For all but a select few, the road to Canton is fractured and fickle. There were the long waits in the finalist round for Art Monk and John Lynch. The late, nervous arrivals for Steve Atwater and LeRoy Butler. The surprise, meteoric rises of Rickey Jackson and Bryant Young. The final-shot success of Sam Mills.
Then there are the all-time greats who year after year seemed thiiiiiis close to Canton but ran through their 20 years of modern eligibility and tumbled into the senior committee and its infinite doubt. For some — Drew Pearson, Chuck Howley, Jim Covert among them recently — at long last, their name is called.
For others, their list of names is as endless as their wait: Randy Gradishar, Bob Kuechenberg, L.C. Greenwood, Roger Craig, and on and on. Even now on the modern-era ballot, there are all-time greats nearing the end of their eligibility who have made the semifinalist round only once, if that: Richmond Webb and Carnell Lake, Steve Wisniewski and Ben Coates, Pat Swilling and Albert Lewis, the great Randall Cunningham.
I know it’s common for fans and even members of the media to hype retired greats as “Hall of Fame snubs,” but the reality of this system is that unless you’re a quarterback, there is no such thing as being a “snub” if you’re still in the first five years of eligibility.
Indeed, despite the massive annual list of nominees, the path to Canton doesn’t actually start until the semifinalist round. And that path resets at the finalist round, the first and only time that the 49 voters meet to discuss candidates. For Devin Hester, the path to Canton will be smooth and fast. Last year, in his first year of eligibility, Hester didn’t just become the first ever special teamer in the semifinalist era (since ’04) to make the finalist round in Year One, something that makes him a lock for Canton by 2027. (He’s also the first pure returner to make the finalist round… ever.)
Hester jumped all the way to the second five — the guys who finished 6th through 10th — giving him the inside track for induction in 2023.
For Lance Briggs, Olin Kreutz, Charles Tillman and Ruben Brown, the big picture of the 2023 ballot is much different: none has ever made the semifinals, and until that happens, Canton is as far away for them as for most of the 129 modern-era nominees.
The confounding truth: Canton is much farther away for Lance Briggs than I ever would have guessed while he was playing. Same goes for Ruben Brown. Olin is a toss-up, depending on whether voters expand the number of centers they elect, and then where they rank him among his fellow great centers.
Tillman is a wild card: his case is actually getting stronger in retirement due to the proliferation of the Peanut Punch.
I laid out my ballot this year, placing Hester in the Hall, Brown in the finalist round, Briggs and Olin in the semis and Peanut in my “next 25” group. The Bears voter rep Dan Pompei is a huge voice among the 49 voters, and I know he’s pushing hard for all of these guys.
So with all that said, here is a look at the four major Bears on this year’s ballot, plus the great Ruben Brown, and the challenges each man faces to reach Canton.
Briggs’s challenge for Canton: Two words. Edge. Rusher.
In 12 seasons, Lance Briggs had only 15 sacks. That’s not at all in line with the OLBs who are now elected to the Hall. Removing Junior Seau, who also played inside, four of the last five OLBs elected to the Hall were pass rushers, guys who in today’s game would have been referred to as edge rushers:
- Rickey Jackson, 2010, 128 sacks
- Chris Doleman, 2012, 150.5 sacks
- Charles Haley, 2015, 100.5 sacks
- Kevin Greene, 2016, 160.0 sacks
The next OLB in, likely this year, will be DeMarcus Ware and his 138.5 sacks, currently 9th all-time. The wild card is 1991 Defensive Player of the Year Pat Swilling, in his 20th and final year of modern-era eligibility. I’m a fan of his candidacy, but in 19 years he’s never been a semifinalist. He was also a sack artist, at 107.5 in just 12 seasons, including a league-leading 17 in 1991.
James Harrison is new on the ballot this year, and while he wasn’t truly a pass rusher, his 84.5 career sacks are a solid total, especially considering that his peak was contained within about five seasons. Two years from now is Terrell Suggs, 8th all-time in sacks with 139.0. Like Harrison, he also has a ring and a DPOY.
Briggs will be on his 6th ballot by then, which isn’t the end of the world for a linebacker. Since 2004 (the year that the semifinalist round started), linebackers elected to Canton have averaged an eight-year wait, the longest for any position group.
But he’ll still have the same problem: the definition of his position has changed since he played it.
How hard is the road ahead? Very. Joining Suggs on the ballot in 2023 is Luke Kuechly, meaning if Zach Thomas and Patrick Willis aren’t both elected in the next two years, you’ll still have two high profile MLBs on the ballot, plus Suggs and likely Harrison. If this is Bobby Wagner’s final season, he would be eligible in 2028, which would only be Briggs’s 9th year, but you can see how the backlog could build.
What Bears fans should do: Focus the conversation on the stats that made Briggs special.
Sacks are great, but they’re not everything. Reframe the OLB conversation around other stats that actually show what Briggs did based on what he was supposed to do. Because while he does not have the sack totals, Brooks didn’t either: 15 for Briggs in 173 games vs. just 13.5 for Brooks in 224 games.
What Briggs — and Brooks — had was an array of playmaking stats all over the field. Of nine HOF or HOF-level outside linebackers (the past five inductees plus Briggs, Ware, Harrison and Suggs), Briggs was dominant in a number of other areas:
TACKLES PER GAME
- Brooks: 5.8
- Briggs: 5.5
- Jackson: 5.2
- all others under 5
- Brooks: 25
- Briggs: 16
- all others under 10
INTERCEPTION + FUMBLE RETURN YARDS
- Brooks 534
- Briggs: 288
- all others under 200
YARDS PER TAKEAWAY RETURN
- Brooks: 18.4
- Briggs: 12.5
- Ware: 12.3
- all others under 10
TOUCHDOWNS (in a game about scoring points, this one is huge)
- Brooks: 7
- Briggs: 6
- Doleman/Greene/Suggs/Suggs/Ware: 3
During the 2010 season, Derrick Brooks asked on Twitter for suggestions of which linebackers mimicked his play. “Urlacher,” one fan offered.
“More Briggs than Urlacher,” Brooks responded.
Fans and advocates can’t let the OLB conversation become all about sacks. Lance Briggs was the 2nd best traditional OLB after Brooks. Second best to a first-ballot HOFer is a HOFer.
Kreutz’s challenge for Canton: The committee has not valued centers.
Of every position group’s last five modern-era inductees, only tight end needs to go back farther to finish the quintet (1995 - Kellen Winslow) than center (1997 - Mike Webster). And that’s only if you count Bruce Matthews as a center, his second most played position. Otherwise, you have to go back to Jim Langer in 1987 for the five most recent centers elected.
And when you consider that Antonio Gates, Jason Witten and Rob Gronkowski will join the ballot over the next four years, followed by Travis Kelce at some point, it’s clear that center will continue to fall behind other positions in PFHOF representation.
How hard is the road ahead? Difficult, because of his position, but potentially easy within that. We’ll know more this year if any centers make the semis. If only Nick Mangold makes it, that doesn’t necessarily mean as much for Kreutz, Tom Nalen and others as if one of those guys other than Mangold makes it. That’s when we’ll start to see the new centers queue taking shape.
What Bears fans should do: Embrace and talk up the increase of centers.
In 2016, I wrote about the Hall of Fame case for the newly retired Devin Hester, noting that as a starting point, Hester shouldn’t have to be the greatest returner ever to get into Canton. He should merely have to be one of the greatest, like at any other position.
Same goes for center. They’re not hurting for candidates. Nick Mangold is in his second year on the ballot; if voting patterns continue, he’s the next center in. But guys I would elect ahead of him in order to make sure they get in are Tom Nalen (11th year) and our man Olin (7th year). As modern-era candidates, I also support Matt Birk, Kevin Glover, Jeff Saturday and Mark Stepnoski, with several of my other favorites having recently gone to the senior committee. These guys shouldn’t be pitted against each other for one slot a decade, give or take.
(Check out my PFHOF committee colleague Thomas Hall’s breakdown on Nalen.)
Tillman’s challenge for Canton: Elite competition.
For the past decade, cornerback has been one of the most formidable position groups entering Canton. Four of the past six selections were first ballot, and the other two were 5th. Voters have elected three corners since 2019. They’ve also elected five safeties since 2019, with two going first ballot. Seven players have gone in first ballot since 2019, and two were corners and two were safeties, the most for any one position group.
Specifically, Peanut was already up against 2022 high finishers Ronde Barber (2022 finalist, 2x finalist, 5x semifinalist) and Eric Allen (2022 semifinalist, 2x semifinalist). Asante Samuel, Troy Vincent, Sam Madison, Nnamdi Asomugha — lots of standouts with great cases.
This year, add to all of those Darrelle Revis. His was the first name Peanut offered me in a previous interview when I asked him for his list of cornerbacks from his era “who you were not ashamed to say were clear cut better than you.”
Lastly, KC great Albert Lewis, in his final year of modern-era eligibility, is catching a bit of late-ballot buzz over the past two weeks or so. PFHOF voters Tony Dungy and Clark Judge just discussed him, with Dungy — who was Lewis’s defensive backs coach for three seasons in KC — saying that Lewis “graded out higher than ... every single player that I ever coached,” including Peyton Manning.
How hard is the road ahead? Medium, and surprisingly growing less fraught by the day. While Tillman does indeed have elite competition at corner, his case, as I noted above, is the only one that gets better in retirement. Coaches and even Peanut now teach the punch-out directly to DBs, so we see it a lot during game broadcasts, and when we do see it, broadcasters are quick to give Peanut the credit, even in college.
Even if Tillman doesn’t make the semis until his 10th year, he could see a fast rise after that. If he makes the semis before then, that says a lot.
What Bears fans should do: Nothing that they won’t do anyway.
Peanut has a lot of popular, vocal, high-spirited support behind him from a range of sources — peers, media, fans. He also has a case that has the rare distinction of gaining clarity and impact in retirement beyond what it was when he played. The broader football public is catching up with just how great Tillman was for much of his career, in large part because on a weekly basis, NFL or college football broadcasts credit Tillman by name whenever a DB, or even a linebacker, executes a ball punch.
Just in his third year of eligibility, I think Tillman will have ballot staying power with a slow build over a decade. He’ll be the embodiment of his playing mantra, “always be peaking.”
Brown’s challenge for Canton: I don’t actually know.
While Brown is “only” in his 11th year of eligibility, he seems to be following the uncertain path of Webb and Wisniewski. Guards get elected at a solid clip, and usually quickly, so Brown’s problem is not positional. It’s not a name recognition problem, not with nine Pro Bowls, eight on a still high-profile Bills team and a ninth on the Super Bowl Bears. (One person on Twitter suggested it’s because of his high penalty count. That was interesting, though doesn’t feel like a good reason, or even the reason, to keep him out.)
It’s this group of o-linemen who are being left out, faced with a tough voting trend: when Tony Boselli was elected last year on the 15th ballot, he was the first offensive lineman in the semifinalist era (since ’04) elected later than the 7th ballot.
How hard is the road ahead? Apparently hard. Let’s see what happens the next few years with Wisniewski, Webb and Lomas Brown all nearing the end of their modern eligibility, as well as the curious case of Bengals great Willie Anderson.
What Bears — and Bills — fans should do: Remind people that he’s Ruben Brown.
Hester’s challenge for Canton: None. In January I noted that he’s a lock by 2027, and my best guess now is that he’ll go in by next year, with a shot at this year.
How hard is the road ahead? Easy. The hard part — convincing voters that a return specialist belongs in Canton — appears to be over.
With that behind him, Hester has another advantage on the ballot over his peers, which is that he has his own lane. Voters aren’t debating Hester vs. Return Man B. the way they have had to with Zach Thomas vs. Patrick Willis, Andre Johnson vs. Torry Holt, Alan Faneca vs. Steve Hutchinson, etc.
For Hester, the key sign was last year’s ballot:
- Steve Tasker: 20th and final year of eligibility. First made the semifinal round in his second year of eligibility (2004), and with 2022 made it a total of nine times, including the past three years. But never pushed to the finalist round.
- Devin Hester: First of 20 years of eligibility. Became just the second special teamer after Jan Stenerud to be a first-ballot finalist.
In short, with their last chance to elect Tasker before the senior committee, a guy who voters have already placed in their top 25 EIGHT times, voters leapt over him and put first-year eligible Devin Hester into the final 10. That’s how much they like 23.
What Bears fans should do: Enjoy the Hester ride to induction, celebrate his career and talk about his four teammates listed above.
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.
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