Process for electing Hall of Famers rarely discussed outside 'the room'

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When Cris Carter didn't make the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility last year, his colleagues on Inside the NFL had a nice cry about it afterward.

Take it from a 15-year member of the Board of Selectors, Cris Carter is a Hall of Famer. If he doesn't make it this year -- and he probably will -- he will make it next year or the year after. Anyone who makes it to the finals in his first year is about 99.9 percent sure of getting inducted. So are most of those who make it to the finals more than a handful of times.

The Hall of Fame finalists were made public this week. But don't ask this voter who will get in because he doesn't know. Nor does he know, except in a few cases, who he'll end up supporting. But he does want to explain the process.

So what follows is a primer that, hopefully, will clear up a few of the misunderstandings about why some people make it, why some don't. But start with this rule: Even we, the voters, are often unsure of what happens when final ballots are tallied. And even we, the voters, are often forced to vote against someone we think is worthy as the number of candidates is reduced from 17 to 10 to the seven on whom we will vote yes or no for induction that particular year.

Carter is a good example of how the real system works.

It's informal. It's one that's rarely articulated except, at times, in private conversations among voters outside "the room," the hotel parlor in the Super Bowl city where the debate is held each year. But it's a system that voters absorb as they go along, returning every winter to consider which four, five, six or seven of the 17 finalists to enshrine in the Canton, Ohio, hall.

To start with, the 44 voters, a number that's increasing gradually, are divided into two categories -- "at large," like this one, or voters representing a team, even those now defunct -- who are responsible for "presenting" players from their cities. It's an imperfect system, especially if the presenter either doesn't think his candidate is especially worthy. But right now it's the best one that exists.

In an informal way, the candidates can be broken down into categories.

1. "Slam dunk," a term stolen from another sport.

Darrell Green last year; Dan Marino, John Elway, Joe Montana, Emmitt Smith in recent years. Jerry Rice in upcoming years. Bruce Smith and perhaps Rod Woodson in this year's class. Very little debate.

When Walter Payton was up for selection, his presenter unrolled a long scroll of paper, perhaps 20 yards long, and said "these are his accomplishments. I could read them all, but I don't think I have to." Then he tossed the paper on the floor.

No discussion. Election.

2. Sure to get in quickly, many of whom provoke a "Why didn't he make it?" debate if they don't get in the first time they are up.

Carter is in this category. So were Thurman Thomas and Michael Irvin, who made it on their second and third times around. They sometimes are held back because priority might go to candidates left over from previous selection processes; seniority isn't discussed, but it's there. Carter most likely failed last year because voters decided that Art Monk, another wide receiver, had been kept waiting long enough. Carter and his advocates can argue that he was "better" than Monk. He might have been. But seniority prevailed and Carter will get his due.

3. The debate provokers.

Many are players at positions without definable stats: offensive line and some defensive positions. But even stats can be deceptive.

Monk was the career receptions leader with 940 when he retired. His supporters portrayed him as the perfect possession receiver, a player that would always get you 10 yards on third-and-9. His detractors suggested that opponents didn't fear him as much as some of his teammates. It also may have hurt him that he was naturally quiet and rarely talked to the media. This voter doesn't worry about those things. Others might. But the numbers eventually prevailed.

Are there guys like that on this year's ballot? Maybe Andre Reed, who as a receiver will have a difficult time in the future as Rice and Tim Brown and others move in.

4. Contributors.

Always a murky category, a group often put aside by those who believe players should take priority. There are two on the ballot this year: former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson.

Of course, there always are exceptions to rules on seniority. Or on personality. Or on just about everything else.

Then, finally, there is what is called "the Hall of Very Good," coined, I believe, by Peter King of Sports Illustrated , NBC and about 50 other media outlets.

Those are the players who often get considerable support from fans -- outstanding players who might be just short of Hall of Fame worthiness, although many voters believe they deserve at least a debate.

Another variable: A player's fate sometimes depends on the skill of his presenter -- positive and negative. Some marginal players have made it because of a convincing presentation. Others have failed because theirs has been less than persuasive.


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