On Wednesday morning, 10 senior former NFL players, three contributors and two former coaches will receive the news that they've been elected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the Centennial Slate in celebration of the NFL's 100th season. Former Broncos linebacker Randy Gradishar and former head coach Dan Reeves are among the 38 finalists.
Jeff Legwold, who covers the Broncos and the NFL for ESPN, gave the formal presentations for Gradishar and Reeves and also served as one of 25 members of the blue-ribbon panel that voted on the candidates. After the final discussions were held at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, we spoke with Legwold to hear how the panel approached the process and how the candidacies for Gradishar and Reeves were perceived by the group.
What was the process like working with the rest of the panel going from a large list of nominees down to 38 finalists and then, ultimately, to the vote that happened recently?
"There were several conference calls during the season, and each call would address one part of the list every time. So there was a time when we did the coaches on a call, there was a time we did contributors on call and there were calls specifically devoted for the seniors candidates, too. I think the list was almost 300 players, the original list. There was a nominating process; once the panel was named, you could name or nominate any person you wanted to be on the list to be considered. So that was all done, and people who had been finalists before were added and all those things. I think the list was almost 300 names, and most of the season was spent taking that list all the way down to 38 we considered in Canton this week. So each of those 38 got a formal presentation and discussion and argument and as much time for any and all comments for each of those people were taken and given for that. Then we did the voting. Once we voted, we don't know who is in or not; we just voted and that was it. The accountants take the votes and that's all. It was most of or all of Wednesday. It took most of the day."
As one of the 25 members on the blue-ribbon panel who voted on the Centennial Slate, how does it feel knowing your vote counted just as much as Bill Belichick's or John Madden's?
"I will say it was an odd experience being in the room with that group of people. We took a picture at the end of the day. Ozzie Newsome's there, Ron Wolf, Bill Polian, Bill Belichick; John Madden was on the committee. It was a big task, and I think everybody, all of us, felt like at the end of it, it was an enormous undertaking and really, really difficult. That's what I left with: It was a good group to be a part of, but the process itself was really, really hard."
Aside from the honor of it, I imagine there's a weight to it discussing senior players who have often been overlooked or under-appreciated.
"Yeah, the senior candidates especially. I've been on the senior committee a while, as well, so I feel like I have a good understanding of that list and how many people are on it. When we started all this, I believe there were 68 players who had been named first- or second-team all-decade players, who are in the senior pool right now, which is an immense number. There were, including Drew Pearson, who was on the list of finalists, there are seven first-team all-decade players who are on the senior list. That list has always been a priority for me and it was a big reason — probably the reason — that I agreed when asked to be on this panel, that I would do it, because in my mind the seniors should have had more spots, but the Hall of Fame board of directors makes that call. The senior list is very important to me, and it was really difficult. For a lot of those guys it may be sort of their last, best shot if they played in the '20s or '30s or something. I'm not sure; I think they're going to have a harder time getting back in the mix as the backlog even grows every season."
In particular, there are two Broncos finalists — or three, if you count Mac Speedie. In regards to Randy Gradishar and Dan Reeves, were you able to get a sense of the reception for them from the rest of the panel?
"I think when you were looking at that list of 38, I think you'd be hard-pressed to say you couldn't put all of them in the Hall of Fame at some point. It was a pretty stringent list, and the choices are brutal, I think, in my mind. But there's always been a lot of support for Randy's candidacy, and I always continue to think he's going to get in the Hall of Fame at some point. But until the votes are in, I don't know. It was a presentation I felt that I worked very hard on and I think there was a lot of good discussion about it. As always, I believe people will recognize him for what he is, which is a Hall of Fame player.
"For Dan, that was the first time Dan's been discussed in any setting among the committee. So that was really cool to be able to do that. I think the coaches category may be the most difficult, in terms of the cut down, because it was eight finalists down to two spots. That was quite a list of eight, so I have no idea how that's going to go. I thought there was a lot of awesome discussion about him and that if, say, he wasn't named in this round, I think there's plenty of momentum there for him to keep being discussed moving forward. He's a lot farther along in the process than he was just a month ago. I think ultimately it's good for Dan. It's really good if he makes it, but I think ultimately it's really good for his standing as a potential Hall of Famer that he's gone through this, because, again, I'm not sure you can be looked at any harder than this panel looked at a lot of candidates."
What's interesting about Dan is that he also had a pretty significant playing career. Did that experience add to his candidacy when he was being discussed even though he's in the coach category?
"You discuss him in the totality of his career. … An argument I made is you almost have to consider him as a coach-slash-contributor. He went to two Super Bowls as a player, three as an assistant coach and he went to four as a head coach. There was nobody else on the list with that kind of resume. Tom Flores was the only other one who had been even close to that performance level as a player before being a head coach. But Dan was almost a borderline Hall of Fame player, when you start thinking about it. Maybe not quite, but when you add a career that was that good on the field to what he did as a coach, there was really nobody else like him on the list."
You said you gave the formal presentations for Gradishar and Reeves. What are those presentations like? Are they meant to be persuasive or more just a laying out of the facts?
"I think if you lay out enough facts, it's persuasive. The idea is that you're essentially, formally presenting, 'Why are we talking about this person today, and why should they be in Canton?' That's essentially the questions you're answering to the people. And then, really, kind of the job of being the presenter is to have done enough research to be able to answer any questions. And if people have critiques or anything else, you offer explanations or any pertinent things that may conflict with those criticisms. You do all of those things, but the idea is to be prepared enough to deal with anything that comes up in the room by people who have been around the game a long time."
Without going too deep into the presentation, what was the basic message behind what makes Randy a Hall of Famer?
"Of the players of the Super Bowl era on the list, and that's 50-something years now, … Randy was the most-decorated player on the list in terms of first-team All-Pros, Pro Bowl selections, Defensive Player of the Year and what may be the single biggest omission in terms of a group in the Hall of Fame. The Orange Crush has no players in Canton, and for a defense that performed in the golden era of defenses that included, you know, the Purple People Eaters, the Steel Curtain, the No-Name Defense — at a time in the '70s and the early '80s that was truly the golden era of defenses, the Orange Crush was one of the best, and in some categories over a 10-year span was the best — so for it to not have any sort of recognition in Canton is a huge omission. And if Randy were to make the Hall of Fame, that would certainly be an excellent start. But I think that defense in particular is [underrepresented]. I think there are five members of the Steel Curtain in the Hall of Fame; I think there are four members of the Purple People Eaters; I think even the so-called No-Name Defense has one Hall of Famer. So I think the Denver Broncos defense of that era deserves Randy to be a Hall of Famer and deserves even more than that, when you start thinking about Louis Wright, [and] I think Tom Jackson should get his day in court, but that's just kind of where I come down on that."