Apparently, tackle Joe Thomas doesn’t know what it’s like not to block.
For 11 seasons with the Cleveland Browns, Thomas (now a contributor to the 33rd Team) was one of the premier blockers in the NFL … and you can look it up. Ten Pro Bowls. Eight All-Pro teams. First-team all-decade. Over 10,000 consecutive snaps.
Essentially, everything but a championship. But since then … what? Well, nothing’s changed, that’s what.
Thomas on Thursday went back to doing what he does best, this time blocking a sweep of defensive players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2023. A first-ballot choice, he was the sole member from the offensive side of the ball, and for good reason: He had the best resume.
The seven others – four modern-era finalists and three seniors – all played defense, including the 33rd Team’s Ronde Barber. An all-decade cornerback and Super Bowl champion, Barber was elected on his fourth try as a Hall finalist. He was also one of three holdovers from last year’s Top 10 finalists to cross the finish line, joining linebackers Zach Thomas and DeMarcus Ware.
The fifth modern-era defender was cornerback Darrelle Revis, also a first-ballot pick, and no surprise there. He and Joe Thomas were expected to be elected. But Thomas was unique because, unlike Revis and virtually all other first-ballot choices in Hall history, he played for a franchise that during his tenure never reached the playoffs, was 54-122 (.306), and finished last in its division nine times.
And what about the others? Keep reading. You’re about to find out.
Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023
2023 Modern-Era Class (5)
>> Ronde Barber, CB, Tampa Bay (1997-2012)
>> Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets (2007-12), (2015-16); Tampa Bay (2013); New England (2014); Kansas City (2017)
>> Joe Thomas, OT, Cleveland (2007-17)
>> Zach Thomas, LB, Miami (1996-2007); Dallas (2008)
>> DeMarcus Ware, LB/DE, Dallas (2005-13); Denver (2014-16)
2023 Senior Class (3)
>> Chuck Howley, LB, Chicago (1958-59); Dallas (1961-73)
>> Joe Klecko, DL, N.Y. Jets (1977-87); Indianapolis (1988)
>> Ken Riley, CB, Cincinnati (1969-83)
2023 Coach/Contributor Inductee (1)
>> Don Coryell, coach, St. Louis (1973-77); San Diego (1978-86)
All were elected by the Hall’s board of 49 selectors last month via Zoom, a meeting that lasted seven hours and 57 minutes. Two of the inductees (Coryell and Riley) have passed away, but all will be enshrined on Saturday, Aug. 5, in Canton. Before they are, however, let’s take a look at what just happened:
Prior to voting, one selector privately asked if former tackle Willie Anderson’s candidacy would be affected by Joe Thomas. I told him it would not. “But they’re both tackles,” he said. “You don’t think Thomas will cancel Anderson?” I did not. Here’s why: As Barber and Revis demonstrated this year, Hall of Fame voters aren’t shy about electing two players at the same position. In fact, it’s happened the past seven years … including one year (2018) where four inductees lined up at two spots (Randy Moss and Terrell Owens at wide receiver and Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis at linebacker).
Alas, Anderson didn’t make the first cut to 10, but let’s be honest: Thomas had nothing to do with it. He and Anderson really didn’t play the same position. Thomas was a left tackle. Anderson played on the right side.
Ohio is Happy
Thomas was a no-brainer. But Riley? He had to wait 39 years before entering Canton … and, sadly, it happened nearly three years after his death in 2020. Riley’s 65 career interceptions are tied with Charles Woodson for fifth all-time, and Woodson was a first-ballot choice in 2021. Riley wasn’t a finalist until now, and his election is a long overdue victory for the Cincinnati Bengals. Until Thursday, only one Hall of Famer spent the bulk of his career with the franchise, and that was tackle Anthony Munoz. One. Now it’s two, and hallelujah. It’s about time.
Voters Didn’t Follow 2020’s Centennial Class
That class was elected by a “blue-ribbon” panel of Hall board selectors, media members and current and former NFL coaches and executives. It chose 20 finalists for 10 Hall of Fame busts, but Howley, Klecko and Riley weren’t among them. The expectation then was that subsequent senior classes would include the 10 finalists not elected, and that happened in 2021-22 when receiver Drew Pearson were enshrined.
But it ended abruptly when the senior class was expanded from one to three for the first time in Hall history. Not only weren’t Klecko, Riley and Howley ever senior finalists; they were never all-decade choices, either. How rare is that? Seventy-five percent of all Hall of Famers were chosen to all-decade teams.
Wide Receiver Gridlock Will Soon be Broken
For the fourth consecutive year, Reggie Wayne and Torry Holt were left out. And for the second straight session, they were joined by Andre Johnson. But that’s going to change … and, in all likelihood, it will happen next year. For three years Wayne and Holt didn’t make the first cut from 15 to 10. This time they did, joining Johnson (a Top 10 finisher a year ago) in the on-deck circle for 2024. With Julius Peppers the surest first-ballot choice next year, the door is wide open for one … if not two … receivers to move forward, and that will satisfy voters.
Considerable support was voiced for all three, as there was before when Cris Carter, Andre Reed and Tim Brown canceled each other out for three consecutive years (2010-12). It wasn’t until Carter was elected in 2013 that the logjam broke, with Reed (2014) and Brown (2015) enshrined in each of the next two years. Look for something similar this time next year.
Hall Finally Finds Category for Don Coryell
When Coryell and Tom Flores failed to make the first cut as modern-era finalists in 2019, I was convinced that Coryell wouldn’t … no, couldn’t … be elected unless the Hall created a separate category for coaches. But then it did. In fact, it created one the following year. So what happened? Nothing. Jimmy Johnson and Bill Cowher were elected in 2020. Then it was Flores (2021). Then Dick Vermeil (2022). Coryell was on nobody’s radar, though he’d been a finalist six times – or two fewer times as those four combined – and had more wins (111) than Johnson (80) and Flores (97) and a better winning percentage (.572) than Johnson (.556), Flores (.527) and Vermeil (.524).
One problem: He was 3-6 in the playoffs and didn’t win a Super Bowl. Voters didn’t like that. “Is it simply because he did not get his team to the Super Bowl?” an emotional Wes Chandler asked of Coryell’s exclusion. “Is that really what (his candidacy) is based on? Or the impact you had on the game? My heart bleeds for the fact that this guy deserves that recognition.” Well, he finally got it … in his seventh try … because of the creation of the coach/contributor category. For the first time, Coryell’s record wasn’t the sole measure of the man. So were his contributions. That combination convinced voters that it was time Coryell took his place in Canton.
Clark Judge covered the NFL as a beat reporter and columnist for almost 40 years. He is also a longtime Pro Football Hall of Fame voter. Follow him on Twitter @clarkjudgeTOF.