The NFL will induct its 2014 Hall of Fame class on Saturday evening, meaning the debate already has turned to which of the league's legends deserve a 2015 spot in Canton.
Along with a few finalists who fell short last year, like Charles Haley, Morten Anderson and John Lynch, there are several worthy candidates just now eligible on the ballot: OT Orlando Pace, WR Isaac Bruce and CB Ty Law, to name a few.
Our latest Cover-Two bangs the drum for six potential 2015 Hall of Famers in what could be a heavily debated class.
Chris Burke: Jerome Bettis -- Bettis has been a Hall of Fame finalist four times, but his dream continues to be deferred. The wait should end in 2015.
"The Bus" ranks sixth all-time in rushing yards, fourth in carries and 10th in rushing touchdowns. He won Offensive Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year and a Super Bowl ring. The championship came in his final NFL season, after the Steelers had started to phase him out of the offense. Bettis rushed for just 360 yards that regular season, then put up 180 yards and three touchdowns during the playoff run, capping a storied 13-year career. Few running backs in NFL history have been as consistent and reliable as Bettis was for both the Rams and Steelers. Marshall Faulk made the cut in 2011, Curtis Martin in '12. It is Bettis' turn.
Doug Farrar: Kurt Warner -- It's been almost a decade since the last quarterback was inducted into the Hall of Fame, when Troy Aikman and Warren Moon became part of football legend in 2006. Warner's candidacy isn't as much of a lead-pipe lock as Brett Favre's will be in 2016, but I think there's more than enough to push him into the discussion in a serious way. A four-time Pro Bowler and two-time First-Team All-Pro, Warner's career arc is one of the most unique in NFL history. Most people know the story of the undrafted player from Northern Iowa who once stocked shelves at a grocery store during the night shift and had to go through arena football and NFL Europe before the Rams took a flyer on him in 1998, but it was the way he recovered in Arizona after five mediocre-to-horrible seasons that makes his story truly remarkable.
From 1999 through 2001, his first three seasons as an NFL starter, Warner led the NFL in completion percentage all three seasons, in passing yards once, in touchdowns twice, in yards per attempt all three years (which makes his completion percentages all the more impressive), in net yards per attempt all three seasons, in passer rating twice, and in both DVOA and DYAR (Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics for skill players) twice. That's as good a three-year stretch as there's ever been in the game. Then, Warner suffered through injuries, ineffectiveness and the aging of the Greatest Show on Turf offense. The man who had taken the NFL MVP awards in 1999 and 2001 was released in June '04 and was signed by the Giants soon after. He lasted one year as Eli Manning's ostensible mentor before voiding the remainder of his contract. When he signed with the Cardinals in 2005, the thought was that the washed-up quarterback had met his match with a dismal franchise that hadn't done anything in years. It took until 2007 for him to really make it back, but in the last three seasons of his NFL career, Warner was almost as good as he was in those first three years as a starter. He came within one miraculous play of pushing the Cards past the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII and once again became one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.
It's hard to reconcile those middle years, but I think Warner deserves a place in the Hall of Fame. Not only did he hit enough of the "black-type" numbers (league leaders) to merit consideration, but he also took two formerly moribund franchises to greatness, and neither team has been that great since. Measure in his determination to beat the odds more than once in his career, and I think Warner should make the cut.
Burke: Tim Brown -- I was of the belief that Brown should have been a 2014 inductee, so even with a healthy injection of candidates this year, I'm not turning back now. We can start with the production, sure: nearly 15,000 yards receiving, more than 100 total touchdowns, close to 20,000 all-purpose yards. For me, the pro-Brown argument transcends those numbers. From the moment he joined the Raiders in 1988 on through his prime in the '90s, Brown was one of the most electrifying players to ever set foot on an NFL field. A glut of receivers seeking entrance to the Hall had roadblocked him from his own honor, but Brown has plenty on his résumé -- and even more on his highlight reel -- for a place in Canton.
Farrar: Charles Haley -- Haley is known primarily as the only player to win five Super Bowls -- he was part of the 1988 and '89 49ers, and the '92, '93 and '95 Cowboys. The five-time Pro Bowler and two-time First-Team All-Pro finished his 13-year career in 1999 with 100.5 sacks in 120 starts, adding 485 tackles as a pass-rushing outside "endbacker" in San Francisco and as a defensive end in Dallas. Selected by Bill Walsh in the 1986 draft, Haley led the 49ers in sacks in each of his first six seasons and helped alter the balance of power in the NFC when San Francisco traded him to Dallas in '92. Haley was a mercurial individual off the field -- the trade occurred in part because of a verbal altercation with head coach George Seifert and a physical altercation with quarterback Steve Young. But in 2013, when Seifert was asked about that trade, he clearly regretted it.
"As I look back at it now, in hindsight, I was a young head coach," Seifert told CSN Bay Area. "I reacted. There were some tough things going on with Charles. But if I'd been a head coach with more experience I could've figured it out and found a way to get it done."
Former team owner Eddie DeBartolo was more to the point about that particular personnel move.
"The biggest mistake I made, or let happen, was trading Charles Haley. If we don't trade Charles Haley, we win another Super Bowl. There's no question in my mind. It was a mistake and I should've stepped in.
"I know he had some problems with some people but we could've solved that. Charles and I have become very close friends. In fact, I'm rooting for him so much. If he does make the Hall of Fame, he asked me to induct him."
Haley was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice, and though he never led the NFL in sacks in any one season, he had more than 10 sacks in a season six times, and added countless pressures. He was the guy every opposing offensive tackle had to watch out for, and he was the pointman on some of the best defenses of his era.
Haley has been a Hall of Fame finalist in each of the last five years, and the great hue and cry about his omission to date is that he was a major part of five Super Bowl-winning teams. There is specific value to that, but the overriding endorsement comes from the people who knew him and coached him when he was a talented but difficult player. He was worth whatever trouble he may have presented, and he's worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame.
Burke: Junior Seau -- Looking back, it is almost unfathomable that Seau never won a Defensive Player of the Year award. He was the game's preeminent linebacker for most of the '90s, a dominant and disruptive force for the Chargers. Seau made three straight Pro Bowls and earned an All-Pro selection to open the 2000s, too, a nod to his incredibly long-lasting career -- Seau finally hung up his cleats in 2009, two decades after San Diego drafted him No. 5 overall. His tragic death should have no impact on his case one way or the other. Seau did more than enough on the football field as a once-in-a-generation talent at his position to warrant first-ballot induction.
Farrar: Tony Dungy -- Dungy is best-known as an NFL head coach and motivational speaker and author, but he started his time in football as a quarterback at the University of Minnesota. Sadly, this was a time (the mid-1970s) when black quarterbacks didn't get drafted no matter how good they were (just ask the aforementioned Warren Moon), so Dungy walked on as a safety and special teams player with the Steelers in 1977. He played for a Super Bowl-winning team near the end of the Steel Curtain dynasty, playing in 45 games and starting nine from 1977 through '79, his last season with the 49ers. Dungy had six interceptions in 1978 and nine in his career. He became an assistant coach for his alma mater in 1980 and was asked by Steelers head coach Chuck Noll to join his staff in '81.
From 1981 through '95, Dungy was a defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator for three teams -- the Steelers, Chiefs and Vikings -- and he finally got his shot at a head coaching opportunity in '96 when the Buccaneers hired him. Tampa Bay had drafted Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks the year before, and John Lynch was developing as well. With these three Hall of Fame-level players making up the spine of his defense, Dungy took his own Cover-Two and Tampa-Two defensive ideas and turned the Bucs into one of the best defenses of the era. However, Tampa Bay's offense could never quite get over the hump, and it took Dungy's firing in early 2002 -- and the team's decision to replace him with Jon Gruden -- to turn the team into Super Bowl champs that season.
Dungy quickly landed another opportunity -- the Colts hired him as their head coach eight days after the Bucs fired him -- and this time, he had the offense to go with his defense. The Colts won at least 10 games in each of Dungy's seven seasons as head coach, and he turned his postseason record around over time -- from 2-4 in Tampa to 7-6 in Indy. Of course, just as his Bucs could never seem to get past the Eagles in the postseason, Dungy's Colts could never seem to move past the Patriots. At the end of the 2006 season, however, Dungy became the first black head coach to win a Super Bowl when his Colts beat Lovie Smith's Chicago Bears.
There are those who will take Dungy's off-field achievements as a mentor and evangelist and add that to his Hall of Fame résumé; others may use it against him. But strictly from a football perspective, I think Dungy eventually makes the cut. He doesn't strike me as a first-ballot guy (and he won't be; he missed the final group in the 2014 class), but his achievements are relevant and important enough from a historical perspective to merit induction.