Debating Hall of Fame candidates with a true football historian
I have, sent by the Hall of Fame, a gigantic roster of names marked CONFIDENTIAL, which means that I can't wait to tell you about it.
Oh, I've gone through this drill before -- once I believe. It involves sorting through something they call a Preliminary List, which means names that snuck in through leaks in the pipes, cracks in the wall, windows when no one was looking ... all sorts of creative ways ... 113 names, total.
Once upon a time I found it amusing to focus on the more obscure names, but no longer.
I've grown up now. Matured, in other words. So when I tell you that this list of folks in all walks of former NFL life will be further subjected to the addition of any favorites we feel the Hall has missed (actually it's the Hall's VP Joe Horrigan who compiled it), and then will be superseded by a Second Preliminary List, I am deadly serious. Then we come to a Third Preliminary List of 25, which will be October's harvest, followed by the Final Preliminary List, which will be reduced to the 15 modern and two Senior candidates we will take with us into the selection meeting the day before the Super Bowl.
Now normally I kind of like all this list-making-and-breaking, but something from the last Selection meeting stayed in my mind and then rang the gong for a Future Column. Green Bay's Cliff Christl brought in a set of capsule comments from Ron Wolf, the retired Packer GM and himself a Hall of Fame candidate, at least on the preliminary undercard. His remarks were acute and at times merciless, with those he felt had no business being among the nominees. His point was that very few people are worthy.
It got me thinking, which is a major achievement. Why not run the whole preliminary list by Ron when I get it? The answer is: who has that much time? Well, I do, especially in the offseason, and it turned out that Wolf did, too. It's what happens when a pair of ancients get together and start reminiscing about the great old players they'd seen, great moments, great games -- anything great, as long as it was in the thick mists of long ago.
So as we head into the month that really defines the offseason, June, here is my attempt to get one of the game's most revered chroniclers to cast some light on the current roster of future immortals. I can't list every name, so you're going to trust my judgment on those I consider the stickouts. First a general question to Ron Wolf. What constitutes a Hall of Famer?
"A guy who has made a difference," he said. "A unique performer during his time in the game. A person who dominated."
Let's look at our initial category, First-time eligibles. Forty strong. Shannon Sharpe, the tight end, is the name that jumps out among the pass-catchers.
"Well, he made the tight end position more of a receiving position," Wolf said. "Performed well in big games. For what he accomplished, I guess you'd have to say he was a game-changer. I think he belongs."
I didn't see any other offensive players who thrilled me, but here's a name, Vikings DT John Randle, who was a constant annoyance to Wolf's Packers -- two times a year. "Yes! Dominated his division for a long time," Wolf said. "I know he gave us all kinds of trouble."
I've argued this one for almost 15 years. Dynamite inside pass rusher, agreed, but so unsound against the run that he'd cause problems for those around him. I have yet to find one person who agrees with me. "Old-fashioned, leather-helmet thinking," Mike Giddings, the super scout has told me a million times. "He's only one of the most dynamic inside rushers in history, and that's what the game is all about, or haven't you heard?"
Yeah, I've heard already. Let's move on. Bruce Smith is up for the first time. Another great rusher, this time from the edge. "Oh yes," Wolf said. "I'd be very surprised if he's not a first-ballot choice. You know, it's a simple game. You take advantage of a guy's skill and ability, and he was one of the great wide rushers in history. You don't ask someone to do what he can't do."
John Mobley and Bill Romanowski are the more interesting LB names, a pair of Woodsons, Rod and Darren lead the DB's. "Mobley's effective career was too short," Wolf said. "I'd call him an 'almost.' Romo? Well, you had all the steroid charges. He helped every team he was on, but were you seeing the real Romanowski out there?
"I have no trouble with either defensive back, though. Rod Woodson certainly deserves it. Darren? Played a unique position for the Cowboys. Did everything a safetyman had to do, strongside or weak. Hell of a special teamer, too. Yes, a terrific player, a Hall of Famer."
Wait a minute. Wolf is supposed to be a tough grader, and that's five names he's already approved. And we're not even out of the new entries yet. And two Seniors still must make it. See how tough it is? Every year. Same problem.