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EXCLUSIVE- Jason Cole Pro Football HOF survey

Jason Cole

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In preparation for the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame vote on Saturday, I have done my annual survey. The participants are former NFL players, current and former coaches, executives, owners and other team personnel. All have at least 15 years of experience in the league.

First, some analysis and thoughts on the process upcoming Saturday in Miami.

Let’s call it, “Troy Polamalu and then one really hairy (above) debate.”

That’s what this year’s debate over the Pro Football Hall of Fame figures to be on Saturday, as the 48 selectors gather in Miami for the annual selection meeting. Polamalu is the only overwhelming favorite for election of up to five people in the field of 15 candidates.

I’m fortunate to be one of the selectors in what is both a mentally exhausting and overwhelmingly gratifying job. For approximately 10 hours, the selectors will gather to debate the qualifications of the candidates for the highest individual honor in the game. Up to five people will go from being considered great to legendary.

As a selector, the responsibility to do everything possible to get this right is enormous. It’s also fraught with second-guessing and criticism from the public, many of whom are upset when their favorites don’t get in. They claim the selection is rigged or bad or whatever they think got in the way of some player making it when that player should have cruised in.

That bothers me less and less these days because enough people understand how hard the process is and because, in the end, there is no perfect system for selecting people for the Hall of Fame. Any Hall of Fame. It’s a subjective process, especially for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Other than the fact that a player must be retired for at least five years, there’s no criteria for voting on players.

For me, the process of preparing is extensive reading about all the candidates and performing a survey that has grown over the years. This will be my eighth year of voting for the Hall of Fame and I have surveyed former players, current and former coaches, executives, owners and other employees of NFL teams or of the league. These are people with at least 15 years in the game and often much longer.

The first year I did this, I talked to 67 people.

This year there were 328 people surveyed. The list includes 28 Hall of Famers, 37 current or former head coaches and 39 current or former general managers. All participate under the agree of confidentiality, the promise that their names would not be revealed.

Each is given the list of 15 modern-day finalists and was asked to give a maximum of five. A handful of participants picked fewer than five.

Here is how the survey voting went:

Player Votes
Troy Polamalu 266
Steve Atwater 143
Isaac Bruce 141
Edgerrin James 131
Tony Boselli 126
Steve Hutchinson 125
John Lynch 121
Alan Faneca 98
Zach Thomas 95
Sam Mills 85
Reggie Wayne 84
Richard Seymour 73
Torry Holt 63
Bryant Young 57
Leroy Butler 21

According to this survey group – and I expect the selectors will agree – Polamalu is an overwhelming favorite to be elected. He received 266 votes, which is 81.1 percent, and his the only one among the 15 finalists to get more than 50 percent of the votes.

Hear Jason go into further detail about the survey on his appearance on the “3 Dog Thursday” podcast:

The rest of these year’s group is much more difficult to sort out. The next six on the list are separated by 22 votes. The next four after that are separated by 14 votes.

Don’t mistake this survey. It is not meant to be a straight ballot where the top five are the only ones I would consider. The difference between Steve Atwater getting 143 votes and Alan Faneca getting 98 is not substantial enough to make Atwater a shoe-in over Faneca.

Over the previous seven years that I’ve voted, there have been two occasions that someone who finished 14th in this survey earned entrance to the Hall of Fame.

That’s because we are talking about a discussion of the best of the best. The difference between great players is often indistinguishable.

What this survey is best used for is breaking ties or figuring out who might be the best candidate at a certain position?

For instance, four years ago at this time, there was a difficult discussion over the candidacies of offensive tackles Orlando Pace and Joe Jacoby. Both players had significant support and excellent presentations. However, Pace received almost twice as much support as Jacoby among people in this survey. In my mind, that swayed the vote clearly toward Pace.

This year, there are four safeties on the ballot, led by Polamalu. The other three are Atwater, John Lynch (121 votes) and LeRoy Butler (21 votes). What this survey indicates is that while Butler may be a worthy candidate, he is probably not in the class of Atwater or Lynch.

Likewise, there are three wide receivers, a position that is annually one of the toughest to sort, particularly as passing numbers have exploded over the past 25 years. To many people, sorting out between Isaac Bruce, Reggie Wayne and Torry Holt has been very difficult. In particular, sorting between Bruce and Holt has been difficult because they played most of their careers together with the St. Louis Rams.

However, according to this survey, Bruce (143 votes) got almost as much support as Wayne (84) and Holt (63) received, combined. Thus, when it comes to prioritizing those three, the survey can be helpful.

Sometimes, the survey just makes it more muddled. In the case of offensive line, not much separates Tony Boselli (125), Steve Hutchinson (124) and Faneca. Linebacker isn’t much easier with Zach Thomas (94) and Sam Mills (85)

Ultimately, what matters most is the intense discussion that happens during the meeting.

And, it’s a discussion that can often leave people pulling their hair out.

Jason Cole is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector who has covered the NFL since 1992. He has worked for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, The Miami Herald, Yahoo Sports! and Bleacher Report. He is the author or co-author of six books, including Giant with Plaxico Burress and Heart for the Game with Simon Keith.