By Clark Judge | Feb. 8, 2019
In the aftermath of the latest Pro Football Hall of Fame vote, I’ve become certain of one thing: Until or unless the Hall makes head coaches eligible for the contributor category none reaches Canton before Bill Belichick.
It’s not that we don’t have worthy candidates. We do. In fact, we had two as finalists for the Class of 2019.
But neither Don Coryell nor Tom Flores gained much traction once they were there. Neither made the first cut from 15 to 10 during last Saturday’s selection meeting. Frankly, that was a mild surprise.
I didn’t expect Coryell to resonate with voters because he hasn’t before. This was his fifth trip inside the room, and only once – 2016 – did he make it to the Top 10. But then his candidacy moved backward, with Coryell failing to make the first cut in 2017 and failing to make the finals a year later.
So his candidacy appeared DOA until he somehow reappeared for the Class of 2019. And then … just like that … he was gone again.
But it was Flores whom I thought had a chance to make an impact. It was his first appearance ever as a finalist, and, considering that he’s 81, 49 years removed from his playing career and 25 from his coaching career, that’s an achievement.
But it’s more than that. He had what Coryell did not – momentum. And he had it going in the right direction.
The guy hadn’t even been a semifinalist before this year, yet for some reason unknown to me or other voters his candidacy catapulted forward as it hasn’t before. Credit a strong and persistent fan base that went to social media to push him. Credit Hall of Fame voters who shined light on an otherwise dormant Hall of Fame candidacy. And credit reason itself.
Flores is one of five head coaches (Jimmy Johnson, George Seifert, Mike Shanahan and Tom Coughlin are the others) to win two Super Bowls and not reach Canton, an institution that measures its quarterbacks and head coaches by rings. Johnson has been a Hall of Fame finalist once but, like Coryell and Flores this time around, failed to make it to the Top 10 on Selection Saturday.
But there was something unique about Flores, and it wasn’t his 83-53 (.610) record as a Raiders’ coach nor his 8-3 mark in the playoffs. Nope, it was his resume as a social pioneer. He was the first Hispanic quarterback to win a Super Bowl ring (as a backup with Kansas City), and he was the first minority, period, to win a Super Bowl as a head coach.
In fact, he won two.
And that should count for something. It did when Tony Dungy was a candidate in 2016. Dungy was the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl, and he was elected in his third try as a finalist. Unlike Flores, Dungy was successful in two places (Tampa Bay and Indianapolis) as a head coach. Unlike Flores, he won one Super Bowl.
Truth be told, Flores was part of four Super Bowl champions (he also won one as a Raiders’ assistant), and, paired with his breakthrough as a Hispanic leader, that should’ve made him a compelling candidate.
And it did. As I said, he was a finalist, which means he was one of the last 15 candidates of a preliminary pool of 103. And that’s not good. It’s marvelous.
But then it all stopped.
Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s because voters looked at what happened when Flores went from Oakland to Seattle and suffered through three miserable seasons (14-34) before getting fired. Maybe it’s because he inherited a talent-rich roster in Oakland, and voters figured he had a built-in advantage over his peers – much as they’ve said about Seifert when he was with the 49ers.
All I know is that the talent he inherited at the Raiders he took to two Super Bowl victories, and John Madden took to one. And Madden is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Nevertheless, I don’t think either of those explanations, in and of themselves, doomed Flores’ candidacy. If anything, I believe it’s more the idea that coaches one day may be included in the contributor category.
Look, it’s difficult for any coach to compete with players for one of five modern-era positons, with two (Dungy and Bill Parcells) elected in the past 13 years. But remove them from the general pool into a non-player category, and, suddenly, their odds for induction greatly improve.
Nobody knows if or when that change happens, but there’s so much discussion about it that voters figure it’s inevitable. And maybe then they act on a Coryell and/or Flores.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a Hall of Fame selector say the contributor category is perfectly suited to a Don Coryell, who was 3-6 in the playoffs and never went to a Super Bowl but who made such a significant impact on the NFL that former coach Mike Martz calls him “the father of the modern passing game.”
Well, maybe that goes for Flores, too. Because, as a contributor, his entire resume could be judged. It wouldn’t solely be as a head coach. It could be as a head coach and as a player.
But until or unless that happens, neither he nor Coryell … or anyone not named Belichick … will have the attention — or the votes … of the people who make a difference in Canton.
And that’s not a shame. It’s reality.