There will be a push to bring former Cleveland Browns linebacker Clay Matthews out as the lone senior nominee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2022.
Matthews waited 20 years to become a Hall of Fame finalist and have his career and candidacy discussed for the first time. Unfortunately, it was his final year of eligibility. Matthews survived the reduction vote from 15 to 10 but failed to make the final cut to five for that coveted bust. He was that close…but now Matthews and his candidacy tumble into the senior abyss.
The same fate befell former Dallas Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls, who made the finals for the first time in his 20th and final year of eligibility in 2018. As the only cornerback in NFL history to lead the league in interceptions three times – and one of only two players to accomplish that feat along with first-ballot Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed – there was an urge to bring Walls back as a senior right away while his candidacy was still fresh in the minds of voters.
But those who advocate such quick turnarounds don’t understand the quality and depth of the senior pool. There are Hall of Fame-worthy players who have been wallowing in the senior abyss for decades that will never get busts. Former Dallas Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson spent 32 years before gaining liberation from the senior abyss in 2021 as the lone nominee and claiming his bust.
Former Kansas City Chiefs safety Johnny Robinson, the lone 2020 senior nominee, waited 43 years for his bust. Former Packers guard Jerry Kramer, the 2018 nominee, waited 45 years for his bust. Former Steelers cornerback Jack Butler, the 2012 nominee, waited 51 years.
Kramer was voted to the NFL’s 50th anniversary team. Butler, Robinson, Kramer and Pearson were all first-team all-decade players who had to wait their turn. Neither Matthews nor Walls was voted to an all-decade team.
There are 58 all-decade players currently in the senior pool – four first-teamers and 54 second-teamers. Only five of the 58 have ever been discussed as finalists by the Hall of Fame selection committee. If you are voted to an all-decade team, you deserve that discussion as to where your career fits in the context of football greatness.
Former Green Bay wide receiver Lavvie Dilweg was voted first-team all-decade for the 1920s. He set all the NFL receiving records before Hall-of-Famer Don Hutson. His wait for a bust is at 83 years now and counting.
There are two other players in the senior pool who were named to the NFL’s 50th anniversary team, tight end Ron Kramer and wide receiver Boyd Dowler, both of the Green Bay Packers. Neither has ever been a finalist for the Hall of Fame. Both deserve that discussion.
There are three players in the senior pool who went to nine Pro Bowls – offensive tackle Jim Tyrer, linebacker Maxie Baughan and guard Walt Sweeney. None were selected all-decade and only Tyrer has ever been a finalist. And then just once. All deserve to have their cases heard by the full committee.
There are three more players in the senior pool who went to eight Pro Bowls – guard Ed Budde, offensive tackle George Kunz and cornerback Lemar Parrish. None were selected all-decade and none have ever been discussed as finalists. All deserve that opportunity.
There are three more players in the senior pool who went to seven Pro Bowls – linebackers Randy Gradishar and Andy Russell and center Jay Hilgenberg. None were selected all-decade and none have ever been discussed as finalists. All deserve that opportunity.
Nine more players in the senior pool went to six Pro Bowls apiece, including former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley and former Los Angeles Rams safety Eddie Meador. Howley was a Super Bowl MVP and Meador still holds the Rams’ franchise records for interceptions (46) and blocked kicks (10). They deserve a turn in the room as first-time finalists as well. Matthews and Walls went to four Pro Bowls apiece.
Then there’s former Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Ken Riley, who never went to a Pro Bowl nor was he ever elected to an all-decade team. But Riley intercepted 65 passes, second on the all-time list among pure corners behind Hall-of-Famer Dick “Night Train” Lane. The Hall of Fame is supposed to be about production, not reputation. Few players in the senior abyss had the career production of Riley. He deserves the opportunity for his career to be discussed as a finalist as well.
Count them all up. I’ve just listed 77 players in the senior pool both worthy and deserving of consideration for a gold jacket. Matthews and Walls push the number to 79. Are they all Hall of Famers? No, but they all are worthy of that discussion. But the Hall of Fame is allowing the senior committee to nominate just one candidate each of the next four years.
Ken Anderson, Larry Brown, Mike Curtis, Pat Fischer, Gale Gillingham, Pete Retzlaff… I’ve been on the senior committee for 17 years now and have a working list of about 100 players that deserve consideration for the Hall of Fame. Sadly, most will never get it.
What the senior pool could use is another centennial class. But this abyss can’t wait another 100 years for it.