CANTON, Ohio – Five years have passed since the last former player who spent more than one season with the Buffalo Bills received a gold jacket from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That was Andre Reed, making him one of five members of the Super Bowl Bills to ride the wave of their dominance all the way to immortalization. Terrell Owens’ 2009 stop in Western New York was memorable only because he was, well, TO. Otherwise, it was a footnote on his 2018 induction.
Almost immediately after Reed’s selection, the question came up from any number of Bills loyalists: “Who’s next?”
As a Hall selector representing Buffalo, I’m guessing I’ve heard it or read it a bit more than most.
I also know that the 2015 enshrinement of Bill Polian, chief architect of the roster that won four consecutive AFC titles, did nothing to satisfy those who believe there are others who played on those clubs equally deserving of a bronze bust.
The subject periodically surfaces on a year-round basis, but never more than this past weekend, when the nation’s football attention gave its annual glance in this direction for the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
Who’s next from the Bills? I don’t have a ready answer, because there isn’t one. Not an obvious one. Maybe not one at all.
Rest assured that this isn’t an off-the-cuff assessment. Among the duties of a selector tied to a specific team is to serve as an advocate for potential inductees. Through regular communication with fellow voters and other influential voices when it comes to the Hall, including many that took place here in the past several days, I have yet to see any traction for names that typically come up: Steve Tasker, Kent Hull and Darryl Talley.
Tasker is easily the most popular name on the list. That has plenty to do with with his underdog story, as a small guy who arrived as a waiver-claim afterthought in 1986 and proceeded to carve out a long and distinguished career on special teams. Nowhere is that sort of biography embraced more tightly than Buffalo, where there has always been a greater appreciation for gritty and scrappy than smooth and silky.
However, Tasker also seemingly has the strongest case to join fellow former Super Bowl Bills – Reed, Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and James Lofton – in the Hall. While the late Hull is widely seen as a “very good” center and Talley is widely seen as a “very good” linebacker, neither so far has been able to draw the one label that matters most when it comes to the Hall of Fame: great.
The common admonishment we hear as selectors is, “Remember, you’re deciding who belongs in the Hall of Great … not the Hall of Very Good.”
Tasker, Hull and Talley could eventually fair better when they move into the “senior” category as players who have been retired for 25 years or longer. One former Bill who is already there, nose tackle Fred Smerlas, who left the team in free agency a year before the Super Bowl run, could very well benefit from the Hall expanding its list of inductees to 20 (including 10 seniors) for the Class of 2020 as part of the NFL’s 100th year celebration.
With Tasker, the problem isn’t about whether he was great. He is seen in many circles, even those outside the world of Bills fans, as the greatest special-teams player in the game ever. His work in covering kicks, returning them, blocking for other returners and rushing punters earned him seven Pro Bowl appearances, becoming the only special-teams player to be named the game’s MVP in 1993. He also is a five-time first-team Associated Press All-Pro selection.
The problem is his role. Hall voters have long shown extreme prejudice toward pure special-teams players. Only three have been inducted and all are kickers: Jan Stenerud, Morten Andersen and punter Ray Guy.
Tasker and other non-kicking special-teamers are seen, first, as backups rather than full-fledged starters. In Tasker’s case, it was at receiver. The question voters face with any choice is, “If I put him in, what ‘position player’ do I leave out?” Unfortunately for Tasker, and for other kickers who have been considered, the answer usually is, “Go with the starter.”
Will he be the next former Bill to receive a gold jacket? Will any former Bill receive that honor? Or is that player going to come from the current squad after putting together a “great” NFL career of his own?