The race to the postseason presses on, with some teams vying for playoff spots while others deal with the walking wounded and the disappointment only a lost season can bring.
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That's the basis of the NFL: competition. So it should come as no surprise that when it comes to celebrating the all-time greats of the game, a certain level of competition exists before determining just who those "greats" (or, as it were, Hall of Famers) are. This competition doesn't take place on the playing field; rather, it's a game of survival of the fittest in the Hall of Fame voters' hearts and minds. Who will make the cut?
Well, much as with the playoffs, there's an elimination process. A giant initial list is reduced to 25 (plus two Senior Committee nominees), with the next big cut paring the group down to 15 finalists early next month. With that in mind, my editor asked that I evaluate the field to determine who makes the next jump. Having been a historian of the NFL all my life, I don't take any of my responsibilities in this area for NFL Network and NFL.com lightly.
Here are a few CliffsNotes to get you in line with what I'm thinking, with regard to handicapping the field of outstanding former players looking to don the coveted yellow jacket:
» I only consider what occurred on the field. I can't guarantee that same stipulation is made by every voter.
» Pro Bowls mean very little, especially in the Y2K era, when a trip to Hawaii is more about reputation and popularity than it has ever been.
» Some guys dominated for a short period of time; others excelled for more than 10 years. Both types of legacies are valuable to these eyes.
I broke up the semifinalists into five categories, according to their likelihood of making it to the next stage. Here goes ...
Larry Allen (OG/OT, 1994-2007) and Jonathan Ogden (OT, 1996-2007): Both are first-ballot Hall of Fame players all the way. I'd be shocked if both don't make it to Canton right away. Allen was dominant at two O-line positions and has a Super Bowl ring. So does Ogden, who, along with Walter Jones, was one of two truly dominant left tackles in pro football during the Y2K era.
Tim Brown (WR/KR, 1988-2004): A finalist last year, Brown, who retired with more than 1,000 career receptions, has gotten some juice in the media. What shouldn't be forgotten is what a good returner he was out of the gate. He'll be a finalist again this year.
Cris Carter (WR, 1987-2002): Like Brown, Carter was a finalist last year and also has more than 1,000 catches to his credit. This is the year the former Minnesota Vikings great gets in. Of all the Hall of Fame "injustices," my sense is that Carter is the new Art Monk, i.e., the guy who must not wait any longer.
Bill Parcells (head coach, 1983-2006): If it were up to me -- and it's not -- Parcells would be a shoo-in. Winning two Super Bowl rings and taking four franchises to the playoffs should be enough. And what about spawning Bill Belichick's career? He'll be a finalist again this year. (Prediction: The Tuna goes all the way.)
Andre Reed (WR, 1985-2000): So many fans feel sorry for Reed, particularly those in Buffalo. He'll make the finalist cut again, but I'm not convinced he's a Hall of Fame player. Evidently, the voters aren't, either. The wide receiver tally reads Carter, Brown ... and then Reed, in my book.
Warren Sapp (DT, 1995-2007): In the interest of full disclosure, I'll say that Sapp is an NFL Network colleague. One of the dominant defensive tackles, if not the dominant DT of his era, he should be a finalist in his first year of eligibility. Bear in mind the fact that Sapp won a Super Bowl on a team known for its defense. That's key.
Will Shields (OG, 1993-2006): This guy was about as premium a player as a club could have on the offensive line. Take a look at Priest Holmes' insane numbers from 2001 to 2003, or Larry Johnson's campaign in 2005, when he gained 1,750 yards and averaged 5.2 yards a pop. During Shields' last season, Kansas City ranked ninth in the league in rushing. The year after? The Chiefs finished 32nd. He was a great offensive lineman, but with Allen and Ogden locks, this might not be his year.
Jerome Bettis (RB, 1993-2005): Bettis is a sure bet to make the finalist list, due to his popularity and his status as the NFL's sixth all-time leading rusher. He's a 50-50 proposition for enshrinement this year.
Edward DeBartolo, Jr. (owner, 1977-2000):The recent "A Football Life" documentary gave DeBartolo some run, but the concern here stems from the well-documented issues surrounding his involvement with former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards and a river-boat casino controversy. I still feel he makes the finalist list. DeBartolo was too influential -- and too successful (five rings) -- not to be considered a strong candidate.
Kevin Greene (LB/DE, 1985-1999): Like Bettis, Greene is probably a 50-50 proposition to make the Hall, if his odds aren't a little lower. The man with 160 sacks (third all-time) was a finalist last year and should be again.
Charles Haley (DE/LB, 1986-1996, 1999): If there's one guy the people I work with -- those who cover the league -- can't believe is not yet in the Hall of Fame, it has to be Charles Haley. Haley has five Super Bowl rings, and he was a disruptive force, the linchpin that pushed the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s to the highest levels of success. Those factors easily push Haley into the finalist group ... again.
John Lynch (S, 1993-2007): Lynch was an incredibly popular player. My sense is that his pedigree and affable nature, and the fact that he -- like Sapp -- was a key cog on a Super Bowl-winning team known for its defense, will easily be enough to get him on the list of finalists. Lynch brought a Ronnie Lott-type mentality to the safety position.
Aeneas Williams (CB/S, 1991-2004): The NFC's second-best corner (behind Deion Sanders) of the 1990s will eventually get in the Hall of Fame, because there aren't many corners of his ilk not already in.
Don Coryell (head coach, 1973-1986): Coryell was a master innovator whose tweaks to offensive football, as well as the numbering system used for route trees, made the modern passing game simpler for quarterbacks. He turned around two franchises -- the Cardinals and San Diego Chargers -- and will eventually have a bust in Canton. It's a matter of when, not if.
CLOSE ... BUT NOT THIS TIME
Kluwe wants a Hall for all
Morten Andersen (K, 1982-2004, 2006-2007): The NFL's only player to be the all-time leading scorer of two franchises, Andersen probably won't make it -- rightly or wrongly -- because he was a kicker. To me, kickers are players. But that's me.
Steve Atwater (S, 1989-1999): Atwater would knock your lights out. Sometimes, he'd inadvertently destroy his fellow DBs in the process. The former Denver Broncos great was impactful from his first training camp on, something that can't be said about everyone on the list of semifinalists. Projection: Atwater's votes are cannibalized by another heavy hitter, John Lynch.
Joe Jacoby (OT, 1981-1993): Teammate Russ Grimm was inducted into the Hall in 2010. Grimm is still coaching in the NFL, which probably kept him on the radar. The pantheon of Washington Redskins greats includes a few names before we get to Jacoby, despite the fact that he was quietly effective for the better part of 13 years.
Art Modell (owner, 1961-2012): The recently deceased owner will probably fall short. My fear is that his decision to move his team from Cleveland to Baltimore, where they became the Ravens, will never be overlooked. Modell was a class act to this writer, and did much for the league in six decades of service. It won't be enough.
Michael Strahan (DE, 1993-2007): Strahan's popular, he's in the public eye and he was an outstanding pass rusher with 141.5 career sacks. This is the toughest former player to project, but with Haley and Greene still waiting, I feel Strahan will be the odd man out.
Paul Tagliabue (commissioner, 1989-2006): Back in the public eye due to the New Orleans Saints' bounty fiasco, the former de facto CEO will eventually reside in Canton. But voters haven't been impressed enough by Tagliabue's contributions to push him forward in the selection process before, so why would they be right now? Just because a man was a commissioner does not mean he belongs in the Hall of Fame -- I'm sure a few voters lean in that direction.
Steve Tasker (ST/WR, 1985-1997): The greatest special teams player in the modern history of the league, Tasker's viability doesn't improve ... because he is the greatest special teams player. The reason he could be a possible Hall of Famer is the same factor that keeps him out. Odd, I know.
George Young (contributor, 1968-2001): "Contributor" is hard for some fans to contemplate and, at the end of the day, appreciate. The former New York Giants general manager drafted Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor, and built bad-ass football teams in the 1986 and 1990 Giants. Still, is he among the top 15 names we've mentioned? I don't imagine the voters lean that way.
HALL OF VERY GOOD
Roger Craig (RB, 1983-1993): Craig was a fantastic all-around player and, ultimately, a Hall of Very Gooder. He was a three-dimensional running back, much like Walter Payton, but without the far-reaching numbers. With just three 1,000-yard rushing seasons (and another receiving), Craig faces a long road to enshrinement.
Karl Mecklenburg (LB, 1983-1994): Versatile and consistent, Mecklenburg was the kind of player who could play with his hand in the dirt, stand up at outside linebacker, or play inside -- like a Sean Lee. Call him an athlete who defensive coordinators in 2012 could wrap their arms around. Nonetheless, I never felt I was watching the queen on the chessboard, the best player on the field. The Hall of Fame is for the elite of the elite.
Albert Lewis (CB, 1983-1998): Holy cow, Albert Lewis was a helluva football player. At 6-foot-2, he could lock up with the giants of today, like Brandon Marshall. Besides having 42 career interceptions, and starting at corner until he was 38 -- 38! -- Lewis blocked an astounding 11 kicks in his career.