Is the Pro Football Hall of Fame lowering its standards?
In theory, only the greatest of the great earn bronze busts in Canton. In practice, the Hall of Fame is a contrast of earnest voters trying to uphold standards, while political games, outside pressure and agendas fill the air. Essentially, it’s the ultimate American experience distilled into a conversation about the best football has ever given us.
Recent years, including the mammoth Centennial class of 2020, has seen the line blurred to some. The bar, potentially lowered.
In that instance, a blue-ribbon panel was made for the occasion, celebrating the NFL’s 100th anniversary. Multiple voters who spoke to FanSided questioned how convenient it was that head coaches Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson managed to get elected before Tom Flores or even Don Coryell, both of whom have been discussed multiple times.
While both Cowher and Johnson are deserving candidates, the fact is their selections made for convenient made-for-TV moments on back-to-back days during the 2019 NFL playoffs, with Hall of Fame President and CEO David Baker getting to tell both men they had made it into Canton on live television during their work as analysts for CBS and FOX.
Both instances were touching, bringing tears, handshakes and hugs. Two men, slugging it out at the pinnacle of their professions, had earned the sport’s ultimate honor.
Still, a question looms. Is the most hallowed ground in pro football becoming muddied?
Peter King, an NBC Sports columnist and Hall of Fame voter since 1992, believes the recent inductions of Cowher and Johnson, combined with Flores, may endanger the standard going forward.
“In coaching, Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson are in,” King said. “And I’m not casting any aspersions on either person, but I am saying it makes the cases for either 10 more coaches, at least five (including) Mike Shanahan, Tom Coughlin, Buddy Parker and Mike Holmgren. That to me is far more concerning. Where is the bar for a Pro Football Hall of Fame coach now that Flores, Cowher and Johnson are in? You’d be naive to think it has no effect.”
For years, the Hall of Fame essentially demanded coaches to either win multiple championships, reach a litany of Super Bowls (Bud Grant, Marv Levy) or be a trailblazer such as Sid Gillman. The only notable exception is George Allen, who coached the Los Angeles Rams and Washington throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and lost the only Super Bowl he appeared in.
Yet last year, a coaching category was created. After decades of being lumped with players, coaches will now see one of their own inducted per year, although the Hall of Fame does often change its format and categories. In one respect, this helps ensure coaches aren’t forgotten in favor of their more visible contemporaries. Conversely, there’s now a need to push a coach through, perhaps forcing a borderline candidate on the fast track while a more deserving player languishes in line.
While Johnson fits the bill as a two-time champion with the Dallas Cowboys, he only has 80 NFL wins, the fewest of any Hall of Fame coach. Cowher reached two title games and won once, doing so in his final year. In Johnson’s case, he coached the Cowboys for five seasons before a middling stint with the Miami Dolphins. Meanwhile, Cowher fell short in four AFC Championship Games with the Pittsburgh Steelers — all at home — before winning it all in 2005.
“They were great coaches and they’re in and I’m glad, but it lowers the bar,” said Clark Judge, an 11-year voter and former NFL columnist said. “Now Flores is in. What does it say about George Seifert, Mike Shanahan and Tom Coughlin? What do all three have in common? They all won two Super Bowls and they didn’t have great second acts.
“… I understand the social impact of Flores, but now when you look at that Centennial class, I thought it was to look at the entire 100 years and to make amends. … In some cases it did, but what about (Buddy) Parker. I thought he would have been first off the shelf. Two championships with Lions and three title games, and Parker was the guy.”
Flores has a case having won two titles with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, but it’s flimsy in comparison to most coaches already enshrined. He owns a record of 105-90 including playoffs, weighed down by three disastrous seasons with the Seattle Seahawks from 1992-94.
One voter FanSided spoke with believes Flores largely succeeded due to inheriting John Madden’s players and Al Davis’ draft picks, explaining some of his issues during his stop in Seattle. The same voter also believes Parker is the better coach, after winning two NFL titles with the Detroit Lions and then bringing the previously moribund Steelers to respectability.
Another choice from the ’21 class who was questioned is Drew Pearson, who was nominated by the Senior Selection Committee.
Pearson, the former Cowboys wide receiver who played from 1973-83, was a three-time Pro Bowler and First-Team All-Pro. He was also a 1970s All-Decade member, a metric often used to help determine Hall-worthiness. Additionally, the Super Bowl winner made some of the league’s most-famous plays including the ’75 Hail Mary Catch against the Minnesota Vikings and his Thanksgiving Day thriller in ’74 to beat Washington.
And yet when his career is compared to the likes of contemporaries such as Henry Ellard, J.T. Smith, Gary Clark, Stanley Morgan, Roy Green and Wes Chandler — none of whom have come close to being Hall of Famers — Pearson’s numbers largely don’t stack up.
“What’s the standard going forward for wide receivers?” said Jason Cole, current Hall of Fame voter and former national NFL columnist for Yahoo Sports and Bleacher Report. “I voted for Drew Pearson because I respect the work that is done by the Senior Committee and, frankly, I believe it’s cruel to put someone through that process and then reject them. At the same time, I don’t think those are great reasons to vote for someone. Was he a truly dominant player? Not in my eyes and I watched him play. Did he have an overwhelming statistical career where he piled up numbers that prove excellent play over an extended time? No.
“Look, I grew up a fan of the Los Angeles Rams when Harold Jackson played and Harold Jackson was much more of a deep threat in a deep threat era and he compiled better numbers than Pearson by a pretty good margin. Based on Drew Pearson’s career, Harold Jackson has a reasonable argument to get in the Hall of Fame. And let me say, I love Harold Jackson. He’s part of my childhood and part of why I love the game.
“But I will also say this: Harold Jackson is NOT a Hall of Famer.”
While there’s concern among some that inducting Pearson — who was a fine player and fringe candidate — lowers the bar for future considerations, it’s a debated point.
“I share those concerns but not with this candidate,” stated Judge. “A lot of receivers have inflated stats. Guys try to compare those numbers to today, it’s like apples and oranges.”
Of course, Pearson is simply a representation of righting perceived wrongs through the Senior Selection Committee. While some believe it’s an essential part of maintaining the legacy of the game, other voters see it as unnecessary.
“I have serious questions about the need for the Senior Selection process,” Cole said. “I believe 20 years of eligibility is enough, although I do understand with the limited number of candidates you can put in every year, there is some problem.”
Again, there’s disagreement on this point. While two decades is a long time to remain on the ballot without gaining entrance to the Hall, some voters point to the process as being broken, more than to a player not being worthy.
Rick Gosselin, a 25-year voter and longtime NFL reporter who has been on the Senior Committee since 2004, points out that of 58 All-Decade stars not enshrined, only five have had their candidacies discussed as finalists.
Gosselin also notes that of the 295 players in the Hall Of Fame, a whopping 63.3 percent of the players have won championships. If you’re a defender without a ring, good luck. There are only 37 defensive players who own a gold jacket without a title, and only 29 who received induction as Modern Era candidates.
A few examples include former Cleveland Browns linebacker Clay Matthews, who was a finalist this year in his last chance as a Modern Era candidate. However, because Matthews didn’t make it in his 20th year of eligibility, he now heads for the Senior pool. Then there’s former Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Ken Riley, who notched 65 interceptions in 15 seasons. Only Dick “Night Train” Lane has more as a pure cornerback.
“I can see the argument (against the Senior Committee), but particularly the players who played a long time ago, I think they deserve to have a fresh look at their careers,” King said. “I would also make the point that if you hear someone’s case in that room — and this year I heard Flores’ case and I voted no — you don’t have to vote for Drew Pearson. If you don’t think their case rises to the level of a Hall of Famer, then vote no.”
Despite Cole’s questioning of the need for additional oversight for players long left behind, other voters sided more with King’s line of thinking. In a variety of cases, some of the league’s best never got into the room for consideration. This is especially a problem for players who predate the Hall of Fame’s establishment in 1963.
“The greatest concern I do have is for the seniors,” Judge said. “You don’t know how difficult it is every year. I’m not on the committee but I see them and the names they have to sift through, and it’s an impossible task. We have 58 All-Decade players and you have to choose one, and you have to choose only one each year. It used to be two but even two isn’t enough. It’s heartless.”
Finally, there is concern among some voters about the number of first-ballot inductees and the luster lost in recent years. Of the last 20 Modern Era selections, 10 have come on the first-ballot.
While talking about current players as first-ballot Hall of Famers has become shorthand jargon and a throwaway TV line, it causes real problems in the room. Talking to a litany of voters both on and off the record, there’s a growing concern about the threshold being used as the line of demarcation between first-ballot members and not.
“In my opinion, my vision of a first-ballot guy is whether he is one of the two or three best at his position in the history of the game.” Gosselin said. “Guys like Jim Brown. Dick Butkus. Lawrence Taylor. Deacon Jones. Reggie White. John Hannah. John Unitas. Those are first-ballot guys, guys you get up in the room, say (their name) and sit down. That’s a first-ballot guy.
“A good example is Charles Woodson, first-ballot Hall of Famer. In my opinion, the best cornerback in history was Night Train Lane. He went in on the fourth ballot. … Mike Haynes was third-ballot. We decided Woodson was better than Lane and Haynes, by my definition. I think (Calvin) Johnson and Woodson could have waited a year or two.”
For the upcoming class of ’22, there aren’t any surefire first-ballot candidates. Longtime Cowboys and Broncos edge rusher DeMarcus Ware is the best option, followed by former New England Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork. There’s also a trio of receivers in Steve Smith, Andre Johnson and Anquan Boldin are all eligible for the first time.
Speaking of receivers, are we headed for a major issue at the position moving forward as a logjam forms and the sport, becoming increasingly reliant on the passing game, is only churning out more pass-catchers with cartoonish numbers?
Currently, Reggie Wayne and Torry Holt are the biggest names backlogged at the position. Hines Ward is another name to watch, although he didn’t crack the 15 finalists this year.
Considering the relative lack of star power of the first-time candidates in ’22, this theoretically makes for a good time to push Holt and Wayne through, easing the bottleneck at the position. However, there are other positions which need attention and only five slots for Modern Era candidates.
Holt and Wayne, both having distinguished careers from a personal and team standpoint, didn’t earn top-10 status in the most-recent meeting. Do they make the quantum leap? One voter told FanSided he struggles with each, considering they were No. 2 receivers on their own teams for much of their careers.
It seems for next year, the most-likely inductees are former Jacksonville Jaguars left tackle Tony Boselli and Green Bay Packers safety Leroy Butler.
A source with knowledge of the situation stated the final 10 names up for 2021 induction included former Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour, Matthews, Butler and Boselli.
At least one longtime voter sees the class beginning with Boselli, after the path was cleared over the preceding three years with the selections of offensive linemen Kevin Mawae, Steve Hutchinson and Alan Faneca. Butler, who has waited patiently behind safeties Steve Atwater and John Lynch to be inducted, is in a similar spot.
All told, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is one of the toughest to enter. It’s also becoming increasingly difficult for voters to parse through changing eras and murky thresholds.
One would be a fool to say the Hall of Fame has lost its shine, despite one bloated class and some controversial inductions. The former is a one-off, and the latter is eternally promised with each new class.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame still represents the best of the best. But the challenges ahead are clear and real, something the voters must grapple with to keep the threshold high and clear of back-biting politics.
And not only in theory.