MIAMI – In a game that honors an incredibly small percentage of players as Pro Football Hall of Famers, the process of electing them is a brutally inexact science.
Or as long-time voter Len Pasquarelli of ESPN.com suggested: It really comes down to a "smell test."
"There's no one way to measure a player's achievement," said Pasquarelli, who will be among 40 selectors who gather Saturday morning to discuss the 17 finalists for this year's Hall of Fame induction. "It's not just about honors or Pro Bowls or Super Bowls or stats … At the end of the day it really comes down to a gut reaction. Does this guy smell like a Hall of Fame player?"
Pasquarelli's sentiment was shared in some way by every Hall selector that Yahoo! Sports spoke with this week. Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer understands the difficulty better than most. Grossi votes in both the football and baseball processes.
"Baseball is pretty straight-forward because you have a lot of statistics that can show how good a player was over his career," Grossi said. "You get the ballot and go over it and that's it. Football is much more involved. There are some stats that are really overrated. There are some that help you."
Then there are some positions that don't have any relevant stats, such as for offensive linemen.
"How do you tell who was a better guard?" Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News said.
Making the process more difficult is the similarity of some players. Among this year's finalists are three interior offensive linemen: Bob Kuechenberg, Russ Grimm and Bruce Matthews. There are four defenders who were great pass rushers: Fred Dean, Richard Dent, Derrick Thomas and Andre Tippett. Finally, there are three wide receivers who were constants on Super Bowl teams: Michael Irvin, Art Monk and Andre Reed.
Irvin and Monk have been at the center of an intriguing debate over the past two years. Both players helped their teams to three Super Bowl titles and Monk helped the Redskins to a fourth appearance. Both were All-Pro once in their careers. Both had long careers, Irvin playing 12 years and Monk 16.
But in terms of style, Irvin has long been considered the better player. He was clearly Dallas' go-to receiver, leading the team in receptions for eight consecutive seasons.
Monk, who finished his career as the second-leading receiver in NFL history with 940 catches and was named to the All-Decade team for the 1980s, was more a complementary player. He led the Redskins in receptions in six of his 14 seasons in Washington. He was considered the possession receiver when compared to the likes of Gary Clark or Ricky Sanders.
At the same time, Monk was part of a consistently great team which right now has only two people in the Hall of Fame (coach Joe Gibbs and running back John Riggins). By comparison, the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers have 10 in the Hall.
"It's really hard, especially with the receivers, because the numbers have gotten so out of control," Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said. "In the '70s, the offenses were so different. All anybody really did was throw the ball deep. The receptions, the completions, the interception numbers were all so different than today."
Said Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News: "The standard I use to judge is: Was a given player an impact player of his era? There can be a lot of ways that you judge someone, but no one standard works."
In addition, the weight of each selector's vote is much heavier than in baseball. There are only 40 selectors in football – one for every NFL city and eight others who vote because of their status in the Pro Football Writers of America or on an at-large basis. By contrast, there are more than 500 voters for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
"There's a lot more campaigning that goes on between voters, and I hate that," Grossi said. "It's like you run into somebody at the hotel when you check-in and the first thing they say is, 'where do you stand?' … To me, that's why the Saturday morning meeting is so important. I want to hear what people have to say."
This year, for instance, Monk's supporters put together a DVD detailing the highlights of his career. In recent years, supporters have done similar things for other candidates.
That part of the process can be fraught with personality issues, as well. Selectors also present candidates, making the presenter's personality an issue at times. Several people said that Bouchette's likeable personality has helped some Steelers players.
All of it adds up to a process that is unquestionably difficult. It's like sorting roses by fragrance.
"When you get to this level in the process, nobody stinks," Gaughan said.