MMQB Mail: Five difficult decisions for HOF; my pick for AFC title game

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One of the toughest parts of my job, but also one of the most enjoyable, is the winnowing process for selecting the Pro Football Hall of Fame class each year. This is a big month in the process. As one of 44 selectors for the Hall, I sat down last week, weighed the pluses and minuses of 131 candidates for the Hall, and submitted my ballot for the cut to 25. Later this year, we'll vote again, cutting the list from 25 semifinalists to 15. Then, on the day before the Super Bowl in south Florida, we'll gather to discuss the 15 modern-era candidates and the two Seniors nominees (Dick LeBeau and Floyd Little).

For three hours one recent night I puzzled. Some of the calls -- Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Tim Brown -- were easy. But many were not. Since I can't give you my entire list of 25, per the HOF's request, here were the five toughest decisions I had to make:

1. Joe Klecko over more celebrated front-seven players. Now, I chose 10 defensive linemen and linebackers in all. Some of them I feel particular passion for, like Rickey Jackson, a true three-way linebacker who rushed the passer on a near-Lawrence Taylor level, played the run competently, and dropped into coverage. (Career passes defensed: Jackson 118, LT 59.)

But Klecko's a guy I've gradually come to feel has been slighted by history, even though he played in New York. Here's a guy who made the Pro Bowl as a defensive end (1981), defensive tackle (1983) and nose tackle (1985). Everyone who played the Jets in those days will tell you he was the member of the Sack Exchange who gave them the most fits.

2. Ron Wolf over Bobby Beathard and George Young. Tough call. I saw Beathard pick so many backbone players for the great Washington teams, and I saw Young build the infrastructure for the Giants team that's still good today. Young has had his case heard in the room by Hall selectors and been turned down, so this year it came down to Beathard and Wolf. I almost picked both.

But I chose Wolf because he took over a Green Bay franchise that hadn't won a division title in 20 seasons, made a gutsy trade of a first-rounder for the unknown Brett Favre, somehow convinced Reggie White to come to Green Bay in free agency, hired Mike Holmgren, and chose the following players on day two of the draft: Mark Chmura, Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck, Dorsey Levens, Adam Timmerman, Donald Driver (who caught his franchise-record 602nd pass Sunday), Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Mark Tauscher and Aaron Kampman. Tauscher, the 224th pick in 2000, and Driver, the 213th in 1999, both became cornerstone players for a decade.

3. Cliff Branch over the crop of quarterbacks. Players, coaches, GMs, commissioners and owners are in one pool, and you judge one's contributions against the others. One of my final choices came down to a receiver who I think has gotten short shrift, Branch, over a couple of quarterbacks I think have merit. I'm open to both Ken Anderson and Phil Simms. Anderson, in particular, probably falls short but was the MVP in 1981 and set the NFL record for completion percentage in 1982 (.706) that still stands today. Branch was more explosive than the noted deep threat Hall of Famer of the seventies, Lynn Swann (Branch: 17.3 yards per catch, Swann: 16.3), and he played longer, with just as much impact over time.

4. Albert Lewis over Lester Hayes. Lewis is one the best athletes ever to play in the NFL, probably the best kick-blocker, and the best cover corner in the eighties until Deion Sanders entered the league. Jerry Rice once told me he was the toughest guy for him to face, even though they didn't cross over very much, being in different conferences. After 11 years as a Kansas City standard, Lewis started at cornerback 'til age 37, for Oakland.

5. Paul Tagliabue in the final 25. I struggled with the fact that Tagliabue isn't going to get in right now, particularly with his 2006 labor agreement dissolving; there's just too much opposition in the room. And if he's not, why waste a final-25 pick on him? It's because I think he's deserving, and if he falls off the final 15 list, who knows? He might be forgotten and not get back.

I'd love to get your thoughts -- and you're never shy about giving them to me.


Now onto your e-mail. But before I get there, in response to about 100 queries, no, I didn't buy the $10 hot chocolate at Yankee Stadium. I do have a few bits of my sanity still about me.

• WHY DO THE BUCS STINK? From Dale Schoelles of Dallas: "Lack of owner support, lack of talented players, coach and management being clueless, lack of fan support... How does Tampa fall so far so fast? What should a long time fan believe? How do teams like Tampa and Nashville go from playoff contenders to toilet?''

As the Buccaneers GM, Mark Dominik, told me the other day, they're staying the course, and what's happened shouldn't be too surprising when you see they've gone from being the third-oldest team in the league in 2008 to the fifth-youngest in 2009. If I were a Bucs fan, I'd want to see the two kid quarterbacks, Josh Johnson and Josh Freeman, play about equal time in the final 10 weeks. That's the most important thing that can come from the rest of the season -- seeing what you have at quarterback entering 2010.

• NOLAN COULD JOIN THE COACHING CAROUSEL. From Bryan Haubert of Thornton, Colo.: "Peter, what do you think the Broncos chances are of keeping defensive coordinator Mike Nolan past this season? He created such a turnaround on the Denver D that I think he will be a hot name for a head coaching job.''

I'm not sure about that. He might be the hot guy, but with Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan and Bill Cowher diluting the pool, a hot coordinator is going to find the sledding tough for a head-coaching job. Also, remember that a year ago he got whacked in San Francisco, and Mike Singletary has that team on a better track than Nolan had it. Owners will look at that, fair or unfair.

• THE AFC TITLE GAME TEAMS ARE ... From Eric of Acton, Mass.: "All right, Peter, you spoke of a highly anticipated NFC Championship game of New Orleans vs Minnesota. What would your AFC game look like?''

Denver at Indianapolis. They meet in Indy on Dec. 13, and that's the only reason I say "at Indy.''

• THE CONCUSSION ISSUE CAN BE FIXED WITH HELMETS THAT FIT BETTER. From Jody Lehmann of Gravelbourg, Sask.: "You keep talking about the concussion problem in pro football as if nothing can be done. Why doesn't anyone want to talk about the improper fitting of helmets? Properly fitted football helmets should not be able to be taken off with one hand like a baseball cap! If properly fitted you should have to pull out from the earholes to take it off. Watch a player running in slow motion sometime. His helmet bobs up and down like a yo-yo. How can players expect to have the utmost in protection that a helmet can provide if they fail to wear it properly?''

Great point. I hope players and equipment men read this.

• TWEET OF THE DAY: REID VS. COWHER. From @traxleris1: "Great comparison between Reid and Cowher. It's crazy how they basically have the same career. I'm going to stop complaining now.''

Hey, you Eagles fans can complain about Andy Reid if you want; it's your right as fans. I'm just telling you that the coach most like him in NFL history is Bill Cowher, and if you believe that Cowher's last five years were worth it (one 15-1 season, one Super Bowl victory), then you might want to take a chance with a coach who has the same grip on his team, and has a good nucleus of talent, as Cowher did to begin year 11.