The segments were a break from the tradition of inductees finding out behind closed doors. It made for compelling and even moving TV, and therefore effective promotion for the unveiling of the rest of the 2020 class this week. What’s more, the spectacle of it took away from what should be the central question here:
Do these guys actually belong in the Hall?
Under normal circumstances, perhaps the answer might be no, but the NFL is potentially letting the standard slip a bit this year, for the sake of a big anniversary moment.
Johnson and Cowher are the two inductees from the eight-candidate coaching field. The full 20-person class will also include 10 seniors (players who were active at least 25 years ago), three contributors (front-office personnel, owners and media figures) and five modern-era players.
There’s a reason that the Hall led off with these two: Both have prominent television jobs, and they coached arguably the most popular franchises in the NFL.
From a strictly fame standpoint, it’s hard to argue that Cowher and Johnson are worthy of induction. After all, they had a cameo together in the 1998 Adam Sandler hit comedy “The Waterboy.” They’ve been talking to us on TV about football for years. Cowher’s return to coaching was speculated about for nearly a decade after resigned as Steelers coach in 2007. By any metric of literal fame, they pass the test.
But does their NFL resume really add up to an all-time greatness?
Most of Cowher’s 15-year head coaching career was defined by being very, very good (10 playoff appearances) but not quite good enough. Under him, the Steelers lost four conference championship games and a Super Bowl before finally breaking through and winning a championship during a re-hot 2005 postseason run. Had the sixth-seeded Steelers not beaten Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Denver and then Seattle in the Super Bowl, the entire case for Cowher falls apart. His coaching record is 149-90-1, 20th best all time. The Jaw’s winning percentage is .623, 24th best. Does that really seem like a career for the ages?
As for Johnson, sure, he won two Super Bowl championships, but so did former Raiders and Seahawks coach Tom Flores, who was snubbed in this round of voting. Johnson had fewer wins (80) and a lower winning percentage (.556) in the NFL than Jason Garrett (85, .559), whose contract recently wasn’t renewed by the Cowboys. (Johnson isn’t even in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor, although that has more to do with Jerry Jones than anyone else.)
Johnson, who engineered the Herschel Walker trade with Minnesota in 1989 that set up his success, might have struck gold in Dallas. But his nine-year body of coaching work, which includes a middling record for the Dolphins (44-36), falls short. (The final game of his coaching career was a 62-7 playoff loss to the Jaguars). Sure, if you factor in his success in college (81-34 record, one national title with U of Miami), he’s worthy, but this is the Pro Football Hall of Fame we’re talking about, not the Aggregate Experience in Football Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fame seems to be using this centennial to clear a number of logjams, and that may take some pressure off voters for a number of years, though it may also have a detrimental effect of lowering the bar for subsequent entries. Perhaps that’s fine for feel-good types who’d like everyone to feel nice and warm about their career, but a moderate amount of success shouldn’t qualify one for what is supposed to be a pantheon of greats.