The Pro Football Hall of Fame will grow by seven members this week when the Class of 2014 is enshrined.
There are no former Patriots set for induction - though New England fans may cringe to see ex-Giants lineman Michael Strahan (he of the Super Bowl XLII win against the Patriots) among the class. Also set for induction are Derrick Brooks, Ray Guy, Claude Humphrey, Walter Jones, Andre Reed, and Aeneas Williams.
The last Patriots players inducted into the Hall of Fame were Curtis Martin in 2012 (though most of his Canton-worthy achievements came as a member of the Jets) and Andre Tippett in 2008. Former Patriots coach Bill Parcells was also inducted last year.
So it’s fair to wonder: Will a parade of former Patriots soon be making their way to Canton as a reflection of the franchise’s sustained run of success since 2001? The Patriots, remember, are one of only two teams to have won three Super Bowls in four seasons. The other, the 1990s Cowboys, has had five players (Larry Allen, Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith) enshrined. Other NFL dynasties have fared similarly well in Canton. The 1980s 49ers have six stakeholders (Fred Dean, Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young, and coach Bill Walsh), while the 1970s Steelers have a whopping 10 Hall of Famers (Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, Mike Webster, and coach Chuck Noll - plus team owner Art Rooney).
Those other dynasties set the Hall of Fame bar high -- probably too high for the Patriots to reach.
Why? Part of it is that, other than Tom Brady, the Patriots weren’t really built around superstar players in the Belichick era. There were times when superstars have been added (Randy Moss, Darrelle Revis). But in general the philosophy of the Belichick era has been to teach players to overachieve – which is how they developed Brady from a sixth-round pick into the face of the franchise.
But there are stars from this Patriots era whom the Hall of Fame committee will have to consider. Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest, and Rodney Harrison all have worthy resumes. But most of them will likely come away disappointed. The electors for the Hall of Fame have a very difficult job – cull through an annual list of more than 100 nominees to find a maximum of five new inductees (two others can be elected through the veterans committee).
Every year a new crop of players is added to that list, and they must be judged against finalists who’ve been left waiting in past years. And the task has only gotten harder as the league has expanded.
Next year, two former Patriots, Junior Seau and Ty Law, will become eligible for the first time. So let’s consider what the pipeline from Foxborough in the Brady era (2001-now) to Canton looks like:
SHOO-INS: Tom Brady (active)
No active player should be called a “future Hall of Famer.” (Just look at the lack of plaques in Cooperstown, N.Y., for Roger Clemens, Pete Rose, and Barry Bonds for why.) But Brady’s on-field performance makes him as close to a lock for a bust in Canton as there can be. For starters, he’s one of just four quarterbacks ever to win three Super Bowls (and fellow three-timers Aikman, Montana and Bradshaw already have been bronzed). But Brady’s accomplishments extend far beyond the three Super Bowls he won in his first four years as a starter. He’s added two league MVP awards. He’s never had a losing season. He set a record for touchdown passes in one season with his 50 scores in 2007. He has won more playoff games (18) than any quarterback in NFL history. In sum, Brady has dominated for a generation in the NFL.
Projection: IN. Brady will be elected in his first year of eligibility.
Bill Belichick (active)
Belichick looks like a no-brainer for enshrinement. He’s currently sixth on the all-time win list, and all five coaches ahead of him are already in (Don Shula, George Halas, Tom Landry, Curly Lambeau, and Paul Brown). He’s the only coach in NFL history to win three Super Bowls in four years and only one man (Chuck Noll) has won more Super Bowls (4). The other coaches with three Super Bowl victories (Joe Gibbs, Bill Walsh) are also enshrined. About the only thing that could detract from Belichick’s resume is the stain of Spygate. But the NFL passed judgment on that, and – absent new evidence of something that detracts from Belichick’s legacy – it’s unlikely committee members would seek to impose more sanctions on Belichick to keep him out of Canton.
Projection: IN. Belichick is subject to the same five-year waiting period that players are when he retires. After that, expect that he will enter the Hall of Fame early in his eligibility window.
Junior Seau (2015)
Hard to see how Seau doesn’t end up in Canton. But his bust wasn't earned in Foxborough. Rather, it was in San Diego, where the late Seau was probably the NFL’s best linebacker during the 1990s. From 1991, Seau’s second year in the NFL, to 2002, he was a Pro Bowler every season (while missing just eight games). Seau, like Brady, dominated for a generation at his position. He was a tackling machine and became the face of the Chargers (whom he led to their only Super Bowl in the 1994 season). And while Seau won’t be remembered as a Patriot, he was a quality complementary player when he arrived in New England in 2006. He was also a member of the 16-0 squad in 2007 before playing in his second Super Bowl.
Projection: IN. Seau will have a bust. It’s not a slam-dunk that he enters in his first year of eligibility. But there may be a groundswell to honor him quickly as a memorial after his 2012 passing.
GOOD CANDIDATES: Robert Kraft (eligible)
Given the prominence he has assumed in the league, it’s conceivable Kraft (who was a nominee the past two years) will earn a ticket to Canton. There are 12 team owners in the Hall of Fame, yet only four of them have been enshrined since 1972. Those four – Al Davis, Wellington Mara, Dan Rooney, and Ralph Wilson – were lions of the league who helped the NFL grow. Kraft has presided over one of the most consistently dominant stretches by a team in NFL history, which works in his favor. He also is credited as a consensus builder who helped end the 2011 work stoppage, another significant chit. And he’s at the forefront of the plans to shape the NFL’s business strategy, along with having the ear of commissioner Roger Goodell. But team owners have to enter the Hall of Fame through the same vetting progress as players – and they count against the limit of five modern-era inductees per year (though the Hall has said it may reconsider these rules). It can be hard for the committee to measure a team owner’s contributions against a player’s on-field accomplishments. Plus, Kraft isn’t the only owner being considered. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., and late Browns/Ravens owner Art Modell were among the team owners who were nominees last year, and DeBartolo advanced as a semifinalist.
Projection: IN. Kraft will go to Canton, but not merely on his impact in league business circles. It will be the Patriots’ success that carries him. No team has more wins (238), titles (3) or Super Bowl appearances (6) since Kraft bought the team in 1994. And the fact that he turned the Patriots from a consistent bottom-feeder into an NFL cornerstone adds to his legacy. (Note: There is no retirement/waiting period for owners to be considered.)
Ty Law (2015)
Law is not a slam dunk for enshrinement, but he has a strong case. He was one of the preeminent cornerbacks of his era, as his designation as a second-team member of the Team of the 2000s (with Ronde Barber, behind Champ Bailey and Charles Woodson) attested. Law shut down top receivers for more than a decade. He had 53 career interceptions, 36 of which came with the Patriots when he made his biggest impact. Working in Law’s favor are the three Super Bowls he won in New England, which will enhance his resume. (His 47-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVI would be nice to include in his cover letter to the Hall of Fame committee to remind them of his championship pedigree.)
Projection: IN. He won’t be a first-ballot member, but he’ll end up in Canton.
Randy Moss (2018)
Moss has the credentials to wear a yellow blazer. His entry would be threatened (delayed is more likely) by two factors, however: his cranky attitude and, more importantly, the bottleneck of receivers waiting for enshrinement. Only one player in NFL history has caught more touchdowns than Moss’ 156 - Jerry Rice (197). While Moss made his name in his eight seasons in Minnesota, he wouldn’t have a Hall of Fame-worthy resume without his years in New England where he was the most explosive weapon Tom Brady ever had. Moss caught 50 touchdowns in his four seasons in New England, and twice as a Patriot led the NFL in the category – including his record-setting 23 in 2007. Receivers have had a notoriously long wait for the Hall. Reed, for example, retired after the 2000 season and is just going in now. Cris Carter, whose career numbers compare well with Moss, entered last year after waiting more than a decade. The receivers wing of the Hall of Fame is sort of like a February flight to Florida the morning after a crippling snowstorm – there’s just not enough seats available to accommodate everyone. So Moss should prepare to wait. Players like Tim Brown and Marvin Harrison have been bypassed by voters thus far. And Terrell Owens, Torry Holt, and Isaac Bruce will be eligible before Moss. (One other thing to note: It’s possible this golden age of passing numbs voters to the eye-popping career totals many receivers are amassing. Unlikely that keeps Moss out of Hall in the end, but it could extend his wait.)
Projection: IN. Moss should not expect a quick call, however.
|Hall of Fame-worthy receivers?|
|A look at receivers in or in contention for Canton:|
|Player||Rec.||Rec. TD||Rec. Yd||Status|
|Randy Moss||982||156||15,292||Eligible for Class of 2018|
|Cris Carter||1,101||130||13,899||Hall of Famer|
|Tim Brown||1,094||100||14,934||Currently eligible|
|Andre Reed||951||87||13,198||Hall of Famer|
|Terrell Owens||1,078||153||15,934||Eligible for Class of 2016|
|Marvin Harrison||1,102||128||14,580||Currently eligible|
|Isaac Bruce||1,024||91||15,208||Eligible for Class of 2015|
|Torry Holt||920||74||13,382||Eligible for Class of 2015|
Adam Vinatieri (active)
Vinatieri is the most accomplished kicker of his generation and one of the most decorated in NFL history. At any other position, that would qualify him for a yellow blazer. But because he’s a kicker, there will be considerable debate about whether he belongs in Canton. There’s only one pure kicker in the Hall of Fame, Jan Stenerud, and he will be joined this year by the first punter in Ray Guy (elected via the veterans committee). Vinatieri’s statistics aren’t really what will be debated, as he ranks highly in the key kicking categories. But what separates him from the likes of Morten Andersen, Jason Hanson, Jason Elam, et al., are his clutch performances, particularly in the postseason. Highlighting his resume are his two kicks in the snow to power the Patriots’ playoff win over the Raiders in 2002 or his clock-beating, championship-clinching kick in Super Bowl XXXVI two weeks later. Vinatieri went on to boot two more Super Bowl-winning kicks and to contribute to another title with the Colts. Vinatieri’s foot has authored some of the most exciting moments in NFL history, and the debate for committee members will be whether those moments are worth putting a kicker in a yellow blazer for just the second time.
Projection: IN. Vinatieri will go to Canton, but after a long wait. It’s possible that the veterans committee may have to recognize him years from now.
LONG SHOTS: Rob Gronkowski (active)
It’s obviously too early to say Gronkowski is on a Hall of Fame track. But Gronkowski has smashed some NFL records in his first four seasons, which is a level of play that if sustained would lead him onto a path toward Canton. For example, he was the fastest tight end ever to record 40 touchdown passes, which he did in 47 games. His 1,327 receiving yards in 2011 also set an NFL record for tight ends. His numbers stand out when compared Shannon Sharpe, who was enshrined in 2011. Sharpe had 62 career touchdown catches. Gronkowski already has 42. But he’s still a long way from catching up to Tony Gonzalez’s 111 scores. A key for both Sharpe and Gonzalez was longevity. Admission to Canton requires a career’s worth of sustained excellence, and Gronkowski’s career is still very young.
Projection: OUT. Gronkowski’s injury history, both in college and with the Patriots, suggests he will not be durable enough to have a bronze bust.
|Hall of Fame-worthy tight ends?|
|A look at how Gronkowski's stats compare with notable tight ends:|
|Player||Rec.||Rec. TD||Rec. Yd||Status|
|Shannon Sharpe||815||62||10,060||Hall of Famer|
|Tony Gonzalez||1,325||111||15,127||Retired after 2013 season. Would be eligible for Class of 2019|
Rodney Harrison (eligible)
It will be hard for Harrison to be elected, as his first year of eligibility showed last year when he failed to make the round of 25 semifinalists. His resume is certainly impressive, as his 30.5 sacks set a record for most by a defensive back and he was the first member of the NFL’s version of the 30/30 club (30 sacks and 30 interceptions). Harrison was a bone-rattling hitter who made an impact thwarting passing and running games during his 15 seasons in San Diego and New England. But his reputation as a dirty player (he was once voted the NFL’s dirtiest by his peers) and his 2007 suspension for HGH use don’t help his cause. And while Harrison won two Super Bowls in New England, he made just three Pro Bowl teams (and was twice an All-Pro). Perhaps a bigger factor though is the high bar that safeties normally have to reach for enshrinement. Aeneas Williams will mark just the third safety to be enshrined this century when he goes to Canton this weekend, but he’s also going in based on his success as a cornerback, something the other two recent safety inductees (Rod Woodson and Ronnie Lott) also had on their resumes. Harrison didn’t have their versatility. The Hall of Fame doors may open wider to safeties in the future when Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu become eligible, but it’s hard to see Harrison wearing yellow before them.
Projection: OUT. Will have to settle for a red blazer in the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Logan Mankins (active)
It’s not crazy to think that Mankins could be building a Hall of Fame candidacy. He’s been a Pro Bowler six times in nine seasons, with one All-Pro year. At 32, if he continues to play at a high level for several more seasons (and especially if he wins a Super Bowl), he could thrust himself into the conversation.
Projection: OUT. If his career ended now, he would not get in. With 4-5 more years of standout play, he’s a contender. But probably still no. The bar is set high, as 12-time Pro Bowler Will Shields, who retired after the 2006 season, has still not been elected.
Willie McGinest (eligible)
The big thing McGinest has going for him is that he was a linchpin on a defense that went to four Super Bowls and won three. He spanned two eras with the Patriots and was part of the core, with Drew Bledsoe and Bill Parcells, that helped resuscitate the Patriots in the mid-90s. Then he was a key veteran on the title-winning teams of the early 2000s. He doesn’t have eye-popping personal stats, though his 86 career sacks rank 44th all time. McGinest has questioned the selection process. He told Sports Illustrated that he wants to know what criteria the committee is using. “If it’s play alone, if it’s a sack thing, a behavioral thing, how you acted with the media, if it’s a Super Bowl thing ... I’m not really sure,” he said. Compare McGinest to Hall of Famer Andre Tippett, and the path to Canton looks foreboding. In four fewer seasons, Tippett collected 14 more sacks and had five Pro Bowl nods to McGinest’s two. Those numbers don’t reflect all of McGinest’s game or his postseason success, but they suggest it won’t be easy for him to get in – especially since Tippett waited a decade to be voted in. McGinest’s first exposure to the committee didn’t go well. He was not named one of the 25 semifinalists last year.
Projection: OUT. He’ll have pockets of support on the committee, but not enough to earn him a yellow blazer.
Richard Seymour (2018)
Seymour had a dominating start to his career. In his first six seasons, he won three Super Bowls, was a Pro Bowler five times and an All-Pro three times. And he excelled while also being versatile. Inside or out, he was adept at rushing the passer and containing the run game. Seymour posted 39 sacks in his eight seasons in New England, then 18.5 more in his final four seasons in Oakland. But numbers are not a great gauge of a defensive lineman’s impact. Seymour was the best player on a Patriots defensive line that was essential to its three titles in the early 2000s. And he was a member of the NFL’s Team of the 2000s. But the committee may wonder about the dropoff in the second half of Seymour’s career. He went on to make two more Pro Bowl teams in his Oakland years, but he never reached the super-elite status he had early in his career. (And although Seymour was hailed as a veteran who would teach the Raiders how to win, the team never had a winning record in his time in Oakland.) Committee members may question whether that warrants a perpetual home in Canton.
Projection: OUT. It’s unlikely. Seymour just didn’t play at an elite level for long enough. Consider other recent defensive lineman who have gone to Canton - Warren Sapp, Cortez Kennedy, Chris Doleman. They were dominant for longer periods of time. Perhaps Seymour’s Super Bowl rings will shine brightly when the committee considers him. But Seymour looks like someone whose Hall of Fame candidacy will crest as a semifinalist.
Vince Wilfork (active)
Wilfork has been a dominant presence and a game-changing influence for many years along the Patriots defensive line. He pressures quarterbacks. He causes turnovers. He occupies multiple blockers to free up teammates. He has been, in short, a menace to offenses and one of the premier linemen of his generation. Is that enough to get him into Canton? It’s a tough call. He’ll need the committee to appreciate his impact since it doesn’t bleed through on the stat sheet. Wilfork has just 16 career sacks, and Hall of Fame linemen tend to have more than his five Pro Bowl appearances. The three Super Bowls — and one championship won as a rookie — will help Wilfork’s case. Of course, he can still add to his resume if he returns strong this season from the Achilles injury that limited him to four games last year.
Projection: OUT. Wilfork, as his career stands now, probably wouldn’t get in. Peers like Julius Peppers and DeMarcus Ware may stand out more to the committee because of their gaudy sack totals. But with another title, Wilfork would be a tough guy for the committee to say no to.
NOT GOING IN
Deion Branch (2019): He was never a Pro Bowler, never had a thousand-yard receiving season, and only has 39 career touchdowns.
Troy Brown (eligible): Another player beloved by Patriots fans, Brown simply isn’t Canton-caliber. His enthusiasm and versatility were endearing, but he has only 31 career touchdowns.
Tedy Bruschi (eligible): Patriots fans revere Bruschi, as he was an indelible part of the Super Bowl-winning era. But the linebacker went to just one Pro Bowl. He did not advance to the round of 25 semifinalists in his first time on the ballot last year.
Matt Light (2017): Light was a terrific protector for Tom Brady over 11 seasons at left tackle. But he wasn’t in the same class as new Hall of Famer Walter Jones – who was an annual Pro Bowl staple. That’s the caliber of left tackle that goes to Canton.
Asante Samuel (active): Samuel says he’s a Hall of Famer, but there probably aren’t many committee members who agree with the cornerback. His 51 interceptions (32nd all time) are impressive. But he has had an inconsistent career, and his tackling skills never could match his knack for interceptions.
Wes Welker (active): Welker’s numbers merit consideration, but the debate probably won’t last long. When he was in New England, Welker caught an eye-popping 672 passes over six seasons. That helped vault him into 24th place on the all-time receptions list, where his 841 catches put him now. But Welker does not have the longevity to make him stand out among what will surely be a crowded corps of would-be Hall of Fame receivers by the time he retires.