After more than 20 years of covering the 49ers, I was one of four rookies in the room on Saturday morning inside Room 350 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.
My first year as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 48-member Board of Selectors, it was my duty to open the discussion of Terrell Owens as one of the 15 modern-era finalists.
As luck had it, the wide receivers were randomly selected as the final position group to be talked about. And Owens’ presentation followed Isaac Bruce. My presentation was the final one of the day before the ballots were collected and tabulated by the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche.
During the course of the meeting, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue did not receive the required 80-percent vote from the selectors as a contributor nominee. Contributor Jerry Jones and seniors nominee Kenny Easley were voted in.
After three rounds of voting, the modern-era Class of 2017 to emerge consisted of Morten Andersen, Terrell Davis, Jason Taylor, LaDainian Tomlinson and Kurt Warner.
Owens did not even make it into the top 10.
It might be a #FlawedProcess, as Owens suggested with his hashtags on Twitter after receiving the call of bad news on Saturday evening, but I do not question the motives of the men and women in that room who set out to “honor the heroes of the game.”
It is an incredibly thorough process that culminates with a discussion that lasted more than eight hours on Saturday.
Each of the selectors with whom I’ve held conversations and who spoke on Saturday take this duty very seriously. And the detailed approaches were evident in the presentations and additional comments in the discussions of the 15 modern-era finalists and the nominees in the contributors and seniors categories.
The media members have tremendous resources available for them to form their opinions. And many of the selectors expressed -- not their personal opinions so much – but the observations, experiences and thoughts of many coaches, executives and players, including Hall of Famers, about the candidates.
Many times those outside-the-room resources were named – with the approval of those respected NFL men. Other times, their identities were withheld at the request of those individuals.
This year is the first time the Hall of Famers had a voice in the room. In fact, they had two voices. Dan Fouts and James Lofton made their debuts on the selection committee after sitting in on the process a year ago as observers. Fouts (CBS) and Lofton (Westwood One) are eligible to vote because of their status as working media.
The Owens Debate
The bylaws for the Selection Committee states:
“The only criteria for election into the Hall of Fame are a nominee’s achievements and contributions as a player, a coach or a contributor in professional football.”
While off-the-field issues are not to be weighed, it is up to each member to determine how literally to consider that guideline. Some consider the sideline and locker room to be an extension of the field.
Peter King of the MMQB explained in his column Monday: “If something factors into how or whether a player plays, and if something factors into a tangible effect on the team’s performance (such as leadership), we can consider it. In other words, we can extend the on-field factors to the locker room and practice field if we think that had a bearing on his team and his own play.”
(The voting takes place via secret ballot, but King disclosed he voted for Owens, as did I.)
My presentation of Terrell Owens included an acknowledgement he had uneasy relationships with his quarterbacks but those same quarterbacks – Jeff Garcia, Donovan McNabb and Tony Romo – also thrived with Owens as their top pass-catcher.
Garcia, McNabb and Romo each posted his best win-loss record in single seasons in which Owens averaged more than 1,300 yards receiving and 15 touchdowns.
The discussion lasted 32 minutes. Some in the room supported Owens’ induction as one of the top receivers in NFL history. But others raised concerns about his role in locker-room dramas that led to the 49ers, Eagles and Cowboys parting ways with him while he was in the prime of his career.
As a result, Owens did not make the cut from 15 to 10 for the second time in his two years of eligibility into the Hall of Fame.
The Final Five
There is a good chance the three remaining defensive backs – John Lynch, Brian Dawkins and Ty Law – and offensive linemen Tony Boselli and Kevin Mawae split the vote and, in essence, canceled each other out.
That left the modern-era top-five vote-getters as Tomlinson, Davis, Andersen, Warner and Taylor.
Tomlinson was such a lock for the Hall of Fame, that he was probably considered in a completely separate class. Therefore, it would seem, he did not have any kind of canceling-out impact on Davis.
Davis’ career consisted of three remarkable years in a row, including a 2,000-yard, 21-touchdown performance in 1998. He was the driving force that led the way to John Elway’s back-to-back Super Bowls before he retired.
What pushed Davis over the top were his performances in the playoffs. In those eight games – half an NFL regular season – Davis rushed for 1,140 yards and 12 touchdowns.
With Davis now out of the way, that could open the door for other running backs to get into the conversation, such as Roger Craig, in future years.
Next year, will be a big year for the safeties. Lynch and Dawkins should be expected to advance far in the process once again. But after next year, things could get difficult for the safety position with likely first-ballot Hall of Famers Ed Reed and Troy Palomalu becoming eligible for induction in 2019 and ’20, respectively.
Class of 2018?
The first five out from this year were those who advanced to the top 10 but were not inducted. That list is comprised of Lynch, Dawkins, Law, Boselli and Mawae.
The next five were Owens, Isaac Bruce, Joe Jacoby, Alan Faneca and Don Coryell.
Linebacker Ray Lewis and wide receiver Randy Moss are eligible for the first time. They are certain to be in the top 15. Linebacker Brian Urlacher is a strong candidate to advance as a finalist, too.
There are a lot of Hall-of-Fame worthy candidates who were left out this year, no doubt. And that’s not going to change any time soon. Next year will be the same. It’s unavoidable.
And that’s what makes the entire process is so agonizing for some and so rewarding for others.
Notable First-Time Eligibles
Class of 2018
Class of 2019
Class of 2020
Class of 2021
Source: The Pro Football Hall of Fame