Pro Football Hall of Fame: How Do We Determine Who Really Belongs?
The subject in question was what Bill James wrote about when it came to criteria for what constitutes getting a baseball player into the Baseball Hall of Fame, by going beyond just looking at statistics.
For those who follow baseball, you know that there seems to be certain statistical milestones in which the idea is that they should result in automatic inclusion into the Hall of Fame, those being 3,000 hits, 500 home runs and 300 wins. For those who go beyond stats in examining players, those people will certainly tell you that stats don’t always tell the whole story with regards to how good a player really was and whether or not they belong in the Hall.
James wrote a book titled Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame (originally published in 1994 as The Politics of Glory), a book that took both baseball writers and fans alike to task for their arguments regarding whether or not certain players belong in the Hall of Fame and examined factors that he felt really needed to be considered to determine whether or not a player truly belonged in the Hall of Fame. You can read some excerpts from the book here that go into comparisons of various players, in which one is either in the Baseball Hall of Fame or got touted by a lot of people that he should be included, while the other received little to no attention and thus didn’t get in.
One of the items James covered in the book was a brief movement to get third baseman Ken Keltner into the Hall of Fame. Keltner played for the Cleveland Indians from 1937 to 1949, then had a brief stint with the Boston Red Sox in 1950, played in the minors in 1951 and then retired. Keltner’s biggest claim to fame is that he was responsible for ending Joe DiMaggio’s record hit streak and, as a third baseman, he was known greatly for his fielding prowess.
Long story short, James’ discussion about the Keltner movement led to what was dubbed the Keltner list, in which James posed a number of questions for people to consider to determine whether or not a player actually belonged in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The list originally appeared in his Baseball Abstract, first released in 1985, but came to be associated with Keltner because of James’ 1994 book.
The questions James asked about baseball players weren’t entirely about statistics, but how to compare baseball players overall, players at particular positions, what impact the players had on the game and what impact they had on the teams they played for. The questions that dealt with statistics had more to do with how to compare them with players already in the Hall of Fame and whether those numbers truly met HOF standards.
So I took a look at the questions James asked about baseball players and their HOF worthiness and I considered how those questions might be adapted to football players. I kept the following points in mind when looking at football:
* In football, statistics can have a greater impact in not painting a complete picture in terms of how good a player is. These factors range from certain positions not having a statistic that can be easily measured to the fact the game has evolved over the years and thus statistical milestones are not so easily judged.
* Football is a complex sport in which you have a lot of pieces that come together to make for a quality team, even as certain positions tend to have more value or importance placed on them, and that it’s not just any one position that is the true key to make the rest of the team better.
* The tendency of people is to remember top teams based on who won the Super Bowl, while forgetting it’s just as important to consider how that team got to the Super Bowl in the first place and how that team’s opponent got there, plus how well those teams did over the course of multiple seasons, even if those teams didn’t win multiple Super Bowls in that time period.
Thus I put together a list of questions to consider regarding football players, in which I took a few that are directly lifted from the Keltner list, a few that are modified to better fit what to look for in football players, and a few that and aren’t asked about regarding baseball players but should be asked regarding football players.
Here the list of 13 questions I came up with to consider:
1. Was the player ever regarded as the best player in football?
2. Was he regarded as the best player on his team? On his team’s offense? On his team’s defense?
3. Was he the best player at his position? Did he do anything that helped define the position?
4. Did he have an impact on a number of playoff runs?
5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
6. Is he truly the best player in the history of football who is not in the Hall of Fame?
7. Is he truly the best player at his position who is eligible to be in the Hall of Fame but is not in?
8. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
9. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
10. Did the player elevate the play of his teammates and make them better?
11. If this player were the best player on his team, would it be likely that his team could get to the playoffs and make a deep run?
12. What impact did the player have on football history? Did he change the game in any way?
13. Did the player uphold the standards of character and sportsmanship that should be considered for Hall of Fame conclusion?
Let me explain the questions in more detail and what people need to think about when they consider the questions.
The first three are used to determine exactly how the player measures up when compared to all players regardless of position, to players who played the same position and to his teammates — and to do so by looking at what the player brought to the table as a player, not simply by trotting out statistics.
The fourth question is worded to prevent people from just looking at Super Bowl champions and nothing else. Remember, the road to the Super Bowl is just as important as the Super Bowl itself. People have this tendency to gravitate toward those who have Super Bowl rings and feel that’s the tipping point, but it’s not necessarily so. It’s more important to ask: “If this player had not been on this team, would that team have made the playoffs?” Question 11 ties into question 4.
The fifth question is an important one to consider to distinguish between players who were merely good and players who were truly great. A great player can still contribute in a pretty significant role once he is past his prime. A good player, though, is going to be deemed “replaceable” soon after he exits his prime. As an example, it’s the difference between Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb.
The sixth and seventh questions address the issue of which players who are awaiting inclusion into the Hall of Fame truly belong and force you to compare them not just to players already in the HOF, but the players who are not yet in but are currently up for consideration. In other words, if you want to ask why a certain player you think belongs in the HOF isn’t in yet, you need to compare him to others who aren’t in but are being considered and ask yourself, “Is this player more deserving of inclusion than other players who have not yet been inducted and are on the ballot?”
Question eight is an important question to ask given how much people tend to look at statistics and use them as the be all, end all for which players belong. Instead of just looking at who hit certain statistical marks and where they rank on a list of players, you need to look at what other elements the player brought to the game that aren’t going to be measured by statistics. This is really a problem when it comes to defensive players, as people tend to use sacks, tackles and interceptions without looking at the finer points of the game as it pertains to defensive players.
With the ninth question, it’s a reminder that you don’t just take the player who won an MVP award, but those who were in the discussion for the award and had a good argument for winning the award in a particular year. Only one player can win the award but that doesn’t mean the one who won it was the only one deserving of the award.
Question 10 is important when it comes to football. There are plenty of players who bring so much to the table that the play of their teammates goes up. And it’s not just the quarterback — players at other positions can do the same thing for their teammates. One player on an offensive line can elevate the play of the rest of the O-line and thus help the entire offense. There are wide receivers who can make their quarterbacks look better than they might otherwise and can make their fellow wide receivers look better as well. And I’m sure many of you can think of quite a few players on the defensive side of the ball — whether they are linemen, linebackers or defensive backs — who make their teammates look better than they might otherwise.
Question 12 is another important question to consider. If a player came along who changed the way coaches thought about the game and how it should be played, that’s pretty significant in helping the player’s HOF case. And it’s a question that often isn’t discussed enough because people spend too much time looking at statistics that can be measured, when “impact on the game” is an element that can’t necessarily be measured by stats.
Question 13 may not seem fair, but it merits consideration in any discussion. There is one thing to bear in mind, though, with regards to this or any other question on the list.
No one question should carry any greater weight than the others and it’s not about simply tallying up how many “yes” responses versus “no” responses are given. There may be “yes or no” questions but each question still requires that you dig into the details and explain why a question should be answered yes or no. The questions also ask you to consider when there are cases in which a few questions are so overwhelmingly in a player’s favor that they mean the answers to other questions may not warrant that much weight in considering a player’s case.
I’m sure you may wonder why I didn’t include Pro Bowl trips. The problem with the Pro Bowl is that, because it comes near the end of the season, quite a few players opt not to play, so alternates get in. Thus, when Pro Bowl awards are mentioned, it’s always how many times the player was actually named to play in the game itself with no distinction given as to when the player was an alternate who took the spot of somebody who opted not to play.
I also didn’t put too much weight on Super Bowl wins because of the team aspect of football and because, as I mentioned before, it’s just as important to look at how a team got to the Super Bowl, not just whether the team won it or not, and to consider whether or not certain players were that instrumental in the team getting to the Super Bowl — or making a deep run in the conference but coming up one game short. Using the Super Bowl to measure greatness is fine, but it’s not the be all, end all measurement.
So there’s some thoughts to consider when we start measuring the cases for including players into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. What does everyone else think?