In the seemingly unending year of COVID-19, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is holding its breath … again. For two reasons.
Following the cancellation of a massive Centennial Celebration last August and September that would have enshrined an unprecedented class of 20, eight will likely be added to the list and unveiled Saturday night at a very different NFL Honors show the night before a very different Super Bowl.
On Jan. 19 (yes, 18 days before NFL Honors), the 48 Hall-of-Fame selectors (of which I am one) gathered on Zoom for almost nine hours to elect this year’s class rather than the normal in-person meeting the day before the game.
That’s where the first deep breaths began, hoping over the last two weeks that there would be no leaks from candidates when they began finding out whether a Gold Jacket will be coming or if they’d have to wait another year.
Pro Football Hall of Fame President and CEO David Baker and his hard-working board have to be pleased that as of this writing, only safety LeRoy Butler let it be known he won’t be in the class and word got out that quarterback Peyton Manning (surprise, surprise) will be.
When Indianapolis presenter Mike Chappell, a long-time selection committee member, was set to talk for Manning, he simply said: “Peyton Manning … Now just pretend I’m dropping the mic,” and that was it. Nothing more needed to be said.
That was not the case with wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who was subject of the final discussion of the day and lasted more than 39 minutes. However, much of that debate also included two other receiver finalists — Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne — who had also been discussed previously.
The day began with nearly 90 minutes spent on head coach Tom Flores, contributor/personnel executive Bill Nunn and senior candidate wide receiver Drew Pearson. All three likely received enough votes to be elected.
What makes the process so excruciating is the presence of first-time eligibles like Manning, Johnson and cornerback Charles Woodson that eats up the five modern-day spots available and results in long waits for players like safety John Lynch (eighth year as a finalist), tackle Tony Boselli (14th year of eligibility, fifth year as a finalist) and guard Alan Faneca (a finalist for all six years of his eligibility).
Over the last four years (2017-20), nine of the 20 slots (45 percent) have been taken by first-time eligible players who never received that disappointing “wait until next year” phone call. Of course, waiting is not unusual. Wide receiver Lynn Swann was enshrined in 2001 in his 14th year as a finalist.
Consider that longtime Cleveland Browns linebacker Clay Matthews is in his final year of eligibility and was a finalist this year for the first time after being a semifinalist (top 25) in four previous years. If Matthews is left at the altar, as cornerback Everson Walls was in 2018, he heads to the deep abyss of the seniors group.
Special-teams standout Steve Tasker, eligible since 2003, has been a semifinalist eight times and never a finalist. Next year is his last year of modern-day eligibility, as it will be for finalist linebacker Sam Mills (four-time semifinalist, two-time finalist) if he isn’t elected this year.
Holt has been a semifinalist seven times and a finalist twice, but he had to wait in line behind Rams teammates Orlando Pace, Kurt Warner and Isaac Bruce as all four became eligible for the first time together in 2015.
Other finalists this year not previously mentioned are cornerback Ronde Barber, defensive end Jared Allen (first-time eligible), linebacker Zach Thomas and defensive lineman Richard Seymour.
All 15 are deserving, and once this year’s five are announced, there will be more breath-holding in the upcoming months while everyone hopes the pandemic will get under control and the Hall will be able to have “Twice the Fun in ’21,” with the Centennial Class being enshrined Aug. 7 and this year’s class the following day.
After all, no one wants to face the prospect of there being “way too much to do in ’22.”
–By Howard Balzer, Field Level Media