Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks came into the NFL together as fellow first-round draft picks of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1995. Together, they experienced – or, more accurately, were instrumental in producing – the Buccaneers' stunning turnaround in the late 1990s, which peaked when they raised the Lombardi Trophy together in January of 2003.
Sapp and Brooks may end up side by side in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, too, but they won't go in at the same time. That was ensured on Saturday when the Hall's Selection Committee tabbed Sapp for induction in 2013, his first year eligible for the honor. Because Brooks played one more season than Sapp, finishing after the 2008 campaign, he won't be eligible for election to the Hall until next year.
Buccaneer fans were thrilled on Saturday when the first representative from those great teams of the 1990s and 2000s was ushered into Canton, where he joins the team's first Hall of Famer, Lee Roy Selmon. Most expect that Brooks will be the third Buc thus honored, given the weight of his career achievements, unless it is John Lynch, who made it to the list of Hall semifinalists this year as a first-year-eligible.
The question is, will Sapp's bronze bust have to wait more than one year before it is joined by one representing either Brooks or Lynch?
To get an idea, one has to look ahead to the field of candidates the 46 voters on the Selection Committee will be choosing from last year. Each year, the Committee is allowed to choose up to five inductees from a group of modern-era players, coaches and contributors that generally is more than 100 strong at the start of the process. The initial group is pared down to 25 semifinalists in the fall and then to 15 finalists in January. During the final closed-doors meeting of the Selection Committee, that group is then reduced again to 10, and then again to a maximum of five. Once that final group is determined, all of the committee members then vote either yes or no as to whether or not a player should be in the Hall of Fame.
The Committee chose the maximum of five in 2013, and that came as a surprise to no one, given the strength of the field of first-year-eligible candidates. Three of the final four first-year-eligible options were selected – Sapp, Larry Allen and Jonathan Ogden – with only Michael Strahan having to wait at least one more year. Two very strong holdover candidates – Cris Carter and Bill Parcells – filled out the field. Sapp not only made it in on his first try, he did so against a brutal field.
How hard will it be for Brooks and Lynch a year from now? The competition essentially falls into three categories: 2014 first-year-eligibles; the 2013 finalists who did not gain induction; and other strong candidates among those who didn't make it to the list of finalists this last time around. Let's look at them one by one.
2014 First-Year Eligibles
This is the key category every season, especially for those who have had to wait a couple years since becoming eligible, a la Cris Carter. The stronger the group of newcomers is, the less room there is among the five spots for the holdovers. The wait ended for Carter and Parcells this year, but the same could have been true for the likes of Charles Haley, Andre Reed and Jerome Bettis if Sapp's class of first-year-eligibles wasn't so daunting.
Next year's class of newcomers is likely to be highlighted by three men: Derrick Brooks, Tony Dungy and Marvin Harrison. Brooks was selected to 11 Pro Bowls, was a five-time first-team and three-team second-team Associated Press All-Pro, was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2002, won a Super Bowl ring and amassed an incredible 2,196 tackles. Dungy helped produce the aforementioned turnaround in Tampa, won a Super Bowl as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, made "Tampa Two" a household NFL term and made countless friends in the game with his grace and humility. Harrison is third all-time in receptions (1,102) and sixth in receiving yardage (14,580) and set a single-season record in 2002 with an almost unfathomable 143 grabs.
That's a strong trio, to be sure, but maybe not quite as forbidding as this year's group. Furthermore, since we're looking at this from Brooks' perspective, that's only two other competitors for the five spots, not three. Harrison's numbers are overwhelming, but with the way the Hall made Carter wait (he has one fewer career catch than Harrison), it's hard to feel too comfortable about any receiver's chances. Carter may have started to break up the logjam this past weekend, but Andre Reed and Tim Brown are still waiting.
As for Dungy, the biggest obstacle may simply be that his Hall of Fame credentials are based on his years as a coach (though he did win a Super Bowl as a player with Pittsburgh). He was a groundbreaker – the youngest coordinator in league history when he took over Minnesota's defense in 1992 and the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl. Dungy's career record as a head coach is a sparkling 139-69. Still, it took Parcells, the very definition of a coaching icon and a two-time Super Bowl winner four years to get in.
There were 15 finalists on the list when the Selection Committee closed its doors on Saturday. Five of those were pared down in the first step of the process on that long morning and afternoon: Tim Brown, Edward DeBartolo, Jr., Kevin Greene, Art Modell and Will Shields.
That is a strong group in and of itself, and they didn't even make the top 10. Will sentiment start to grow for Shields, who was so amazingly consistent during a long career, winning 12 Pro Bowl berths, eight All-Pro nods and virtually never missing a game or a start? And will Brown move a little closer to the top now that Carter is out of the way. As for Modell and DeBartolo, Committee member Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News indicated after Saturday's announcement that it is indeed more difficult for some voters to justify picking a "contributor" over a deserving player. Still, they have their supporters.
From the group of 10 that was left after that elimination, five more didn't get the nod: Jerome Bettis, Charles Haley, Andre Reed, Michael Strahan and Aeneas Williams. If you wonder how strong of a group that is in the eyes of the committee members, Gosselin also said on Saturday that next year's class was probably rejected this year.
That would seem to indicate that there is a lot of support for most if not all of those five, and that they simply got squeezed out by slightly better candidates this year. As the one player who was a first-year-eligible finalist this year, Strahan seems like the best bet to get in next year, though there is the same Cris Carter factor for Reed, and Haley seems to have been getting a little bit closer every year since 2004.
Are there five strong enough candidates from that group to squeeze out all the 2014 first-year-eligibles? It's a concern, but Brooks (or Dungy or Harrison) only need to swipe one of those spots, so there is definitely plenty of hope.
Other Strong Holdover Candidates
Well, start right here with Lynch, and if Brooks were to lose his spot in 2014 to anyone, he would probably prefer it to be his longtime teammate in Tampa. Lynch seemed like a strong candidate to make the list of 15 finalists this past year, given his nine Pro Bowls, his hand in the Bucs' turnaround and championship and his reputation as one of the hardest hitters in NFL history. He didn't make that cut in 2013, as it turned out, but would seem like a strong candidate to move up in his second year on the ballot. The ultimate scenario for Lynch, Brooks and the Buccaneers, of course, would be that the two Tampa Bay stars go into the Hall together in 2014, but simply from a numbers standpoint they have to be viewed as vying for the same limited number of spots.
There are some other intriguing names on the list of semifinalists who didn't make the next round, including Morten Anderson, Steve Atwater, Don Coryell, Joe Jacoby, Paul Tagliabue and George Young. It is not at all uncommon for candidates to make a slow rise through the years, as their continued appearances on the ballot cause voters to re-examine their careers and their impact. This group would seem like less of a threat to the Buccaneer hopefuls, but the thinking may be different a year from now.
There is no desire here to pick from among the two Buccaneer candidates in trying to make a prediction, but neither would it be entirely objective to predict a five-man Class of 2014 that includes them both. Rather, we'll make a prediction of the five candidates other than Brooks and Lynch who we believe to be their biggest roadblocks to Canton next winter.
Our (very, very early) predictions: Jerome Bettis, Charles Haley, Andre Reed, Michael Strahan and Aeneas Williams.
Tony Dungy and Marvin Harrison are almost certainly going to be in the Hall of Fame, and maybe very soon. However, the multi-year waits that preceded Bill Parcells and Cris Carter have us believing that those two will also be delayed by a year or two. Instead, the voters take this opportunity to end the waits for Reed (over Harrison), Bettis and Haley. Strahan, who likely was just edged out by Sapp on Saturday, gets in with ease this time around and, in our longest-shot prediction, the underappreciated career of Aeneas Williams finally gets the spotlight and enough voters are convinced to let him in.
Again, those are our five predictions only if we're not considering either Brooks or Lynch. The best-case scenario is that we're wrong on two of those five and it's a very Buccaneer-heavy induction ceremony in August of 2014.