Moral of the story to the eight-man class for the 2019 Pro Football Hall of Fame: We’re finally catching up to how the game of this new century is being played. In the last three classes, the Hall’s 48 selectors (I am one) have elected six defensive backs (safeties Kenny Easley, Brian Dawkins, Ed Reed, Johnny Robinson, and corners Ty Law and Champ Bailey) who have played in the modern era, which we define as post-1960. In the previous four classes, only one DB (Aeneas Williams) was enshrined. That’s progress … and I thought Denver safety Steve Atwater had a heck of a shot to make it after our discussions in the 7-hour, 41-minute meeting Saturday in downtown Atlanta.
It’s the first time in Hall history that a class has included four men who played the defensive backfield exclusively. I saw Williams, class of 2014, Sunday morning at my hotel, and asked him his reaction to the DB-heavy class of 2019. “You mean besides jumping up and down, celebrating?” he said. “I love it. It shows the recognition of what an arduous task it is to play in the defensive backfield, and how important it is to winning in modern football.”
Speaking of arduous tasks, this year’s election process was brutal. I thought at least 13 of the 15 modern-era candidates were excellent candidates. Takeaways from a long and rewarding day in the voting room at the Georgia World Congress Center:
• The offensive line logjam got busted up. As a group, I got the sense that we went into the room trying to get in at least one of the four deserving offensive lineman (Tony Boselli, Alan Faneca, Steve Hutchinson, Kevin Mawae), and I hoped they wouldn’t all cannibalize each other. Mawae made it—confirming the respect the committee has for all-decade players; he was the first-team all-decade center for the 2000s, and each of the previous four first-team all-decade centers had previously been elected. An ironman, he played every game in 12 of his 16 seasons, and he was a Pro Bowler at 37 and 38. I do think Boselli will make it, despite playing only 97 games (recent inductees Kenny Easley and Terrell Davis played fewer), and I also think it’s a matter of time for Faneca and Hutchinson. No zits on their records.
• Just a guess, but I think Law edged Atwater. Both players have Hall of Fame résumés. I feel for Atwater, who failed in his 15th year of eligibility but had tremendous support in the room. It was Law’s fifth year eligible, and I think his big plays in huge games in the early Patriots dynasty (his 47-yard pick-six in the first New England Super Bowl win, over St. Louis, and his three interceptions of Peyton Manning in the AFC title game prior to the second Super Bowl win) propelled him. We are not privy to vote counts, but I bet Atwater was quite close to Law.
• Tony Gonzalez and Ed Reed, as suspected, were easy. Combined time of discussion for Reed and Gonzalez: eight minutes.
• Rick Gosselin is a big impact player in the progress of defensive players. You may not know Gosselin, a longtime sports columnist, NFL writer and Hall of Fame voter based in Dallas. But for years, he’s kept exacting statistics about the Hall, and he’s harped on the imbalance between offense and defense in Canton. He was thrilled Saturday night that the defensive numbers of modern-era candidates have now crept up over 40 percent. (There have been 236 modern-era players enshrined, 138 on offense, 95 on defense and three on special teams … which continues to shrink the offensive edge. Now it’s 58.5 percent offense and 40.2 percent defense. That includes 30 defensive backs now and 27 wide receivers. Kudos to Gosselin for harping on this, and making us keep it in mind as we vote. We can’t discuss outside the room what is said inside the room, but suffice to say Gosselin was superb in the case of Seniors candidate Johnny Robinson—who became only the third AFL-era defensive back to make the Hall.
• Love fest for Gil Brandt. I wasn’t positive Brandt would make it; as a Contributors subcommittee nominee, he wasn’t competing against the 15 modern era candidates, but rather needed a simple 80 percent of the room (at least 38 of 48 voters) to say yes for him to make it. This was the one time I felt, sitting there listening to the Brandt discussions, “I wish someone was recording this and could play it for Brandt, just to realize the impact he’s has on so many aspects of football.” To me, Brandt has spanned 75 percent of the NFL’s 99-year history: He got his first job in football, a part-time scouting job with the Rams, in 1955 at the urging of Rams star Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, who knew Brandt from shared acquaintances in their Wisconsin home area. Hirsch was a first-round NFL pick in 1945, a Hall of Famer who got Brandt his start in scouting/writing/combine-czaring/radio-hosting, a career now entering its 64th year.
• On Tom Flores. Lots of online queries from Tom Flores fans. A few things: The two Super Bowl victories are a major plus in his candidacy and could get him enshrined one day. But I think he’s hurt by his three-year record in Seattle (14-34) and the perception that he was a caretaker with the Raiders, took over a team that was 33-11 in the three seasons preceding him—and did an excellent job piloting a ship between Oakland and Los Angeles, but that it wasn’t enough, particularly with the strong modern-era class he was competing against. The Hall may consider a separate coaches category at some point, which also could help Flores.
• My ballots. The voting system works this way: We vote yes or no on Seniors and Contributors candidates. I voted yes on Pat Bowlen, Gil Brandt and Johnny Robinson. On the 15 modern-era candidates, we first cut to 10 by secret ballot. Then the top 10 is tabulated, and we cut to five by secret ballot. Then the top five are tabulated, and we vote yes or no in secret on each of the five, one by one. My cut to 10: Atwater, Bailey, Boselli, Faneca, Gonzalez, Edgerrin James, Law, John Lynch, Mawae, Reed. My cut to five: Atwater, Bailey, Gonzalez, Law, Reed. I voted yes on all five of the finalists.