Looking Ahead: Assessing The Hall of Fame Candidacy of Isaac Bruce

The day before the Super Bowl, retired St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was a happy day for Kurt’s fans, family, friends, former teammates and coaches. It was a sweet moment for St. Louis-based Rams fans that are still aching over the loss of the franchise through a corrupt relocation process. Kurt’s selection warmed the heart.

Isaac Bruce ranks fourth all-time with 15,208 receiving yards.

On the same day, retired Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce was also up for Hall of Fame consideration after making it to the list of the 15 modern-era finalists for the first time. (He’s been eligible for three years.)

Bruce didn’t garner much support; he didn’t survive the first ballot reduction from 15 to 10.

This was a down note on an otherwise fine day.

Many of you have asked for an update of Bruce’s Hall of Fame candidacy — including an assessment of his future prospects for making that career-defining entrance into Canton.

Here’s my report, beginning with the Hall of Fame selection meeting at Houston on Feb. 4:

In the meeting room there wasn’t much discussion on Isaac beyond my official presentation.

Three reasons:

1) In all candor, I didn’t think Isaac had a chance, this time, to win enough votes to make it through. In that context I didn’t expect a lengthy discussion of his career.

2) The wide receivers were the last position discussed in an 8 hour, 30-minute meeting … coming after we’d reviewed 15 candidates, including the two “contributors” and the senior committee nominee. It was a long day, and we were on a deadline to finish the meeting for TV considerations. The Hall-bound players had to be informed in time to get ready and head to the taping of the early Saturday evening “NFL Honors” program on Fox.

3) Of the two wide receivers on the modern-era ballot, clearly Terrell Owens was the main event in the debate; the bickering over T.O. was going to drag on for an extended period of time. I’m assuming the other selectors were inclined to keep the Bruce discussion short.

As usual, Isaac was overshadowed.

I cannot be a phony here; I have to speak candidly: I’m afraid it’s going to be a wait for Isaac.

And I fear he will slip through the cracks.

Here’s why:

The Terrell Owens Factor 

As long as Owens receives enough support to return to the final 15 modern-era candidates each year, but not enough votes to be chosen for induction, his candidacy is an a virtual stalemate mode. And with Owens in place as the polarizing elephant in the room, his presence will block Isaac. I have no doubt that there is more support for Owens than Bruce. And that’s fine; I voted for both on the first ballot last Saturday. I support Owens. And if Owens gets voted in, that helps Bruce, who wouldn’t have the T.O. obstacle there. (But other receivers are coming; more on that in a bit.)

The Torry Holt vs. Isaac Bruce Comparison

There’s a debate of sorts over Bruce and his “Greatest Show” teammate Torry Holt. That didn’t come up in the meeting because Holt wasn’t a finalist. But over the final months of 2016, as we were thinning the number of candidates with two different votes to get down to the semifinal list and then to the list of the 15 modern-era finalists, I got a calls and emails from other voters, asking for my opinion on the two wideouts, and how I’d rate them.

I don’t like having to choose; both had strong careers that are worthy of the Hall of Fame. But if asked to rate them I have Bruce slightly ahead of Holt for several reasons: career numbers, leadership, internal standard-setting, big plays in big games, touchdowns, vastly underrated deep-ball ability, and the fact that Isaac won a Super Bowl for his Rams with one of the most dramatic and critical offensive plays in the 51 years of the venerated game.

Do other voters give the check mark to Torry instead of Isaac? Sure. And I wouldn’t rip them for it. Among the plusses in his favor, Holt was an All-Decade Team selection for the 2000s, was voted to seven Pro Bowls, and had a historic streak of eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

What stinks about this is seeing former teammates get caught up in a split vote, essentially taking votes away from each other. Bruce and Holt have Hall of Fame cases that should be evaluated independently of each other.  Unfortunately, this shapes up to be another John Stallworth vs. Lynn Swann situation. Two excellent wide receivers, two Pittsburgh Steelers teammates, and two stars that waited a long time for Canton’s call because of voters that couldn’t separate them. Eventually both players got in because we realized the foolishness of voting them onto the list of 15 modern-era finalists each year, only to have them cancel each other out by splitting the vote. We had to consolidate support behind one (Swann) to get him through, and that would  clear the path for Stallworth. And that’s exactly how it worked out.

Holt hasn’t been a finalist, but Holt and Bruce are both on the preliminary ballots that lead to the final 15. And and I’m sure the support for Bruce is one of the primary reasons for Holt stalling before he makes it to the final 15. Again, the voters tend to pick one over the other instead of supporting both Isaac and Torry. It isn’t fair to either player, but that’s where it stands.

We’re In For Another Frustrating Wide Receiver Logjam

Let’s review: Owens and Bruce were finalists this year, and given the kerfuffle over his candidacy there’s no telling when Owens will be inducted. (The sooner the better, I say.) As noted earlier, Owens is blocking Bruce. Next year, Randy Moss goes on the ballot for the first time, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t make the final 15. If I had to predict, I’d say Moss will bump Bruce from a spot on the Final 15 for 2018.

What if Moss doesn’t make it to Canton as a first-ballot pick? That would leave Owens, Moss, and perhaps Bruce vying for votes, and siphoning support from each other. And don’t forget that two other outstanding, eligible candidates are lurking: Holt and Hines Ward. Holt will be in his fourth year of eligibility in 2018; Ward will be in his second year. They will draw support, even if they don’t quite advance to the final 15 in the immediate future. And then there’s another wave of wide receivers on the way over the next several five, six years: Calvin Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Steve Smith and eventually Larry Fitzgerald. (And I may be leaving a couple of names out.)

This looks like it could be a replay of the recent logjam that left Art Monk, Michael IrvinCris Carter, Andre Reed, and Tim Brown waiting on the runway. Eventually all were chosen for Canton, but only after multiple years of haggling in the selection meeting and bitter feelings from the candidates.

For some reason that eludes me, people on the outside continue to fail to realize that a maximum of only five modern-era players can be selected each year.  Which means that the 10 players won’t make it, a reality that prompts angry, over-the-top reactions. For some reason, people seem to think we should just put in all of the wide receivers as soon as they appear on the ballot — while giving the brush-off to finalists who played other positions. People still don’t seem to recognize the working reality: when you have so many wide receivers coming through over several years, they usually cancel each other out, because the voter support is spread among multiple wideouts.

If Voters Want To Ding Bruce’s Resume, They Can Find Reasons 

How? Well, they can point to Bruce’s relatively low number of Pro Bowl selections (four.). They can point to the fact that Bruce wasn’t selected to an All-Decade Team. They may prefer Holt over Bruce. And then there’s the myth: Bruce was a stats-padding creation of the “Greatest Show.”

We’ve already aired out the Holt-Bruce dilemma.

Let’s tackle the other potential holes in the resume, one by one:

Pro Bowls: Bruce easily could have been selected to at least two or three additional Pro Bowls, but the voting has been, and always will be, inconsistent and at times incomprehensible. Consider: Bruce had his best individual season in 1995, when he caught 119 passes for 1,758 yards and 13 touchdowns. At the time, the 1,758 yards ranked as the second-highest total for a single season in NFL history … and Bruce wasn’t voted to the Pro Bowl that year. If that doesn’t expose Pro Bowl voting for what it is — erratic and undependable — then I don’t know what does.

All-Decade Team Exclusion: Bruce was a tweener. He had three terrific seasons late in the 1990s, but was drafted in 1994 and didn’t begin to play regularly until 1995. Bruce didn’t have enough years to cover the 1990s, and his career-peak phase began to burn out later in the aughts.

Here’s what I’m talking about …

Bruce didn’t have enough seasons in the 1990s to compile leader board numbers. In the ‘90s he ranked 34th in catches, 24th in receiving yards, and was tied for 21st in touchdown receptions.

In the aughts, Bruce ranked 13th in catches, 10th in yards, and was tied for 16th in TD grabs.

Based on those splits, why would anyone vote for Bruce as an All-Decade pick for the 1990s or the 2000s?

However: during his 10-season peak phase, from 1995 through 2004, Bruce led the NFL in receiving yards, was No. 1 in catches of 25+ yards, was third in average yards per game, was third in receiving first downs, ranked fourth in total receptions, fifth in touchdowns and had the most yards at the point of the catch.

In the postseason covering those 10 seasons, Bruce ranked second in receiving yards; only Green Bay’s Antonio Freeman had more. But Freeman also played in 16 postseason games to Bruce’s nine. Bruce also was third in average yards per catch (17.3), and second in average yards per game among receivers that played in at least five postseason contests. His four touchdowns put him in the top 10.

That accumulation of numbers are worthy of an All-Decade selection.

The problem: they were split over two decades, the last half of the 1990s, and the first half of the aughts.

That’s why Bruce wasn’t picked to an All-Decade Team.

— Greatest Show Stats Inflation: Bruce hitched a ride on the Greatest Show?  Good grief … what an incredibly stupid thing to say or think. No. 80 was one of the primary reasons behind this historically great offense.

I’ve been through this before, but let’s run through it again:

Over a two-season period, 1995 – 1996, Bruce led all NFL wide receivers with 3,119 yards … which means he had more yards than Jerry Rice … over the two years Bruce averaged 102 catches, 1,559 yards, and 10 touchdowns… His quarterbacks were Mark Rypien, Chris Miller, Steve Walsh, and Tony Banks … the wideout opposite Bruce was Todd Kinchen … the second-leading receiver was tight end Troy Drayton. The running backs were a banged-up Jerome Bettis in 95, and mediocre rookie Lawrence Phillips in ‘96.

Bruce excelled for an offense that had no stars — again, Bettis was hurt in ’95 — and a weak supporting cast. If anything you can argue that the Greatest Show suppressed Bruce’s career numbers because the offense had so many viable options for pass distribution.

All of the above pretty much explains why I think Bruce could get lost in the traffic.

And it saddens me.

Final Words on Isaac Bruce and Canton 

Bruce had a prolific career, statistically. At the the time Bruce retired, only Rice had more receiving yards in league history … only four players had more career receptions … only eight had caught more touchdown passes. Even now, having been retired for seven seasons, Bruce ranks fourth all-time with 15,208 receiving yards. And Isaac Bruce won a Super Bowl with a spectacular 73-yard catch-and-run after tracking an under-thrown pass.

In my presentation to the other selectors during the Hall of Fame meeting I tried to emphasize this message: Isaac Bruce may not get your vote this time around, but as we move forward, please don’t forget about this man. He was a special player. He had huge career numbers. He delivered in big games. He came through in the postseason. He was a mentor to young players such as Holt. He set the example in practice. He set the example with his intense competitiveness. Bruce was a prime-time playmaker — and a driving energy source — for the first offense in NFL history to score 500-plus points in three consecutive seasons. We can’t let Isaac Bruce fall through history’s gap.

Thanks for reading …

Bernie 

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