The Hall of Fame in any sport tends to be a source of controversy. The concept of a Hall of Fame means different things to different people, with their own unique biases and values. No set of beliefs is necessarily right or wrong, as they’re just opinions without prescriptive power. I have often lamented that the Pro Football Hall of Fame doesn’t match my personal vision. For most of my life, my grievances were met with puzzled looks from disinterested humanoids. However, thanks to the proliferation of social media, it has become incredibly easy to find other people passionate about the things you love. I joined forces with some of those people to form our own Hall of Fame.
Hall of Fame Basics
The GrideFe Hall of Fame Committee comprises analytics maven Ben Baldwin, research guru Topher Doll, standard human Bryan Frye, actual genius Adam Harstad, enigmatic fount of knowledge Raider Joe, and quarterback aficionado Adam Steele.1
For the inaugural Hall of Fame class, we decided to keep it simple and only induct players and coaches. Also, we determined that it would be best to separate modern and pre-modern players. We consider modern players those who played the majority of their careers after 1950 and modern coaches those who coached for a significant period of time after 1950. We did not discuss pre-modern players for our debut class. Instead, we opted to include them in the Legends Wing, which highlights the players who shined while the game was still in its relative infancy. There will be plenty of time next year to discuss contributors and legends.
In a move that may be obscene to purists, we don’t have a five year waiting period for eligibility. The waiting period for the Pro Football Hall of Fame is to allow voters to have time to step back and reassess a player’s career after some of his hype has died down. We decided that we will allow our voters to use their judgment to put player careers in historical context, and we believe some players are so obviously worthy that a waiting period is unnecessary. For instance, I didn’t vote for some recent or active players because I wanted to take more time to reflect on their careers. But I don’t need to wait five years to put Tom Brady in the Hall of Fame.
Voters can take a holistic view of every candidate’s contribution to the NFL. That means, for example, we can look at John Madden’s career as a coach, his time as an influential broadcaster, and his role in enhancing football’s popularity through his video game franchise. Moreover, it is the voters’ prerogative to consider or ignore off-field issues. That means if I think O.J. Simpson doesn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame because of his criminal history, or Terrell Owens shouldn’t be inducted because of his famous locker room distractions, I don’t have to vote for them.2
Voting consists of three rounds. At the end of the final round, all players with at least five votes are officially in the GridFe Hall of Fame. For the Pro Football Hall of Fame, this type of format would be absurd. The Canton institution is a brick and mortar museum that hosts an elaborate ceremony for each of its inductees every year. In our little corner of the internet, we needn’t worry about such logistics. Here, if we think people belong, we enshrine them.
Essentially, our fundamental philosophy is: Thoughtful, trustworthy voters trusted to vote thoughtfully.
Round One of Voting
The first found is what we dubbed the “slam dunks” round. Here, everyone on the committee made their own, separate list of every player and coach they considered absolute-without-a-doubt-no-brainers. Some of the lists were fairly short (Steele’s had just 95 names), while others started to get out of hand (mine contained 192 names). After comparing our ballots, we ended up with 45 unanimous selections and 39 more with five votes, giving us 84 total inductees after one round.
Round Two of Voting
The second round consisted of up/down votes, where we had the opportunity to vote yes or no to the players and coaches on other ballots. Ben and the Adams were generous, up-voting at least 50 names apiece. I was a bit more stubborn, only giving up-votes to four additional players. Once we finished our ups and downs, we had 157 total players and coaches in our Hall of Fame.
Round Three of Voting
The third, and final, round gave us the opportunity to “bang the table” for players who didn’t make the cut after the first two rounds. We’re a full disclosure committee, so it makes sense to tell you how how that went down. There were eight players with four votes, and they automatically went up for argument. Those players were Tony Dorsett, Tim Brown, Bob Brown, Nick Mangold, Jason Taylor, John Randle, and Darrell Green. Additionally, Harstad brought three-vote players Bobby Mitchell, Jim Tyrer, and DeMarcus Ware to the table for debate.3
Joe and I lobbied on behalf of Dorsett, but we did not convince anyone to change his vote. Harstad and I successfully argued for Tim Brown, Mangold, and Green. I managed to turn one voter to get Boomer Brown in. Harstad and Topher convinced me to vote yes to Taylor. Harstad also swayed Ben and Steele to give the thumbs up to Ware. I stated my case against Randle, and either because of that or independently, Harstad changed his vote to no. Harstad did talk me into changing my vote on Mitchell, but my vote wasn’t enough to push him over the threshold. The most thorough discussion concerned Tyrer. Harstad made a thoughtful and compelling case, but we were hesitant to include the controversial figure.
After we all had the chance to consider each other’s arguments and cast our final votes, we ended up with 132 candidates with six votes and 31 more with five votes, giving us 163 members in our inaugural Hall of Fame class.
Hall of Fame Pioneers
While we decided to separate modern players from older players, we felt it was important to pay tribute to three men who were ahead of their time with Pioneer selections to our Hall of Fame proper. Those men are the first superstar quarterback, the original workhorse running back, and the father of the modern wide receiver position. Sammy Baugh, Steve Van Buren, and Don Hutson did not go through the normal voting process but were, instead, unanimously approved as Pioneers. Because they are groundbreakers, it only makes sense to start out with them (I’ll cover the rest of the inductees in subsequent posts).
Sammy Baugh (1937-1952)
2 MVPs; 7 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 3 Title Losses; 4 GridFe Automatic Awards; 1 GridFe World Award; 2 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 3 GridFe Slinger Awards; 1 GridFe Tunnell Vision Award4
Entering the league in 1937, Slingin’ Sammy made an immediate impact, earning first team All NFL honors and guiding Washington to an upset victory over the mighty Chicago Bears in the championship game. Accounting for era, he is the most accurate passer of all time. When he completed 70.33% of his passes in 1945, his mark was 24.67 percentage points higher than the rest of the league and stood as a record for 37 years.
Baugh’s amazing accuracy enabled him to avoid interceptions far more successfully than his contemporaries. A cursory glance at his stats will show 187 touchdowns to 203 picks, but a cursory glance is seldom sufficient to tell the tale. In the context of his playing environment, Baugh was just as careful with the ball as Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Adjusting for era, he threw about 107 fewer interceptions than expected, and his touchdown-interception differential jumps from -16 to +149.5
It wasn’t just Baugh’s preternatural accuracy that stands out in history. His usage rate as a passer revolutionized the game, changing the expectations we have of those manning the position. Packers legend Arnie Herber retired in 1940 as the NFL’s passing leader with 6749 yards. Baugh broke that record in his sixth season and ultimately pushed it to a then astronomical 21886 yards. He also finished his career with 187 touchdown passes, shattering Herber’s prior record of 66. Baugh held onto those record for 16 and 19 years, respectively.6
In addition to his prodigious passing prowess, Baugh was also a celebrated defensive back and accomplished punter. He held the career interceptions record from 1943-1949, bolstered by a league-high 11 in 1943, and his 51.4 yard punting average in 1940 remains the single season record.7
Steve Van Buren (1944-1951)
1 MVP; 6 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Automatic Award; 2 GridFe World Awards; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 3 GridFe Supersonic Awards; 1 GridFe Gray and White Award8
Some have expressed distaste for the recent shift from the feature back to the running back by committee approach. However, for a significant portion of NFL history, committee backfields were the norm; the workhorse era didn’t begin until the 1980s. Van Buren entered a league that commonly saw a team’s rushing leader change from year to year, with a different member of the platoon leading the way each time. Supersonic Steve was the first great bellcow running back.
Van Buren led the league in attempts, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns four times apiece. He led in rushing yards per game five times, trailing leader Bill Dudley by 75 yards in 1946, despite playing in two fewer games. Gaining the vast majority of his production on the ground, Van Buren led the NFL in yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns twice apiece. We don’t have reliable yardage numbers prior to 1932, but we do have official records for touchdowns. Ernie Nevers held the rushing touchdowns record until Van Buren usurped him in 1947. He wore the touchdown crown for 15 years, until Jim Brown rewrote the record books.
The Honduran superstar also held the career rushing yards record for nine years before losing the title to Joe Perry. However, it is noteworthy that Van Buren did it playing most of his career in the 10-game era, and his body was broken down by the time the league transitions to 13- and 12-game seasons. Perry, on the other hand, played 12 and 14 game seasons in the AAFC and NFL. Van Buren’s usage and output on a per-game basis were revolutionary.9
The legendary back wasn’t just a masterful rusher; he was also among the game’s finest return men. As a rookie, he led the league in both punt and kick return average. His career kick return average of 26.7 still ranks 13th in history, and his 13.9 yard punt return average would easily rank first if he met the 75 return minimum to qualify for career rankings.
Don Hutson (1935-1945)
Green Bay Packers
2 MVPs; 10 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 3 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Automatic Awards; 2 GridFe World Awards; 3 GridFe Sweetness Awards; 7 GridFe Bambi Awards; 1 GridFe Toe Award10
The Alabama Antelope, Don Hutson, brought refined route-running concepts to the NFL and forever changed the way the game was played. Prior to his arrival, passing concepts were unsophisticated and easily defended. Hutson started playing chess while others were playing checker, and, at least for a while, he really was playing a different position from anyone else in the game.
Hutson’s career featured enough black ink to pen a novel: he led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards per game eight times, receiving yards and total touchdowns seven times, receiving touchdowns nine times, and scrimmage yards thrice. In the wake of the modern game’s obscene passing inflation, his numbers don’t impress the untrained observer. However, when he retired in 1945, his 488 catches dwarfed second-place Jim Benton‘s 190. His 7991 yards towered over Benton’s 3309. His 99 touchdowns eclipsed runner-up Johnny Blood McNally’s 37. In all three stats, the gap between Hutson and the next guy was enough to itself rank second in history.
Because the NFL didn’t track official stats until 1932, the official yardage record prior to Hutson’s arrival paints an incomplete picture. Chicago Bears legend Luke Johnsos played three seasons prior to the stat era, so he officially retired after setting the receiving yardage record at 985 yards. Hutson surpassed that mark in his third season and didn’t relinquish the record to Billy Howton for 18 years. In his fifth season, Hutson broke McNall’s touchdown record and held onto it for an astonishing 50 seasons, until Steve Largent took the crown with the last scoring catch of his career.
Hutson was also a solid defensive back and a capable kicker. He led the NFL in interceptions in 1940 and in interception return yards in 1943, and he even (briefly) held the career record with 14 picks. As a placekicker, he converted 94.0% of his extra points and led the league in made PATs three times. In 1943, Hutson made all of his 36 PAT attempts and led all players in made field goals.
- Moving forward, the committee will also include potentate of prognostication Thomas McDermott. ↩
- As Adam Harstad puts it, we have a “complete and utter lack of bylaws. Voters want to elect one person a year? Fine. 80 people a year? Fine. Every long snapper ever? Fine. Fans? Fine. Want to elect a guy before his career is over? Fine. Before his career started? Fine. Former presidents? Fine. Change their mind and want to remove someone from the Hall? Fine. Want to enshrine individual games or individual plays? Fine. Want to officially declare guys anti-Hall of Famers who will never in a million years get in? Fine. Provided enough voters can be convinced of the worthiness of an idea, no barriers exist to that idea’s implementation. (Or rather, the only barrier to implementation is the process of convincing enough voters in the first place.)
Basically, the entire list of bylaws consists of:
1. Whatever five voters say, is.
2. The only rule that is not subject to revision is rule #2. ↩
- I considered bringing Willie Lanier, one of the finest linebackers in history, to the table. Ultimately, I decided to argue on behalf of only those with four votes. ↩
- From Statistically Speaking: Baugh made six Pro Bowl squads during his career, but that number requires an explanation. Pro Bowl selections include the original NFL All Star Game, which ran from 1938 to 1942 and featured a team of all stars against the league champions. Had the game existed in 1937, Baugh would have made it for being on the title-winning team. His 1942 selection was technically for being a member of the league champion, but he likely would have made the squad as an all star otherwise, given that he was named first or second team all NFL by several publications.
From 1943 to 1949, there was no All Star Game or Pro Bowl, so Baugh could not have possibly earned a nod in those years. That includes two of the great QB seasons in history and two other seasons in which he earned all NFL first team honors from major outlets. Add those four, plus the missing All Star Game from 1937, to the Pro Bowls Baugh actually made, and ends with eleven for his career. Of course, this also counts his lifetime achievement selection for his poor 1951 season, but that sort of thing happens all the time. ↩
- Those figures stand as the second and third best marks in history. ↩
- Only Fran Tarkenton has held either record for a longer period of time. ↩
- Note that this happened in an era when teams routinely punted on third down with no returner to flip field position. ↩
- The Pro Bowl didn’t exist for the entirety of Van Buren’s prime. The game was reinstated in 1950, when the prolific rusher was 30 years old and on his last legs. However, he was a first team All Pro selection every year from 1944-1949, and he would have been a fairly obvious Pro Bowler. ↩
- Van Buren was also excellent in the postseason. In Philadelphia’s two championship wins, he had 98 and 196 yards. ↩
- As noted with Baugh, the Pro Bowl/All Star Game didn’t exist until 1938, nor did it exist from 1943 to 1949. That means Hutson would not have been able to earn a Pro Bowl nod in six of his eleven years in the league. As a rookie, he ranked sixth in receptions, third in receiving yards (first in yards per game), and first in touchdown catches. He was a second team All Pro according to the NFL and UPI. He probably would have earned a nod if the game existed. In 1936, he led the NFL in catches, yards, yards per catch, yards per game, and touchdowns. He would have been an obvious Pro Bowler. In 1937, he ranked first in catches and touchdowns, and he was second in yards. Again, obvious Pro Bowl selection. In 1938, he didn’t make the Pro Bowl, despite leading the NFL in yards and touchdowns (so maybe it isn’t that obvious). From 1943-1945, Hutson was a first team All Pro selection and an obvious Pro Bowl choice. If we credit him for those missing Pro Bowls, he ends up with an all star selection in ten of his eleven seasons. ↩