A peek into the problems a Hall of Fame voter faces Saturday
When the 2008 Hall of Fame class is announced Saturday, will the logjam of worthy pass-rushers be cleared? Voter Len Pasquarelli provides a peek into the difficult selection process
As bleary-eyed and word-weary as most of the 44 selectors are likely to be from Super Bowl XLII coverage, the debate figures to be characteristically passionate, provocative, lively and, yeah, even invigorating for the media members involved in the process. A candidate must receive at least 80 percent approval for induction. After five or six hours of give-and-take, the list of 17 finalists will be whittled to 4-7 players or league contributors who will be inducted during the ceremonies this summer.
Much of the lobbying by the various supporters for the 17 finalists -- most of it discreet but some of it less than subtle -- began weeks ago and has continued through the days leading up to the selection meeting. As one of the media group privileged enough to be a Hall of Fame selector, I can't tell you how many times I've been buttonholed while walking through the media center here.
And because of the Hall of Fame's confidentiality guidelines, which are regarded about as seriously as the debate itself, I can't tell you how I'm going to vote, either.
I honestly still don't know.
To me, that is a good sign that I've done my homework and am prepared for the task at hand.
Fans who feel their favorite candidates have been egregiously wronged have called for more transparency in the process, with calls to make every secret ballot public. The day likely is coming, and soon, when the ubiquitous NFL Network forces a camera into the room as the electronic fly-on-the-wall eavesdropper. When that day arrives, every selector, including this one, will have to make a tough decision. For now, at least, we continue to toe the clear line of confidentiality demarcation.
The best way to approach the process is to enter the meeting room with as open a mind as is humanly possible -- though I'm not so naive that I think everyone, like the fans from Denver who have been bombarding selectors this week in support of linebacker Randy Gradishar and offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman, believes this. It's only human nature, of course, to harbor preconceived notions about some finalists. But I've gone into the room believing there was no way in heck I would support a certain candidate and, after listening to the presentations and discussions, voted for him.
The worst way to approach the process? By penning columns in which you try to predict who will earn induction into the Canton, Ohio, football shrine, or by setting odds as to the chances of the finalists. As much as the bosses love those kinds of columns -- and maybe the readers do, as well, because of the debate they invite -- I've yet to fall into that trap and diligently will avoid it again this year.
In candor, do I think there are some slam-dunk candidates, and even some with little chance of induction? There might be one or two in each of those disparate categories. But you won't read their names here.
What I will acknowledge about the roster of finalists in 2008 is this: In a very deep and intriguing field of finalists, one that includes nine players who were either offensive linemen or front-seven defenders, the group of pass-rushers clearly is an impressive one. And it seems it's time for the selectors to begin filtering players of that ilk into the Hall of Fame, before the logjam at the position grows even more frighteningly ponderous.
It is certainly unusual that there are three guards, a position that historically has defined anonymity in the NFL, joining Zimmerman among the offensive linemen on the ballot. But more telling is the number of defenders who gained profile in the league as outside pass-rushers: ends Richard Dent and Fred Dean and linebackers Derrick Thomas and Andre Tippett. Among them, the four collected a staggering 464 sacks.
When it comes to game-altering or momentum-shifting plays, at least the way the game is played in this modern era, there are few events more significant than dumping the quarterback. Yet for the past several years, the Hall of Fame selectors have been slow, even reluctant for some reason, to recognize defenders who built their league reputations and their hefty résumés by terrorizing quarterbacks.
Each of the four sack men included among this year's finalists has had his merits debated by the board of selectors on multiple occasions. And none has yet to be elected.
The selection of defensive players in general has been slow of late, with only 14 players from that side of the football inducted in the past 10 years, as opposed to 31 offensive players. In that stretch, there have never been more defensive than offensive players in a Hall of Fame class. Not since 2001, when there were three defenders chosen, were there as many defensive as offensive inductees.
But the process has been especially unkind to pass-rushers.
The late Reggie White, maybe the greatest pass-rusher of all-time, gained induction in 2006. Lawrence Taylor, a man who defined the position of outside linebacker as feared blitzer, was chosen in 1999. But they were the exceptions and not the rule. Each of the pass-rushers nominated this year was a game-changer. There were a few notable rushers, like former New Orleans linebacker Rickey Jackson, who didn't make it to the list of finalists but who deserve to have their day in the Hall of Fame selection room.
This is an era in which the sack plays such a huge role. The number of talented pass-rushers increases virtually every season. And, by trickle-down economics, the number of Hall of Fame-worthy sack men will grow, as well, creating a logjam at that spot and delaying induction for some players.
This should, and perhaps could, be the year that the selectors begin to address that logjam.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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