“I have no expectations,” Brian Urlacher said last week about his candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “I won’t be disappointed if I don’t get in and I’ll be excited if I get in.”
Those words came on the Hoge & Jahns podcast in a short but memorable discussion between the retired Bears legend and WGN’s Adam Hoge. And while Urlacher’s outlook is both admirable and pragmatic, when the Class of 2018 is announced February 3, I think he’s way more likely to be excited than disappointed.
I’ve written quite a bit about Urlacher’s Hall of Fame candidacy. I’ve also studied the selection process, voting patterns, the 108 original modern-era nominees, the 27 semifinalists, the 15 finalists, and the 48 voters, while thinking about how people make the Hall in articles about Charles Tillman, Devin Hester, and Sterling Sharpe.
With all of that in mind, here are my five reasons why I believe Urlacher will be a 1st ballot Hall of Famer and don the gold jacket this year.
1. Urlacher is top 5 among finalists based on career achievement
Let’s start in the easiest spot: Urlacher will be 1st ballot because his accomplishments, statistics, career aura, and the lineup of finalists warrant it.
Remember, a maximum of five of the 15 modern-era finalists can be elected. The day before Super Bowl LII, the selection committee will gather for a day of debate. They will reduce the 15 finalists to 10 players, and then to five, and then each member of the committee will vote “yes” or “no” on each of the remaining five.
To make the Hall, a person in the remaining five must receive 80% of the vote — 38 votes this year. At least four modern-era candidates have gone into the Hall every year since 2006, with five going in each of the past six years.
As a reminder, here are the finalists:
- Running backs: Edgerrin James
- Wide receivers: Isaac Bruce, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens
- Guards: Alan Faneca, Steve Hutchinson
- Offensive tackles: Tony Boselli, Joe Jacoby
- Centers: Kevin Mawae
- Linebackers: Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher
- Cornerbacks: Ty Law, Everson Walls
- Safeties: Brian Dawkins, John Lynch
How are players and coaches evaluated? There is some confusion over that, even among voters, as outlined in this excellent Sports Illustrated article from 2014. In fact, the only place I can find written voting criteria is this article by voter Matt Maiocco, the voter from the San Francisco market. He writes that the Hall of Fame bylaws state:
“The only criteria for election into the Hall of Fame are a nominee’s achievements and contributions as a player, a coach or a contributor in professional football.”
With that in mind, and looking at this year’s slate combined with recent history, I’m guessing we’ll see five modern-era inductees this year. I will give my choices at the end of this piece. First, let’s take a look at the finalists based on odds of induction, as I see it.
Ray Lewis. Ray is in.
He’s the only finalist who is in the running for the greatest ever at his position (considering that Jerry Rice is the runaway WR GOAT), and was generally considered the best inside linebacker during his time. (More on that in a moment.)
None of the finalists won MVP or Offensive Player of the Year, but there are three Defensive Player of the Years represented and two of them belong to Lewis. He has the most Pro Bowls in the group (13 — Dawkins, Faneca, and Lynch are 2nd with nine), he has the most 1st team All Pro selections (7, tied with Mawae), and is the group’s only Super Bowl MVP.
Randy Moss and Terrell Owens. I would be stunned if at least one of these guys didn’t get in. If I were voting, I would put them both in. They are no-brainers. Moss is arguably the most talented wide receiver ever, and Owens had arguably an even better career than Moss. Check this out:
- Receptions: Owens, 1078 (8th all-time); Moss, 982 (15th)
- Receiving yards: Owens, 15,934 (2nd); Moss, 15,292 (4th)
- Receiving touchdowns: Moss, 156 (2nd); Owens, 153 (3rd)
- League leader: Moss, receiving TD, 5; Owens, receiving TD, 3
- Pro Bowl: Moss/Owens, 6
- 1st team All Pro: Owens, 5; Moss, 4
I am worried, though, that only one of the two will get in. The argument for Moss is that I suspect more people view his career as superior to Owens’, considering he had two iconic seasons (‘98 Vikings, ‘07 Patriots), better peaks, and the game-changing traits (vertical and speed).
The argument for Owens is that he arguably was even better than Moss, and definitely should have been 1st ballot yet is in his 3rd year of eligibility.
I would put them both in this year, no question. But I have a bad feeling that only one of the two will get in.
Brian Urlacher. I have Urlacher in the top four among the 2018 finalists with Lewis, Moss, and Owens. Remember when I said that the 2018 finalists have only three MVP, OPOY, or DPOYs between them? Two of the three belong to Lewis, and the third belongs to Urlacher.
The DPOY was first given in 1971 — since then, every winner with more than five career Pro Bowls is in the Hall of Fame, while every winner with more than three selections as 1st team All Pro is in. Urlacher was an eight-time Pro Bowler with four 1st team All Pro selections. His eight Pro Bowls put him behind only Lewis (13), and Dawkins, Faneca, Lynch (9). His four 1st team All Pros trail Lewis and Mawae (7), Faneca (6), Hutchinson and Owens (5).
To me, the DPOY is going to go a long way to evaluating Urlacher, and played a huge role in his reputation during his career. His award in 2005 was against HOF-worthy competition: eight of the remaining 12 DPOYs during his career went to players either in the Hall of Fame (Strahan, Brooks, Taylor) or headed there (Lewis, Reed, Charles Woodson, Polamalu). James Harrison (2008) and Terrell Suggs (2011) have strong cases. The only guy likely not getting in is Bob Sanders (2006).
Other than that, of the five defensive finalists other than Lewis, Urlacher is the leader in tackles and sacks, 2nd to Dawkins in recovered fumbles, and 2nd to Law in touchdowns. Most significantly, he went toe-to-toe with Lewis, the best player at his position, and often came out ahead. More on that in a moment.
Brian Dawkins. Picking Urlacher 4th over Dawkins could be influenced by homerism, because Dawkins is the one non-Lewis defensive finalist for whom I could make a case over Urlacher. He has one more Pro Bowl than Urlacher with the same number of 1st team All Pro selections, and absolutely killer stats. He is 2nd to Urlacher in tackles among the five non-Lewis defenders, 3rd in interceptions, 2nd to Urlacher in sacks, and the leader in both forced and recovered fumbles.
I think the only thing really holding Dawkins back is that he was the fourth biggest name among safeties during his time, after Ed Reed, Troy Polumalu, and Charles Woodson (albeit he played more corner than safety). But Dawkins was the best safety in the league for a few years prior to their arrival (or prior to Woodson’s position switch).
The offensive linemen. Five offensive linemen are finalists, and they are an impressive group even by Hall of Fame standards. The two weakest candidates are the two tackles, Tony Boselli and Joe Jacoby; Boselli was on a path to becoming one of the all-time greats if not for injuries, and Jacoby played 191 combined regular and postseason games including four Super Bowls, starting all four and winning three.
To me, Alan Faneca has the strongest case of the five, followed by Kevin Mawae and Steve Hutchinson. I think all three will eventually get in. I’m not sure about Boselli and Jacoby. But I do like the chances of one of these guys going in this year.
Everyone else. Of the remaining five players — Isaac Bruce, Edgerrin James, Ty Law, John Lynch, Everson Walls — I think Law and Walls have the best cases. This is Walls’ 20th year of eligibility, and the first time he’s made it to the semifinals. Not sure what clicked in this year for voters, but that’s got to be a good sign for him.
And his numbers are strong: four Pro Bowls, one All Pro 1st team, and the first player in NFL history to lead the league in interceptions three or more times. (Ed Reed has since joined him, also with three.)
Here’s the Law v. Walls breakdown, adding regular season and playoffs:
- Seasons: 15-13 Law
- Starts: 201-180 Law
- Interceptions: 61-59 Walls
- INT league leader: 3-2 Walls
- Pro Bowl: 5-4 Law
- All Pro 1st Team: 2-1 Law
- Super Bowls: 3-1 Law
- Rings: 3-1 Law
I think Edgerrin James has a tough road ahead, with Adrian Peterson and even Frank Gore looming, fellow 2018 semifinalist Roger Craig always in the mix, and fellow 10,000-yard backs Tiki Barber, Eddie George, Ricky Watters in the 2018 nominees list. I think John Lynch deserves to get in and eventually will, but the DB glut in the next few years will be significant: Reed and Champ Bailey in 2019, Polamalu in 2020, Woodson and WCG favorite Charles Tillman in 2021.
And I think Issac Bruce is in a similar spot as Lynch: I think he’ll get in, but he’s going to contend with Moss and Owens plus Torry Holt (a semifinalist each of the past four years), 2017 and 2018 semifinalist Hines Ward, my guy Sterling Sharpe, six other legit nominees from 2018, and then Calvin Johnson in 2021, to name a few.
2. Urlacher is top 5 among finalists based on eye test and team building
During the ongoing debates and discussions that will take place on Selection Saturday, all of the stats I just listed about Urlacher and the other finalists will certainly be cited, along with many others I’m sure. The committee members will also take an anecdotal approach, though, which will bode well for Urlacher.
Like I said, based purely on production and accolades, I think Urlacher has, at worst, the fourth-best credentials among finalists. But if you wanted to build a team to win a Super Bowl, it’s possible that you would rate him as high as 2nd, depending on your feelings about Moss and Owens. There was always a perception around those two that they weren’t “team guys,” and while I find that somewhat unfair and reductive, there is no denying that they continuously wore out their welcome.
Compare that to these guys:
- Lewis: 17 of 17 years on the Ravens
- Bruce: 14 of 16 years on the Rams
- Jacoby: 13 of 13 years in D.C.
- Urlacher: 13 of 13 years on the Bears
- Dawkins: 13 of 16 years on the Eagles
- Lynch: 11 of 15 years on the Buccaneers
- Faneca: 10 of 13 years on the Steelers
- Law: 10 of 15 years on the Patriots
Everyone on this list started at least one Super Bowl with the team listed above. Four started multiple Super Bowls. All but Urlacher and Dawkins won a ring with those teams.
If I was compiling a defense based on the finalists, I would want Lewis first, then Urlacher, then Dawkins, then Law. I think 1st team All Pro selections are one of the most important metrics for understanding a player’s greatness. Urlacher had four, and was going up against Hall of Famers or probable Hall of Famers in Lewis, Derrick Brooks, Junior Seau, DeMarcus Ware, Patrick Willis, Terrell Suggs, James Harrison, and his teammate Lance Briggs.
During Urlacher’s 13 years, the DPOY went to a linebacker six times: Lewis twice, Brooks, Harrison, Suggs, and Urlacher. It went to a DB four times (Reed, Polamalu, Sanders, Charles Woodson) and a d-lineman three times (Strahan, Taylor, J.J. Watt). So when Urlacher was nabbing 1st team All Pro selections, he was doing it against the best defenders in the NFL.
His value was limitless. He was a tackling machine, with game-changing speed at the position. He was the smartest player on the field whose teammates were in awe of him even in 2012, when he was running at probably two-thirds of his normal speed due to injuries.
He dominated in two different systems: under Dick Jauron, he played closer to the line of scrimmage and rushed the passer more frequently, totalling 21 of his 41.5 career sacks in just four seasons. Under Lovie Smith, he spent more time in coverage in the Cover-2, with 16 of his 22 career interceptions, including five in 2007.
The narrative that “He can’t shed blocks” was nonsense. I think that started after fans watched the ease with which he got to the quarterback in Jauron’s system, especially with Ted Washington and Keith Traylor in front of him. Under Lovie he spent more time in coverage and played behind smaller DTs (smaller than Washington and Traylor, that is), and somehow was tagged with this bogus “can’t shed blocks” label.
Watch the Arizona game and tell me who can’t shed blocks.
3. The Ray Lewis Effect
The week he announced his retirement, Brian Urlacher commented on the comparison between he and his longtime positional rival Ray Lewis, who had announced his retirement a few months earlier.
“I’ll say this about Ray: I think I’m pretty good — Ray’s the best of all-time,” Urlacher said. Strong words, and not controversial ones, considering there are plenty of people who believe Lewis is in the running for greatest middle linebacker ever.
That right there will play in Urlacher’s favor.
In 2000, Ray Lewis led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory, earning DPOY and Super Bowl MVP to lock down the mantle as Greatest MLB Alive. He was being mentioned in the same breath as Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Mike Singletary, and Jack Lambert — the only four MLBs elected to the Hall of Fame on the 1st ballot.
That same season, Urlacher won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. From that year until 2006, Lewis’s status as the possible GOAT MLB gave context to Urlacher’s ascension. In seasons when Urlacher was better than Lewis (arguably 2001, inarguably 2005 and 2006), he wasn’t just better than his chief rival — he was better than the guy who was arguably the best ever.
From 2000 to 2006, Urlacher and Lewis were neck-and-neck for the top inside linebacker belt:
- Games: 105-88 Urlacher
- DPOY: 2-1 Lewis
- All Pro 1st team: 4-4
- Pro Bowl: 6-5 Urlacher
- Tackles: 633-599 Urlacher
- Sacks: 32.5-15 Urlacher
- Interceptions: 16-10 Lewis
- Forced fumbles: 8-6 Urlacher
- Recovered fumbles: 11-6 Lewis
- Passes defensed: 43-40 Lewis
- Defensive TDs: 1-1
Therefore, if Ray Lewis is in the running for GOAT MLB, and for more than half of his career Urlacher was as good and sometimes better, then Urlacher belongs as a 1st ballot Hall of Famer, yes?
4. The “Good Guy” Effect
In the case of the three players I rank with Urlacher as the no-brainer 1st ballot HOFers — Lewis, Moss, Owens — voters will have their work cut out for them.
Let’s start here:
“I take neither.”
That was the answer Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian gave last February.
The question, asked by Talk of Fame Network’s Clark Judge, was for Polian to say which wide receiver he would vote for in the Class of 2018 Hall of Fame vote: Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, both, or neither.
“First of all, here’s my position: (I want players who) contribute both individually and to the team. T.O.’s situation, T.O.’s temperament, his ability to contribute to the team was well known up front. He was going to be a problem. We did not want to deal with problem children. Others may. We didn’t. That’s number one. Number two, every year in Indianapolis we said the following: ‘The price of admission is 100 percent effort all the time in everything we do.’ Well, how can we take Randy Moss when we make that statement? It’s that simple.”
I personally don’t think you can knit-pick like this for the Hall of Fame with guys who produced the numbers that Moss and Owens produced. I can understand making team personnel decisions based on this mindset, as Polian obviously did in Indianapolis. But you’re not building a team here. You’re selecting players to the Hall of Fame. In my view, you can’t judge the two the same.
We know that many voters will. They obviously have already with Owens.
However, I have trouble believing that voters will leave both Moss and Owens out this year based on that principle.
Separate from that, I suspect a lot of voters will still feel bad about voting for Lewis, considering his role in 2000 in a double murder in Atlanta following Super Bowl XXXIV. (This Grantland story is the best breakdown I can find, but as a refresher, Lewis was charged with murder and aggravated assault in the stabbing deaths of two men — not because anyone thought he killed anyone, but because of how Georgia law is written regarding people who are a “party” to a crime. Lewis ultimately took a plea deal, pleading guilty to obstruction of justice, while his two friends who were charged with the murders were acquitted.)
I’m not saying they won’t vote for him because of that — like I said earlier, anything that happens away from the field, stadium, or practice facility is not supposed to matter in the vote.
But I would be surprised if some voters didn’t feel crummy about Lewis’s past, while also not being thrilled about Moss and/or Owens, leading to them seeking to ensure that a “good guy” gets inducted too.
That could be Dawkins. It could be Faneca. It could be Mawae. It could be Edgerrin. It could be Bruce in a wide receiver revolt. Really, it could be any of these guys.
But if voters see the slate of candidates as I do and view Urlacher as in that top four, that means that they will want to induct him even more than they already would. Within NFL circles, Urlacher is one of the best of the good guys. He is nearly universally beloved.
His teammates and coaches, his opposing teammates and coaches, reporters and alumni have nothing but great things to say about him. And with good reason! He was a great player and great teammate who was always humble and relatively quiet (from a public persona perspective).
One key thing to understand about the Hall of Fame is that the 48 voters will reach out to their colleagues in football to gauge the credentials and character of the finalists. When voters reach out to people about Urlacher, the chances are they are only going to get positive stories.
Along with tweets from Olin Kreutz and Thomas Jones and statements from so many teammates — including Patrick Mannelly, Jason McKie, Charles Tillman in my interviews with them — look at the testimonies in this story by Brad Biggs (Tony Dungy, Mike McCarthy, Aaron Rodgers, Mike McCarthy, Cory Schlesinger) or this one by Dan Pompei (Rodgers + Jerry Angelo, Alex Brown, and Brett Favre).
These are the types of stories voters will get when they seek out opinions on Urlacher.
5. The Dan Pompei Effect
Speaking of Pompei…
Let’s talk again about how the voting works. The committee of 48 voters comprises one voter per NFL city per team plus another 16 “at large” voters. These voters will get the number of finalists down from 15 to 10 and then from 10 to five, and then they will vote “yes” or “no” on each of the remaining five.
That entire process will take place in Minneapolis on the day before the Super Bowl.
The voter representing Chicago is Dan Pompei of The Athletic. He is not just a voter — he is also one of the nine voters on the Seniors Committee, meaning he carries a lot of weight in that room. He’s been in the game for more than three decades. He knows everyone. He is respected and trusted.
More than any other voter, Pompei is the one who will deliver the key arguments to the committee about Urlacher’s credentials. While Moss and Owens each have support from their media members in Minneapolis and San Francisco, respectively (along with Peter King), Moss’s media man doesn’t seem completely confident that Moss will get in this year, while Owens’ made his case last year — how will he change it?
Pompei on the other hand seems like he has no doubts that Urlacher deserves to be in and that he will be.
My picks? Lewis, Moss, Owens, Urlacher, Faneca.
My prediction? Lewis, Moss, Urlacher, Faneca, Walls.
Following the announcement of the semifinalists in November, Peter King gave his list. In order: Lewis, Moss, Boselli, Urlacher, and one open spot to be determined. King’s voice has a lot of sway in that room. Pompei’s does too. And so do the voices of Urlacher’s teammates, coaches, opponents, fans, and the media members who covered him. His stats bode well for him, as do his awards, as do his accomplishments, as do the highlights. The only person who likely won’t speak up for Urlacher will be Urlacher himself.
To see that, we’ll have to wait for his induction speech in August.
Jack M Silverstein is WCG’s Bears historian, and author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” Say hey at @readjack.
This article was made possible by Pro Football Reference, Newspapers.com, and the writing of many other people quoted and linked above.