I’ve long desired someone to upload to YouTube a highlight reel of all of Devin Hester’s long returns that did not reach the endzone, because that reel is only marginally less thrilling than his touchdown reel. Anyone who watched Devin knows that while there was nothing more exciting than seeing him cross the goalline, there were plenty of great returns that merely drained the life from our opponent’s eyes.
We often scored a few plays later.
I say all of that to say that for the second year of his Pro Football Hall of Fame eligibility, Devin Hester once again out-performed every pure returner in NFL history and finished as a finalist, coming up just short of the endzone, as it were, as he has not been named to the class of 2023.
The five players chosen among the 15 modern-era finalists:
- Ronde Barber, cornerback, Buccaneers
- Darrelle Revis, cornerback, Jets/Bucs/Patriots
- Joe Thomas, offensive tackle, Browns
- Zach Thomas, middle linebacker, Dolphins
- DeMarcus Ware, outside linebacker, Cowboys/Broncos
It’s a phenomenal class, and while Bears fans are dying to celebrate Hester getting his gold jacket, the voting trends show just how historic his candidacy has been, and how soon he’ll have his bronze bust.
Along with the class of five, the Hall of Fame announcement will eventually include the five modern-era players who reached “the second five,” finishing 6th through 10th. Not surprisingly, making the second five is an indicator that you’ll be in the Hall soon enough. Since the start of the semifinalist era in 2004, 48 players have reached at least the final 10 in their first year of eligibility, most recently Hester, Johnson and Ware last year. Of the 48, 31 were elected on the first ballot. Another 13 were elected on either the 2nd or 3rd, including DeMarcus Ware this year.
You have to go back to 2009 to find one elected on his 5th ballot (Derrick Thomas) and back to 2008 to find one elected on his 6th ballot (Cris Carter). That means Hester is on track to get in next year. Even if he doesn’t — if he becomes the outlier — maybe he waits four or five years max.
Point is, Devin Hester’s day is coming. When it does, he’ll have done it how he did everything else in his career: faster than everyone else.
OTHER NOTES ON THE 2023 CLASS
All four other finalists were elected
Along with the above five inductees, the PFHOF class of 2023 includes:
- Coach/Contributor: Don Coryell, head coach, Cardinals/Chargers
- Senior: Chuck Howley, linebacker, Cowboys
- Senior: Joe Klecko, defensive tackle, Jets
- Senior: Ken Riley, cornerback, Bengals
Unlike the modern-era finalists, the coach/contributor and senior finalists aren’t pitted against each other. Voters vote on each independently, yes or no, with each candidate needing 80% “yes” to be elected. These four were expected.
Lessons from Ronde Barber: how to continue the push for Steve McMichael and Wilber Marshall
With the 2023 class determined, Hall of Fame voters will turn their attention to the class of 2024 seniors, which will play out over the summer. The frontrunners are the three players who finished 4th through 6th in the 2023 vote: Randy Gradishar, Bob Kuechenberg and Sterling Sharpe.
But much is still unknown about how the senior pool will continue to play out the next two years, and as Bears fans continue the push for Steve McMichael and even Wilber Marshall, one important benchmark set in 2023 is that the Tony Dungy-era Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense, they of one Super Bowl appearance and one championship, now have four Hall of Famers: Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Ronde Barber.
Any argument that the ‘85 Bears defense does not deserve a fourth Hall of Famer is now out the window, as that defense was superior to the Bucs, whether Super Bowl year to Super Bowl year, or comparing extended runs, with the Ditka/Buddy defense going on a historic run from ‘84 to ‘88 and an extended quality run from ‘83 to ‘91.
The next Bears modern-era candidates — and our shift to Briggs
As I outlined in October, Bears fans don’t need to do much more to push Hester into Canton. He’ll be in soon, likely next year. And they don’t need to do much pushing for Charles Tillman, who remains in a unique situation with a resume that improves in retirement. Olin Kreutz is a good area of attention, though that depends on whether the voters start inducting centers more than about once per decade.
Ruben Brown is getting later in his eligibility, and I hope Bills fans push him too. Julius Peppers comes on the ballot next year and could be a first-ballot guy.
So the guy Bears fans should talk about is Lance Briggs, who next year in his 5th year of eligibility is already reaching a danger point due to the vast number of linebackers either on the ballot ahead of him (Zach Thomas, Patrick Willis, London Fletcher, James Harrison) or becoming eligible soon, including Luke Kuechly, Terrell Suggs, Bobby Wagner, Von Miller and Khalil Mack.
If you want to talk up a Bear’s case, Briggs is your starting point.
I could compile stats for days on why @LanceBriggs is a Hall of Famer, but sometimes it's just best to remember how you felt watching the dude. To remember a linebacker with the power to wreck Calvin Johnson and speed to run back 70+ yard INTs. 55 was no joke. #BearDown pic.twitter.com/2SwJ61sZzj— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) August 15, 2018
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.
*** 11:00 p.m. UPDATE ***
Hall of Fame voter Clark Judge has published his outstanding inside look at the voting process, and we have a few interesting pieces of information:
Hester dropped. Hester didn’t just miss the class: he dropped from the top 10 to the top 15. Here are the groups:
- Top 15: Willie Anderson, Dwight Freeney, Devin Hester, Patrick Willis, Darren Woodson
- Top 10: Jared Allen, Torry Holt, Andre Johnson, Albert Lewis, Reggie Wayne
Of those five guys in the top 10, only Johnson was there last year. The other four (and we’ll get to the WRs shortly) all jumped Hester.
Looking ahead for Hester, only two guys in the semifinals era (2004-2023) have dropped down a stage and gotten into Canton the next year: Rickey Jackson went from the semis to off the ballot to the Hall in 2010, and Bryant Young went from the top 15 to the semis to the Hall in 2022.
Ten other players in this era (or who spent most of their eligibility in this era) dropped down a slot and eventually got elected, but it took two or more years:
Guys who dropped down a stage and then got in, but not the next year:— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) February 10, 2023
* 10➡️15: Monk (twice), Dent, DT, Carter, Lynch
* 10➡️15➡️25: Zimmerman
* 15➡️25: Atwater, Young, James
* 25➡️off ballot: Doleman@WCGridiron @Profhofcantonf @clarkjudgeTOF https://t.co/IXbTg83leP
Hester was one of the committee’s longest discussions. Also in Clark’s story are the discussion times for each candidate. At 31 minutes, 55 seconds, Devin Hester was the third longest candidate debate, behind only Reggie Wayne at 33:48 and 20-year man Albert Lewis at 33:39.
If I can read between the lines on these numbers, voters took an awfully long time debating on whether to move Hester from the 15 to the 10, but for some reason took only 10 and a half minutes to vote Jared Allen up a stage. I don’t want to say that bodes poorly for Hester (ultimately, he’s getting in) but I don’t love it.
The full list — I’ve rounded the numbers:
Discussion times, via @clarkjudgeTOF:— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) February 10, 2023
26 - Revis
20 - Zach
16 - Joe
15 1/2 - Ware
12 - Barber
34 - Wayne
33 1/2 - Lewis
23 - Holt
10 1/2 - Allen
10 - Johnson
32 - Hester
16 1/2 - Freeney
11 - Anderson
9 - Willis
8 - Woodsonhttps://t.co/RhlZqzkSkx
The WR problem is about to pop. The voters placed 7 WRs among the 28 semifinalists, and 3 WRs among the 15 finalists. One of those WRs, Henry Ellard, is now a senior, and because voters kicked the WR problem down the road another year, we enter 2024 with three WR finalists needing to get in promptly, and Larry Fitzgerald waiting in the wings for 2026.
But voters also made a change with the WRs. In 2022, Andre Johnson finished in the top 10 while Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne finished in the top 15. Instead of voting Johnson in and then moving likely Holt (due to seniority) up to the 10, which would have set them up to vote in Holt next year, move Wayne to the 10 and move, maybe, Hines Ward to the 15, the voters went another way, voting three WRs in the top 10: Holt, Johnson, Wayne.
They’re going to have to pull the band-aid off soon.
Leading contenders for the 2024 class
- New on the ballot: Julius Peppers, Antonio Gates
- Remaining 6-10: Allen, Holt, Johnson, Wayne
- Remaining 11-15: Anderson, Freeney, HESTER, Willis, Woodson
REMAINING SEMIFINALISTS, by fewest years remaining:
- Eric Allen/Ricky Watters (2026), Rodney Harrison (2023)
- Fred Taylor (2035), Hines Ward (2036), London Fletcher (2038)
- Anquan Boldin/Robert Mathis/Steve Smith/Vince Wilfork (2041), Jahri Evans/James Harrison (2042)
- 2024 final year: Leslie O’Neal, Tim McDonald, Daryl Johnston
- 2025 final year: Ben Coates, Neil Smith, Cornelius Bennett
- 2026 final year: Randall Cunningham, Carnell Lake, Ricky Watters, Eric Allen, Steve Wisniewski
- 2027 final year: Richmond Webb, Herman Moore, Lomas Brown
PAST SEMIFINALISTS who could pop up:
- Eddie George, 2022
- Cornelius Bennett, 2021
- Simeon Rice, 2020, 2018
- Steve Wisniewski, 2014
OTHERS I’m pulling for to start their ballot include Lorenzo Neal, Ruben Brown, Olin Kreutz, Tom Nalen... and of course: Lance Briggs