Figuring out my Hall votes for '05 is already proving to be a tough task
Posted: Wednesday July 21, 2004 3:34PM; Updated: Wednesday July 21, 2004 3:46PM
Dan Marino is a lock for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
It's time to talk Hall of Fame. Why is it time to talk Hall of Fame? I don't know. Maybe because nothing else is happening on the football scene -- unless you want me to do a column on Paul Tagliabue's signing his new contract.
I'm looking ahead to the 2005 Hall of Fame Selection Committee meeting, and I'm not looking ahead to it with pleasure. Too many good people will get stiffed. I'm going to have to stiff a few myself, players for whom I've battled for years. That's how tough the competition is getting.
Casting an eye toward the meeting itself, which will be on Feb. 5 in Jacksonville, Fla., I'll try to do a little long-range handicapping for you. Sorry, but I can't give you a definitive reading on exactly how I'll be voting because I don't know who the 15 finalists will be. We're still a long way away from that point. So I'll provide some general thoughts.
Cliff Harris, the Cowboys' great free safety of the 1970s, now joins the Seniors Pool, a designation he was dreading because few people emerge from those dark swamp waters. For years, when he was a regular candidate, a modern, I worked hard on his behalf, but all that ever came of it was one year in which he even reached the final 15. That was last year, and he didn't make it past the final 10.
Harris joins a Cowboys teammate, Rayfield Wright, who also was a modern-era candidate last year, for the final time. And this pair now has to go up against the legendary names of 80 years to even get noticed by the Seniors selectors and presented on the ballot to the membership at large in February. Sorry, but I can't tell you what will happen in the Seniors meeting because I am no longer a member of the committee, but let me just throw out a few names that have been neglected for as long as I can remember.
Benny Friedman was the first great passer in NFL history. Do you think he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame? Of course he does, but others have disagreed. Clark Shaughnessy likewise should have been enshrined many years ago. He was the leading architect of the modern T-formation with man in motion, for gosh sakes, an offense that's been standard at all levels of football for 60 years. He originated the modern play-calling system, and came up with a million other innovations. Omitting him from the Hall of Fame would be like drawing up a list of great inventors and leaving da Vinci off it. But as far as I know Shaughnessy's name never even has come up at a Seniors meeting, except occasionally by me, and then it drew lukewarm response.
I voted for Wright all the way when he was a modern candidate last year, but against Friedman or Shaughnessy? All I can say is that it's a real nasty system. And I've just about given up hope for the two seniors I've been touting for years, Richie (Tombstone) Jackson, the Broncos defensive end, and Tommy Davis, the old 49ers punter. Hopeless.
Bob Hayes did not make the Hall last year, under the new system that forces seniors to compete against moderns, so one would assume that he'll be a seniors candidate again this time. Not really. History is against those who flunk as seniors. Dick Stanfel was the choice of the Seniors Committee in 1993, but the regular selectors rejected him. He has never been heard from since. Ditto Jerry Kramer in 1997, which was an even more bitter pill because it was the 10th time Kramer's name had come before the voters in the final meeting.
In a subsequent column, I'll get into the actual names of those who will be eligible for the first time for each of the next five years, as well as active players who might have a shot some day. Let me just mention, though, that next February Dan Marino will be a slam dunk, and Steve Young will be pretty close. That eats up two spots. The two seniors, whomever they will be, should occupy two more places, and I'm basically committed to voting for both of them, since I pushed so hard for so many years to get two of them nominated.
So that's four places taken, with two to go, since the Hall cut the maximum number down from seven to six last year, "to streamline things." I don't think anyone is as deserving as the Jets' old defensive tackle and end, Joe Klecko, but obviously few people agree with me because he has never even cleared the preliminary rounds and made it to the final 15. Don't ask me why. I've pigeonholed numerous selectors to find out exactly what they have against him and basically what I've gotten were vague looks and shrugs.
So that's one guy who's very high on my list. Another one is LG Bob Kuechenberg, the heart and soul of the offensive line of the unbeaten 1972 Dolphins. Two of his linemates, RG Larry Little and C Jim Langer, are already in the Hall, which probably is what's keeping Kooch out. But I believe he was better than both of them. Obviously other people don't.
Kooch has been a finalist three times. Former Giants inside LB Harry Carson is the king of the rejects, along with Raiders punter Ray Guy, with five dingers. Two years ago Harry was within smelling distance. He made it to the final six, where only a yea or nay vote was required, and they still stiffed him. Last year, with competition arising from John Elway and Barry Sanders, he didn't get past the final 10.
I've been in Carson's corner all along, but whom do I put on the reject list this time? Certainly not Klecko, should he make it to the final 15, through some miracle. Definitely not Kuechenberg. So at this point it would be between Carson and Young, and the excuse to make it easy and reject Young would be the old argument that since Young's a first-time eligible, it's OK to give him a pass, figuring he'll be a shoo-in in subsequent years. No, sorry. I've always fought against this argument. Too political. You vote for the people you think belong.
Just to make the act complete, I'll list the other players who have been rejected as finalists three or more times. Guy, as I mentioned, is a five-timer, and I hope it doesn't become six because I'm tired of being a negative voice in those meetings. Yes, he could boom 'em. Yes, he did hit the freakin' gondola that one time. But he was a middle-of-the-end zone punter. His net average, had they kept it in those days, would have been unimpressive. And, as I've pointed out until I got sick of the statistic, more than half the active punters have a higher lifetime average than he did.
Lester Hayes, the Raiders' great lock-on cornerback, has been up four times. With easier competition I'd gladly vote for him, but the opposition has been just too tough. Art Monk is another four-timer. A great possession receiver. Caught a lot of balls in Joe Gibbs' system. Every time I mention that I didn't vote for him because I simply felt that other people were more deserving than a guy who caught 900 eight-yard hooks, I wake up all the Washington diehards, who start screaming about my anti-Redskins bias. Start stirring, you folk out there. It will happen again.
L.C. Greenwood, the defensive LE on the great Steel Curtain teams in Pittsburgh, is a four-time loser. I've voted for him in the past. I would guess that he'd have a shot in a less-competitive year, whenever that might be. Probably never. Ken Stabler is a three-timer. I will never vote for him, even though for a few years he was as accurate as any QB in history. Repeat, for a few years.
But I see two other QBs out there whom I'd have to consider very seriously. The Giants' Phil Simms never has made the final 15. Ken Anderson of the Bengals was up there twice, but not for the last six years. They were both great competitors, great leaders and terrific down-the-field passers. I don't know which one of the two I'd pick over the other one. I hope I don't have to make that choice. We've got a ways to go, though, until February. I'll keep you posted as things progress.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Paul Zimmerman covers the NFL for the magazine and SI.com. His Power Rankings, "Inside Football" column and Mailbag appear weekly on SI.com.