“Hopefully next time I see y’all it’ll be in Canton.”
— Devin Hester, Dec. 12, 2017
It’s official: Devin Hester is going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The question is not if, but when.
After Hester completed his career following a blazing performance in the 2016 playoffs, I thought he belonged in the Hall. Many others did too. Yet his enshrinement was no sure thing. At the time, only two pure special teamers were in the Hall: kicker Jan Stenerud, class of 1991, and punter Ray Guy, class of 2014.
Only Stenerud made it on the regular ballot — 1st ballot at that. Ray Guy, the greatest punter in NFL history, had to wait until 2014, his third year in the seniors pool.
But while we were debating Hester’s candidacy and preemptively deriding the Hall’s voters for ignoring the greatest return man ever, something significant happened. For the class of 2013, kicker Morten Andersen, then the NFL’s all-time leading scorer, reached the semifinalist round in his first year on the ballot.
The semifinalist round was added in 2004, so Andersen’s inclusion as a first-ballot semifinalist in 2013 held less obvious significance than it does now. No matter. The kicking great became the first pure special teamer in this new era to reach the semifinalist round on his first ballot.
That placed him within a broader trend: every first-ballot semifinalist has reached the Hall, with the exception of nine players who were on the ballot this year, four of whom are now finalists.
Andersen reached the Hall in 2017, on his 5th ballot. The longest wait for a first-year semifinalist is 11 years, for Terrell Davis.
First-ballot finalists, such as Hester, have a much shorter wait. From 2004 to 2021, 55 players were first-ballot finalists. Thirty-four were first-ballot Hall of Famers. Two (Reggie Wayne and Jared Allen) are on the ballot now. The other 19 are all in the Hall, with the longest wait just six years: Cris Carter, Tim Brown and Alan Faneca.
That’s Hester’s group: election in years one through six. Failure to reach the semifinalist round in the first year does not knock someone out of the Hall. Since 2005, Cortez Kennedy, Kevin Greene and Steve Atwater have all reached the Hall after waiting three or more years to reach the semis, while favorites for this year’s PF HOF class include late semifinalists Zach Thomas (6th ballot), Tony Boselli (10th) and LeRoy Butler (12th).
But reaching the semis on the first ballot is an automatic trip to Canton, while reaching the finalist round on the first ballot is an expedited trip. We can stop the debate. Hester is in. The only question is when.
What NFL returners have said about Devin:— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) November 5, 2019
* Deion Sanders:
* Dante Hall:
* Gale Sayers: HOF
* Brian Mitchell: HOF
* Mel Gray: HOF
* Desmond Howard: “Barry Sanders-factor”
* Billy “White Shoes” Johnson: “Makes it look easy.”
Like Mack says:https://t.co/JFkHzb5a9q
The 80 first-ballot semifinalists, 2004-2022:
The following information can be read perhaps more easily in my spreadsheet. (Sources: Pro Football Reference, the Pro Football Hall of Fame website, Wikipedia.)
1st-ballot Hall of Famers:
- 2004: John Elway, Barry Sanders
- 2005: Dan Marino, Steve Young
- 2006: Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Reggie White
- 2007: Bruce Matthews
- 2008: Darrell Green
- 2009: Bruce Smith, Rod Woodson
- 2010: Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith
- 2011: Marshall Faulk, Deion Sanders
- 2012: none
- 2013: Larry Allen, Jonathan Ogden, Warren Sapp
- 2014: Derrick Brooks, Walter Jones
- 2015: Junior Seau
- 2016: Brett Favre
- 2017: Jason Taylor, LaDainian Tomlinson
- 2018: Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, Brian Urlacher
- 2019: Champ Bailey, Tony Gonzalez, Ed Reed
- 2020: Troy Polamalu
- 2021: Calvin Johnson, Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson
- 2022: TBD (finalists: Devin Hester, Andre Johnson, DeMarcus Ware)
- 2004: none
- 2005: Michael Irvin (2007 Hall of Fame, 3rd ballot), Derrick Thomas (2009, 5th)
- 2006: Thurman Thomas (2007, 2nd)
- 2007: none
- 2008: Cris Carter (2013, 8th)
- 2009: John Randle (2010, 2nd), Shannon Sharpe (2011, 3rd)
- 2010: Tim Brown (2015, 6th)
- 2011: Curtis Martin & Willie Roaf (2012, 2nd), Jerome Bettis (2015, 5th)
- 2012: Will Shields (2015, 4th)
- 2013: Michael Strahan (2014, 2nd)
- 2014: Marvin Harrison (2016, 3rd)
- 2015: Orlando Pace (2016, 2nd), Kurt Warner (2017, 3rd)
- 2016: Terrell Owens (2018, 3rd), Alan Faneca (2021, 6th)
- 2017: Brian Dawkins (2018, 2nd)
- 2018: Steve Hutchinson (2020, 3rd)
- 2019: none
- 2020: Reggie Wayne (TBD, 2022 finalist)
- 2021: Jared Allen (TBD, 2022 finalist)
- 2022: Devin Hester, Andre Johnson, DeMarcus Ware (TBD)
- 2004: none
- 2005: Chris Doleman (2011 finalist, 2012 HOF, 8th ballot)
- 2006: Dermontti Dawson (2009, 2012/7th), Andre Reed (2007, 2014/9th)
- 2007: Randall McDaniel (2008, 2009/3rd), Terrell Davis (2015, 2017/11th)
- 2008: none
- 2009: none
- 2010: Aeneas Williams (2012, 2014/5th)
- 2011: none
- 2012: none
- 2013: Morten Andersen (2014, 2017/5th), John Lynch (2014, 2021/9th)
- 2014: none
- 2015: Ty Law & Kevin Mawae (2017, 2019/5th), Edgerrin James (2016, 2020/6th), Isaac Bruce (2017, 2020/6th), Torry Holt (2021, TBD — current finalist)
- 2016: none
- 2017: Hines Ward (not yet a finalist, 2022 semifinalist)
- 2018: Richard Seymour (2020, TBD — current finalist), Ronde Barber (2021, TBD — current finalist)
- 2019: none
- 2020: Patrick Willis (2022, TBD — current finalist)
- 2021: none
- 2022: Anquan Boldin, Robert Mathis, Steve Smith, Vince Wilfork (all 2022 semifinalists who did not reach the finalist round)
Big picture recap, 2004-2022:
- 58 players made the finalist round on the 1st ballot
- 34 were 1st-ballot Hall of Famers
- Seven were 2nd ballot
- Six were 3rd ballot
- Six made the Hall between years four and six
- Five are 2022 finalists: Reggie Wayne, Jared Allen, Hester, Andre Johnson, DeMarcus Ware
- Another 21 players made the semifinalist round on the 1st ballot (making 80 total 1st-ballot semifinalists)
- 13 of those 21 made the Hall, with the earliest inductee going 3rd ballot (Randall McDaniel), the latest going 11th (Terrell Davis) and the majority going 5th or 6th ballot
- Of the remaining nine, four are finalists right now: Holt, Barber, Seymour, Willis
- The other five are all still eligible, starting with Hines Ward in his 6th year and followed by the four first-year guys from 2022 (Boldin, Mathis, Smith, Wilfork)
So, when will Hester get in?
The designation “first-ballot Hall of Famer” seems to have engulfed much of today’s debate about Hall of Famers in football, basketball and baseball. Fans and media members spend a lot of time debating whether such and such a player will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, rather than just asking if he or she will make it in.
Ultimately that’s what matters. Three years ago, I argued that I would leave Champ Bailey off as a first-ballot guy to ensure that Sterling Sharpe made it in his final year of eligibility. That wasn’t a knock on Bailey’s candidacy; he is one of the few who was worthy of that lofty status.
Rather, it was a strategic decision that would ensure that Sharpe got into the Hall where he richly belonged. This year, I would have been fine with Hester waiting a year to ensure that Steve Tasker, also in his final year, could enter.
Unfortunately, Tasker now joins Sharpe and a host of others worming their way through the senior committee pipeline.
Will Hester get in this year? Here is a look at the ballot of finalists:
I’ve been saying for a few years now that Hester is a lock for the Hall, predicting him on the first or second ballot. I still think that’s right, though I would hedge a bit and say he could wait as long as three years. That would still put him in rare company, and would be an incredible testament to his greatness.
If I had a vote this year, my locks would be Holt, Butler and Boselli. Then I would go with Richard Seymour, arguably the best defensive player on a three-time champ that was led by its defense. Lastly, I would take Hester, whose impact, production, achievements, legacy and sheer greatness cannot be debated. If he had the same type of career at quarterback, he would be a no-brainer this year.
On the other hand, I can easily see Ware going in, or one of the three inside linebackers, namely Mills, who is in his final year of eligibility. Zach Thomas is a lock at some point, as is Willis, who I think is the best of the three and is dinged only by longevity.
Of the players who become eligible next year, one strikes me as a first-ballot lock: Browns tackle Joe Thomas. Darrelle Revis will be in that first-second ballot mix, while James Harrison, Kam Chancellor and our man Matt Forte will all be roundly discussed.
There is another interesting name who becomes eligible next year, interesting because of the Hester impact: longtime Raiders punter Shane Lechler. Like Hester, Lechler is one of the few players in NFL history named to two All-Decade teams — both men were on the 2000s team and the 2010s team. Lechler and Hester were both named to the NFL’s 100th Anniversary Team in 2019, as was Adam Vinatieri, who will be eligible for the class of 2025.
I mention Lechler and Vinatieri because the final lingering question about Hester’s candidacy and fast ascendency is whether the Hall’s voters have opened the door for special teamers — or merely opened the door for Hester. (Want a conspiracy theory? The Hall lists Hester with the wide receivers, not the specialists. As if to say, “We haven’t changed anything for special teamers. He’s a wideout!”)
I do think Vinatieri, the league’s all-time leading scorer and the kicker of perhaps the most famous field goal in NFL history, will get in. Lechler should, but obviously that would make him only the second punter in after his fellow Raiders great Ray Guy.
And sheesh, if the Hall voters had changed their tune on specialists, we would have seen Tasker go in this year as he should have, after an unprecedented ballot run in which he was a semifinalist nine times between 2004 and this year without ever reaching the finals.
Josh Cribbs and Dante Hall are two more who deserve consideration. Cordarrelle Patterson will once he retires, and both Matthew Slater and Justin Tucker feel like locks to me, if such a thing exists for specialists.
All we know for sure is that Devin Hester will don the gold jacket sooner than later. If his name is not called on February 10, it will be called within a year or two after. He changed games. He changed the game. We shall see if he changed the Hall of Fame game, too.
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.
Want more Hall of Fame talk? I’m part of a mock Hall of Fame committee where we put Devin Hester in our finalist list. Hester conversation begins here. I barely had to say a word!