Predicting the 15 Members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Centennial Class
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is the National Football League’s highest honor. Only the game’s elite can find itself enshrined in Canton, Ohio, where the Hall resides. While the voting committee generally does a good job of inducting every deserving candidate, sometimes a couple key names slip through the cracks.
In order to help resolve this issue, the Hall of Fame has ordered a special Centennial Class to celebrate the NFL’s 100th anniversary. While most Hall of Fame classes feature between seven and eight inductees, this year’s group will enshrine 20.
Of these 20, five will come from the list of 15 modern-era finalists released by the Hall of Fame committee in early January. However, we won’t find out who these five names are until Feb. 1: the day before Super Bowl 54. The remaining 15 inductees will draw from a list of 38 finalists chosen by the Hall of Fame’s Blue Ribbon Panel. These 38 finalists include 20 senior candidates (players who retired at least 25 years ago and were passed over), eight head coaches, and 10 contributors (non-players and non-coaches who contributed to the NFL in some way). Of these 38, 10 inductees will be senior candidates, two will be coaches, and three will be contributors for a total of 15. These 15 will be announced on Wednesday, Jan. 15, on NFL Network’s Good Morning Football at 7 a.m.
With the announcement coming soon, let’s predict the 15 names that will be selected for the Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class on Wednesday morning.
Bill Cowher & Jimmy Johnson
Spoiler alert: We already know two of the Centennial Class inductees, and they are Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson, former head coaches of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys, respectively. Their announcements were made live, as Hall of Fame President David Baker surprised Cowher and Johnson with the news during the pregame and halftime segments of CBS’ and Fox’s coverage of the divisional playoffs on Saturday and Sunday. It made for very touching television.
Cowher and Johnson are certainly both deserving of the honor, but that means the coach quota has been filled, leaving out deserving candidates like Buddy Parker, Tom Flores and especially Don Coryell. There’s an argument to be made that no one helped modernize the passing game more than Coryell, whose signature “Air Coryell” offensive scheme took flight with great success in both St. Louis and San Diego. He may very well be the all-time biggest snub from the Hall of Fame, and he won’t be getting his due honor in 2020. Here’s hoping he gets in next year.
Simply, without Ralph Hay, there might not have been an NFL. In the fledgling years of pro football, there wasn’t a true overarching organization present to keep order over the many professional teams. At least not until Hay, then owner of the Canton Bulldogs, organized a conference in his showroom to form the American Professional Football Association (later renamed the National Football League). If not for Hay’s efforts, the NFL might not have existed.
A large reason why the Hall of Fame functions properly is because we have the statistics to properly evaluate players and determine which ones are worthy of induction. That might not have been possible without Seymour Siwoff. Siwoff was the president and chief executive of the Elias Sports Bureau, the original premier figure in tracking sports statistics across the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and other major sports leagues. His leadership with the Elias Sports Bureau is a huge reason why we have precise data from over 50 years ago that is easily accessible today.
It’s hard to imagine the NFL without NFL Films. Founded by Ed Sabol (HOF: 2011) and headed for nearly 50 years by his son Steve, NFL Films has long been a staple in presenting pro football from a closer glance. From highlights to features to documentaries, NFL Films has always been the paradigm in pro football coverage, and that’s largely thanks to Sabol’s decades of service to the sport.
As they say, “speed kills,” and that was Cliff Branch’s specialty. Branch was a prominent deep threat for the Oakland Raiders during their glory years of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and that was because of his incredible quickness and his knack for breaking away from defenders. Branch was a four-time Pro Bowler and three-team All-Pro, and he played a huge part in the Raiders’ three Super Bowl victories in 1976, 1980 and 1983.
Few defensive backs ever hit harder than Donnie Shell. As a member of the famed 1970s Steel Curtain defense, Shell provided a pop in the defensive backfield that was largely unrivaled. Undrafted in 1974, Shell developed into the game’s best safety between 1978 and 1982, earning three First Team All-Pros and five Pro Bowl appearances in that time span. Shell also won four Super Bowl rings with the Steelers during their decade of dominance.
For some reason, the Hall of Fame has had an odd tendency of snubbing many Broncos greats from its doors, and perhaps no snub is greater than Randy Gradishar. Under Gradishar’s leadership, the Broncos’ defense (nicknamed the “Orange Crush”) was consistently a top-10 unit from 1974 to 1983. Although Gradishar only appeared in one Super Bowl, he earned plenty of accolades for his work at the middle linebacker position, including two First Team All-Pros, seven Pro Bowl appearances and the 1978 Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Although the 49ers of the 1980s were most well-known for their West Coast Offense passing scheme, which featured Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, we shouldn’t forget the running game led by Roger Craig. From 1983 to 1990, Craig was a force in the backfield for San Francisco, and his signature high-knees running style made him difficult for opposing defenses to tackle. Craig played a huge part in the 49ers’ passing game too, as he became the first ever player to reach 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season (1985).
Very few people remember Duke Slater, and that’s a real shame. From 1922 to 1931, Slater played right tackle for the Rock Island Independents and Chicago Cardinals, and he was arguably the best offensive lineman in football during that timespan, earning five First Team All-Pro nods. Slater was also one of the first great black players in pro football history. Considering his stretch of dominance and his impact on the sport, Slater seems like a candidate that should have been inducted decades ago.
Another worthy old-timer is Lavvie Dilweg. Dilweg was one of the NFL’s first great pass catchers, and his efforts helped lead Green Bay to three straight NFL championships from 1929 to 1931. Like Slater, Dilweg was a five-time First Team All-Pro. Dilweg is also one of just two players from the 1920s All-Decade Team not yet enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Most historians agree that he is long overdue for that honor.
From 1946 to 1952, the Cleveland Browns appeared in the league championship every season, and a big reason for that was the play of Mac Speedie. One of legendary quarterback Otto Graham’s favorite targets, Speedie put up numbers that were relatively unheard of for his era, leading the league in receptions four times and receiving yards twice. Speedie was a two-time Pro Bowler and three-time First Team All-Pro, and he set records for receiving yards per game and receiving yards per season that wouldn’t be broken until two decades after his retirement.
There are few figures in Philadelphia Eagles history more legendary than Al “Big Ox” Wistert. A four-time First Team All-Pro selection, Wistert was one of the best two-way players of the 1940s, making a huge impact both at offensive and defensive tackle. Wistert’s contributions helped lead the Eagles to back-to-back NFL championship victories in 1948 and 1949. His jersey No. 70 was retired by the Eagles shortly after his retirement.
Few players had a bigger impact in the receiving game of the 1970s than Cowboys legend Drew Pearson. A three-time Pro Bowler and three-time First Team All-Pro, Pearson’s best year came in 1977 when he led the league in receiving yards and yards per game and helped lead Dallas to a Super Bowl victory. Pearson was named to the 1970s All-Decade Team alongside Lynn Swann, who is already in the Hall of Fame. He is one of only two First Teamers from the All-Decade squad to have yet to be inducted.
The other 1970s All-Decade First Teamer not in Canton is Cliff Harris. The ‘70s produced a lot of good safeties, and Harris may have been the best of the bunch. Like Shell, Harris always delivered a punch on his hits, earning him six Pro Bowl appearances and three First Team All-Pro selections. “Captain Crash” is also one of only 13 players to appear in five Super Bowls, winning two.
While these 15 selections would certainly make for an excellent Centennial Class, the exclusion of other deserving finalists, such as Harold Carmichael, Ox Emerson, Alex Karras, Tommy Nobis, Verne Lewellen, Dan Reeves and Art McNally (to name just a few), prove that there’s still plenty of work for the Pro Football Hall of Fame to do in the future.
DJ Bauer is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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