The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced its list of 15 semifinalists last week – a list that will be whittled to 10 on the Saturday morning before the Super Bowl and then to what likely will be the five-member Class of 2015. It is a long, difficult process even to get from the semifinals to enshrinement.
It’s especially tough since a good case can be made for all 15 on the semifinal list.
It should be hard, though. In fact, making it to Canton should be the hardest thing in football, an honor reserved for the best of the best – the truly immortals of the game. It may hurt to finish sixth in this group, but it’s not a dishonor. All 15 are among the greatest of the great, even though only five can get in every year.
This year’s 15 include Morten Andersen, Jerome Bettis, Tim Brown, Don Coryell, Terrell Davis, Tony Dungy, Kevin Greene, Charles Haley, Marvin Harrison, Jimmy Johnson, John Lynch, Orlando Pace, Junior Seau, Will Shields, and Kurt Warner.
Here are the five that would have my vote.
His wait has been among the most excruciating because he always seems to be the “next” guy after the class is announced. He’s in his 11th year of eligibility and sixth year as a finalist. This year the five-time Pro Bowler and five-time Super Bowl champion should be clearly one of the best defenders on the list. His acerbic personality may have cost him votes. So have recent ballots that have included pass-rushing linemen like Warren Sapp and Michael Strahan. But his 100.5 sacks, plus all those championship rings, should be enough.
A seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro, he was the dominant left tackle of his era, which included some incredibly high-powered Rams teams. He was nicknamed “The Pancake Man” at Ohio State and left so many defensive linemen on their backs he helped popularize the term “pancake block.” When he went No. 1 overall in the 1997 draft it was the first time an offensive lineman was taken in that spot in 29 years. And he lived up to it for 13 years.
He was a 12-time Pro Bowler and an eight-time first-team All-Pro, which should be more than enough to get him in on his first ballot. For a decade – and really beyond – he was the face of the Chargers’ franchise and as dangerous and active a linebacker as there was in the game. He was 34 when the Chargers traded him away, but he still managed to play parts of seven more seasons and become a key player – and captain – on the New England Patriots’ 2007 Super Bowl team that finished 18-1.
Sacks aren’t everything, but Greene finished with 160 of them, third most al-time. The players who ranked first (Bruce Smith), second (Reggie White) and fourth (Chris Doleman) are all already Hall of Famers. Greene had at least 10 sacks in 10 seasons. He was a five-time Pro Bowler, a three-time All-Pro and a member of the NFL’s Team of the '90s. He’s been blocked in recent years by high-octane pass rushers like Warren Sapp and Michael Strahan, and the feeling that Haley is overdue could block him again this year. But he’s deserving of an eventual nod.
Realistically, he probably won’t make it and just getting into the list of finalists was a triumph. But as you watch the NFL in this era, with all the high-powered passing attacks and all those quarterbacks and receivers racking up ridiculous amounts of yards, it’s hard not to think of where it all started – with the “Air Coryell” offenses of the late '70s and '80s. His Chargers teams, with Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, were innovative and explosive. They constantly led the league in passing. They never made the Super Bowl, but in both 1980 and '81 they threw their way to the AFC championship game. He influenced a generation of coaches and changed the game into the aerial assault that it is today. That seems to me to be a huge part of the definition of what makes someone worthy of the Hall of Fame.
—By Ralph Vacchiano