Trying to Find the Signal in the Noise of Hall of Fame Voting

 Trying to Find the Signal in the Noise of Hall of Fame Voting

Isaac Bruce was a central cog in the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” offense. For 16 seasons, Bruce was a consistent vertical threat at wide receiver, and he ranks in the N.F.L.’s top 15 for career receptions (13th), receiving yards (fifth) and touchdown catches (12th). He was the leading receiver in a Super Bowl victory, and his No. 80 jersey was retired by the Rams.

On Saturday night, it is entirely possible that he could fail to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his sixth year of eligibility and fourth year as a finalist, while a pair of receivers who trail him in nearly every major receiving category stand a decent chance of getting in. And at least one metric suggests that would be within historical norms.

Ahead of this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame vote, Pro Football Reference tried to reduce the mystery of Hall of Fame elections by creating a Hall of Fame monitor, a system similar to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system in baseball and Basketball Reference’s Hall of Fame probability.

Alex Bonilla, who designed the football system, said that he had always appreciated pro football’s stringent Hall guidelines and that his goal was to create a system that accurately reflected the priorities of voters for the modern-era ballot. The 48 members of the selection committee will pick five inductees from a ballot of 15 modern-era players.

The formula for the H.O.F. monitor starts with the site’s Approximate Value statistic and adds in points for things like All-Pro selections and Most Valuable Player Awards, with a score of 100 or higher being typical for a Hall of Famer, and 120 a reliable standard for a player to gain election on his first ballot.

The rollout of this system underscored the worthiness of two players who have been snubbed: Alan Faneca and Steve Hutchinson, longtime All-Pros at guard who have the highest Hall of Fame monitor figures among this year’s 15 modern-era finalists. Each has a monitor figure in excess of 120, yet Faneca, who has the fourth-highest total among guards, has languished as a finalist for five years, while Hutchinson, who is ranked sixth, is up for election for a third time.

Bonilla said having two interior linemen as the highest-ranking finalists — still waiting to be elected — was not surprising, because centers and guards tend to have less name recognition than even offensive tackles, let alone skill players. Jerry Kramer, for instance, is the eighth-ranked guard, but he waited 44 years to be inducted.

“Hutchinson is in the Kramer/Larry Little range where it makes sense he’d have to wait a bit,” Bonilla said, “but Faneca has the all-decade nod, the championship bling, and was an All-Pro for almost half of his career. So he especially seems overdue to me.”

Wide receiver could be among the most interesting positions this year based on the cases of Torry Holt, Reggie Wayne and Bruce. The scoring difference among them highlights how important things like all-decade and All-Pro team selections can be, even if they are not always heavily scrutinized during a player’s career.

Bruce, Holt and Wayne each won one Super Bowl, leveling the playing field in that regard. (Bruce and Holt, teammates from 1999 to 2007, won theirs together.) But even though Bruce leads the group in receiving yards and touchdowns, and is second in receptions, his Hall of Fame monitor figure is the lowest of the group, at 90.64, which ranks him 16th among wide receivers. Wayne, in his first year of eligibility, is 13th in the monitor, at 95.23.

Bonilla attributed the gap to Holt’s presence on the N.F.L.’s all-2000s team and the fact that Wayne and Holt each had one first-team All-Pro selection. Bruce never finished better than second-team All-Pro, which was a case of awful timing. His 1,781 yards in 1995 are the fifth-best season total in league history, yet Bruce did not earn a spot on the All-Pro or Pro Bowl teams, thanks to similarly outrageous seasons by San Francisco’s Jerry Rice and Detroit’s Herman Moore.

The good news for Bruce — and Wayne and Holt — is that recent history suggests all three will be Hall of Famers eventually. The list of players below them on the Hall of Fame monitor rankings includes recently elected players like Michael Irvin, Art Monk and Andre Reed, the latter two having waited significant time before being elected.

Bonilla said the right answer was probably to view players in tiers, rather than focusing on individual placement, with this year’s finalists all in a solid grouping of players who are Hall-worthy — though not at the extreme top, along with the likes of Rice and Randy Moss.

But thanks to the H.O.F. monitor, should Bruce be asked to wait a little longer than Holt or Wayne, it should make a little more sense to people who do a double-take when they see Bruce’s 15,208 career receiving yards and wonder happened.

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