Hall process a bittersweet, broken affair?

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
11:30
AM ET
Pro Football Hall of fame Jason Miller/Getty ImagesEach of the Hall of Fame voters often has his or her own criteria for who's worthy of enshrinement.
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Of course Tom Flores was happy for Ray Guy. After all, Flores was the transcendent punter's head coach with Oakland and then the Los Angeles Raiders for eight of Guy’s 15 years in the NFL. And Flores long has championed his cause as a player who, despite his specialist position, changed the game.

Yet when Guy was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, more than 27 years after he boomed his final punt -- a 51-yard fourth-quarter beauty against the Indianapolis Colts at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum on Dec. 21, 1986 -- something else bubbled up to the surface.

Something bittersweet.

“I don’t know if it’s a wrong being made right as much as it’s long overdue,” Flores said of Guy’s election. “It’s not easy to be voted into the Hall of Fame, especially with the pulse of today’s voters who seem to want to just vote in guys who retired five years ago, rather than taking the time to see the history of the game.

“At least we got one more in.”

And there it is. With the endless controversies and snubs (real and perceived) that come about in the immediate wake of each new Hall class, the system in which those new Hall members are fitted for yellow jackets and sized for bronze busts in Canton has come under renewed fire.

Just about every team in the league thinks it has a legitimate gripe, that it has one, two or more Canton-worthy candidates who, year after year, get left by the wayside.

No, Flores was not pounding his chest for himself -- his two Super Bowl titles as a head coach, his standing as the first minority head coach to win a championship and his history as a player, assistant and general manager (OK, the GM part in Seattle didn’t work out so well as he drafted Dan McGwire and Rick Mirer, though he did select a future Hall of Famer in Cortez Kennedy) and four total Super Bowl rings should speak for themselves.

But for every Flores, there’s a Marv Levy already enshrined after coaching the Buffalo BiLLLLs (yes, one ‘L’ for every Super Bowl loss). And for every Thurman Thomas, there’s a Roger Craig, the first running back in history with 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season and part of three Super Bowl titles in San Francisco. And for every Andre Reed, voted in this year, there’s a Tim Brown, whose stats trump those of his contemporary.

No, this is not a Bills versus Raiders harangue. More likely, it’s a rage against the machine, the system itself, one that lends itself to so much second-guessing and rumor-mongering and yes, a log-jamming of worthy candidates.

One that the Pro Football Hall of Fame itself embraces and wants.

“There have been over 18,000 players in the NFL,” Joe Horrigan, the Hall’s vice president of communications and exhibits, told me a few years ago. “And there are [287] players in the Hall of Fame. It’s a pretty exclusive club. For a lot of guys, it’s not a matter of if [they get enshrined], but when.”

The process begins on a grassroots level as anyone can nominate any player, so long as said player has been retired at least five years. The 46-member selection committee -- comprised of one voter from each NFL city with New York having two because it has two teams, a representative of the Pro Football Writers of America and 13 at-large delegates -- is polled by mail ballot to reduce a list of 126 nominees to 25 modern-era semifinalists. Then, those 25 are cut to 15 finalists by another mail ballot for a face-to-face discussion by the selectors the day before the Super Bowl.

In addition, two senior committee candidates, taken from a pool of players inactive for at least 25 years and named by a nine-person committee among the already existing 46 in late summer, join the 15 finalists for a separate conversation that involves a simple yes-or-no vote. An 80 percent affirmative gains Hall inclusion.

That’s when things can get heated in the room. The 15 finalists are presented respectively by the selector from the city in which he played the bulk of his career. The news hunters and gatherers become newsmakers, or sponsors in a way.

A vote is taken and the list of 15 is reduced to 10. Then, because Hall bylaws stipulate that between four to seven new members are selected each year, with a maximum of five modern-era candidates, the 10 are cut to five. A secret ballot of the final five is taken and whoever gets 80 percent of the votes in that group joins the senior nominee(s), who also must get 80 percent of the vote.

This part of the process is called “getting in the room” and if it evokes images of dimly lit cigar smoke-filled joints with seedy you-vote-for-my-guy-and-I’ll-vote-for-your-guy deals, then so be it.

Some see this part of the progression as the most transparent and credible Hall voting process in all of sports; others see it as a joke that 46 people sit in a room for seven hours once a year to determine history. Besides, what if a presenter believed his appointed “candidate” was not as worthy as other guys on the same team? Wouldn’t human nature lead to a less-than-spirited advocacy? One writer told me he disliked the process so much he took a pass when asked to join the committee.

Those back-room deals may have been the old-school norm but, as ESPN Insider Mike Sando puts it, “I’ve never seen anything like that in my five years on the committee.”

Sando presented the case for former Seattle Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones, whose career spoke for itself and he was elected in his first year of eligibility.

The Hall debate is especially subjective for pro football. Each of the 46 selectors can, and often do, have his or her own set of criteria.

“Did he dominate for a decade? That’s a good place to start,” Sando said.

Jeff Legwold, who covers the Denver Broncos for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation and is also a member of the Hall committee, agrees with his colleague.

“I’m looking for greatness, the best of the best," he said. "Now, that can be longevity, or did he have four historical seasons in a row? Was he groundbreaking? I think that’s the problem, sometimes. We all have different ideas.”

Which is why the Hall wants the selectors sequestered to make the final picks. And it’s anything but easy. As 15-year committee veteran Legwold noted, of their final 15 one year, 10 were all-decade players. And that was not counting the contributors (non-players) who were on the ballot.

Therein lays the backlog problem ... and a potential solution. While the selectors essentially have only five spots to fill, they are going to lean toward a player more than a coach or an owner. Legwold hopes a contributors division, like the senior committee, is added soon.

“This process is what the Hall wants,” Legwold said. “I’m sure that everyone that’s willing to participate takes it seriously and puts in the time to make sure we’re doing the best we can.

“What used to be the watercooler is now the world.”

So go ahead, scream about your favorite player, coach or contributor getting snubbed until you lose your voice. The way the system is set up, if the candidate is truly worthy, he’ll get in ... eventually.

Be angry at the system, in other words, not the selectors. And if you want to put someone in Canton, who are you going to take out?

“Judge it by who makes it in,” Sando said, “rather than by who might not get in in any given year. The Hall is not embarrassed by anyone who gets in.”

But shouldn’t it be a tad discomfited if the Hall is seen as an incomplete shrine because of who’s missing, and whose time is running out ... in every sense of the word?

As such, the senior committee route seems to be the best way now for former Raiders Jim Plunkett and Cliff Branch, both of whom now belong to the senior committee pool (Flores, who coached until 1994, has a few years yet to reach the 25-year threshold for senior committee eligibility). Brown, meanwhile, has fallen behind Marvin Harrison in the receiver pool, as Brown was eliminated in the cut from 15 to 10.

Even Guy, frustrated with the two-decade wait since he first became eligible for Canton, unloaded in the week before he was selected.

“Sooner or later, we’re going to get all the pioneers in there,” Guy said, “and we’re really going to see football, what it was, what it started and what it is now.”

Until then, the bittersweet waiting game continues.

Paul Gutierrez

ESPN San Francisco 49ers reporter

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