Answering the unsolved questions for the Hall's Centennial Class of 2020
The Pro Football Hall of Fame was supposed to reveal its Centennial Class of 2020 for Wednesday morning, but somebody couldn’t wait and broke the embargo.
Uh, that would be the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with CEO and president David Baker last weekend announcing on national TV that Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson were elected as coaches.
Ooops, there goes that suspense.
Nevertheless, it’s still there for the remaining 13 members of the Centennial Class, including 10 seniors. Their names will be announced – as planned – on Wednesday at 7 a.m. on the NFL Network, and there’s already talk that the list may not include more than a few seniors who played prior to 1960.
In a class designed to celebrate 100 years of the NFL, that would be unfortunate. Nine of the 20 senior finalists are from that era, including four Green Bay Packers, and for many this could be their last shot at Canton. For decades they’ve been forgotten, but with this special class – a once-in-a-hundred-years’ opportunity -- they have a chance to have their cases heard.
And maybe their tickets to Canton punched.
In the meantime, we wait. Ten seniors and three contributors have yet to be named, and there are plenty of questions waiting to be answered. So let’s start asking them:
IS PAUL TAGLIABUE A SURE THING AS ONE OF THE CONTRIBUTORS? Most persons expect it to happen, and count me in. The former NFL commissioner has been one of the Hall’s most polarizing candidates – rejected three times as a finalist (2007-09), including once when he made the final five but failed to gain 80 percent of the vote, and a fourth time as a contributor. I mention that because he’s the only contributor candidate not to be enshrined since the category was created in 2014. However, that was with the Hall’s board of 48 selectors, and they don’t vote here. A 25-member panel chosen by the Hall does, and it’s makeup is far different. In fact, looking at the persons who comprise the panel, it’s hard to believe that Tagliabue won’t gain the votes necessary to cross the finish line … and I don’t think it will be close.
CAN DUKE SLATER AND AL WISTERT FINALLY MAKE IT HOME? Nearly 50 percent of senior finalists are from the pre-modern era (prior to 1960), but expectations are that the percentage drops considerably when the Centennial Class is announced. Nevertheless, Slater and Wistert are favorites to be included among the 10 senior inductees. Slater was a five-time All-Pro tackle and the first African-American offensive lineman. Wistert, also an offensive tackle, was an eight-time All-Pro in nine seasons with Philadelphia, where he won two NFL championships. Both are deserving. Both are long overdue. Moreover, if Wistert were alive today (he died in 2016), he’d turn 100 this year. How appropriate to make him part of the league’s Centennial Class.
WILL DREW PEARSON SCORE ANOTHER “HAIL MARY”? The former Dallas wide receiver is one of only two first-team all-decade choices from the 1970s not enshrined in Canton. The other is former safety Cliff Harris, a teammate of Pearson with the Cowboys. That’s more than bizarre. It’s puzzling. And so is this: Prior to the Centennial Class, only Harris had been a Hall-of-Fame finalist … and that happened just once, in 2004. Then he disappeared into the senior pile, never to be discussed again. For years, Pearson wondered what he did wrong, and the answer is simple: Nothing. He was forgotten. Now he’s this close to scoring a second “Hail Mary,” and here’s hoping he makes it. He deserves nothing less.
IS THIS GEORGE YOUNG’S TIME? The former Giants’ GM has been this close to reaching Canton the past two years as a contributor finalist, and it would only be fair that he makes it now. As one consultant to the contributor committee said once, “He should’ve been elected with the first class (in 2015).” Young brokered peace within the New York Giants, hired Bill Parcells, drafted Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms and put one of the NFL’s premier franchises back together again. Former Green Bay GM Ron Wolf did the same thing with the Packers in the 1990s, and it earned him a spot in the first contributor class. I’m not sure why it’s taken so long to move on Young.
WHAT HAPPENS TO CLIFF BRANCH? The former Raiders’ wide receiver is a favorite choice among Twitter followers, and he’s been close in past senior committee discussions. But there are a couple of obstacles he must clear: 1) He’s not an all-decade choice, while five other receivers up for elections – Pearson, Harold Carmichael, Ed Sprinkle, Lavern Dilweg and Mac Speedie – are; and 2) he was part of a 1970s’ Raiders’ team that already includes 11 Hall-of-Fame players, one owner and one Hall-of-Fame coach … yet won one Super Bowl that decade. That needs to be explained.
AND WHAT ABOUT DONNIE SHELL? Hall-of-Fame coach Tony Dungy has said that Shell would be the first guy he'd choose for the Hall, and that's great. But Shell seems to have been a victim of Steelers' fatigue, with nine players (including four on defense), one coach and one owner from the 1970s' team already enshrined. Shell was a finalist once, but that was back in 2002, and he didn't make the first cut then. Here he is competing for a spot with the Cowboys' Cliff Harris, another safety who has one big advantage: He was a first-team all-decade choice of the 1970s. Shell was never an all-decade pick. Harris was also a five-time All-Pro, including three first-team nominations. Shell made it on four All-Pro teams, with three first-team selections. Case closed? Not so fast. What makes this so intriguing is Steelers' president Art Rooney II this week saying that Pittsburgh "more than likely" will be in this year's Hall-of-Fame game. So what does he know that we don't? The Hall-of-Fame game usually is reserved for teams with players entering Canton, and while most people expect that modern-era finalist Troy Polamalu will be a first-ballot choice, that's no slam-dunk. OK, so there's former coach Bill Cowher, too. But I wonder if there's more to Rooney's comment.
IS THERE ROOM IN CANTON FOR ANOTHER SABOL? Steve Sabol is one of the contributor candidates, and he might be considered a frontrunner but for one detail – his father, Ed, already is in the Hall. So what? Well, so Ed’s there for his work with NFL Films, which is why Steve is in front of voters today. Ed founded the company that helped popularize the NFL, and Steve perfected it. Can two members of the same family be enshrined for similar accomplishments with the same company? We find out Wednesday.
MORE BUSTS FOR GREEN BAY? The Packers had more senior candidates (4) than anyone: Verne Lewellen, Lavern Dilweg, Cecil Isbell and Bobby Dillon. You have to believe that at least one of them makes it, with the smart money on Dilweg. However, all played prior to 1960, and, based on what I’m hearing, that could diminish their chances.
WILL THE AFL BE REMEMBERED? Hard as it is to believe, there’s only one senior candidate from that league (Jets’ tackle Winston Hill) and one contributor (former Houston/Tennessee owner Bud Adams). Of the two, Hill is the more likely choice, but he played the same position as Slater and Wistert, which could make him more of a longshot. However, I remember when we had Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Parcells on a Talk of Fame Network broadcast, and he recalled visiting the Jets’ training camp in the 1960s. He said there were two guys who immediately gained his attention as extraordinary players: Joe Namath and Winston Hill. Namath’s in the Hall. Hill is near. As the only link among seniors to the AFL, his chances may be enhanced.
Follow on Twitter @ClarkJudgeTOF