The 2018 Hall of Fame class will be announced on Saturday. There will be several prominent first-year-eligible guys who have a chance to go right in, like Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, and Randy Moss. Then, there will be those that present disagreements and arguments in the discussion room, and in online debates. How is Terrell Owens still not in the Hall of Fame? How should they view a guy like Tony Boselli, who was dominant as a left tackle for a stretch, but had injuries that cut his career short? Do defenders from Super Bowl teams like John Lynch or Ty Law get consideration? Not everyone can go in, and those contrasts will be discussed.
But I’m going to turn to the active players, to try to predict who will be our future bar fights, Hall of Fame room debates, and controversies. Here are my top ten guys who will be much-discussed over a period of years as they appear on the Finalist lists.
#1 Eli Manning and #2 Philip Rivers
Eli Manning and Philip Rivers have been tied together since they both came into the league, and the Chargers drafted and traded Manning to the Giants for a haul that included Rivers. They also present a contrast, and a litmus test for voters on a variety of issues. Ultimately, I think both will get into to the Hall of Fame, but it won’t until we’ve had several years of public debates, and trust me, it will be a battle to determine who goes in first.
Both will likely be on the finalist list for a few years before getting in, because they will retire at about the same time as several other quarterbacks who will go in on the first or second ballot: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger.
Eli Manning, of course, has the rings argument, and being involved in two famous upsets of the Patriots’ machine. The counter-argument to his famous playoff runs is pretty much everything else. He’s led the league in a category only three times, and all three most interceptions thrown. His career record over a large sample size is 111-103. He’s been a pro bowler only four times, which would be on the very low end for a Hall of Famer. The only “modern” quarterbacks with that few pro bowls are Terry Bradshaw (4 rings, league MVP), Kurt Warner (3 Super Bowl appearances, 2 MVPs), Bart Starr (5 NFL titles, league MVP), and Ken Stabler (1 Super Bowl, league MVP and offensive player of the year in another season–waited to get in as Senior Selection).
Eli has had one elite regular season, in 2011 when he was a pro bowler and the Giants won the title. He averaged 8.4 yards per attempt that year and led 7 fourth-quarter comebacks to just get the Giants in the postseason. He has never won a regular season MVP award. Troy Aikman (6 pro bowls, 3 Super Bowl wins) is only other quarterback in the Hall who was never a MVP selection by any organization. So even in the “Rings” crowd made up of quarterbacks who got a boost in Hall of Fame voting by their playoff performances and titles won, Eli is at the bottom of the group.
Of course, the same “he never won a MVP” argument applies to Philip Rivers. Rivers, I think it is fair to say, has had more consistent regular season success, with a 106-86 career record, having been selected to 7 pro bowls, and leading the league in yards per attempt three times. If he never made it, he would ultimately have the most pro bowl appearances of any QB not in the Hall–a distinction that right now goes to Donovan McNabb.
So while neither is a slam dunk, and both are likely to make it, they will be a debate topic for several years, and probably split some votes for awhile. The New York media will probably not handle any delay to Eli’s enshrinement with patience, either, so expect this to be a fun one.
#3 Frank Gore and #4 Marshawn Lynch
I’m also grouping Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch together because they are contemporaries who present opposite cases. If the selections were made today I think people, with the emotion of Gore achieving recent milestones and moving into the Top 5 in career rush yards, would put him in. But five years provides time for perspective, and not every guy who ended his career in the Top 5 in a counting category has gotten in to Canton.
Gore is a fascinating case–and anyone that derides the Baseball Hall of Fame for favoring milestone stats over dominance can’t really talk if they are campaigning for Gore. He has no rings. He has no elite historic seasons. He was very good for a long time, and at least decent for a very long time. He’s had now 12 straight seasons with over 1,200 yards from scrimmage. He’s been top 5 in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage only once (back at age 23) and never top 5 in rushing touchdowns or total touchdowns. He’s never been selected as a first team all-pro.
There are 35 running backs in the Hall of Fame. You know how many of them were never selected as a first-team all-pro? One. John Henry Johnson. Gore is the extreme case of longevity over peak when it comes to Hall of Fame debates, and it is going to be a talking point for awhile.
And he stands in contrast to Marshawn Lynch. Lynch won’t have the counting stats of Gore, he broke down at age 29, he walked away for a year, and came out of retirement this year without doing much to add to his case (though it was very similar to Gore’s season). But I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that while they were contemporaries from 2007 to present, Lynch wasn’t the better option on balance. Lynch made four straight pro bowls, was a first team all-pro, and made two Super Bowl appearances and was a key cog in a title team. He has the famous playoff moments. Lynch led the league in TDs three times. Lynch is by no means a slam-dunk candidate but I think the presence of he and Gore together will make for plenty of arguments.
#5 Ndamukong Suh
Ndamukong Suh has been a dominant defensive line force for almost a decade. He’s been a three-time first-team all-pro at defensive tackle, and a five-time pro bowler. That puts him in company with guys like Cortez Kennedy, Michael Strahan, and Julius Peppers at age 30. It also puts him in company with some guys who aren’t in the Hall but were dominant defensive linemen for a stretch, like Mark Gastineau, Alex Karras, and Richard Seymour.
So he’s no lock right now as it is, but is very much a finalist candidate. Add in his very notable on-field incidents and pushing things to the edge, and you have all the ingredients for someone who will be at the heart of plenty of debates in future years.