Rather quietly in terms of the attention it has received, this is a potentially historic week for the Patriots organization. And it has little to do with the schedule calling for the so-called "dress rehearsal" third preseason game on Friday night in Detroit.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame candidacy of team owner Robert Kraft faces a critical first hurdle Friday when a five-person sub-committee of sportswriters convenes in Canton, Ohio, and votes on recommending one "Contributor" finalist to the main panel of 48 Hall voters. That's the necessary first step as part of the enshrinement balloting that will take place next February, the day before the Super Bowl in Minneapolis.
Kraft's Hall resume isn't in question, with five Patriots Super Bowl rings, eight Super Bowl berths and his track record of rescuing NFL football for the New England market, and playing such a pivotal role in both the forging of labor peace and the spectacular growth of the league in general these past two-plus decades.
Whether or not his timing is right for the Class of 2018 is another matter. Kraft's date with football immortality is considered a near certainty, if not now, then in the near future. His supporters for the Hall can build a case like few others in terms of his impact, influence and success since he purchased the floundering franchise in early 1994. Even before that actually, because it was Kraft who bought Foxboro Stadium out of bankruptcy in 1988, subsequently using the lease to block attempted moves to both Jacksonville and St. Louis by then-current Patriots owners. Kraft's legacy is the stuff of Canton, gold jackets and bronze busts, and it's considered just a matter of time before he takes his place in the Hall.
"If you look at the body of work, his legacy has already been built," said Joe Horrigan, the Executive Director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the institution's unofficial historian. "When Robert Kraft became the owner, it became his focus and goal to make it a winning franchise, and to that he's excelled. The other part of any contributor is what has he done for the success of the league, outside of his own self-interest? Again, he's an important figure in just about every league committee and initiative. He's been instrumental and intimately involved in major decisions and that bodes well for his candidacy."
But for a variety of reasons, Kraft's time to be honored by the Hall may not be at hand just yet. After two weeks of interviewing sources who are both directly and indirectly involved in the Hall of Fame's contributor category election process, here's what I've gleaned about what might unfold in Friday's vote. This is my tea-leaves-reading of what could happen; what "should" happen is obviously subject to debate, as the vast majority of most Hall of Fame candidacies are:
- Though the complete ballot listing the 10 candidates who were named by the nine-person contributor Hall sub-committee are not publicly known, five names have dominated the discussion for this year's lone finalist berth to be recommended to the full panel of voters: Kraft and fellow owner Pat Bowlen of Denver, as well as former Giants general manager George Young, former Washington and San Diego general manager Bobby Beathard, and Gil Brandt, the longtime personnel director for the Cowboys in their glory days of the 1960s and '70s, who helped revolutionize the NFL's scouting and drafting process.
Another candidate almost certain to be on the list of 10 is former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who is given almost no chance of being this year's finalist. Why? Because Tagliabue, along with Dallas owner Jerry Jones, was recommended by the contributor committee last year, but fell narrowly short of the required 80 percent of the vote from the full body (39 of 48 votes needed). It would be a stunning development, sources said, if he again was put forward to the full panel of Hall voters so soon after that failure.
In addition, recent contributor nominees have included former Browns/Ravens owner Art Modell, former NFL Films president Steve Sabol, and longtime NFL Director of Officiating and administrator Art McNally. All of them are believed to be still under consideration, although their presence on this year's ballot has not been confirmed in the somewhat secretive process. Former Houston/ Tennessee owner Bud Adams is another uncomfirmed potential final 10 candidate this year.
It's important to note that a candidate must only receive support from three of the five members that make up the sub-committee in order to earn its recommendation, or 60 percent of the vote. For the record, Tagliabue is the only nominee to get the recommendation of the recently established contributor committee and yet fall short of the enshrinement vote. So while the committee's nod is a strong endorsement, it's not a fool-proof path to inevitable induction.
If you look at the body of work, his legacy has already been built
- According to multiple sources, undeniably working against Kraft's chances for 2018 is the fact that he would be the third consecutive owner to be enshrined, following former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo in 2016 and Jones in 2017. When the Hall of Fame adjusted its system to create a separate "Contributor" pool of candidates (comprised of both club executives/franchise architects and owners) in 2014, thereby not forcing such candidates to compete for election slots alongside players and coaches, a five-year window was agreed upon.
The contributor committee was granted a 2-1-2-1-2 voting format, meaning it could put forth two finalists for the Class of 2015 (ex-GMs Ron Wolf and Bill Polian), just one in 2016 (DeBartolo), two more in 2017 (Jones and Tagliabue), one in 2018 and two more in 2019.
With only one finalist to put forward this year, the feeling is that voters may be hesitant to enshrine another owner so soon, with the pendulum of momentum swinging back to the club executive side of the ledger. That would seem to favor Young, Beathard and Brandt in this year's voting, and leave Bowlen, 73, and Kraft, 76, waiting perhaps for next year's two-man contributor recommendation.
The sensitivity seems to lie with not wanting to create the perception that the contributors committee was created to solely help get owners into the Hall, over club executives/team architects who arguably are seen as having a more direct role in a franchise's success. The bottom line is DeBartolo and Jones' enshrinement probably complicates Kraft's chances in 2018. But many concede a record-tying sixth Super Bowl win this season in New England, making it three rings in a four-year span, would likely elevate Kraft's candidacy to slam-dunk territory in 2019.
"There are other candidates who are not owners, and having just had owners the past two years, there may be some sentiment that I can't regulate or read that we have to go back and look at that candidate pool and consider something other than an owner this time," Horrigan acknowledges.
"That said, Robert Kraft has been so consistent in winning football games, and that to me is his strongest asset or credential, the winning legacy of that franchise since he took it over. Let's face it, it was a losing franchise for so long people thought it might never be able to recover. Not only did he get it over the hump, he did it with a model of consistency which I think only the Pittsburgh Steelers rival."
There is also this to keep in mind: For the Class of 2020, when the NFL will be celebrating its 100th anniversary, the Hall of Fame is considering the step of inducting a potentially much larger class in terms of both Contributor and Senior player candidates. So with as many as three more contributor candidates to be recommended and potentially enshrined in the 2018 and 2019 classes as part of the five-year format, any remaining deserving candidates might be inducted under special dispensation in 2020. Some believe that Tagliabue will almost certainly be a member of that enlarged class, which has been dubbed "an uncapped year" for the Hall of Fame.
"I sense something special's going to happen in connection with that celebration and that anniversary in 2020," said former 49ers and Browns team president Carmen Policy, who is close to the Kraft family and was an integral part of the support for DeBartolo's candidacy two years ago. "Don't be surprised to see a special effort on the part of the Hall of Fame to make sure no one gets left behind.
"But as to this year, I do feel two owners having gone in recently might work against Bob somewhat. I wish it weren't so, because I think he's so deserving. But given there's only one nominee this year, the set-up and the structure might work against him. I'll say I wouldn't be surprised if he's nominated, but because of the process, it may have to wait until next year."
- For those who might favor Young's candidacy, it would seem to have one advantage in the process. The former Giants GM, who died in 2001, is the only candidate who has made it to the final 15 under the old format of lumping contributors in with players and coaches, prior to 2014. Young was exactly the kind of candidate who was targeted by the Hall in deciding to break out a separate pool of contributors who wouldn't have to compete on a less-than-level playing field.
Perhaps that will sway voters who believe his candidacy was hurt by the old system, correcting that wrong with the tools that new system allows. Young was a five-time NFL Executive of the Year winner, and was credited with helping the once-moribund Giants restore the franchise to greatness with a pair of Super Bowl wins in the Bill Parcells coaching era.
That said, Beathard is thought to be very well positioned to perhaps come away with the committee's recommendation, having helped build Super Bowl teams in both Washington and San Diego, although his detractors would point to the drafting of a quarterbacking disaster like Ryan Leaf as an almost disqualifying move late in Beathard's career. Some sources I spoke to put Beathard slightly in the pole position going into the voting, with the caveat that no one is approaching the status of being a strong favorite.
As for Brandt, 84, there has been a groundswell of support for his candidacy as well, with many believing his long career in pro football as both one of the pillars of the early Dallas dynasty and his decades of work as the "Godfather" of the NFL Draft make him uniquely deserving of induction. But Brandt's biggest obstacle to overcome this year, sources say, may be that Dallas owner Jerry Jones was just enshrined, making the committee perhaps hesitant to recommend two consecutive Cowboys stalwarts. Such are the peripheral issues that at times come into play in the Hall selection process. Whether they should or shouldn't is a fair debate in and of itself.
- If none of the club executives can generate enough support, sources indicated that Bowlen is very likely to emerge as a consensus choice of the committee, being put up for enshrinement 33 years after he purchased the Broncos and turned them into one of the league's most consistent powerhouse teams. Bowlen was said to be a strong contender in last year's balloting, behind Jones and Tagliabue.
Denver has won three Super Bowl titles, and seven AFC Championships under Bowlen, with a record 300 wins in his first 30 years of ownership. While Kraft's Patriots can easily beat that with their Super Bowl five rings, eight AFC titles, and gaudy .691 winning percentage from 1994 on, Bowlen's supporters also laud his work as chairman of the league's broadcast committee in the 1990s, when he and Jones combined to strike a history-making TV contract that paved the way for the NFL to dominate the market in terms of lucrative rights fees.
Bowlen retired and gave up control of the Broncos in July 2014, acknowledging his battle with Alzheimer's disease, which had already spanned several years at that point. Bowlen's candidacy has inspired strong lobbying from the likes of Broncos football czar and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, newly enshrined Hall of Fame Broncos running back Terrell Davis, as well as respected network TV executives Dick Ebersol of NBC and David Hill of Fox.
That Denver stayed in or near the ranks of Super Bowl contention for so long despite changing coaches and quarterbacks multiple times during his tenure is also seen as a boost to his Hall candidacy, sources said. But like Kraft, Bowlen's chances may be impacted by the committee having seen owners become the last two contributors enshrined. If there any "wait your turn" effect at play in this year's voting, the reality of the situation is Bowlen's candidacy will likely be judged to supersede Kraft's.
- Last year, Polian, former Raiders Hall of Fame coach John Madden and former 49ers team president Carmen Policy served as advisors to the contributor's committee before their vote, offering their insights on who were most deserving among the club executives and owners under consideration. But the makeup of this year's advisory group is not fully known. Hall of Fame member and ex-Packers GM Ron Wolf is said to one of the advisors, sources told me.
- As multi-faceted as Kraft's candidacy is in the eyes of many, some sources maintain his strongest case for Hall immortality is the landmark decision he made in early 2000, hiring Bill Belichick as head coach despite getting strongly counseled not to by any number of voices within the league. It was that turning point moment that determined the fate of the franchise and set it on the course of becoming one of the game's greatest dynasties from 2001 to current day. That and the drafting of quarterback Tom Brady that spring, of course.
"Do you know how many people went to him and said, 'Bob, don't get caught up in any kind of mystique as you're making your decision to hire a new coach,' " Policy said. "People told him there's got to be a problem in hiring Belichick. There's been too much drama.
"But he sat there and analyzed the situation, evaluated the man, and I remember him telling me, 'I know a lot of people think it's a very risky thing for me to do, but I'm going to do it, because I think it's right. I think this guy has not been handled well and I think that given the kind of support that me and my family and this franchise is capable of giving him, I think he's going to shine.'
"Think how much drama we'd be lacking if we didn't have the Patriots, Belichick and (Tom) Brady, and the team that keeps popping back up no matter what? No matter who leaves, who's hurt, who's suspended, they keep coming back and coming back and coming back. There's something to be said about the leadership that starts at the top. I don't know how you ignore Bob, put it that way, I just don't know how the Hall can ignore him. To ignore him in my opinion would be a tragedy."