Jerome Bettis– Running Back – 1993-95 Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, 1996-2005 Pittsburgh Steelers (first year eligible)
Tim Brown – Wide Receiver/Kick Returner – 1988-2003 Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, 2004 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (repeat finalist)
Cris Carter – Wide Receiver – 1987-89 Philadelphia Eagles, 1990-2001 Minnesota Vikings, 2002 Miami Dolphins (repeat 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)
Chris Doleman– Defensive End/Linebacker – 1985-1993, 1999 Minnesota Vikings, 1994-95 Atlanta Falcons, 1996-98 San Francisco 49ers (eligible before but first-time finalist)
Marshall Faulk – Running Back – 1994-98 Indianapolis Colts, 1999-2005 St. Louis Rams (first time eligible)
Charles Haley – Defensive End/Linebacker – 1986-1991, 1999 San Francisco 49ers, 1992-96 Dallas Cowboys (repeat finalist)
Chris Hanburger– Linebacker – 1965-1978 Washington Redskins (seniors candidate)
Cortez Kennedy– Defensive Tackle – 1990-2000 Seattle Seahawks (repeat finalist)
Curtis Martin – Running Back – 1995-97 New England Patriots, 1998-2005 New York Jets (first year eligible)
Andre Reed – Wide Receiver – 1985-1999 Buffalo Bills, 2000 Washington Redskins (repeat finalist)
Les Richter – Linebacker – 1954-1962 Los Angeles Rams (seniors candidate)
Willie Roaf– Tackle – 1993-2001 New Orleans Saints, 2002-05 Kansas City Chiefs (first year eligible)
Ed Sabol– Founder/President/Chairman – 1964-1995 NFL Films (eligible before but first-time finalist)
Deion Sanders – Cornerback/Kick Returner/Punt Returner – 1989-1993 Atlanta Falcons, 1994 San Francisco 49ers, 1995-99 Dallas Cowboys, 2000 Washington Redskins, 2004-05 Baltimore Ravens (first year eligible)
Shannon Sharpe – Tight End – 1990-99, 2002-03 Denver Broncos, 2000-01 Baltimore Ravens (repeat finalist)
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 – Deion Sanders - Sanders wasn’t the most complete corner ever, but he may have been the best cover man of his or any era. Combine that with his electric returning ability, and you have a no-doubt Hall of Famer. Sanders’ career was a bit strange because he played both in the NFL and in Major League Baseball, and because of his prodigous ego and love of the spotlight he bounced around quite a bit. But there was plenty of substance beneath the flash. The accolades are there – a member of the all-1990s team, eight Pro Bowl appearances and six All-Pro nods, and two Super Bowl rings – but the fact that Sanders at his apex was the scariest player on the field is enough for us. Some voters might be put off by Sanders’ bombastic nature or his unwillingness to tackle, but even those issues won’t be enough to keep Sanders out of the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
9 – Marshall Faulk – Of the three running backs on the ballot for the first time this year, we believe Faulk is the clear-cut leader of the group for first-year enshrinement. Faulk was the ideal running back for the Greatest Show on Turf in St. Louis because he was just as deadly catching the ball out of the backfield as he was running the ball. He won league MVP honors in both 2000 and 2001 and was part of two Rams Super Bowl teams. And that St. Louis dominance came after an incredibly productive five-year stint with the Colts. Faulk played 13 years, and his rushing total of 12,279 place him 10th all time, below fellow nominees Curtis Martin and Jerome Bettis. But Faulk added another 6,875 receiving yards, which is the reason we put him ahead of those two nominees. In yards from scrimmage, Faulk is fourth all time, behind only Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, and Walter Payton. That elite company better reflects Faulk’s career. We believe Faulk deserves enshrinement right away, even if it comes at the expense of Martin and Bettis in 2011.
8 – Cris Carter - We don’t get it. For the last two years, we’ve endorsed Carter as a Hall of Famer. In our minds, he’s an easy choice over fellow finalists Andre Reed and Tim Brown at the position, as well as a narrow choice over receiving tight end Shannon Sharpe. But apparently that clump of receivers in the final 17 have kept Carter out. Instead, seniors candidate Bob Hayes and no-brainer Jerry Rice have been enshrined the last two years. Carter will still need to clear Brown and Reed, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Carter has 1,101 career catches to place third all-time. That’s seven more catches than Brown (despite playing one fewer season) and 150 more than Reed. And Carter was always on the list of the five best receivers in the league throughout the 1990s, as shown by his all-decade team accolades. At some point, voters will have to admit the next receiver, and Carter should be the guy.
7 – Ed Sabol - Sabol has been eligible for the Hall of Fame for many years, but he finally crossed into finalist territory this year. He’s become a cause celebre of Peter King and others for his role in creating NFL Films. For nearly 50 years, NFL Films has promoted and propagated the popularity of the NFL. Sabol started NFL Films and worked there until retiring in 1995. It’s hard to compare a contributor like Sabol to a class otherwise filled with players, but if ever a contributor deserved one of the seven Hall of Fame spots, it’s Sabol. Our hunch is that there’s enough momentum behind him that he’ll be inducted now that he has finally made it to finalist status.
7 (con’t) – Richard Dent - We’ve endorsed Dent for enshrinement the last two years, but he’s been passed over for Derrick Thomas in 2009 and John Randle last year. Dent was a dominant force for the classic Bears teams in the 1980s, and he won Super Bowl 20 MVP honors. He has 137.5 career sacks, which doesn’t live up to the total Chris Doleman posted but doesn’t reflect Dent’s dominance. Dent has been a finalist every year since 2005, and at some point he has to get over the hump. Given the defensive crop this year, it may be now or never for Dent. We believe it should be now.
7 (con’t) – Chris Hanburger - It’s never easy for us to evaluate the seniors candidates, but history indicates that most of them win election if they make it past the seniors committee. That bodes well for Hanburger, who started at linebacker for the Redskins for 14 years in the 1960s and 70s. With four All-Pro selections and nine Pro Bowl nods, Hanburger has the resume to merit election, and the fact that he started 135 straight games during the prime of his career is a good sign as well. He had a great career given the fact that he started out as an 18th-round draft pick, and it now appears that this career could well end up in the Hall of Fame.
6 – Shannon Sharpe - Tight end isn’t a prolific position in terms of producing Hall of Famers, and that plus the surplus of receivers have worked against Sharpe in his candidacy thus far. Like Dent, we have endorsed Sharpe the first two years of this post, and we’re doing so again. He merits inclusion, because he was the perfect West Coast offense tight end. He wasn’t an outstanding blocker, but he was effective, and he played a key role on three Super Bowl teams – two in Denver and one in Baltimore. But Sharpe is 250 catches (and counting) behind Tony Gonzalez, which isn’t helping his cause. But Sharpe’s high level of play for championship teams is something Gonzalez can’t rival. Sharpe deserves induction.
6 (con’t) – Les Richter - Richter, already a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, played his entire nine-year career for the Rams, who had acquired him in an 11-for-1 deal. He debuted two years after being drafted, after serving in the military, and made the Pro Bowl in each of his first eight seasons as a linebacker. He also served as a placekicker and even played some center for the Rams. No wonder he was first- or second-team All-Pro in each of his first six seasons. Now that Richter has made it past the seniors committee, the late Richter should find his way into the Hall of Fame.
5 – Curtis Martin - Martin was rarely a great, but he was very good for a long time for the Patriots and Jets. As a result, his accumulated totals put him in the pantheon of the all-time greats. But Martin made just five Pro Bowls in his 11 seasons, and he was an All-Pro just twice and led the league in rushing just once. That makes his candidacy wobbly, despite the fact that he’s currently the fourth all-time rusher in the league. Martin’s going to be an interesting case, because he (like Bettis and future nominee Edgerrin James and Fred Taylor) have monstrous numbers but rare moments of dominance. That, to us, means that Martin doesn’t pass the smell test, at least in his first season. Faulk must go in ahead of Martin, and while Martin leads Bettis, we don’t see room for more than one running back in this year’s class. Maybe Martin will sneak in in the future, but this shouldn’t be his year.
5 (con’t) – Dermontti Dawson – We moved Dawson down a level from last year, because while we would still vote for him, we don’t have a good feeling about his chances. Dawson played 13 years and was a six-time All-Pro, which clearly established him as the best center of the 1990s. He had a long career and was dominant at his position. For Dwight Stephenson a decade before him, that meant induction. But Dawson needs to get in soon, before other linemen like Walter Jones, Orlando Pace, and Jonathan Ogden start hitting the ballot. Otherwise Dawson’s wait will be prolonged.
4- Charles Haley – Haley’s an interesting case, because he was such a big factor for two dynastic teams – the 49ers and the Cowboys. As a result, he has an unprecedented five Super Bowl rings. That’s the cornerstone of his Hall of Fame candidacy. He also played well both as a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 outside linebacker, which is a credit to his ability. but his sack numbers – 100.5 – pale in comparison to Richard Dent and Chris Doleman, making it hard to justify choosing Haley over those players. It wouldn’t be a travesty to put Haley in the Hall of Fame, but there are more deserving guys in the group of finalists this year.
4 (con’t) – Cortez Kennedy – When Kennedy first showed up on the Hall of Fame radar, we wrote off his candidacy, but he seems to be a legitimate borderline candidate. He was a dominant defensive tackle for years, although the fact that he played in Seattle his entire career kept him under the radar to some degree. Still, he earned eight Pro Bowl berths and three All-Pro nods, made the 1990s All-Decade team, and won defensive player of the year honors in 1992. Kennedy’s position keeps him from having numbers to bolster his case, but he was a dominant force, and that may be enough to sneak him into a class as a compromise candidate.
4 (con’t) – Willie Roaf - Roaf played in a golden era of tackles, yet he still carved out a niche as an elite left tackle. He wasn’t quite the pass blocker that Walter Jones or Jonathan Ogden were, but like Orlando Pace he was a good pass blocker who also handled his business in the run game. The question is how many of those tackles will get into the Hall of Fame, because Roaf is probably third or fourth in that elite group. With six first-team and three second-team All-Pro nods, Roaf clearly belongs among those four, and the former Saint and Chief also made the all-decade team for both the 1990s and the 2000s. And coming up for election before the other three guys could help him, since the ballot isn’t as crowded at this point. We could see Roaf getting in, but our sense is that he should probably wait until at least Jones and Ogden of his contemporaries get in first.
3 – Tim Brown – Brown was a terrific player for many years, and the former Heisman Trophy winner is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame based on his Notre Dame career. But we believe he falls just short of the level required to be a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Brown has 1,094 career catches, placing him fourth all-time. He was also a dynamic return man for much of his career. But Brown never was the dominant receiver of his era – while he was a nine-time Pro Bowler and a 1990s All-Decade player, he wasn’t ever a first-team all-pro. So to us, Brown doesn’t feel like a Hall of Famer. We won’t start a riot if he gets in, but like Curtis Martin, Brown falls just below the standard to us.
2 – Jerome Bettis – Bettis is perhaps the trickiest of any of this year’s first-time nominees, because he had a strange career. Here’s the good of his candidacy: He is fifth all-time in rushing yards, thanks to eight 1,000-yard seasons with the Rams and Steelers. He’s also a unique player – the first big back to be a full-time runner instead of a short-yardage specialist. But Bettis made the transition to short-yardage specialist late in his career, and in his last eight years he averaged more than four yards a carry just once. He declined pretty quickly after age 30, and he also had two below-par years early in his career. So while Bettis had four great seasons and impressive career statistics, to us he is not a Hall of Fame back. He certainly falls below Marshall Faulk in the pecking order, and we’d prefer Curtis Martin as well. Bettis’ gregarious nature will help his chances, but ultimately he feels like a lost cause in terms of Canton.
2 (con’t) – Andre Reed - Reed was a great receiver for the Bills’ teams in the early 1990s, and his career total of 951 receptions for more than 13,000 yards is impressive. But he’s not a Hall of Famer. He was never an All-Pro – considered one of the top two receivers in the league in any given year. He was a second-team all-pro just twice. He did make seven Pro Bowls, and he was a key part of Buffalo’s AFC dynasty. But compared to other receivers like Cris Carter, Shannon Sharpe, and even Tim Brown, he doesn’t measure up. That’s why we’ve moved Reed down our comparison vs. last year. Reed belongs in the Hall of the Very Good, not the Hall of Fame.
1 – Chris Doleman – Doleman has been eligible for several years, but he moved into the realm of the finalists for the first time this year. And his chances are tied almost solely to his sack total. He had 150.5 career sacks, good for fifth all-time, and parlayed his ability to get to the quarterback into three first-team All-Pro selections and eight Pro Bowl berths. We’d prefer Richard Dent to Doleman, but strange things have happened in the pass-rushing category in recent years, so we can’t write Doleman off completely. Still, for our tastes he was too much of a one-dimensional player to merit inclusion in Canton.
So who will make it in? We believe Sanders and Faulk are shoo-ins, and we also think Richter and Hanburger will get thumbs up. That leaves three spots. Sabol gets one of those spots, while the other two should go to Carter and Dent. We’ve been wrong on those last two for two years running, but we’ll assert once again that this should be their year.