JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Pro Football Hall of Fame is an elite club. Of the tens of thousands of men who have played or coached in the NFL, only 371 have been enshrined.
Fred Taylor believes he belongs in that club.
The former Jacksonville Jaguars running back might not have a long list of Pro Bowls or All-Pros, or a championship, but he is 17th on the NFL's all-time rushing list with 11,695 yards and players he played against are stumping for him to join football's best.
Which is why Taylor has no problem telling you that he has had a Hall of Fame career.
"My numbers were better than [the] majority of the backs that had ever played this game," Taylor said. "... Obviously if you're not a first-ballot [Hall of Famer], then you got to kind of hit the campaign trail and kind of try to make certain arguments for yourself. But guys have made arguments for me, players that are in [the Hall of Fame]."
Taylor, who played 11 of his 13 seasons in Jacksonville, owns Jaguars' career records in rushing yards (11,271), attempts (2,428), consecutive 100-yard games (nine in 2000) and most rushing yards in a game (234).
"When you look at Fred's résumé and what he's done, I truly think that his case should be heard by the selectors," said Charean Williams, one of the 50 members of the Hall of Fame selection committee, which includes representatives from each NFL city and 16 at-large representatives.
That's called "getting in the room," which means Taylor would have to be one of 10 finalists to be debated for induction. He hasn't yet gotten that far -- he has been a semifinalist four times -- and until that happens his candidacy is stalled.
But are his stats and praise from opponents enough to overcome one Pro Bowl appearance as an alternate and never appearing on an All-Pro or All-Decade team?
When ESPN talked to the people Taylor played against, the answer was yes. When it came to Hall of Fame voters, however, the answer was ... maybe not.
"Who are the backs that aren't in [the Hall of Fame] that deserve consideration? Fred Taylor is in this group, [and] he has the most rushing yards of that group," Rick Gosselin, the Dallas representative, said. "But others have MVPs, rushing titles, Super Bowl rings and they all have more touchdowns. When I look at Fred Taylor, I say, 'Yes, he deserves to be discussed,' but so does Corey Dillon, Ricky Watters, Eddie George, Shaun Alexander and Priest Holmes.
"You'd have to figure out who on this list is the most deserving and start from there. And that's the issue with Fred's candidacy. There are other great running backs from essentially the same era or close to the same era that can't get in the room either."
NUMBERS, BUT SHORT ON AWARDS
Statistically, Taylor fits in with the best running backs in NFL history.
Fourteen of the 16 players ranked ahead of Taylor on the NFL's all-time rushing list are already in the Hall of Fame, and the two who are not -- Frank Gore (third all time with 16,000 yards) and Adrian Peterson (fifth with 14,918) -- are not yet eligible.
There are 18 other running backs ranked below Taylor in the top 250 of the NFL's career rushing list who are in the Hall of Fame, including Gale Sayers (4,956 yards), Steve Van Buren (5,860 yards) and Earl Campbell (9,407 yards).
Taylor's 4.6 yards per carry ranks 32nd all time in the NFL -- tied with Peterson and Hall of Famer Terrell Davis and ahead of Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson (4.4), Walter Payton (4.4), Tony Dorsett (4.3), Marshall Faulk (4.3), LaDainian Tomlinson (4.3) and Campbell (4.3).
There are three players in NFL history who averaged 4.6 yards or better with at least 2,500 carries: Taylor, Peterson and Barry Sanders (5.0).
However, Taylor's only Pro Bowl came in 2007 as an injury replacement for Pittsburgh's Willie Parker.
He didn't win Rookie of the Year or an MVP award or make an All-Decade team as selected by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As a rookie in 1998, Taylor ran for 1,223 yards and a franchise-record 14 touchdowns, but receiver Randy Moss and quarterback Peyton Manning also began their careers that year.
Moss won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award (24 votes), and Manning finished second in the voting (22 votes). Taylor received one vote.
All-Decade teams and championships have an impact on Hall of Fame voters, Gosselin said, and that hurts Taylor's case. There are other backs with similar stats who did make the All-Decade team and/or did win a championship who warrant consideration, too.
Players like Corey Dillon, who ran for 11,241 yards, made four Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl with New England. He at one point held the record for most rushing yards in a game (278), which is now held by Peterson (296).
Taylor's career overlapped with seven running backs who are now Hall of Famers, including Curtis Martin, Faulk, Davis and Tomlinson.
Differentiating players is the toughest part of the selection process for voters because there's no criteria set by the Pro Football Hall of Fame on what determines a Hall of Famer. Obviously the player must be elite, but some voters might weigh championships more heavily than others, while some might put more emphasis on All-Decade teams or All-Pro selections.
"I think Freddy's got a great argument, but I don't know what separates him from other guys from his era," said Geoff Hobson, the Cincinnati representative on the 50-member selection committee. "I'm not a big fan of All-Decade teams, but Jamal Lewis is on the [2000s] All-Decade team, won a rushing title, gained 2,000 yards, broke the all-time single-game record [295 yards in 2003]. Shaun Alexander's got an MVP and a rushing title. ... What about Corey Dillon? Corey broke a 40-year-old single-game rushing record, has the rookie rushing record, and holds the Bengals' all-time rushing record for a career.
"[Taylor] obviously has a great résumé, but how do you know?"
One member of the selection committee, who asked to remain anonymous, puts a lot of weight on championships. The Jaguars made the playoffs five times in Taylor's 11 seasons, but they never reached a Super Bowl. The closest they came was 1999, when they lost the AFC championship in Jacksonville to the Tennessee Titans -- the only team that beat the Jaguars that season.
"Maybe I've got an old-school view of it, but if he was that great he would've lifted them to a title or two," the voter said.
For some of those that played against Taylor, though, the discussions about Pro Bowls, All-Pro selections, All-Decade teams and championships are worthless. Taylor passed the eye test as a Hall of Famer.
"It's always more than that s--- [awards and championships]," said Jaguars passing game coordinator/cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend, who played 12 of his 13 seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers and faced Taylor 13 times. "If you look at numbers, some guys might not be in [the Hall of Fame]. Who is that guy that you can't plan for him? Did you worry about him? Did you know where he was at? Did you try to take him away?
"Those are the ones that are Hall of Famers."
Jaguars defensive line coach Brentson Buckner played against Taylor once in 1999 and agrees. " ... It's just a shame that people put so much on those popularity things [Pro Bowls, All-Pros]." Buckner said. "Look at the football tape; put his tape out there. The only difference between him and Terrell Davis is Terrell Davis has two Super Bowls. You put Fred Taylor on that Denver team, he might run for 3,000 yards."
Davis ran for 2,008 yards in 1998 when Taylor was a rookie. He, Lewis and Johnson each had 2,000-yard seasons during Taylor's time in the league, which overshadowed some of the things Taylor did in his prime. Taylor rushed for at least 1,224 yards in four of five seasons from 2000 to '04, and the only season he didn't hit that mark he was limited to two games because of injury.
"It seemed that in the AFC at that time, there were a succession of running backs who had these monster years," said Sam Kouvaris, the Jacksonville representative on the 50-member Hall of Fame selection committee.
"But if you look at the years that Fred played, look at who the All-Pro or the Pro Bowl guy was and recognize that they didn't have the same kind of consistent greatness that he had. They had greatness in a small window, but they didn't have that kind of consistent greatness that Fred Taylor had."
STATING HIS CASE
Taylor is emphatic that he belongs in the Hall of Fame. He's not cocky or arrogant, but rather matter-of-fact in his arguments. His numbers stack up with and are better than -- some of the best backs to ever play the game. And he passes the eye test because people that played against him know how great a player he was.
Taylor knows the arguments that people use against him -- one Pro Bowl, no All-Pros, no titles, never leading the league in rushing, missing 60 games because of injuries -- but all he wants is a chance to have his name discussed as a finalist and have Kouvaris make a pitch for his induction. Taylor has not made the cut to 15 finalists, which is then trimmed to 10 before the selection committee meets to discuss each candidate.
If he can get to that point, Taylor said he believes people on the committee will realize he belongs.
"We had some really good running backs in the 2000s," Taylor said. "Some young guys came in, had a few 2,000-yard seasons. I don't think that minimizes or dims my star per se, but again, I don't know if it's the accolades or is it the numbers?
"A guy could have made the All-Decade team; what's his career numbers? Are they better than mine? If that's the argument they want to make, let's make an argument. Are their numbers better than mine? Were they able to sustain a longer career? I know a few of the guys that are on the All-Decade team that my numbers are better than."
If his stats don't hold enough weight, Taylor says to ask Hall of Famers he played against. Ray Lewis called Taylor an elite player when discussing Taylor's Hall of Fame candidacy in 2018. In 2007, Troy Polamalu said Taylor was the probably the best back he has seen in the NFL.
"All of these guys that are in there, they're not just saying it to say it," Taylor said. "They themselves believe it's the elite of the elite and if you're not one of them in their mold, they wouldn't vouch for you in that sense because it's legendary. It's Mecca. It's football heaven.
"And they wouldn't say these things if they didn't believe it. Not just cause I'm a cool, nice, outgoing, fun-loving guy. I struck fear into defenses. They didn't just go out there and say, 'We're going to hold him to 50 yards.' They're trying to say, 'We trying to make sure he doesn't get 50 yards on one carry.'"
The semifinalists for the Class of 2024 will be released in November, but there's no guarantee Taylor will be on it for the fifth time. Tight end Antonio Gates and defensive end Julius Peppers highlight the list of players eligible for the first time, and that's another thing that hurts Taylor: With new candidates every year -- especially likely first-ballot players like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Larry Fitzgerald -- the pool becomes deeper. Also, Taylor is not competing against just running backs.
He has 13 years remaining of his 20-year window to make the Hall of Fame as a modern-era player; after that, the Hall's senior committee could vote him in. However, there's a backlog there, too.
Gosselin, who has been on the senior committee since 2004, said fewer than 20 players have been discussed on his list of 120 players whom he believes merit discussion.
So it's possible, and maybe even likely, that Taylor doesn't get in, which isn't something he said he has considered.
"I tell people, look, maybe if I had had that same mindset earlier on, I would've done some things differently," Taylor said. "Because if you don't set certain standards, then you're fine with the mediocrity or that level of standard that comes with that. If I had set my sights on the Hall of Fame, I don't think there's a doubt that I would've been [a Hall of Famer on] the first ballot. I mean, obviously injuries still come into play and that's out of my control because of how I played the game.
"But yeah, I never thought that I wasn't going to make it. I'm not a pessimist. I don't think that way, but I also don't lose sleep based on someone else's opinion of me. And that's just all walks of life outside of sports, even."