Hall of Fame voting hardly cut and dried

Cris Carter, left, and Shannon Sharpe have Hall of Fame numbers. So far, neither has a HOF bust. US Presswire, Getty Images

Perhaps no element elicits more passion among NFL fans than commenting on, or opining about, some particular player's prospects for future induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

That was made clear (again) to this correspondent following Friday's rather nondescript but perhaps too-careful Tip Sheet assessment that retired Seattle Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones, whose balky knee forced him to limp away from the game this spring, is a potential Hall of Fame member.

Never mind that in an accompanying and less understated inline item Jones was described as "probably (disclaimer intended) a lock" for the Canton shrine.

Replies to the innocently intended, but obviously sloppily worded, characterization weren't quite through the roof. But they nudged loose a few shingles.

By definition, fans are partisans, and the splendid Jones, who was chosen for nine Pro Bowl appearances, is hardly the first (and won't be the last) player to gin up such provincial support. But the resultant comments and e-mails about Jones, who was arguably the premier weakside pass protector of his era, were more than parochial, and originated from precincts other than the 206 or 425 area codes. Rightly so, it's agreed, because Jones' 13-year career was inarguably of Hall of Fame pedigree, and he was a class act off the field, as well.

But as one of the 44 selectors for the Hall of Fame, a charge undertaken with great responsibility, I've learned this much from having squirmed through 10 years of HOF debates: There are precious few definite selections (one respondent's word) and an incredibly small number of sure thing first-timers (another comment) for the Canton shrine. Even slam dunks (the third most popular term) can clang off the rim.

Just ask Cris Carter, who ranks third in all-time receptions (1,101) and eighth in receiving yards (13,899) and overall touchdowns (131), and is still waiting to get his Hall of Fame gold blazer, despite having been a finalist each of the past two years. Or Shannon Sharpe, whose prolific career as one of the greatest pass-catchers at tight end still hasn't earned him entry. In short, the Hall of Fame is a tremendously difficult fraternity to crack.

As it should be.

There is pretty widespread agreement that Jones is far more deserving than the "Hall of Very Good," the fictitious site once cleverly created by esteemed colleague Peter King of Sports Illustrated. But that hardly ensures that some steady-handed craftsman should start working ahead of time on his bronze Hall of Fame bust. It's one thing for the doors to be ajar, as they rightfully are in Jones' case. It's another entirely for them to be flung wide open and the red carpet rolled out.

None of that is intended to be a mea culpa five years too soon. Or an apologist's stance prematurely assumed. It's merely an acknowledgement that, Jones' sterling résumé aside, it's nearly impossible to predict exactly what will happen when he is officially eligible for the Class of 2015. A definite, a lock, or a sure thing on that first year on the ballot? Maybe, but as others have learned before Jones, there are no guarantees.

Sometimes, the makeup of the finalist class dictates excruciatingly tough calls in the selection meeting. Take last year: Among the modern-day candidates, Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice were the rarest of locks. That left only three spots for the 13 other modern-era candidates. There is an army of fans who feel that coach Don Coryell should have been selected, and the ranks have grown louder since his death last month, but those same ardent supporters might have a tough time identifying which of the three choices not named Rice or Smith should have been set aside in favor of the offensive innovator.

Next year, the Hall possibilities include a trio of standout running backs -- Jerome Bettis, Marshall Faulk and Curtis Martin -- many feel should be first-timers. But with Deion Sanders and Willie Roaf on the ballot, and several holdovers from this year likely to be finalists, it's a good bet someone really good gets left on the cutting room floor.

As is the case nearly every year.

So is Walter Jones, maybe the best performer from an era that might have been the Golden Age of left tackles, Hall worthy? No argument from these quarters. Is he a first-ballot shoo-in, as so many readers have suggested? We'll see.

There are a lot of elements at work, but essentially the only variable that changes is the makeup of the group of finalists. Barring an unforeseen comeback, Carter's numbers aren't going to change anytime soon. Sharpe's either. But the list of Hall finalists whose credentials are to be debated? Well, that could change, and it could alter the manner in which players like Sharpe or Carter are considered.

Since 1970, there have been 63 players elected in the first year of eligibility. Nine of them were offensive linemen and only four were tackles.

Even the sainted Vince Lombardi, for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, wasn't elected until his third year of eligibility.

So keep those cards and letters coming. The e-mails and phone messages too. Jones deserves that level of support, as do some others. Put a bunch of hard-core fans in a room, mention a great player's HOF chances, and a barroom brawl might ensue. That's just part of the NFL's greatness. Just don't assume so casually that Jones, or any other player with his inarguable degree of brilliance, is a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer.

The human element is always a factor. And perhaps it's the Pro Football Hall of Fame's greatest strength, because unlike some other halls of honor, candidates get a day in court with full debate, unlike some that merely mail a ballot.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.