ATLANTA — Defense dominated the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s class of 2019, a day before two of the NFL’s most high-powered offenses will face each other to decide Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Four defensive backs — Ed Reed, Champ Bailey, Ty Law and seniors finalist Johnny Robinson — were among the eight men selected for enshrinement by the Hall’s board of selectors on Saturday at the Georgia World Congress Center.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez and center Kevin Mawae as well as Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and longtime personnel executive Gil Brandt were also chosen Saturday for enshrinement.
Members of Bowlen’s family, on hearing of his selection, video chatted with Bowlen, who remained in Colorado. Bowlen suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and stepped away from the franchise’s day-to-day operations in 2014.
The Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be held Aug. 3, in Canton, Ohio.
For the second consecutive year, the Hall of Fame class included three players in their first years of eligibility in Bailey, Reed and Gonzalez. Those three players combined for 35 Pro Bowl selections as well as 14 first-team All-Pro nods. A year ago, Randy Moss, Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher were named to the Hall of Fame’s class of 2018 in their first years of eligibility.
The run of first-time-eligible players getting fitted for the Hall’s signature gold jacket might not be slowed in the next two years, when former Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, former Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne and former 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis are among the first-time-eligible players.
In 2021, it becomes even more of a star-studded field as former Colts and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, former Packers and Raiders defensive back Charles Woodson and former Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson will be among the first-time-eligible players.
The board of selectors met for 7½ hours Saturday ahead of Super Bowl LIII. This year’s finalists included five defensive backs among the 15 modern-era finalists — former Broncos safety Steve Atwater, who made the cutdown from 15 finalists to 10 earlier Saturday morning, and John Lynch were the others. Four offensive linemen — Mawae, Steve Hutchinson, Alan Faneca and Tony Boselli — were among the 15 finalists.
But Saturday’s class marks a general departure from the usual Hall voting, given that offensive players make up roughly 60 percent of those currently enshrined to 40 percent for defensive players.
Reed is the first pure safety in 33 years to get voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility after a career that began in 2002 and ended after the 2013 season. The previous one to reach on the first ballot was Ken Houston in 1986. Among the modern-era finalists, the discussion about Reed inside the selection room Saturday was the shortest, lasting just 2 minutes, 20 seconds.
“Smartest player I ever coached,” Brian Billick, Reed’s former coach with the Baltimore Ravens, said.
Bailey made 52 interceptions for the Redskins and Broncos in 1999-2013 despite being avoided by opposing quarterbacks for the majority of his career.
“This is home and timing was just right for it,” said Bailey, who grew up in Folkston, Georgia, and played college ball at Georgia.
In a 17-year career that ended with the 2013 season, Gonzalez caught 1,325 passes, the second most in NFL history, for 111 touchdowns. He was a six-time All-Pro and made 14 Pro Bowls.
“I knew I had a good chance, I’m not going to lie about that,” Gonzalez said of his induction. “Still, when you hear the knock, your heart drops.”
Law, who played from 1995 through 2009, won three Super Bowls with the Patriots and returned a pick for a touchdown that gave New England an early lead in its first title victory, over the Rams following the 2001 season.
“It’s surreal to get this honor while my former team is playing,” said Law, who will be on hand when the Patriots again play the Rams for the title Sunday.
Mawae, a three-time All-Pro lineman during a career that spanned from 1994 through 2009, also said he was excited when he heard the news.
“Threw my phone across the room,” the former Seahawk, Jet and Titan said. “I had a higher vertical than at the combine.”
Both contributor finalists — Bowlen and Brandt — were lauded for their long, distinguished careers and contributions to the league. Bowlen’s Broncos have had as many Super Bowl appearances as losing seasons — seven — since Bowlen purchased the team in 1984.
Brandt’s long tenure with the Dallas Cowboys included 20 consecutive winning seasons, from the 1960s into the 1980s, marked by innovation and the establishment of the roots of the structure most teams now use in evaluating personnel.
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