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FNQB: Hall of Framing

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Current as of this Sunday, there will be 166 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who: 1) played a majority or all of their careers after 1950, 2) are in the hall of fame, at least primarily, due to an outstanding non-kicking playing career (eliminating Chuck Noll, Don Shula, and the like, but NOT Dick Lebeau or Lou Groza), and 3) retired after 1955 (so no Charlie Trippi or Bob Waterfield, but allowing for Otto Graham).  This can be called the “AV era”, based on the approximate value metric at pro-football-reference.

That might seem like an arbitrary cutoff, and it is.  But doing it this way allows me to eliminate all hall of famers with less than 50 career AV on one of the above grounds, and not muck up this analysis.  Yes, George Halas, Don Hutson, and Sammy Baugh deserve to be in the hall of fame.  Ignoring them in this analysis isn’t arguing to the contrary.  Doing it this way makes it easy to sort by career value and see some of the fringe hall of famers of all-time, the median hall of famer (James Lofton), the average (Howie Long), and so on.

I also produced very nice positional splits by doing it this way.  Of the 22 inducted hall of fame quarterbacks who fit the above definition — the four excused produced a nice cross-section of greats (Baugh and Luckman), median HOFers (Waterfield), and baffling picks (Jim Finks) — Dan Marino and John Unitas lead the pack.  We can see that the lowest rated QBs to make it include George Blanda, Joe Namath, and Troy Aikman.  We can infer through similarity that though Trent Green, Mark Brunell, Steve McNair, Rich Gannon, and Kurt Warner all come up just shy of the established hall of fame QB level, probability suggests that one of the four can get in if they can rally the voters behind them (it will be Warner).  It shows us that Donovan McNabb is quite close, though he will likely have to do something of significance in Washington to get in.

There are 15 defensive ends in the hall of fame, all of which fit the criteria.  Elvin Bethea, Fred Dean, and Lee Roy Selmon are the lowest rated players in the hall at that position, while Carl Eller, Bruce Smith, and Reggie White lead the way.  Deacon Jones is the median here.  Of the 18 DBs, Emmitt Thomas is the lowest ranked, and Rod Woodson the highest.

I’m not so much concerned about the positional rankings as much as I want to know: is it becoming easier or harder for players to get elected to the hall of fame.  While the veterans committee gets a bad rap for “lowering the standards of the hall of fame”, I have found little evidence that their picks are any worse than the writers committee’s are.  I’ll examine some of the more questionable picks of all eras, by first excluding first ballot hall of famers from an AV critique.  Gale Sayers might only have accrued 54 career AV, but he was voted into the hall of fame on the first try, eliminating the need to evaluate how his knee injury truncated his career out of context.  Doak Walker (50 AV), on the other hand, didn’t go in the HOF until 1986, 23 years after being first eligible.

This essay will henceforth break down hall of fame voting activity into five year periods, score the voting fairly (a first ballot hall of famer in 2007 is no different than a first ballot hall of famer in 1971) and in context of position and other critical factors (such as career shortening beyond control of the player).  At the end, I’ll make some predictions for the upcoming classes.

Hall of Fame Classes 2006-2010

The classes of this era had the benefit of electing some of the most slam dunk hall of famers in NFL history.  First ballot elections included: Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Bruce Smith, Rod Woodson, Darrell Green, Bruce Matthews, Reggie White, Troy Aikman, and Warren Moon.

I don’t think this was the era with the highest quantity of questionable selections, but they elected a lot of people in these five years — 29 in total, of which a high percentage (31%) were first ballot slam-dunks — and there are still a couple of really odd picks.

Charlie Sanders became the lowest rated TE in the hall of fame in 2007.  His pick is very passively defensible.  He doesn’t compare horribly to the six tight ends that preceded him, but when guys like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark, and Jason Witten are up for election, the fact that Sanders was elected in 2007 is a bit comical.  It not like you couldn’t have seen the role of the tight end changing in the near term future.  Worse is when Shannon Sharpe gets rejected on his first TWO tries.

The standards for a hall of fame wide receiver change violently from year to year, as just three receivers were admitted in these five years: Rice (duh), Art Monk, and Michael Irvin, all good choices.  Not admitted: Tim Brown, Andre Reed, and Cris Carter, all of whom have a pretty strong hall of fame resumes.  As the players who were responsible for turning the NFL into a passing league start to become eligible (Marvin Harrison: class of 2014), it’s trouble if Brown, Reed, and Carter haven’t already gotten in.

Defensively, neither Andre Tippett or Harry Carson is really up to standard for a hall of fame linebacker.  At least, not the previously established standard.  Rickey Jackson, who will go in on Saturday, absolutely, positively, yes.  Derrick Thomas was a good pick as well.  Try to guess which two of the four played their home games in the densely populated northeast.  Emmitt Thomas was certainly no Rod Woodson, but you can put that one on the veterans committee.  They did better with Roger Werhli a year prior (and botched it with ‘Bullet’ Bob Hayes last year).

AV struggles with offensive lineman, to be sure, as there’s not a lot of statistics to go on.  With that said, it almost certainly does a better job in hindsight than the voters.  About half the offensive lineman in the hall of fame made it to 100 AV — certainly then, that’s not the golden standard by which a hall of famer be judged.  But I think it’s reasonable to expect career value to be in the vicinity.  Russ Grimm, to be enshrined on Saturday, is the first (and so far, only) member of Washington’s mid-eighties OL to be in the hall of fame.  While I agree that you can’t shut the unit out, Grimm is in because he gradually pulled support from the much more deserving Joe Jacoby.  Grimm had a very strong, but short peak, and by age 28, his career was winding down.  That sounds like a hall of famer to me.  The other guards selected were good choices, particularly Randall McDaniel.  Gary Zimmerman was an excellent tackle, and Rayfield Wright is certainly not out of place amongst HOF tackles (though indistinguishable from Jacoby, who now won’t get in because Grimm did).

By far, the worst selection of this five year group was Floyd Little.  O.J. Simpson, who played in the exact same generation, is the hall of fame standard.  Floyd Little was practically an average player.  Just jawdropping.

Scorecard (2006-2010)

  • 29 inductees
  • 9 first-ballot inductees
  • 8 questionable selections (3 by veteran committee)
  • 60% LiveBall approval rating

Hall of Fame Classes 2001-2005

The best rated QB by AV was inducted in this period.  Dan Marino is the all-time AV leader among hall of fame quarterbacks.  He is NOT the all time leader among all quarterbacks: the leader is an active player who is going to be 34 this season.  Consider your mind blown.  Also elected: Steve Young, John Elway, and Jim Kelly.  Kelly is probably the most fringe QB elected in the past 20 years, but he fits in quite well historically.  Kelly does not strike me as a hall of famer from the modern game, but with George Blanda in the hall, it’s hard to complain too much.

Somehow, Elvin Bethea was elected to the hall of fame before Carl Eller.

Lynn Swann was the Sterling Sharpe of his generation.  How about a more modern comparison?  Swann was the Anquan Boldin of his generation.  Well, kind of.  Anyway, both he and teammate John Stallworth were elected to the hall of fame in consecutive years, which was highly controversial at the time.  Now with guys like Reed and Carter on the outside, it just seems all very, very stupid.  The 70’s Steelers may have been one of the three greatest dynasties of all time, but I’m really not sure they need four offensive players in the hall of fame from a unit that ranged between good and above average from year to year.

Scorecard (2001-2005)

  • 20 inductees (plus two from the pre-AV era)
  • 7 first-ballot inductees
  • 3 questionable selections (none by veteran committee)
  • 77% LiveBall approval rating

Hall of Fame Classes 1996-2000

This was not an era where voters were going crazy and inducting every player from the 80’s who ever did anything of note — only 20 players were elected in five years — but there were still many weird picks.

Joe Montana was the only QB elected in this five year span.  Ozzie Newsome was the only TE elected.

There were a few really odd choices for lineman.  Billy Shaw was a Bills guard in the AFL days.  He was regarded as one of the better guards in the AFL, going to many consecutive pro bowls.  He was eligible for the hall of fame in 1975, and wasn’t elected.  He was eligible in 1985, but no one really remembered him as more than an all-pro guard.  In 1995, still, not really being floated in hall of fame discussion.  Good AFL guards tend not to be great legacy hall of famers.  Only then, in 1999 Shaw was elected to the hall of fame.

Centers are underrepresented in the PFHOF, but Dwight Stephenson had a really short career.  He was the best in the business for Shula’s Dolphins in the mid-eighties.  Like Russ Grimm, he was retired in his early thirties.  Unlike Grimm, he didn’t go into the hall representing an entire unit or a team.  He was the best center in the game between 1983 and 1987.  Maybe that’s all you need to be a hall of famer.  Get Nick Mangold’s bust prepared now, am I right?

Dan Dierdorf fits in well in the hall of fame, but he and Rayfield Wright are the reasons that people feel that tackles are overpopulating the Hall compared to other spots on the OL.  I’m not for less offensive tackles, for the record, but electing interior lineman with short careers isn’t the answer either.

Mike Singletary and Lawrence Taylor were two of the five best linebackers of all time.  The third hall of fame linebacker elected in this era was, uh, Dave Wilcox.

The case of Tommie McDonald is tough.  He’s listed as a flanker, and there are very few flankers in the PFHOF.  He had some very good receiving seasons for the early 60’s Eagles, then went off and wasn’t much of a factor elsewhere.  The standard for receivers and ends in the Hall might be lower, but this is one of the few times that the committee has gone back and rewritten history.  McDonald wasn’t a game altering player, he was a pretty valuable early receiver in his youth.

Scorecard (1996-2000)

  • 20 inductees
  • 6 first-ballot inductees
  • 4 questionable selections
  • 71% LiveBall approval rating

Hall of Fame Classes 1991-1995

There were 18 inductees (excluding coaches, kickers, and executives), and 7 of those players went in on the first ballot.  Earl Campbell may have made it in just in time, as he was eligible just a year after Franco Harris, and a year before Walter Payton.  This is the first era where multiple tight ends have been elected, as John Mackey, Jackie Smith, and Kellen Winslow all made it in at the same time.

While it was nice to see an original Buccaneer get into Canton, I don’t know if Lee Roy Selmon really measures up to the lofty standard for ends.  He played nine effective seasons and hardly revolutionized the position.  This is more or less what Osi Umenyiora has done for the Giants since 2003, or Alex Brown for the Bears.

Earl Campbell had a fantastic peak at running back, as he collected more than 5,000 rushing yards in his first three seasons.  But that peak was short lived, and he declined after that.  Campbell seems like an odd first ballot hall of famer, perhaps he might not have gotten in if he had been rejected the first time or two.  Campbell’s peak was like Larry Johnson’s peak.  An amazing player for two or three seasons, and once workload did him in, he hung around for five or six more years as a marginally effective player.  I do not think that Larry Johnson is going to be in the Hall of Fame class of 2018.  Campbell was a much better selection, however, than Leroy Kelly, who had a four year peak between 1966-69 where he was over 4 yards per carry after taking over for Jim Brown in the Cleveland backfield.  Kelly had six other seasons under four yards per carry.  Like Ronnie Brown, maybe?

This era of inductees was all about the impressive peaks.  Part of this was because there weren’t a ton of slam dunk hall of famers up for election.  John Hannah, Steve Largent, Randy White, and Walter Payton were probably the best players to retire in the late 80’s.  Dan Fouts was the only quarterback elected, joining Joe Montana as the only two QBs elected between 1991-2000.

Scorecard (1991-1995)

  • 18 inductees
  • 7 first-ballot inductees
  • 3 questionable selections
  • 73% LiveBall approval rating

Hall of Fame Classes 1986-1990

This was a quarterback era, as all the legendary passers of the seventies went into the Hall about the same time.  Fran Tarkenton was clearly the best.  And then there was a not-so-shabby rest: Terry Bradshaw, Len Dawson, and Bob Griese.  Not one of these three players was more deserving than Ken Anderson, but are all equally deserving of hall of fame honors.  It was a strong era as well: Ted Hendricks got pushed out of first ballot consideration because Mel Blount and Terry Bradshaw were first ballots in that same year.  The 70s were a defense-heavy era, and these classes certainly reflected that.

It’s hard to critique any of the defensive guys elected in these years because those are some of the greatest defensive players ever.  The offensive record was a bit more spotty.  Offensive tackle Bob St. Clair of the 49ers was elected in 1990.  He was a 5 time pro bowler, but zero times all-pro.  He appeared in fewer games than any player elected from 1987-1990.  Fred Biletnikoff might have made the PFHOF based heavily on his college career.  His career with the Raiders is long and impressive, but undistinguished from the deep threat who played across from him, Cliff Branch.  Branch to this day remains on the outside.

Two stars of the 60’s whose careers don’t look very good on paper are Don Maynard of the Jets, and Paul Hornung of the Packers.  Maynard played for a very long time, 15 seasons, but only made a difference when Joe Namath was QB of the Jets.  Hornung got turned down from the Hall 14 times, mostly because he was just a pick to represent Vince Lombardi’s Packers who rushed for more than 400 yards just three times, and never more than seven hundred yards.  Doak Walker was one of the most versatile players in history, but probably didn’t revolutionize the kicking game enough to be termed an ‘innovator.’  He was a very good runner and a very good receiver, four times ranking in the top ten in yards from scrimmage.  He probably isn’t a hall of fame professional (college, on the other hand…).

Scorecard (1986-1990)

  • 26 inductees
  • 9 first-ballot inductees
  • 7 questionable selections (all on offense)
  • 59% LiveBall approval rating

Hall of Fame Classes 1981-1985

I made an exception for Bobby Mitchell here, who might not have had a hall of fame playing career, except that he was famous for breaking the color barrier with the Washington Redskins, and is probably deserving of the nomination for that alone.  Without him, 16 players were inducted in this era.

In these days, it’s tough to figure out which wide receivers were thought to be dangerous open field players, and which simply played in an offense ahead of their time.  A guy like Charley Taylor is probably a case of both, playing most of his career with one of the great pure passers of all time, Sonny Jurgensen, but in an era where he was really the only Redskin weapon on some really dreadful teams.  He’s not the greatest offensive player in NFL history, but I think he’s a hall of famer.  Paul Warfield (if not Don Hutson), might have been the greatest pre-Rice receiver in history.  Doug Atkins, Bob Lilly, and Bobby Bell don’t get nearly enough mention when talking about the greatest defensive players.  Deacon Jones probably gets too much attention (though clearly, the definition of a Hall of Fame player).

This group had a few all-time greats on the line, but offensive tackle Mike McCormack likely isn’t among them.  George Blanda went in on the first ballot, despite never being a great pro quarterback.  He did do a lot to help the AFL grow, and had that one magical season with the Raiders, but…bleh.

Overall, the inductees between 1981-1985 were probably the best chosen group of all time by the voters.

Scorecard (1981-1985)

  • 16 inductees
  • 6 first-ballot hall of famers
  • 2 questionable selections
  • 88% LiveBall approval rating

Hall of Fame Classes 1976-1980

As I creep closer to the pre-AV era, I’m going to begin to start eliminating more and more inductees from discussion on the basis of when their careers occurred.

There are a lot of early tackles who made the hall of fame in an era where their position wasn’t highly valued compared to interior lineman, and they weren’t all that awesome anyway, which is why a lot of people feel tackles overpopulate the Hall.  Ron Mix may be an example of this phenomenon, but Forest Gregg was ahead of his time, even before his coaching days.

Lance Alworth probably paved the way for Lynn Swann to be selected, with his graceful highlight reel and somewhat underwhelming statistical career..  Alworth was a great weapon in the Coryell offense.  Frank Gifford also likely comes up short by most hall of fame standards, but he was a do-it-all golden boy for a New York club, and likely a more prolific player than Paul Hornung by comparison.

The low approval rate is merely a function of so many players being elected first-ballot.

Scorecard (1976-1980)

  • 17 inductees
  • 11 first-ballot inductees
  • 3 questionable selections
  • 50% LiveBall approval rate

Hall of Fame Classes 1970-1975

This group will conclude the analysis.  We’re looking at just 17 players who went into the hall in this era.  16 of which, are legitimate, no frills, hall of famers.

Some of the first ballots from this era: Gino Marchetti, Jim Brown, Hugh McElhenny, and Ollie Matson.  Matson is one of the great kick returners in NFL history, but he had limited offensive value.  He was a touchdown scorer in a variety of ways, the Josh Cribbs of his time.  Very, very fringe for a first ballot hall of famer.

Especially so, when you consider players who didn’t make it on their first try in this era: Andy Robustelli, Lou Groza, Raymond Berry, Night Train Lane, Bill George, Lenny Moore, and Y.A. Tittle.

The high approval rating is a function of such a low percentage of first-ballot hall of famers.

Scorecard (1970-1975)

  • 17 inductees
  • 4 first-ballot hall of famers
  • 1 questionable selection
  • 92% LiveBall approval rating

Conclusions and predictions

There are a few conclusions that can be drawn from this research:

  1. The bar is higher in the pro football hall of fame on the defensive line than at any other position.  It is lower at receiver and tight end than other positions.  Running back, half backs, and flanker types, especially ones who return kicks, have been able to get in doing less than any other positions, but these days, it’s tough to get in as a RB with less than 100 AV.
  2. In the last ten years, about one-third of all players who get in (excluding first-ballots) are selections based on reasons outside of accomplishments during a playing career.  In the thirty years of inductees prior to that, the percentage of odd selections was more than five percent lower.  I went in with a hypothesis that the voters were getting more accurate with time, but this appears to be disproven.
  3. One possible reason for the disparity is that there is now a hall of fame veterans committee that gets to nominate two players for inclusion each year.  But there’s no evidence to suggest that the veterans committee is picking any worse than the writers are, unless you limit the sample to include just the last three years, in which case, you have sample issues.  Russ Grimm, Fred Dean, Floyd Little, Lynn Swann, and John Stallworth were all nominated and inducted by the writers, and even with the veterans committee, the writers are primarily responsible for these players being in Canton while Reed, Brown, Sharpe, and Carter all wait.

There are a pair of Chiefs’ lineman available over the next two years, it would be a travesty if Willie Roaf isn’t elected the first ballot next year, and if Will Shields isn’t elected in the 2012 class.  One year after that, Tom Nalen will have an interesting case.  Interior lineman are under-represented, but there are some good ones coming up for election in the next few years.

I predict Tim Brown will have to wait the longest of all the available receivers.  I think Shannon Sharpe, Andre Reed, and Cris Carter all get in next year.  By 2012, Brown should be in, but there will be one more HOF player that comes eligible at that time: Rod Smith.

Warren Sapp might not be thought of as a first ballot player, but the statistics disagree.  He was a better player than John Randle.  I think Aeneas Williams will get more push in future seasons, and he will be the next defensive back who makes the trip to Canton.  I think when Brian Urlacher becomes eligible in about seven years, he’s going to have one of the most hotly debated cases in memory.  I think Torry Holt will be just as violently debated.

Finally, I’m taking the Bengals to beat the Cowboys in the Hall of Fame game Sunday.  Congrats to this year’s class and all hall of fame inductes, and welcome back, pro football!

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