Unwittingly, the Pro Football Hall of Fame has opened a can of worms for itself with the recent proliferation of first-ballot Hall of Famers. It is a classic case of the curse of unintended consequences.
Since being named President and CEO of the Hall of Fame seven years ago, David Baker has pushed hard to expand the Hall and grow its brand. He has been financially successful, expanding the grounds, increasing its television ratings and doubling its net assets in half a decade.
But with that increased exposure comes increased scrutiny, and one outgrowth has been the belief in some corners, including more than a few of the board’s voters, that somehow being a “first-ballot’’ Hall of Famer carries with it a deeper shade of gold in an enshrined sports coat.
This has been primarily fueled by television and social media, which every year declare well in advance of the vote that this guy or that is a “first-ballot Hall of Famer’’ ... and if that doesn’t happen the voters have no idea what they are doing. This is a designation that, frankly, didn’t exist only a few years ago and has no real definition or importance except in the minds of the small minded.
What makes, for example, Champ Bailey a first-ballot Hall of Famer and Dick “Night Train’’ Lane a fourth-ballot when everyone who knows football understands that Night Train Lane is the alpha male of DBs? Nothing. But when it was suggested that perhaps Bailey should wait a year or two, critics acted as if one was suggesting they change the game to three downs instead of four.
Certainly there have always been first-ballot Hall of Famers, but an overemphasis on their significance is a recent phenomenon and not a healthy one. What it has led to are comments like those made by former Detroit Lions’ wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who was in his first year of eligibility this year.
“Of course, it will feel like a slight, I guess, if you don’t get in the first time and you’re up there, a finalist,’’ Johnson told the NFL Network. “I can’t say that it wouldn’t, because we’re human, we’re emotional. Will it happen first time? That would be awesome. Get it out of the way. Why not?’’
The better question is: Why? And why would it be a slight if players waiting for years to be enshrined go in ahead of someone with 19 years of eligibility left?
A first-ballot Hall of Famer is difficult to define, but in my mind it is as simple as this. His presenter says “Jim Brown,’’ and sits down. If you have to say a word more, as was the case with Johnson this year, then you’re not a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
“Johnny Unitas.’’ That’s it. “Lawrence Taylor.’’ Enough said. “Deacon Jones.’’ We’re done. “Earl Campbell.’’ Move on to the next guy.
Yet even when those guys became first-ballot Hall of Famers nobody thought much about it. When it took three years for Joe Namath or Willie Lanier or Michael Irvin to get in there was no hue and cry about slights and disrespect, either. It was all part of a process.
Was Calvin Johnson all that much more impactful than, say, Cris Carter and his 130 touchdown catches and 1,101 receptions, which were both second all-time when he retired? No. Yet Carter went in on his sixth time as a finalist.
Was he more impactful than John Stallworth (10th year), Lynn Swann (14th year), Terrell Owens (third year and still complaining about it)? Not really. And that’s just at the wide-receiver position.
Was he more impactful than John Mackey or Derrick Thomas or Kevin Greene, who retired with the third most sacks in history at 160 yet had to wait 12 years and until his fifth time as a finalist to gain induction? No, he wasn’t. So why is it now a slight if he or anyone else waits a year or two to be inducted?
Johnson was one of 15 finalists voted on Tuesday by the 48-person committee, and it was a list with an abundance of worthy candidates. They included former Browns’ linebacker Clay Matthews, who was in his 20th and final year of eligibility, Carolina Panthers' linebacker Sam Mills who was in his 19th , as well as Packers' safety LeRoy Butler and Jacksonville Jaguars’ tackle Tony Boselli, both in their 15th years. Why must they wait again so someone who was a great player ... but hardly an icon of the game ... leap-frog them in his first year of eligibility?
We do not yet know who the five new inductees will be because it won’t be made public for two more weeks, but few, if any, of those 15 finalists don’t deserve a bust in Canton. The problem is: They can’t all go in at once because entry is capped at five modern inductees a year.
That is where this obsession with first-ballot Hall of Famers has begun to threaten the entire process.
If a player after 20 years of eligibility is not elected to the Hall of Fame he tumbles into the senior pool -- or, as I dubbed it several years after becoming one of the nine voters on the senior committee, “the great abyss.’’ While one player a year does emerge as a nominee annually from this vast pool of forgotten talent, the likelihood of anyone escaping is slim. The odds are far better that you get in during your 20-year eligibility span than make it through the senior portal. Among those trapped there are 60 players who were named to the Hall’s various all-decade teams over the years.
For many years there were two all-decade quarterbacks, for example, mired in the senior pool. Every all-decade quarterback but Ken Stabler and Cecil Isbell had been inducted. Why those two were not is beyond me, but that persisted until Stabler finally made it in 2016.
Unfortunately, he died in 2015 at the age of 69.
Isbell remains in limbo despite the fact the bulk of the receiving success of Don Hutson was a result of passes thrown by Cecil Isbell. Go figure.
The swelling ranks of the senior pool are the major reason some sort of a queue needs to be maintained by voters among the modern candidates. But the recent expansion in the perceived significance of first-ballot Hall of Famers has created a growing rift that was heavily debated Tuesday among the 48 voters for nearly an hour.
Some voters insisted they put in “the best’’ five candidates from the 15-man slate each year. On the surface, that sounded logical. Where it goes awry is that all voters know there are far more than five players who deserve induction each year and that if you keep putting in guys with 19 years of eligibility left you eventually end up leaving someone like Bob Kuechenberg behind.
Kuechenberg was the best offensive lineman Don Shula ever coached and the best the Dolphins ever had. He was a finalist eight straight times during his years of eligibility and was always the guy the committee was going to put in ‘next year’’ ... until he ran out of next years.
His name is now buried in the senior pool, but he is not. He died last year at 71, still waiting for the call from the Hall.
To illustrate how out of whack things have become, the Hall began recognizing the existence of first-ballot Hall of Famers in 1970, seven years after it opened. This was primarily a result of the fact that in the early years the Hall was playing catch-up on nearly 40 years of the game’s history. In addition, the original class of inductees in 1963 were all “first-ballot’’ because it was THE first ballot.
So 1970 has been designated as the point where this began. Since then there have been 84 first-ballot Hall of Famers, excluding the upcoming class. Since the year 2000, 36 players have been inducted first ballot, which is 42.8 percent of all first-ballot Hall of Famers in the past 51 years.
At least one, Peyton Manning, and possibly as many as three, could be added this year. If it’s the latter that would up the first ballot inductees in the last 20 years to 39 of 90, or over 43 percent of the all-time list.
More concerning is that the trend is getting worse. In the past five years, voters put in 10 first-ballot inductees out of a possible 25 slots, an alarming 40 percent of inductees jumping ahead of men who waited years for their own inductions. The voters put in three first-ballot nominees three times in the past five years and might very likely make it four in the last six when the Class of 2021 is announced in two weeks.
In a word, first-ballot obsession has gotten ridiculous.
Not to single anyone out, but how can middle linebacker Brian Urlacher be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as he was two years ago, when he would arguably be a fourth-ballot inductee in the Bears' Hall of Fame behind Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and Bill George?
The result of all this is that it ignores the growing number of people coming back year after year after year ... but not getting in ... while first-year eligibles jump ahead, thus jamming the system and leaving deserving players off the ballot altogether for years while others slide to the edge of the senior pool (or too often over the edge).
This year, for example, John Lynch was on the list for the eighth time, Alan Faneca for the sixth and Tony Boselli for the fifth. If you’re back in the room that many times voters obviously believe in your candidacy. So why is it taking so long to close the deal? The proliferation of first-ballot selectees is a large part of the problem.
What can the Hall of Fame do about this? Paying more attention to the number of times it takes to induct guys voters keep saying are Hall of Famers is one thing. Another more important point is dialing back the idea that it is somehow “disrespectful’’ or an “insult’’ if a great player has to wait a year or two -- or even three -- to get to Canton, while deserving players ahead of them go first.
If great players like Night Train Lane, Ken Stabler, Mel Renfro, Roosevelt Brown, John Mackey, Buck Buchanan, Dwight Stephenson, Kevin Greene, Charles Haley, Tim Brown, Willie Davis, Cris Carter, Jim Ringo, Jerry Kramer and Johnny Robinson (how about 45 and 43 years waiting in their cases?) waited, it doesn’t seem like a criminal offense if guys like Charles Woodson, Calvin Johnson and others like them do as well.
Actually it’s not a criminal offense at all. It's common sense, which of late has not been so common when it comes to voting for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.