Bowl XXXVII Champions

Of the 30 defensive players named to 8 or more Pro Bowls while being selected a 1st-Team All-Pro 5 or more times, all 26 eligible for the Hall have been inducted, with Brooks, Ray Lewis, Junior Seau, and Ed Reed waiting their turns. Brooks won’t wait long. He walks in on the first ballot.

Our next first year eligible player is Harrison. Let’s begin by looking at Harrison’s numbers, and where they rank on the career lists.
Receiving Yards
Receiving TDs
Receiving Yds/G
Harrison was named to 8 straight Pro Bowls, was named a 1st-Team All-Pro 3 times, was named a 2nd Team All-Pro 5 times, and was selected to the 2000s All-Decade Team. He also caught a pass in all 190 games in which he played.

Receiving numbers have become increasingly inflated in recent years. As a result, it is more difficult to evaluate receivers. For example, of the 13 players with 8 or more 1000 receiving yard seasons, only Steve Largent retired before the 2000s started. Most of the receivers are contemporaries and will compete with each other for the few Hall of Fame spots each year. As time goes on, and more receivers appear on the ballot, they will continue to cancel each other out. Although receiving numbers are inflated in this generation, Harrison’s numbers are overwhelming.

What hurts Marvin Harrison, oddly enough, is that he made the game of football look too easy. Though they only won 1 Super Bowl, Harrison and Peyton Manning were virtually unstoppable. Some have criticized Harrison’s credentials by saying he played with Manning. Of the 22 modern era Hall of Fame wide receivers, 14 caught most of their touchdown passes by Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Punishing Harrison for playing with Manning is ridiculous. Not only was Harrison a 3-time 1st Team All-Pro, 5 times he was a 2nd Team All-Pro. His numbers are historically great. Part of the reason a receiver (Cris Carter) was selected last year, was the voters’ awareness of the growing backlog of receivers. Adding Harrison to the trio of Brown, Carter, and Reed would have been a nightmare for the voters.

The next candidate, Walter Jones, played in a strong era for offensive tackles. Richmond Webb, Erik Williams, Willie Roaf, Tony Boselli, Jonathan Ogden, Willie Anderson, and Orlando Pace all served as contemporaries to Mr. Jones. With these men playing at the same time, there were not a lot of All-Pro spots available. Things were further complicated when Larry Allen spent time at tackle and took post-season honors away from some of these players.

Nonetheless, Walter Jones was selected to 9 Pro Bowls, named a 1st Team All-Pro 4 times, and named a 2nd Team All-Pro twice. He was chosen a 1st team member of the All-Decade Team of the 2000s alongside 2013 Hall of Fame selection Jonathan Ogden. He helped the Seahawks to 6 playoff appearances, spending his entire career with the club, appearing in 180 regular season games.

His accolades place him in some exclusive company. 15 offensive linemen have earned 4+ 1st Team All-Pro selections since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger: 12 current Hall of Famers, 2 players not yet eligible, and Mr. Jones.

Walter Jones stands among the all-time greats. Despite playing during a wonderful era of offensive tackles, Jones collected enough accolades to join some impressive company. He consistently erased the opponent’s top pass rusher while opening gaping holes for Shaun Alexander. Like Larry Allen and Jonathan Ogden last year, Jones will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

The final first-year nominee is Tony Dungy. In 13 seasons as a head coach, Dungy posted a career record of 139-69, which included 10 double-digit win seasons and 11 playoff appearances. In only one season, his first in Tampa, did a Dungy team fail to finish with a winning record. He also won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts, making him the first African-American head coach to do so. Dungy is certainly a Hall of Famer…but not this year. The coaches elected in their first year of eligibility are Don Shula (1997), Chuck Noll (1993), and Tom Landry (1990). These men make up the Mount Rushmore of coaches (or at least are in the discussion). Dungy falls just short.

We next need to mention John Lynch and Morten Andersen who, although not in their first year of eligibility, are first-time finalists. Andersen is trying to become only the 2nd kicker to make the Hall of Fame, oddly during a year when one of the Seniors Committee nominees is a punter. And Lynch is the first safety to be a finalist since 2002. Only nine safeties are in the Hall of Fame and the career of only one (Ronnie Lott) began after the NFL-AFL Merger. Some of the voters are anxious to discuss a safety. That will be enough for Lynch to make it pass the first cut. But it will take a couple of years before his candidacy gains enough momentum to carry him into Canton.

To assess the remaining candidates, and therefore select the final 2 inductees, it is useful to look at the process. The voters first narrow the list of 15 candidates to 10. They then vote again to narrow the list of 10 candidates to five. The final list of five candidates then requires 80 percent of the vote to gain enshrinement. Of the final 10 candidates in 2011, five gained induction that year, while four gained induction the following year. Only Andre Reed was left out when Chris Doleman was selected over him. In contrast, of the final 10 candidates in 2012, five gained induction that year while only 2 gained induction the following year, as 3 first-year nominees earned the remaining spots. As such, let’s look at the players remaining from the final 10 last year to continue our analysis. Those candidates are Michael Strahan, Charles Haley, Jerome Bettis, Andre Reed, and Aeneas Williams. These five were selected over Tim Brown, Edward DeBartolo, Kevin Greene and Will Shields last year, so it is probable (although not guaranteed) it will occur again. So when the selectors vote to narrow the field from 15 to 10, Brown, Debartolo, Greene, Shields, and Andersen will be eliminated.

As for the remaining five candidates, Reed’s case is hurt by Harrison, just as in past years he was hurt by the presence of Cris Carter and Tim Brown. Although Reed performed better in the postseason, he also had the misfortune of playing in Buffalo in the winter. Reed will find his way to Canton one day, but not this season.

Last year, Bettis finally made it beyond the first round of cuts. But he consistently has been eliminated before Reed, Williams, and Haley in previous elections so there is no reason to believe the voters will favor him more this year.

Michael Strahan has been a walking advertisement since his retirement. Despite Hall of Famer Warren Sapp’s outspoken criticism of him, they both have near identical resumes. Super Bowl champ; NFL Defensive Player of the Year; seven-time Pro Bowler; four-time First Team AP All-Pro; two-time Second Team AP All-Pro, and member of the All-Decade Team. Strahan was a defensive end while Sapp was a defensive tackle, but both terrorized quarterbacks. Strahan is criticized for breaking the single-season sack record when Brett Favre fell down in front of him. Sapp is criticized for taking plays off.

Strahan’s candidacy is complicated by the presence of Charles Haley on the ballot. Many times, players from the same position compete for votes, and ultimately cancel each other out. Haley was named to "only" five Pro-Bowl teams and named a First Team AP All-Pro twice. He recorded 100.5 sacks, well behind Strahan's 141.5. But he was a key part of five Super Bowl champions. That carries a lot of weight with the voters. And his Hall of Fame case has been gaining momentum in recent years.

Our final candidate is Aeneas Williams. A three-time First Team AP All-Pro and a two-time Second Team All-Pro, Williams was named to eight Pro Bowls. Stuck with the Cardinals for so many years, Williams intercepted 55 passes in his career and is fifth on the all-time list with 13 non-offensive touchdowns. A great player, Williams is aided by the fact no one will steal his votes. But we believe he falls just short as we predict both Strahan and Haley will join the Class of 2014. If the rules allowed the Hall to select 6 modern-era nominees for induction, Williams would be the 6th name.

That leaves us with a projected Class of 2014 as follows:
Derrick Brooks
Charles Haley
Marvin Harrison
Walter Jones
Michael Strahan

2015 features a “weak” class of first-year eligible players, including Kurt Warner, Orlando Pace, Junior Seau, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, and Edgerrin James. Although 1 or 2 of these players will gain election, next year will be a great opportunity to free up some of the backlog that has been building in recent years. 

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