Each year, the 44-person Hall of Fame Selection Committee gets together in a room during Super Bowl week and does a job they know full well will leave a lot of people very unhappy. From the players who are snubbed by the process, to the fans of those players who believe with all their hearts that the guys on their teams are deserving, to current players who idolized those now eligible, to other members of the football media who use the process to take shots at the guys in that room.
Defensive end/linebacker Chris Doleman, who finally got in this year after a 15-year career that included 150.5 sacks and eight Pro Bowl selections, couldn't hide his own bitterness about a process that left him out of Canton for almost a decade after his retirement in 1999. He went on Atlanta radio station WCNN recently and let it all out.
"I think the system has to get a little better. I think what happened -- and what really slows the system down -- is that we jump guys. That's the biggest thing that screws up the system. You got a guy that all of a sudden comes up and we gotta put him in his first year of eligibility. Well you know what that is great, but what it does to the other guys is put them back a year. Everybody is stretched back further and further and further. So now you get this big logjam because you had to put this one guy in. Now everybody on that list is all Hall of Fame material, but when you start jumping guys and throwing a guy in here and throwing a guy in there it messes it up for everyone else.
"I think it is important that we stay true to the cause and it might take you … it took me five years to get off [the] semi-finalists list. At least a guy can say I am going to get in this year. Not some of this stuff, putting in guys [whose] numbers are massaged a little bit because I think your numbers are your numbers. If you got a guy sitting there with 150 or 160 sacks and you are putting in a guy with 80 or 90 sacks? Come on!"
Cris Carter, a former teammate of Doleman's, has perhaps the most right to be unhappy with the current process -- after all, it's tough to rationalize the omission of a receiver who ranks fourth in NFL history in career receptions, fourth in career touchdowns and eighth in receiving yards. Factor in his well-deserved reputation as perhaps the best sideline and red-zone receiver in the history of professional football, and his three-time stint as a finalist who keeps getting blocked because of a logjam at his position seems a bit ridiculous. Carter put his opinion forth on a recent appearance on the "Michael Irvin Show" on Miami's WQAM, and his distress was perfectly understandable.
"I don't look at the list every year. I felt good my first year. I mean, I am the only person alive that's eligible for the Hall of Fame that has 130 touchdowns that is not in it, so when you have a stat like that. You got more touchdowns than Jim Brown and Walter Payton like…I mean I am not campaigning for the Hall of Fame, so for me Mike the list doesn't change every year. My numbers ain't going to change. It's just too much productivity over the time…like I have no argument, Mike. I really don't."
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, a Hall of Famer like Irvin, recently stumped for his ex-teammate Charles Haley -- the only player in league history to own five Super Bowl rings, and a key player on all five of those years with the Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers.
My numbers wouldn't have suggested that I should've gotten into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But it's more than that. It's not just about putting numbers up on the board and saying, "This guy deserves to be in the Hall of Fame." ... The stats are only relevant when somebody wants to use the stats as an argument as to why they voted for somebody or why they didn't vote for somebody.
But when you go back and you look at the teams that won those five Super Bowls, he was a big part of those teams that won those five Super Bowls. That's meaningful to me. And having had him on my team for three of them, I'm not so sure we would've won any of them if it weren't for him. I'm pretty adamant about the fact that I believe he deserves to be in and I'm pretty disappointed that it hasn't happened. But I believe it will.
Peter King of SI.com is one of the 44 voters, and believe it or not, he's as frustrated with the process and its aftereffects as everybody else. I've talked with Peter on a number of occasions, including 2012 Super Bowl week, when I jokingly asked him why Cris Carter didn't make the cut before I actually knew the results. After the 2012 Hall of Famers were announced and the Super Bowl was over, Peter went back home and does what he does every year -- he tried to explain a process that everybody seems to hate. When that didn't work, he started to wonder if his continued participation was worth the trouble.
In the last few years, I've lost count of how many people in the game and on the street have told me, in various ways, "You're an idiot, you're incompetent, you stink at this, and how can you leave [fill in the blank] out of the Hall of Fame?" And after a while, you just start thinking, Why am I doing this anyway? I figured the other day that I spend the equivalent of about four days of my life each year on the Hall of Fame -- asking former coaches and players and officials about the cases of certain candidates. I know how important it is. I try to do the best and most conscientious job I can, knowing that there are, in almost every class of 15 modern-era finalists, more candidates I'd vote yes on than no.
This year, when all the discussions in the room were finished, I looked down my list and checked 11 men I'd have voted for and four I would have turned down. But we whittle the list from 15 to 10, and then from 10 to five, before we vote yes or no on individual candidates. That means, on my list this year, six deserving men wouldn't get in.
Well, I'll say this. I don't agree with everything Peter writes -- in fact, our first online conversation was about my opposition to something he put up -- but after getting to know him a bit, I'm pretty sure that there aren't a thousand people in the country who are more obsessed with the game -- and more in touch with what's going on -- than him. It's not to say that everyone on that selection committee is that committed to the right side of the process, because I'm sure there are some who get in that room and vote with a grudge.
There are some who may have cast Doleman aside because he missed a Super Bowl by that much throughout his career, just as there are some who might have pushed Carter to the back because he was disagreeable with the media when he was a player. I'm guessing that some folks left Cortez Kennedy off their ballots because they weren't entirely convinced that Seattle actually had an NFL team in the 1990s.
But unless Peter's voting modus operandi is completely contrary to his character, and his love for the history and integrity of the game, he's precisely the kind of guy you want in that room when the votes are being tallied. And the reformists, now led by Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio, are like most run-of-the-mill reformists -- far more capable of bashing the current system than providing real solutions.
It's easy to say, "Throw the bums out!" Far more difficult to answer the question, "Now what?" after that's happened. Expanding the pool of voters simply adds more noise to a faulty process. Establishing term limits for voters just sweeps the crap from one side of the floor to the other. If you want to expand the number of finalists who will get in every year ... well, that would be a very good start. When current voters express their frustrations and know they'll be dumping on players who deserve their own bronze busts in Canton, maybe the NFL should be led by that.
Perhaps it would take fewer years to end those logjams, and then we could have a better idea of just how well the current voters are doing their jobs. Perhaps making the votes public -- as they are in baseball's frequently archaic process -- would help. What would not help is for people like Peter King, who truly and genuinely take their roles seriously and do the very best they can, to bail because they're tired of the abuse.
The Hall of Fame is important, but it's not so important that its induction process won't be negatively affected by a musical-chairs approach to a system that needs serious reform. Most likely, Peter King would be the first one to tell you that.