Each year on FootballRelativity.com, we compare the 17 Hall of Fame finalists in terms of whom we think should be elected. So here’s a look at this year’s contenders for enshrinement in Canton. (Here are links to a comparison of last year’s finalists, and thoughts on the class that was elected.)
Tim Brown – Wide Receiver/Kick Returner – 1988-2003 Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, 2004 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (first-time finalist)
Cris Carter – Wide Receiver – 1987-89 Philadelphia Eagles, 1990-2001 Minnesota Vikings, 2002 Miami Dolphins (repeat finalist)
Don Coryell – Coach – 1973-77 St. Louis Cardinals, 1978-1986 San Diego Chargers (eligible before but first-time finalist)
Roger Craig – Running Back – 1983-1990 San Francisco 49ers, 1991 Los Angeles Raiders, 1992-93 Minnesota Vikings (eligible before but first-time finalist)
Dermontti Dawson – Center – 1988-2000 Pittsburgh Steelers (repeat finalist)
Richard Dent – Defensive End – 1983-1993, 1995 Chicago Bears, 1994 San Francisco 49ers, 1996 Indianapolis Colts, 1997 Philadelphia Eagles (repeat finalist)
Russ Grimm – Guard – 1981-1991 Washington Redskins (repeat finalist)
Charles Haley – Defensive End/Linebacker – 1986-1991, 1999 San Francisco 49ers, 1992-96 Dallas Cowboys (eligible before but first-time finalist)
Rickey Jackson – Linebacker – 1981-1993 New Orleans Saints, 1994-95 San Francisco 49ers (eligible before but first-time finalist)
Cortez Kennedy – Defensive Tackle – 1990-2000 Seattle Seahawks (repeat finalist)
Dick LeBeau – Cornerback – 1959-1972 Detroit Lions (seniors candidate)
Floyd Little – Running Back – 1967-1975 Denver Broncos (seniors candidate)
John Randle – Defensive Tackle – 1990-2000 Minnesota Vikings, 2001-03 Seattle Seahawks (repeat finalist)
Andre Reed – Wide Receiver – 1985-1999 Buffalo Bills, 2000 Washington Redskins (repeat finalist)
Jerry Rice – Wide Receiver – 1985-2000 San Francisco 49ers, 2001-04 Oakland Raiders, 2004 Seattle Seahawks (first time eligible)
Shannon Sharpe – Tight End – 1990-99, 2002-03 Denver Broncos, 2000-01 Baltimore Ravens (first year eligible)
Emmitt Smith – Running Back – 1990-2002 Dallas Cowboys, 2003-04 Arizona Cardinals (first year eligible)
Let’s play relativity. 10 points will be an automatic yes vote, 1 point is someone who should not be a finalist again.
(By the way, all links to players are from the Pro Football Hall of Fame website, which is home to an incredible trove of research. Consider this a recommendation.)
10 – Jerry Rice – Two of the first-year eligible players are slam dunks. Rice is arguably the greatest player of all time at any position – I have no qualms about saying he’s the best I’ve seen with my own eyes. He was an unstoppable force on San Francisco’s dynastic teams of the 1980s and 90s, and he has ever receiving record ever imagined. He’s been a future Hall of Famer since halfway through his career, so his day will certainly come in Miami.
10 (con’t) – Emmitt Smith – Smith isn’t in the list of the 10 best players ever like Rice is, but the league’s all-time leading rusher was a keystone of the Cowboys’ three Super Bowls in the 1990s and is an easy first-ballot choice. He was undoubtedly one of the top 2 backs of the 1990s (along with Barry Sanders), and his longevity and productivity are distinguishing figures for his career.
Note: Rice and Smith will certainly go in together as the highest profile names from the 2010 class. That leaves just three spots for the other 13 modern-day finalists, with seniors finalists Dick LeBeau and Floyd Little getting yea-or-nay votes on their own. Keep that in mind as you read the remaining profiles.
9 – Dick LeBeau – People today know LeBeau as the architect of the zone blitz defense and the defensive coordinator on many great defenses over much of the past two decades. But before he became a coach, LeBeau was a terrific cornerback for the Lions. With 62 career interceptions, he stands tied for seventh on the all-time list. LeBeau was a borderline Hall of Famer as a player, and his contributions as a coach will push him over the line to induction as a seniors candidate.
8 – Cris Carter – We said Carter should have gotten into the Hall of Fame last year, but the selection committee went for Art Monk instead. Carter still deserves induction, and if he misses out it will be because with Rice going in voters wanted to focus on other positions. Carter should get in, and he will someday. But we can’t say for sure that day will come this year because of the tight window for election.
7 – Richard Dent – Last year we pegged Dent (and seniors candidate Claude Humphrey) as the pass rusher who should get in. The late Derrick Thomas got in instead. Dent faces the test of being the third player from the great mid-1980s Bears defenses to get in (behind Mike Singletary and Dan Hampton), and that costs him support. But when you look at his sack numbers (137.5) compared to his era, it’s hard to say Dent doesn’t belong. He was a dominant, game-changing player and a Super Bowl MVP, which are both huge calling cards. It’ll be interesting to see whether he gets one of the two or three spots for modern candidates this year.
6 – Dermontti Dawson – We pushed for Dawson to make the Hall last year, but Randall McDaniel was the offensive lineman who got the nod. Now that McDaniel’s in Canton, Dawson should be the offensive lineman next in line. Dawson’s career wasn’t especially long, but the Steelers center was unquestionably the best center in the league during his prime, as his six straight All-Pro nods indicate. Dawson certainly merits induction over Grimm among this year’s protectors, and he should get in eventually. Perhaps this is his year.
6 (con’t) – Shannon Sharpe – Sharpe is the preeminent pass-catching tight end that is eligible for enshrinement at this point. But as a receiver, I’d put Sharpe behind Rice (obviously) and Carter in the receiver pecking order, but Sharpe is more deserving than former AFC West rival Tim Brown or Andre Reed. Sharpe needs to get in the Hall before guys like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates are on the Hall of Fame horizon, because I’m not sure he will beat those guys in the voting. Sharpe has a case to make it to Canton, but his chances this year slip a little bit because Rice and Carter appear to be in line ahead of him.
5 – Don Coryell – Coryell has been eligible for induction before, but this is the first time he’s reached the finalist level. That’s not surprising, considering his victory total as a head coach with the Cardinals and Chargers is just 114-89-1, far below an elite level. But Coryell is considered an offensive innovator, as his Air Coryell type of vertical attack inspired prominent coaches such as Mike Martz, Norv Turner, and others. That’s the reason Coryell could make it in – almost as a contributor and not just a coach. My sense is that Coryell could gather support in that vein and end up sneaking into the class in a final spot, kind of like Ralph Wilson did last year.
5 (con’t) – Floyd Little – Little is a fascinating Hall of Fame case. As a seniors candidate, he doesn’t have to contend with anyone else for a spot – he’s simply subject to an up-or-down vote by the committee. And the fact that seniors candidate have a better rate of success getting in bodes well for Little too. But Claude Humphrey missed from this position last year, and Little’s numbers (12,000 all-purpose yards including kick and punt returns but just 6,300 rushing yards) aren’t awe-inspiring. Maybe the fact that Little is an all-time great Bronco and that the Broncos are underrepresented in the Hall of Fame will get him in, or maybe whoever presents Little’s case has the kind of ammo that will spark his election. But it seems to me that he’s no better than a 50-50 shot to make it in.
4 – Russ Grimm – We’ve already talked a little bit about the Grimm options, but now let’s focus in on Grimm’s HOF chances. Last year, we rated Grimm behind Randall McDaniel on the guard list, and McDaniel got in. This year, Grimm has a bit of a better chance because the offensive line class isn’t as packed. I’d still favor Dawson over Grimm, but the fact that none of the Hogs from the Redskins’ 1980s lines has gotten in gives Grimm a shot. There are still some voters who favor Joe Jacoby over Grimm as a Hall of Famer from that group, but since Grimm has generally established his candidacy as the best of that group, he has a shot.
4 (con’t) – Charles Haley – Haley is another of the candidates in this year’s class who made it to finalist level for the first time after years on the preliminary ballot. That doesn’t seem to be a good omen for his election. The most sterling part of Haley’s resume is that he played for five Super Bowl champs (two in San Francisco and three in Dallas), but the fact that he was an all-pro both at defensive end and linebacker is just as impressive. He won NFC defensive player of the year honors in those two years (1990 in S.F. and 1994 in Dallas), and he made five total Pro Bowls. His sack total of 100.5 isn’t stunning compared to guys like Dent or Rickey Jackson, but the fact that he played so much time at linebacker without being in a 3-4 zone blitz system explains that a bit. We put Haley behind Dent on the list, and on first blush we’d support Jackson over him as well, but Haley’s role on dynastic teams gives him a better shot than Jackson has. That’s probably not enough to sneak into this year’s class, but Haley could start building support for induction in a year without Rice and Smith-level guys on the top of the ballot.
4 (con’t) – Cortez Kennedy – Last year we gave Kennedy virtually no chance of induction in his first year as a finalist, but it seems like the former Seahawks defensive tackle actually got more support than we expected. The durable former all-pro was defensive player of the year in 1992 and was an eight-time Pro Bowler and three-time all-pro. Kennedy still falls below our standard for induction, but we now believe he has a better shot than fellow defensive tackle John Randle of making it to Canton, even though Randle has gaudy sack numbers that Kennedy, a run-stuffer, never compiled.
3- Rickey Jackson – Jackson has a shockingly good resume, considering he’s been eligible for 10 years but has never before reached the finalist level. His sack numbers (128 not counting his rookie season, in which sacks were not an official statistic), aren’t as good as Dent’s, but Jackson played in an era before 3-4 outside linebackers were pure pass rushers. Instead, he was a complete player on some of Jim Mora’s terrific defenses, and he was the best of a linebacker corps that included Sam Mills. Jackson probably won’t go from first-time finalist to induction, but his presence on the list is a deserved honor, and he has an outside chance of building a candidacy over the coming years. For now, though, he’s behind Richard Dent and Charles Haley in line.
3 (con’t) – John Randle – Last year we gave Randle more of a shot than this, but it seems like Kennedy has gained more steam in his candidacy than Randle currently has. Randle was a terrific 4-3 under tackle for the Vikings and Seahawks, and he used his slashing skills to pile up 137.5 sacks. That number compares favorably with Haley, which could help him in this year’s class, but the fact that Randle too often came off as a one-dimensional player hurts his cause. He’s been a finalist both years he’s been eligible, which means he has a shot to make it in, but the sense here is that he still has a wait before that happens – if it ever does.
3 (con’t) – Andre Reed – Reed finished his career with 951 receptions, which puts him sixth all-time, and he was the best receiver on the terrific Bills teams of the 1990s. But like Tim Brown, Reed was never among the best two or three receivers in the league. He never was a first-team All-Pro, although he did make seven Pro Bowls. That puts him behind Carter and Sharpe and of course Rice in the receiver pecking order when it comes to a place in Canton. I do give Reed a razor-thin edge over Brown, but to me that’s more of a decision for who should remain a finalist instead of a call about who should actually be elected.
2 – Tim Brown – Besides Rice and Smith, Brown is the only other first-time eligible to make it to finalist status. But it’s hard for me to see Brown as a Hall of Famer. The long-time Raider (and cameo Buccaneer) had nearly 15,000 receiving yards, which puts him up the list, but there was rarely a time when Brown was one of the best two or three receivers in the game. The fact that he was never a first-team All-Pro (voted as one of the top two wideouts in the league) bears this view out. Instead, guys like Rice and Carter (early in Brown’s prime) and Randy Moss easily outpaced Brown. Brown strikes me as a compiler, and to me that puts him behind not only Rice but also Carter and even Reed in this year’s class. In this year with election spots extra tight and the receiver spot so well represented among the finalists, there’s no way Brown gets in. But even if Brown were the only receiver among the finalists, I’d have a hard time supporting his induction. He belongs in the hall of the very good, not among the game’s ultra-elite in the Hall of Fame.
1 – Roger Craig – Craig is another long-time eligible player who finally crossed the border into the realm of finalists. Craig was the running back on the 49ers’ 1980s dynastic teams, and his ability to both run the ball and catch it out of the backfield made him a perfect fit there. Craig was the first player to total 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving in the same year back in 1985, and he made the Pro Bowl both as a running back and a fullback. His role on three Super Bowl winners is admirable, but the truth is that Craig fell well below Joe Montana and Jerry Rice in significance on those teams. Making the group of finalists means that Craig will be remembered for his fine play, but he fell below Hall of Fame level in his career. The reality is that he’ll probably be fortunate to make the list of finalists again after this year.
So what’s our prediction: There are three gimmes in the class – Rice, Smith, and LeBeau. To that we’ll add three more names – Dent, Carter, and Coryell in an upset instead of Dawson, who deserves the sixth spot. We’ll see how this outlandish prediction does on the Saturday before the Super Bowl.