Bouchette on the Steelers: Dick LeBeau's absence proves the Pro Football Hall of Fame's selection process needs an overhaul.
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The Pro Football Hall of Fame needs to overhaul how it elects candidates, a process that now keeps men such as Dick LeBeau out.
As it stands, a 44-person board of selectors, in a series of votes by mail, eventually reduces the number of modern-day finalists to 15. A seniors committee, comprised of some of those same 40 selectors, picks two seniors candidates who already have been bypassed during their 25 years of eligibility as modern day candidates. They join the 15 modern day men to form 17 finalists.
The day before the Super Bowl, the board of selectors -- I am one of them -- gathers in a meeting room and elects the new hall class. A minimum of four and a maximum of seven can be elected, and everyone is lumped together.
A player or a coach is eligible five years after he retires; contributors are eligible any time. Anyone can call the Hall of Fame in Canton and nominate someone, modern candidates or seniors -- there normally are more than 100 candidates on our first ballot before we cut the list to 25.
There are flaws, mainly the elections of seniors and contributors. Baseball has separate committees that elect seniors and contributors. Baseball writers vote strictly on players as modern candidates.
The Hall would be better served if they followed suit. An example is that Bob Hayes again is one of the two seniors candidates. Hayes was rejected as a modern-day candidate, then rejected again for the 2004 class as a seniors nominee. Yet five years later, he again is a seniors nominee for the 2009 class and faces rejection again.
So, Bob Hayes is presented twice by the seniors in the past five years while men like LeBeau, Andy Russell and Jack Butler never are presented.
There's also the matter of contributors. There are some great men in this game who have not played. Coaches, owners and commissioners get their due, but legendary personnel men such as Bill Nunn and Art Rooney Jr. should at least have a chance without making a voter decide between them and a player such as Rod Woodson or Bruce Smith.
Then there's LeBeau. When he retired as a player after the 1972 season, he ranked fourth in NFL history with 62 interceptions. Thirty-six years later, he's still tied for seventh. LeBeau was not a safety but a cornerback, where it's tougher to intercept passes. He also started in 171 consecutive games, which remains an NFL record for a cornerback.
That's a Hall of Fame career in its own; he has spent the past 36 seasons building one as an assistant coach. He's the father of the zone-blitz defense that has become prevalent throughout the year.
Combining his playing and coaching career, LeBeau should be a shoo-in. But that's not how it works in the Hall of Fame voting. His accomplishments are considered separately. It's time to change that.
Let me get this straight: The Steelers thought a punter was so important in 2007 that they used draft picks in the fourth and sixth rounds to take Daniel Sepulveda. OK, if that's your philosophy, at least you went out and got what you thought was necessary.
Yet now they have a punter who has had two hamstring injuries and who punts the way you imagine Bobby Walden might still be doing it and they do nothing about it. The reason? Mitch Berger holds for kicker Jeff Reed.
Ricky Schmitt was a member of the practice squad for about three days after Paul Ernster was released and before they decided to go with Berger again the first week of November. Schmitt, a lefty, was bombing punts in practice. The problem? He does not hold, or at least does not do a good job of it.
So, what we have here is the Steelers staying with a poor punter because he can hold for Reed's PATs and field-goal tries. That's how little they now regard the job of punter, or at least that's the perception.
But what's so hard about finding a holder? Tony Romo aside, when is the last time a kick in the NFL failed because of a botched hold? Or, how about college football? Even high schools have competent holders. Yes, it happens on occasion but not as often as a crummy punt might doom a team.
Why could they not sign Schmitt and have Hines Ward hold? Here's another idea: Keep Berger, sign Schmitt and release someone who's sitting around doing little, and there are a few of them.
The one advantage they do have by sticking with Berger as their punter, though, is what happened against Dallas. The shorter and lower his kicks, the more chances the ball will bounce off the leg of an opponent and be recovered by the Steelers. Perhaps that is their hidden strategy.
Both quarterbacks this week were asked how it helps them to play tough defenses by going against their own tough defenses in practice. Both quarterbacks answered respectfully to the questions. These questions often come up in the Steelers' locker room.
What Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger should have said is this:
"Have you ever been to an NFL practice? Do you know that we do not practice against our first-team defense, and that the guys we go against are mostly practice-squad players and scrubbinies? And even they do not tackle, they do not bump receivers, they do not hit like Ryan Clark. You could put stick men out there, and we still could practice against them.
"Even in training camp, when we sometimes do practice first team vs. first team, there is no tackling and very little contact -- remember when Hines Ward became so upset with Anthony Smith for hitting Willie Reid in a training-camp practice? It's against the rules, and, when it happens, it becomes a big deal."
So, no, neither Flacco nor Roethlisberger benefits one iota for practicing against two of the NFL's best and most-rugged defenses because neither practices against them, nor has either ever been sacked in practice. It's also safe to say their own teammates are not trash-talking during practice, either.
First Published December 14, 2008 12:00 am