Exploring the abyss that is the senior pool of HOF candidates
There were 10 senior candidates whose careers were resurrected by the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s Centennial Class, many of whom had never before been discussed as finalists. So take a long-deserving bow, Duke Slater, Bobby Dillon, Alex Karras and Jim Covert.
Frankly, I would have liked to have seen that Centennial Class double in size, rewarding 20 players who waited decades for enshrinement instead of just the 10. For that matter, I’d have welcomed 30 senior enshrinees into the Centennial Class.
That’s the depth of the abyss that is the senior pool of candidates.
I’ve been a member of the Hall’s selection panel for 25 years, including the last 16 on the senior sub-committee. During that time I’ve seen so many wrongs that have been righted with the election of senior candidates such as Jerry Kramer, Johnny Robinson, Mick Tingelhoff, Ray Guy, Les Richter and Jack Butler.
When I was added to the senior sub-committee in 2005, I compiled a lengthy list of candidates whom I thought deserved to have their careers discussed and debated by the selection committee. Since then, 35 players off my original list have been nominated and awarded busts in Canton.
Those inductions dented the list but didn’t empty it. Not even close.
There are still 90 names remaining on my list. They include past NFL MVPs, passing champions, rushing champions, Defensive Players of the Year and all-decade performers. And now that the Centennial Class is in the books, we’ll likely get back to nominating one senior candidate annually. Which means so many worthy candidates will be left standing on the Hall’s steps, never having their careers discussed.
Understand the difficulty of our task of choosing that candidate each summer. There are 26 established NFL franchises, and they all have three-to-five players in the senior pool that they believe deserve Hall of Fame consideration.
As the Dallas representative on the committee, the oversights on the Cowboys include Chuck Howley, Ralph Neely, Lee Roy Jordan, Drew Pearson, Everson Walls and Harvey Martin. I also served as the Kansas City representative on the committee in the 1980s, and the oversights on the Chiefs include Jim Tyrer, Ed Budde, Otis Taylor, Fred Arbanas and Jerrel Wilson.
There will never be a shortage of candidates in the senior pool. But there will always be a shortage of nomination slots. So how deep is the abyss? I compiled a team of 25 senior candidates, one for each position, whose careers I believe merit Hall of Fame discussion. And this is just a sampling. I could go five deep at most positions:
QB—Ken Anderson. 1981 NFL MVP, four-time league passing champion (twice in the 1970s, twice in the 1980s) with the Bengals, first quarterback to complete 70 percent of his passes in a single season. Anderson is one of six former NFL MVP quarterbacks currently in the senior pool. If you are considered the best single player in any given NFL season, you deserve to have your career discussed and debated in the context of where it fits historically. Four of the six have never been received that chance as finalists.
HB—Larry Brown. 1972 NFL MVP, 1970 NFL rushing champion, four-time Pro Bowler.
FB—Pat Harder. 1948 NFL MVP, 3-time NFL champion, first player in NFL history to score 100 points in three consecutive seasons with the Cardinals.
WR—Billy Wilson. 3-time NFL receiving champion, 6-time Pro Bowler with the 49ers, scored a touchdown every 8.3 catches.
WR—Sterling Sharpe. 3-time NFL receiving champion, five-time Pro Bowler with the Packers, first receiver in NFL history with consecutive 100-catch seasons.
TE—Ron Kramer. One of two tight ends named to the NFL’s 50th anniversary team (Hall-of-Famer Mike Ditka was the other). A key blocking element in Lombardi’s power sweep at Green Bay.
OT—George Kunz. 8-time Pro Bowler, 5 in the NFC with Atlanta, 3 in the AFC with Baltimore. Went to as many Pro Bowls in the 1970s as all-decade tackle Art Shell and more than the other three all-decade tackles (Ron Yary, Bob Brown and Dan Dierdorf).
OT—Jim Tyrer. 9-time Pro Bowler, 3-time AFL champion, one Super Bowl ring with the Kansas City Chiefs. Named to the all-time AFL team.
G—Walt Sweeney. 9-time Pro Bowler, started 167 consecutive games for the Chargers. Also an elite special-teams performer.
G—Ed Budde. 7-time Pro Bowler, one of two guards selected to the all-time AFL team. The other, Billy Shaw, has a bust in Canton. Budde was the fourth overall pick of the 1964 NFL draft but opted to sign with the AFL Chiefs.
C—Jeff Van Note. 6-time Pro Bowler, 226 career starts (fourth all-time among centers), all with the Falcons.
DE—Harvey Martin. 1977 NFL Defensive Player of the Year when he set the unofficial league record with 23 sacks. Shared Super Bowl MVP honors in 1978 with Hall of Famer Randy White. 4-time Pro Bowler with the Cowboys.
DE—Jim Marshall. Started 277 career games, fifth most in NFL history, and recovered a league-record 29 fumbles. Played in four Super Bowls on the same Minnesota line as Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Alan Page.
DT—Keith Millard. 1989 NFL Defensive Player of the Year when he rang up 18 sacks and scored a touchdown on an interception. Millard was credited with 58 NFL sacks in 93 career games and collected another 12 in his one season in the USFL.
DT–Tom Sestak. Like Millard, Sestak’s brilliant career was cut short by a knee injury. Sestak played only seven seasons with the Buffalo Bills but was still voted to the all-time AFL team. He was named first-team All-AFL six times in his seven seasons and helped the Bills win two championships.
OLB—Maxie Baughan. 9-time Pro Bowler, all in the 1960s. No other outside linebacker in either the AFL or NFL had as many as seven Pro Bowl selections in that decade. Started as a rookie on 1960 NFL champion Eagles.
MLB—Randy Gradishar. 1978 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 7-time Pro Bowler with the Broncos, retired after 10 seasons with a then NFL-record 2,049 tackles.
OLB—Chuck Howley. Only losing player ever selected a Super Bowl MVP (1971 loss by the Cowboys to the Colts). 6-time Pro Bowler, his 43 career takeaways rank second in NFL history among outside linebackers. Only Hall of Famer Jack Ham had more (53).
CB—Ken Riley. Second among pure cornerbacks with 65 career interceptions, all with the Bengals. Only Hall of Famer Dick “Night Train” Lane had more (68). Led all NFL corners with 9 interceptions in 1976 and again with eight in his final season in 1983 (as a 36-year-old).
CB—Everson Walls. One of only two players -- and the only cornerback – ever to lead the NFL in interceptions three times. First-ballot Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed was the other. His 57 career interceptions are more than, among others, Hall of Fame corners Deion Sanders, Darrell Green, Willie Brown, Ty Law and Champ Bailey.
S—Eddie Meador. 6-time Pro Bowler with the Rams who still holds the franchise records for career interceptions (46) and blocked kicks (10). One of four safeties named to the joint AFL-NFL all-decade team for the 1960s along with Larry Wilson, Johnny Robinson and Willie Wood. Meador remains the only one of the four still without a bust in Canton.
S—Dick Anderson. 1972 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 3-time Pro Bowler, 34 interceptions in 100 career starts – plus five more in 11 career playoff games. 2-time NFL champion with the Dolphins.
K—Gino Cappelletti. The all-time leading scorer in AFL history with 1,100 points. Also started at receiver for the Boston Patriots, catching 42 career touchdown passes, and went to five AFL All-Star Games.
P—Jerrel Wilson. Voted the punter on the all-time AFL team, then joined Hall of Famer Ray Guy as one of two punters on the NFL’s 1970 all-decade team. Voted to three AFL All-Star Games with the Chiefs, then voted to the Pro Bowl in his first three NFL seasons, leading the league in punting each time.
KR—Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. The only player from the NFL’s 75th anniversary team still without a bust in Canton -- and Johnson has never once been discussed as a finalist. White Shoes also was named to the NFL’s 100th anniversary team last winter.
Do all of the above players belong in the Hall of Fame? Probably not. Do most? Unlikely. Do some? Certainly. All were among the best players at their positions during their respective eras. All deserved to have their candidacies addressed by the Hall-of-Fame selection committee at some point. But few have, and most never will -- not when the senior pool sends forth only one candidate per year.
And that's the flaw with the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame selection process -- too many worthy candidates slip through the cracks without ever receiving a fair hearing on their careers. There remain Hall of Famers in the senior pool who will never receive busts.