How Can We Really Improve The HOF Voting Process?

The Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony took place this past weekend, and while we are all aware about the field issues that led to the cancellation of the Hall of Fame game, I’m not here to discuss that. Instead, my attention focuses on the Pro Football Hall of Fame itself.

I’ve written previously about this subject, but wanted to examine the process by which members are selected, what are really the problems with the process and what might be done to address it.

My point is to get discussion steered in a better direction than what tends to be the usual cries about the process.

Bias Will Exist In Every Voting Process

One of the unfortunate truths about any voting method is that you can’t remove bias from the equation. When it comes to pro football, everyone is going to have a bias to some degree. There is bias in favor of a certain team, a certain player or a certain position. There is bias against certain players and positions. And there is bias in terms of how we perceive what matters the most to a certain position. We’ve seen it in the past and we continue to see it today.

As an example: Consider Rod Smith, the Denver Broncos wide receiver who has had difficulty getting into the finalists round for HOF voting and may never get there. Meanwhile, there are arguments being advanced for the likes of Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, and recently retired WRs Hines Ward and Reggie Wayne will soon enter discussions.

Pro Football Reference allows one to compare players to see how their careers measure up to one another. I ran a comparison of the five receivers I mentioned to see how PFR rated them via their player ranking methodology. You can find it here.

As you will notice, Wayne, Bruce and Smith are rated favorably by PFR, while Holt is ranked fairly high but Ward is ranked the lowest. By that criteria, one might argue that Wayne, Bruce and Smith are HOF worthy, Holt has a good case, but Ward does not.

But if you believe PFR’s criteria to be a great source for determining HOF cases, then what happens when you compare another Broncos player who many of us believe is a HOFer: Steve Atwater. Scott Kacsmar wrote at Football Outsiders about who he expects to be in the 2017 HOF class and, in ensuing discussion, several people argued that they didn’t see John Lynch as a HOFer (Kacsmar believes Lynch makes the 2017 class) and that Atwater is a better candidate.

One of the commenters ran a comparison of Atwater and Lynch to Brian Dawkins, LeRoy Butler and Rodney Harrison, all who got mentioned in the discussion about safeties who are getting HOF consideration. You can find that comparison here.

Take note that Atwater is not ranked favorably in that comparison. In fact, Butler is ranked second only to Brian Dawkins, while Lynch is ranked ahead of Atwater. So if you believe PFR’s methodology is a good way to decide who is a worthy HOFer, it follows that you have a good case for Rod Smith but not a good case for Steve Atwater.

No, this is not to say that PFR is the final word on who is a HOFer and who is not. It’s merely an example of what happens when one sets criteria or methodology for ranking players, only to find out that might not work favorably for every player you believe to be a HOFer.

Which, in turn, will lead to the arguments we often fall back on. In the Kacsmar article, the likes of Floyd Little, Randy Gradishar, Atwater and Smith entered the discussion. Kacsmar brought up Little, who he does not think is worthy (I imagine some of you will object), but he said he would be fine if Smith made it. Commenters brought up Smith in comparison to Ward, noting that both were known for their blocking. Ward was mentioned as a good influence on the locker room, an argument that can be made for Smith. But there’s Kacsmar’s argument about how Ward excelled despite playing for most his years on a team that preferred to run the football. Truth be told, Smith played for that same type of team most of his years with the Broncos (the bulk of his career, he played with Gary Kubiak as the offensive coordinator and Kubes’ offense depends on an effective run game).

So if one thinks the arguments that are made for Ward can help Smith’s case, you have to ask yourself this: If you use those arguments to back a HOF case for Smith, then can how you ignore them when arguments are made for Ward?

(Oh yeah, Ward has a Super Bowl MVP award, just like a certain Broncos running back for whom we’ve been adamant about his HOF worthiness. I just threw that out there to mess with your minds. Thank me later!)

Another one to consider is Gradishar, who the FO commenters mostly agreed is HOF worthy. But a few brought up Chuck Howley, who started his career with the Chicago Bears but retired after three seasons because of injuries. He came out of retirement, though, and the Bears traded him to the Cowboys. Howell rose to prominence as the Cowboys emerged into a top team in the post-merger NFL and the Super Bowl era. Howley even has a Super Bowl MVP award. Yet how many voters considered him a HOFer?

I compared Gradishar to Howley and a couple other linebackers from their time frames. (If it matters to you, Gradishar, Howley and the others were all mentioned by a Raiders fan as worthy HOF candidates.) You can see the comparison here.

So why do I bring this up? It’s this: If we all believe Gradishar is a HOFer, then how can we not back the case for Chuck Howley? The other LBs I used in the comparison aren’t ranked as high by PFR as Gradishar is, but could cases not be made for them, too?

If we, as Broncos fans, are being honest, we have a tendency to argue for Broncos who aren’t in the Hall while not as enthused about backing players for teams who have a lot of HOFers. And that goes back to the fact the Broncos don’t have that many HOFers at this point. For teams with a lot of HOFers, Ward and Howley are the perfect examples. Smith and Ward are comparable in many ways, but how many of you argue for both, or focus more on Smith while ignoring Ward? And if you are a true believer about Gradishar, are you willing to be a true believer for somebody like Howley, even though the Cowboys already have a lot of HOFers?

I will not argue that there is an East Coast bias with many HOF voters, but replacing them with other people simply removes one bias and replaces it with another. Nor does countering East Coast bias with people who have an anti-East Coast bias solve the problem. On top of that, finding ways to eliminate the East Coast bias does not account for other biases that exist. It’s a near impossible task to remove all bias from the equation.

So knowing that there is going to be bias in a voting process no matter what we do, what’s the best way to address the process to make it better?

Transparency Is The Key

The one complaint I think has the most validity is that the Pro Football HOF voters get behind closed doors to discuss the 15 finalists. This fuels a perception, fairly or not, that voters make behind-the-door deals to get certain players into the HOF, rather than having a thorough discussion about who is most worthy of inclusion.

We can see this with the arguments that HOF voters had about Terrell Owens. Mike Tanier (who does not vote for the HOF) examined Owens’ case and what voters thought about him. A few Pro Football HOF voters talked to Tanier, but a couple were unidentified. Tanier, in fact, suggests some voters adhere to too much secrecy with the process.

“The Hall of Fame selection meeting on the Saturday before each year’s Super Bowl week is like Fight Club: You aren’t supposed to talk about it. Specifically, voters are not allowed to divulge details about the debates on the floor.

It’s a rule that allows the selectors to be frank, knowing that a candid remark among peers won’t end up in an article like this one. It also protects sources. Not everything an old coach or player tells a selector is meant for a wider audience.”

Some voters have shown a willingness to be candid about their thoughts as much as possible. For example, say what you want about Peter King, but one fault he does not have is an unwillingness to discuss his views about who he thinks is and isn’t worthy of the HOF. For the Class of 2016, he revealed his own choices in the finalist rounds. I believe King wants to ensure a fairer process for HOF voting, but for every voter like King, there’s a voter who is hesitant to talk much about things.

But if we are to shatter perceptions, it’s clear that knowing more about what the HOF voters are thinking is a necessary step. We’re seeing this happen with the Baseball HOF, in which more voters are revealing their ballots and openly discussing the candidacies of the players. People are free to agree or disagree with those views, but those revealing ballots should at least be recognized for their willingness to stand by those ballots, even if you think their reasoning doesn’t make sense.

Again, that goes back to how you can’t remove bias from the process, try as you may. But when the discussion can get out into the open, you at least can force voters to reconsider if you believe they are wrong about something.

And considering that the way pro football is covered has changed, from a time when most reporters focused on their local teams but might go to the Super Bowl to follow the big game, to an era in which there are more who focus on the NFL overall, from traditional reporting to in-depth analysis, it’s not difficult to see that more transparency in the voting process is important. The sport is less localized than it was, so gatherings that might have been ideal in the past aren’t as ideal now.

There are other points to consider, which I’ll mention briefly before I get to my ideas to modify the voting process. Some have pointed out the logjam of candidates, whether overall or at certain positions, and it’s making it more difficult for certain players to get in. Some have called for expanding the number of eligible players or doing it on special occasions. Coaches continue to be lumped in with players despite the contributor category added two years ago. (This is my biggest gripe with the process as it stands.) And the NFL likes to make a big deal about the inductees by incorporating them into a big, televised, red carpet show in which The Associated Press’ annual player awards are presented, too.

With all that said, let’s consider how to change the process.

A Simplified Process With Minor Adjustments

I like the idea of narrowing down the list of candidates but will simplify it with a two-round process that will put more of the discussion into the public eye. Here’s what I would do.

Each year, the list of eligible HOF candidates goes out to voters. The voters select their top 30 players from that pool. Once votes are cast, the top 30 vote getters move on to a finalist round.

Those finalists are listed at the Pro Football HOF website. Voters who represent a particular team are required to present a written case for the players on the teams they represent. Those cases are also posted at the HOF website.

Then, every voter is required to publicly write about their views on each of the candidates and their HOF cases. If they refuse to write a public examination of each candidate and how they view them, they are no longer eligible to vote. State your cases or turn in your privilege. Those cases need to be on a website for public consumption. It may be on a personal blog, but the voter needs to direct people to it. Or it may be at their publication’s website, so long as it does not require paying to see it.

Note that one doesn’t have to reveal sources or locker room tidbits not for public consumption. All they need to do is examine the stats, awards, on-field contributions and influence on the game. They may examine whether they had a positive or negative impact on the game and explain why they believe that to be the case. That can be done without disclosing sources or off-the-record information.

Voters would then select their top 10 candidates. The top five vote getters form that year’s HOF class. If there is a tie, the tie goes to the candidate who has been on the ballot the most years. Voters would not have to list their top 10, but if they want to reveal it, they may do so after the class is revealed. (Note that I considered allowing voters to reveal them before they vote, but because the NFL likes to build to its awards show, I compromised on that.)

Other modifications that should be made to the process:

• Two senior candidates each year and;
• Two contributor candidates each year, but include coaches and coordinators in the category. Call it “coaches and contributors.” Not only does this keep voters from comparing coaches to players, but it allows them to consider influential coordinators, even if they might not have had success as a head coach. In the two special categories, it’s “thumbs up or down” and majority rules. Again, voters must publicly discuss their cases and opinions about them.
• With the Class of 2023 – the 60th anniversary of the first Pro Football Hall of Fame class – the number of player candidates would be expanded to 15, with the senior and contributor categories reduced to one each. Those years, HOF voters would select their top 20 of the 30 finalists and the top 15 vote getters make the Hall, and the senior and contributor selections are automatically included. This gives you a 17-member class and a way to commemorate that first class. Then do a 17-member class in 2033 (80th anniversary), again in 2043 (100th anniversary), and after that, a 17-member class every 25 years.

The last point allows you to do two things: A way to clear out the backlog of player candidates who aren’t yet eligible for the senior committee and a way to commemorate the inaugural HOF class. It would have been nice to do that with the 50-year milestone of the HOF, but there’s time to prepare for the 60-year milestone and still get another chances to clear some backlog before the 100-year milestone.

Another thought would be to add some voters to the selection process. There are several advanced stats sites in which the writers take different approaches to evaluating players. Their input into selecting HOFers could be valuable. They wouldn’t replace current voters; they would be new additions to the committee and inject some new views into how players measure up.

As for the NFL’s desire to make this a big programming deal, that’s still possible. You only need to set the voting deadlines for the Pro Football HOF on the same day as the AP award voting. The NFL can still build up to its awards show; it just needs to ensure that the final results of the HOF voting are kept secret.

These suggestions may not be perfect, but they might generate a more productive discussion about who really belongs in the HOF. Just remember, as much as you’d like to get bias out of the equation, that won’t happen. After all, what does it say when an argument you make for any retired Denver Bronco player may actually apply to another team’s player who you may not considering arguing to put into the Hall?

Published by

Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.