DALLAS -- It might not be the greatest class of finalists Pro Football Hall of Fame voters have ever had to consider, but it could be the most difficult to judge. One of the oft-repeated phrases used by selectors to justify turning thumbs down on a candidate has always been, "It's not the Hall of Very Good; it's the Hall of Fame." In other words, only truly great players should be granted entry.
Well, here the voters are in 2011, confronted by an entire list of great players. If I was sitting in the room, which I did for 10 years, on Saturday morning, I'd argue that of the 15 modern-era finalists up for selection, all 15 are Hall of Fame-worthy. Yes, each and every one. There's not a slouch in the bunch. There's no filler. They're all headliners, as it turns out. And only five of them can be voted in this year. There are at least that many no-brainers.
No need to pick through the list. All five rookies, the first-year candidates, are unarguably worthy of induction right away. Marshall Faulk might be the best all-around back in the last 25 years and is one of the best two or three ever. Jerome Bettis is the fifth-leading rusher of all time, and not a yard of it, given that he ran between the tackles and through the heaviest traffic, came easy. Curtis Martin, though he didn't win a Super Bowl as Faulk and Bettis did, is the fourth-leading rusher of all time, behind only Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders, all in the Hall already. Gary Myers, writing this week in the New York Daily News, commented that Martin simply has to go in this year, his first as finalist. Martin, as Myers knows, is not only the Jets' all-time leading rusher but also the Patriots' fourth all-time leading rusher. Only one other running back, Sanders, rushed for 10,000 yards in his first 10 seasons, as Martin did.
Even so, Martin doesn't have to be voted in this year. I'd argue that among the running backs, he is behind both Faulk and Bettis. And the logjam doesn't just exist at one position. Deion Sanders and Willie Roaf are the other rookies. All Deion did was make All-Pro, first or second team, eight times. He's one of two men to start on both sides of the ball (Roy Green was the other) since Chuck Bednarik. Roaf was a Pro Bowl selection 11 times in 13 years, and even more impressively made the all-decade team in both the 1990s and 2000s.
The HOF rules allow a total of seven men to be selected, but two of those would have to be the senior candidates, in this case former Redskins linebacker Chris Hanburger and former Rams linebacker Les Richter. What we'd absolutely better not hear when the announcement comes Saturday night (7 p.m. ET) is that the selection committee voted in fewer than the maximum number of players. I guess there are years for which you could make a case that fewer than the maximum number allowed should be voted in; this sure as hell isn't one of them. Voting in less than the maximum number, given the across-the-board greatness of the modern era finalists, would suggest pettiness or some other agenda in the room, which far too many people in the football community feel exists already.
Cris Carter should have been selected already. I'm sure somebody in that selection room could tell you why he didn't vote for Carter; but since this is my space, I'll tell you why not voting for him makes no sense whatsoever. There isn't a single receiver in the NFL today I'd take over Carter at 30 years old. OK, maybe Larry Fitzgerald, but he's the only one. Randy Moss? Carter had the best combination of hands, footwork and body control this side of Jerry Rice, which is probably why he was No. 2 behind Rice in receptions and in touchdowns by a receiver. It's insulting that he's been passed over three times so far. If he'd played in New York or New England, he'd be in already.
There's one snub in recent years that makes even less sense than Carter. Even 25 years later, the Chicago Bears' 1985 defense remains the greatest of all NFL time. The history of pro football cannot be written without an extensive chapter on Buddy Ryan's "46" defense. As cerebral as linebacker Mike Singletary was, as versatile as Dan Hampton was, nobody who watched that defense can sanely make the case that Richard Dent's contributions weren't essential.
The Bears' primary goal, which would never be allowed in today's game, was to kill the quarterback. If Ryan was the Bears' Al Capone, Dent was Ryan's Frank Nitti. Dent, who retired third all time in sacks behind only Reggie White and Bruce Smith, was the QB wrecker, the disruptive force quarterbacks quite literally feared. He had a touch of Dick Butkus in him, an appreciation that violence is a pass rusher's best friend, and the ability to make it happen.
Dent was voted Super Bowl XX MVP, but he isn't the only finalist with Super Bowl impact. Andre Reed, eighth in career catches and ninth in yards, was a mainstay in Buffalo's four losing trips to the championship game. Martin played in one as a Patriot. Charles Haley is the only player in NFL history to have played for five Super Bowl winners. And Shannon Sharpe, a man who in his last 11 full seasons never caught fewer than 53 passes, won three Super Bowls, two with John Elway in Denver and one in Baltimore.
The class is so stacked that even the finalist/contributor, NFL Films founder Ed Sabol, is an extraordinary candidate for inclusion. While the NBA, to pick on a rival league, has no video footage of Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in 1962, precious little video of Willis Reed's famous superhuman effort in the 1970 NBA Finals against the Lakers, and less than you'd think of the early career of somebody as contemporary as Michael Jordan, pro football's last 50 years, by comparison, are as well-chronicled as reality TV because of Sabol's NFL Films.
Even if you believe each and every one of the 15 modern-era candidates belongs in the Hall, the five-player limit (seven including the senior candidates) forces a certain prioritizing. If I was still voting, it wouldn't be as simple as ignoring all the rookie candidates. I'd find it virtually impossible to not vote for Faulk and Sanders. But Dent and Carter shouldn't have to wait another day, with my fifth and final spot going to Tim Brown, Chris Doleman, Reed or Sharpe. The deciding factor, the tiebreaker if you will, might be provided by an especially insightful presentation or the general back-and-forth discussion in the Saturday meeting room that makes a voter consider something he hadn't previously.
Thing is, every one of the 17 finalists ought to wind up in the Hall of Fame, lest he slip between the cracks and one day needs to be rescued by the senior committee, the way Hanburger and Richter need saving now all these decades later. Yet, we know some of them might miss out because new and worthy candidates in the years to come will prevent them from even being finalists next year. This year's first-timer, with what seems like so much support for the future, becomes a finalist for the eighth or ninth time sooner than you think.
The Hall of Fame business is a difficult one, a judgment that does as much to determine a player's legacy as anything he did on the field, particularly as time passes and the specific plays fade. Only five of 15 players, great players, are going to know that thrill of victory Saturday evening, leaving two-thirds of the field, some of them civic heroes and Super Bowl victors, as unhappy as at any time in their storied careers. Saddest of all, nobody's come up with a better ending.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN, and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with the The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.