Pro Football Hall of Fame voter Jason Cole completes an annual survey that polls former NFL players, coaches, executives, owners and more to get a look at how the Hall of Fame debate could shape up. Cole asked these individuals to select a Hall of Fame class of no more than five men from a list of 15 Modern-Era finalists. Three-hundred-and-twenty-eight people responded to Cole's survey this year, and both Steve Atwater and John Lynch were among the top seven vote getters. Atwater finished second with 143 votes (43.6 percent of the vote) and Lynch finished seventh with 121 votes (36.9 percent). With the exception of Troy Polamalu, who earned 266 votes (81.1 percent), the survey offered murky results. Atwater and Lynch were separated by just 22 votes, and four men sit clustered between the two Broncos safeties. DenverBroncos.com caught up with Cole in Miami on Friday to hear more about the survey — and what it might suggest about Atwater's and Lynch's chances for being selected.
Aric DiLalla: Can you take me through the process of your survey and what you can glean from it?
Jason Cole: "I think that, look, I've gotten to the point after eight years of doing it where I can do it by text message, which becomes efficient. You can't physically have 300 — it's now 330 people I've talked to — you can't have 330 conversations with people. It's not efficient, right? But you can text message people and after a while you know who they are and what their biases are and what you're trying to do is take everybody's opinion, and the more opinions you have, the more you mitigate one opinion overcoming another. That's the danger when you only talk to 20 people. You might run into three or four who overwhelmingly think this guy belongs in, or this guy belongs in. And that skews your perspective. So I think that helps. Is it a be-all end-all? Atwater finished second, which you probably noticed. Does that mean he's an automatic [lock] to get in? No, because once you go from 15 to 10, you would take all the votes of the people who voted for the guys 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 and you would put it back in the hopper, basically. And then you would have to decide. And so it's not really scientific in the same way that we run the meeting. I think it's great for a couple of things: figuring out who's at the high end. Who's the obvious guy? And maybe who's not really in the running this particular year. Because things can change a lot. And then I think the second thing it's good for is when you have multiple players at one position, trying to sort of rank them the best you can. Safeties became a little bit easier. I think it's clear that it's Atwater and Lynch as the second and third guys, and Butler can wait, as you probably saw. Offensive linemen, it didn't really help at all. You take it for what you can. That's how I look at it. Again, it's not a pure system."
AD: As a voter, do you try to use your vote to be representative of what everyone thinks or do you use it for who you think should be in?
JC: "Well, it's a little bit of both. Again, this is not a binary system. It's not a yes-no. It's not like voting for president. It's listening to the room, trying to get a feel for the room and understanding that this is not like a one-year process. That's what a lot of people, I think, mistake. They say, 'Oh, it's all about this year.' Yeah, it is, but if you follow the process along for three, four, five, six years, you understand there's going to be a time when a guy's going to be in better position. And then sometimes there's John Lynch, who unfortunately waits and waits and waits and kind of gets bypassed somewhere along the way, like he did last year. That just kind of happens occasionally."
AD: What do you think about the candidacies of Steve Atwater and John Lynch?
JC: "Well, they're very good. Both of them are strong. I talked to a couple of Denver people who refused to break the tie. I'll deal with those people when I see them personally. You can quote me on that. All joking aside, look, Atwater is a first-team All-Decade guy, Lynch is a second-team All-Decade guy. You're talking about very miniscule differences. … If you put all that stuff out there, it's pretty damn equal. Again, I think we're going to have to see what the read of the room is. I expect it to be a difficult argument, just like it was a difficult argument when we had [Brian] Dawkins and Lynch. Dawkins seemed to catch some momentum. And I don't know if that's somebody said a certain thing that turned the tide, but Dawkins on that day, everybody seemed to be drawn to that candidacy."
AD: There have been a lot more safeties inducted in recent years than over much of the Hall's history. Is that reflective of the players that are up for induction, or is there another factor that's led to a slew of safeties being inducted?
JC: "I haven't studied it enough to give you a great, scientific answer other than, there happen to be a lot of great safeties. You've got the four on this ballot, and then behind them you've got Darren Woodson, Rodney Harrison, Roy Williams, who aren't far behind in most people's eyes and probably deserve to be discussed in the room somewhere along the way. I think that you could probably do a really great study on the changing in the passing game over the last 30 years and the pressure that puts on safeties to perform at a higher level, and therefore that guy gets put on the spot. In other words, it's not the old days where the safety just played center field and either he was a really good center fielder, or he wasn't. Or he was a box safety and he came up and smacked the crap out of somebody play after play. The game is more sophisticated. You move safeties around a lot. They have to be able to play a little bit in the box. They have to be able to play in coverage. They have to be some combination, and I think Atwater, Lynch — you talk about Rodney Harrison — those are prototypes. Troy Polamalu is certainly great at playing at the line, great at attacking the run game and pretty darn good in coverage. Some people criticize Troy, but he was pretty darn good in coverage."