Pro Football HOF: You Vote for the Best, Peter King

The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced their 2020 class this past weekend, and the only first-ballot choice was a logical one in safety Troy Polamalu. Long-time voter Peter King admitted in his column this week that he did not vote for Polamalu, because he wanted to push other more marginal candidates, feeling that Polamalu was safe without his vote. He explained here:

6. I think an explanation for the lack of vote for Polamalu on the final five is necessary. I believe he was one of the top five candidates this year, and I believe in voting for the best five candidates. But because I felt certain Polamalu would make it regardless of my vote, I decided to vote for three players I felt were marginal after listening to the deliberations—Atwater, Boselli and Lynch. I don’t feel great about doing that, honestly. Our jobs are to vote for the best five, and I was totally on the fence about the fifth yea vote had I marked down Polamalu. It still bothers me a little bit. But I felt so strongly about the cases of Atwater, Boselli and Lynch, who were exceedingly close in my eyes, that I wanted to vote for them, knowing that a vote not for Polamalu was not going to keep him out. I’ve done this a couple of times before, and I absolutely do not want to make it a habit. It just felt like the right thing to do this year.

This is a bad voting process to follow when the goal should be to choose the five best candidates. What happens if several others on the 48-person panel had the same idea to push an Atwater or Boselli forward and just assume Polamalu was safe? What if this happens next year and everyone assumes a Charles Woodson or obviously Peyton Manning are locks on their first ballot, so let’s start voting to get others out of the debate room?

That’s why you should always vote for your best five. Don’t assume what others will do in a vote. I think enough of us did that in 2016…

As for the fan outcry that accompanies every HOF class, I think I had a bit of an epiphany this year. I saw a list of 15 finalists where pretty much everyone is bound to get into Canton one day. Maybe Bryant Young or Sam Mills fall into the senior category down the road, but I would feel confident about most of those guys getting a gold jacket. So we should stop crying about snubs or putting the “wrong” players in when there’s a limit of five and they can’t help it that deserving players will have to wait. That’s just how it works.

The main goal for the voters should be to make sure they nail the first-ballot players. You get 20 cracks at putting a player in the HOF, but only one time to make him a first-ballot HOFer. That distinction has to mean a lot to a player. It may only matter enough to a media member if they choose to remember that fact when talking about the player, but being a first-ballot choice is extra special.

When I looked at the list of 15 finalists for 2020, Troy Polamalu is the only one that screamed “first ballot” to me. So since they got that one right, Peter King’s flub aside, I find it pretty hard to argue with their selections.

Let’s dial it back from the finalists and look at the semifinalists. Starting in 2004, the HOF has to list 25 (sometimes 26 or 27 due to ties) semifinalists. I’ve tracked how many of those players are in the HOF versus how many are still eligible or have been demoted to the senior nominee pool only.

Hall of Fame: Semifinalists Breakdown (2004-2020)
Year Semis HOF Pct. Still Eligible Seniors Only
2004 25 16 64.0% 2 7
2005 25 18 72.0% 1 6
2006 25 20 80.0% 1 4
2007 25 21 84.0% 1 3
2008 26 21 80.8% 1 4
2009 25 20 80.0% 2 3
2010 25 19 76.0% 2 4
2011 26 22 84.6% 1 3
2012 26 21 80.8% 2 3
2013 27 19 70.4% 4 4
2014 25 19 76.0% 2 4
2015 26 18 69.2% 3 5
2016 25 15 60.0% 5 5
2017 26 13 50.0% 7 6
2018 27 12 44.4% 10 5
2019 25 10 40.0% 12 3
2020 25 5 20.0% 19 1

It looks like roughly 75-80% of semifinalists eventually make the HOF when we focus on the older years when players had more opportunities to go through the process several times. Obviously the numbers in recent years are still low as players have only had a couple ballots.

The most recent season where the HOF% dips under 70% is 2015, but I think we’ll see Torry Holt and John Lynch get in soon to bring that rate up to 76.9%. You probably won’t ever see 90% or higher for one of these years since people do tend to nominate those who belong more in a Hall of Very Good rather than HOF. For some examples, look at the semifinalists for 2015-2020:


It would be a surprise to ever see Fred Taylor or Simeon Rice or Ricky Watters get past the semifinalist round, to name a few. Focus on the players who have been finalists (top 15) recently as those likely to get in soon, but they will face a lot of stiff competition in the next few years from first-ballot choices: Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson, Calvin Johnson, Jared Allen, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, DeMarcus Ware, Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski, Joe Thomas, Darrelle Revis, etc.

Those are the players that deserve top priority in voting. If you’re a fan of LeRoy Butler or Richard Seymour or Tony Boselli, you just have to have some patience. They’ll get it right eventually.