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It’s all about the process

Posted Feb 2, 2012

The selectors meet Saturday to determine the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2012, and Cortez Kennedy is a finalist for the fourth consecutive year. But this group includes no “shoo-in” candidates.

Bruce Smith. Jerry Rice. Emmitt Smith. Marshall Faulk. Deion Sanders. Even Ralph Wilson.

What do these six have in common? The first five are among the best to ever play in the National Football League, while Wilson is one of more revered owners in the history of the leagues – the old American Football League and now the NFL.

But this six-pack of finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame also have helped block Cortez Kennedy’s path to enshrinement – Smith and Wilson in 2009; Rice and Smith in 2010; Faulk and Sanders last year.

Kennedy, the eight-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the Seahawks, is a finalist for the fourth consecutive year. But for the first time, he faces a field of fellow finalists that does not include a “shoo-in” candidate as the 44-person selection committee huddles in Indianapolis on Saturday morning to choose the Class of 2012 – which will be announced at 2:30 p.m. PST during a one-hour special on the NFL Network.

Once, twice, three times denied, but undaunted. That’s how Kennedy continues to handle the annual process.

“I can honestly tell you, if getting in the Hall of Fame is my biggest worry, then I’m doing OK,” he recently told The Associated Press. “So I guess I’m doing OK.”

This year’s finalist also include running backs Jerome Bettis and Curtis Martin; wide receivers Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Andre Reed; center Dermontti Dawson; defensive ends/linebackers Chris Doleman, Kevin Greene and Charles Haley; tackle Willie Roaf; guard Will Shields; defensive back Aeneas Williams; coach Bill Parcells; owner Eddie DeBartolo; and the two senior candidates – cornerback Jack Butler and guard Dick Stanfel.

A worthy group, obviously, but one that also lacks no-brainer selections like Rice and Smith, the league’s all-time leading receiver and rusher; Faulk and Sanders, two of the most versatile and productive players in NFL history; and Smith and Wilson, who were synonymous with the Buffalo Bills’ dominance of the AFC when they were advancing to four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s.

While Kennedy has been waiting, others have waited even longer. Reed is a finalist for the sixth time and Carter for the fifth time, while Dawson also is a fourth-time finalist.

Once “in the room” on Saturday, the selection committee will debate the merits of each of the 17 finalists, starting with the senior candidates. A presentation is made on the part of each candidate – I did it for Kennedy in 2009 and Mike Sando of ESPN.com has done it the past two years and again will be Kennedy’s “voice” on Saturday.

The presentations are followed by debate – often heated, but just as often not even necessary. The members of the committee then vote, narrowing the field to 10, before the voting process is repeated to decide who will be included in that year’s class – which can consist of as few as four, but no more than seven. Kennedy has advanced to the Top 10 the past two years.

Even those “in the room” don’t know which finalists will comprise the class until the announcement is made, as representatives of accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche collect and tabulate the secret ballots. A finalist must receive 80 percent “yes” votes to earn a spot in the Hall of Fame.

“I have a much better appreciation of (the process) since I’ve become a selector,” Sando told 710 ESPN this week. “Because if you have an issue with how these votes are coming down, then you try it. You’re going to leave out 10 guys every year.”

Sometimes, you leave out people you intended to vote for. In ’09, Wilson was not on my “vote” list when I entered the room. But after hearing his presentation and the discussion that followed, I voted for Wilson – at the expense of Shannon Sharpe.

So my feeling as I left the room was, “I didn’t vote for Shannon Sharpe. I should be thrown off the committee.”

As Sando put it, “There’s always going to be deserving people who don’t get it, and it’s very frustrating when that’s your guy or you can’t understand why Cris Carter or somebody doesn’t get in. I was in the same boat. But you have to leave out 10 people every year, so it’s tough.”