Breaking Down the 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame Nominees
Before the kickoff of every preseason, we are able to watch a handful of the some of the greatest football players ever take the stage to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's obviously one of the greatest individual honors in sports, but there are still plenty of candidates that are Hall of Fame-worthy and aren't able to make the final cut. On top of that, many of the players that actually do make it have to wait several years before their bust is unveiled in Canton. One of the most recent examples was former Bills Wide Receiver Andre Reed, who had to wait 14 years after his retirement to reach the Hall, which was largely due to the fact that other wide receivers were being chosen above him (Art Monk, Michael Irvin, Jerry Rice, and Cris Carter).
This year, many of the viable candidates from last year will once again have a chance at becoming Hall of Famers, but there are also many other candidates that are becoming Hall of Fame-eligible for the first time (one must be retired for at least five seasons in order to be eligible). Out of the current 113 nominees, 25 will be selected as semifinalist nominees in November, and that list will be reduced to 15 finalists before five will be selected to be a part of Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2015.
Without further ado, let's take a look at this year's nominees and who might be worthy enough to become semifinalists:
*Note: First-year eligible nominees have been underlined.
Quarterbacks (4): Randall Cunningham, Rich Gannon, Phil Simms, Kurt Warner
The big name here is clearly Kurt Warner, the former MVP who has won one Super Bowl and appeared in three. He obviously has one of the greatest stories in football history, but does that make him a first ballot Hall of Famer? Sure, he was a first-tier quarterback during his "Greatest Show on Turf" days in St. Louis and his last three seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, but what about the rest of his career? After losing to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI (a game in which St. Louis was heavily favored), Warner began to struggle and lost the starting job to Marc Bulger; In his short time with the New York Giants, he looked lackadaisical and was soon benched for then-rookie Eli Manning. He even took quite some time to get it going in Arizona and momentarily became the backup to Matt Leinart, which doesn't look very good on a resume.
I'd be shocked if he doesn't make the top 25 in November, but I'd be wary of him being a first ballot Hall of Famer. If he doesn't make it into the 2015 class, he might have to wait a year or two after that due to Brett Favre becoming eligible in 2016, who will obviously be a first-year Hall of Famer. As for the other quarterbacks, I wouldn't hold my breath to see them in Canton. Cunningham's mobility didn't quite fit the era he played in, Gannon had more downs than ups (especially in the early part of his career), and Simms's time as a serious candidate probably ran out about five years ago.
Running Backs/ Full Backs (14): Shaun Alexander, Ottis Anderson, Tiki Barber, Jerome Bettis, Roger Craig, Stephen Davis, Terrell Davis, Eddie George, Priest Holmes, Edgerrin James, Daryl Johnston, Jamal Lewis, Herschel Walker, Ricky Watters
All of these backs were very well-known during their playing days, but popularity doesn't get players into the Hall. For the last few years, Jerome Bettis has been very close to making the cut, but he's either been turned down for another running back (Marshall Faulk in 2011; Curtis Martin in 2012) or for some other reason. He's sixth all-time in career rushing yards (13,662) and it's astounding that he was able to run so aggressively for such a long time. Both Edgerrin James and Jamal Lewis could be Hall of Famers in waiting, but I'd think that James would be more of a priority. Since his rookie season, "Edge" was able to give the Indianapolis Colts a perfectly-balanced attack by complementing Peyton Manning, a future Hall of Famer himself.
Terrell Davis could also have a shot at the Hall of Fame this year. The biggest knock on Davis is that he only played for seven seasons and suffered several injuries; however, it has now become commonplace for running backs to have short, injury-plagued careers, which obviously gives TD more of an opportunity.
Although some of these backs have been waiting for a long time, Roger Craig, the featured tailback for the 49ers of the '80s, is entering his 17th year of eligibility. Craig arguably paved the way for some of today's pass-catching running backs (Darren Sproles, Danny Woodhead, Jamaal Charles, etc.). Also, Craig is the first of only two players to be voted into the Pro Bowl as both a halfback and fullback (Stephen Davis was the second, who is also eligible). The reason he isn't in the Hall may have to do with the fact that he was in the same offense as Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, two of the greatest players to ever take the field. Even though he may not be as big of a name as Bettis or Edge, the Hall of Fame needs to eventually include Craig, who proved how great a running back in a passing offense can truly be.
Wide Receivers (9): Tim Brown, Isaac Bruce, Gary Clark, Henry Ellard, Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, Sterling Sharpe, Jimmy Smith, Rod Smith
The Hall of Fame committee seems to have a "next man up" method when selecting wide receivers. If that's the case, Tim Brown could be the next receiver to receive a golden jacket. Although he didn't play for many good teams until the later part of his career, Brown was always ranked right with Jerry Rice, Cris Carter, and Michael Irvin as one of the top receivers in the '90s. Entering his second year of eligibility, Marvin Harrison was a finalist in last year's vote, and plenty of it has to do with being Peyton Manning's former favorite target. Of course, he's known to have some of the best hands in pro football, so why wouldn't he be? Former Rams Receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt both had splendid careers, but could either of them supersede Brown/Harrison the Hall of Fame voting? I would be immensely surprised, but I expect both of them to eventually reach the Hall.
Tight Ends (1): Mark Bavaro
The last tight end to make it into the hall was Shannon Sharpe in 2011, and he was truly an anomaly for his era due to his ability to create defensive mismatches and make plays with the ball. It's not that Bavaro wasn't a playmaker himself, but creating mismatches is basically what's expected from today's tight ends. Bavaro was easily one of the best tight ends of the late '80s, but the difference between him and guys like Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas are innumerable. If Bavaro played football today, he would have a role very similar to one of Heath Miller's; in the Steelers' offense, Miller is basically Roethlisberger's short-yardage dump-off guy and the "sixth offensive lineman" in the running game. It's great to have a guy that can block and receive like that, but Heath will most likely never be in the Hall of Fame. As for Bavaro, I don't see him getting in any time soon, and before you know it, guys like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates will soon be reshaping how Canton views the tight end position as a whole.
Offensive Lineman (23): Willie Anderson, Tony Boselli, Jeff Bostic, Lomas Brown, Jim Covert, Bill Fralic, Jay Hilgenberg, Chris Hinton, Kent Hull, Joe Jacoby, Jon Jansen, Mike Kenn, Jim Lachey, Kevin Mawae, Mark May, Tom Nalen, Nate Newton, Orlando Pace, Chris Samuels, Mark Schlereth, Will Shields, Tra Thomas, Steve Wisniewski
The Hall of Fame Selection Committee always seems to bring in at least one offensive lineman into Canton every year, and I doubt that this class will be any different. The top candidate is most likely Orlando Pace, who was St. Louis' trusty left tackle ever since being selected with the number one overall pick in the 1997 Draft. Pace blocked for both Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger in the passing game, and was just as good blocking in the running game for Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson. He'll obviously someday be in the Hall, and some believe that he'll be a first ballot HOFer.
The man that probably has the best chance of getting in before Pace is Will Shields, who was part of the dominant Chiefs' offensive line in the 2000's, which also included Willie Roaf and Brian Winters. Like Pace, Shields will definitely be in the Hall of Fame someday, but there's a large chance that the Selection Committee will put Orlando and others in before him.
As for the others, I'm really intrigued by Kevin Mawae, the longtime center for the Jets and Titans and former NFLPA president. If his name isn't called in February, I think his chances would certainly rise for 2016. I also think that both Willie Anderson and Joe Jacoby have a good shot at the top 25; Anderson was one of many stellar left tackles in this past decade, and although Jacoby has been retired since 1993, he was a main piece of "The Hogs", which was the famous offensive line corps of the 1980s Washington Redskins.
Defensive Lineman (12): Al "Bubba" Baker, Jerome Brown, Carl Hairston, Charles Haley (also LB), Jevon Kearse, Dexter Manley, Charles Mann, Steve McMichael, Fred Smerlas, Greg Townsend, Ted Washington, Bryant Young
Is this the year Charles Haley finally gets inducted? That has seemed to be an ongoing question for the last several years, and although he has no trouble becoming a finalist, the Selection Committee hasn't been able to vote him in. However, this year looks pretty good for Haley; for the last two years, he was stuck behind Warren Sapp and Michael Strahan, who were no-brainers for the Committee. Now, the only other defensive lineman who really has a chance to beat him out is Jevon Kearse, who is in his first year of eligibility.
Although he was only a rookie, Kearse played a large part with the AFC Champion Tennessee Titans. After a four year stint with Tennessee, another four years with the Philadelphia Eagles, and a momentary return with The Titans, Kearse finished with 74 career sacks, which some would say would be Hall of Fame-worthy. However, it's a huge stretch to call Kearse a first ballot Hall of Famer, so if there's going to be a defensive lineman inducted this year (and there usually is), it should clearly be Charles Haley.
Linebackers (13): Cornelius Bennett, Tedi Bruschi, Kevin Greene (also DE), Ken Harvey, Clay Matthews, Willie McGinest (also DE), Karl Mecklenburg, Matt Millen, Sam Mills, Junior Seau, Chris Spielman, Darryl Talley, Zach Thomas
Looking at this group of linebacker nominees, I'd be shocked if Junior Seau isn't a first ballot Hall of Famer. As a San Diego Charger, Seau was known as one of the meanest players on the field and one of the kindest off of it. In his last five seasons with the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots, Junior transitioned to being the leader and mentor of the defenses. Unfortunately, his death is still fresh in many of our minds, which could help his chances of getting in.
Like Charles Haley, Kevin Greene is a former sack master that just can't seem to make the final cut. Greene is third all-time in career sacks with 160, trailing only Bruce Smith and Reggie White. Perhaps the reason why Greene hasn't been inducted already is because he played for four teams throughout his career and doesn't really associate himself with just one of them. Nevertheless, the numbers speak for themselves: he deserves to get in.
The others on this list is sort of a crapshoot: Clay Matthews (father of current Packer Clay Matthews) played in the NFL for an incredible 19 seasons, yet he seldom reaches the top 25; Sam Mills earned five Pro Bowl selections while playing inside linebacker for the infamous "Dome Patrol" linebacking corps of the New Orleans Saints, but besides his former teammate Rickey Jackson, much of the Saints from that era haven't been given a lot of credit for anything; Zach Thomas, a former undrafted rookie, always played with a chip on his shoulder throughout his career, yet was rarely considered better than All-Pro middle linebackers like Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis, who will both soon be in Canton. It would be great to see some of these unsung heroes earn a spot in the Hall of Fame, but it's not something that the Selection Committee will be putting on their "to do list".
Defensive Backs (16): Eric Allen, Steve Atwater, Joey Browner, LeRoy Butler, Thomas Everett, Rodney Harrison, Ty Law, Albert Lewis, John Lynch, Terry McDaniel, Tim McDonald, Frank Minnifield, Shawn Springs, Troy Vincent, Everson Walls, Darren Woodson
There are some great cornerbacks and safeties in this list, but the only three that I think have a decent shot at making the 2015 class is Steve Atwater, John Lynch and Ty Law. As a safety for the Denver Broncos, Atwater was basically the John Elway of the defense, earning 8 Pro Bowls and a spot on the 1990s All-Decade Team. He was part of last year's top 25, and now that Aeneas Williams is inducted, I expect him to make it again.
John Lynch will always be known for being a part of the 2002 Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which also featured Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. His menacing hits on wide receivers was his featured strength, but he was also a savvy leader with character, which was very apparent in his four seasons with Denver.
Ty Law is definitely the wild card in this list of nominees; he was easily the best defender for Bill Belichick's 3-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, and he may be the only one in that dynasty to ever make the Hall, besides Tom Brady. His biggest strength was that he was at his best in the biggest of games, especially when he was going against Peyton Manning and the Colts. I may be at a minority when I say that he deserves to be a first ballot Hall of Famer, but even if he doesn't make it for 2015, I wouldn't worry too much about him waiting for very long.
Kickers/Punters (5): Morten Andersen, Gary Anderson, Jason Elam, Sean Landeta, Nick Lowery
This past August, I was happy to see Ray Guy become the first punter inducted in the Hall of Fame for two reasons: one, he deserved to be in because he is (by far) the best kicker/punter ever, and two, he was inducted as a senior member, which means that he didn't count as one of the five modern-era members. As for these nominees, I simply don't think they're good enough to take a spot in Hall of Fame away from someone that is well-deserving and actually earned playing time, like Charles Haley or Tim Brown. I'm sure Morten Andersen, the all-time leader in points, will at least make the top 25 this year (he made the top 15 last year), but other than that, I'd like to see some of the guys that have been waiting for an unreasonably long period time get what they deserve before we talk about kickers and punters.
Special Teams/Position Players (2): Brian Mitchell (RB/KR/PR), Steve Tasker (also WR)
Steve Tasker was actually very close at making the Hall a few years ago, but similar to the kickers and punters, these guys weren't on the field full-time, so I'm not sure how much credit we can actually give them. Think of it this way: If I were constructing a football team, I would rather have someone like Paul Posluszny, a solid middle linebacker, than Larry Izzo, perhaps one of the best special team players of all-time. It's really as simple as that.
Coaches (14): Don Coryell, Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, Tom Flores, Mike Holmgren, Jimmy Johnson, Chuck Knox, Buddy Parker, Richie Petitbon, Dan Reeves, Lou Saban, Marty Schottenheimer, Clark Shaughnessy, Dick Vermeil
It's really shocking that some of these coaches aren't in the Hall of Fame yet. First of all, Don Coryell was one of the main innovators of today's passing style, thanks to his "Air Coryell" offense in San Diego. Also, Jimmy Johnson may have been the most important piece of the Cowboys' dynasty in the 1990s (even though he was only there for two of the three Super Bowls). Marty Schottenheimer's famous "one play at a time" coaching style has resonated with players and coaches around the league and was known as a favorite for players on the San Diego Chargers near the end of his career. Bill Cowher was able to replace Chuck Noll - one of the top coaches of all sports - nearly seamlessly and became a legend in the Steel City because of it.
Finally, Tony Dungy took the word "calm" and "humble" to another level while coaching Tampa Bay and Indianapolis; unlike Vince Lombardi and Mike Ditka, who would yell at anything with two legs, Dungy was rarely seen with any kind of temper and cared for his players like his own children. Despite what some people may have thought, his victory in Super Bowl XLI proved that his this kind of coaching method can work in the NFL, and he will be enshrined into the Hall of Fame someday because of that reason.
There are many great players and coaches to choose from, but here are the 25 nominees that I think will move on to the next round in November: