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Forgotten Man: It’s Time for St. Louis and Los Angeles to Rally Around Isaac Bruce

If you’re confused, maddened, and saddened as you wonder why retired St. Louis Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce failed to receive enough votes for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I’ll try to break it down for you…

Bruce,  already a three-time finalist, should have a better chance of being voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the 2020 class. Unlike 2019, the 2020 ballot will present more opportunities to give Bruce an honor that he’s earned — and deserves.

I’ll elaborate on that in a few minutes.

This year, the 15-player list of modern-era finalists included three automatic first-time eligibles for Canton: tight end Tony Gonzalez, safety Ed Reed and cornerback Champ Bailey.

Hate on them if you’d like … and hate me for saying it … but all three were certain first-ballot inductees.

  • No tight end caught more passes for more yards than Gonzalez in NFL history, and he ranks second with 111 touchdowns. Gonzalez was voted to 14 Pro Bowls and was a six-time, first-team, All-Pro pick. And an All-Decade Team selection for the 2000s.
  • In my opinion, Ed Reed was the best safety in NFL history. All-Decade Team for the 2000s. Nine Pro Bowls. First team All-Pro five times. He had 64 regular-season interceptions and nine more in the postseason. Reed was fifth in NFL history for most touchdowns (11) scored on defense or special teams. Seven INT returned for touchdowns, three blocked punts returned for scores, two fumbles returned for scores, and one punt return for a TD. And a formidable run enforcer.
  • No cornerback in league history was selected for more Pro Bowls, 12, than Bailey. In addition he was an All-Decade Team pick for the 2000s, a three-time choice for first-team All-Pro, made 52 interceptions (26th all-time) and was credited with more pass break-ups than any defensive back in the modern era.

With Gonzalez, Bailey and Reed consuming three spots — as they should have — the selection committee had only  two  remaining slots for the remaining 12 finalists. At that point, Bruce became a long shots — as did most of the other 11 candidates. But a substantial amount of internal lobbying had been done on behalf of cornerback Ty Law and center Kevin Mawae. And they’ll be entering Canton this summer.

Question: was it wrong to choose Law and Mawae over Bruce?

No, not at all.

My respect and fondness for Isaac Bruce aside, Law and Mawae are totally legit and belong in the Hall of Fame.

Mawae played 16 seasons, was an All-Decade Team choice (2000s), was selected to eight Pro Bowls, and was a three-time All-Pro (first team) pick.

Law was an All-Decade selection (2000s), played a big part on three Super Bowl winning teams in New England, was voted to five Pro Bowls, earned two All-Pro (first-team) honors, and ranks 24th in NFL history with 53 interceptions — seven that he returned for touchdowns.  And Law had six interceptions in the postseason including a stunning, game-changing pick-six off Kurt Warner in Super Bowl 36.

In this specific instance case, the Hall of Fame voters have nothing to apologize for. All five modern-era choices deserved the most prestigious historical recognition in their sport.

And so does Bruce …

But here’s what upsets me.  For the third year in a row, Bruce failed to make it through the first ballot reduction. That step occurs after  the committee listens to the presentations of all 15 candidates, discuss and debate the merits of each player, and then takes a vote to trim the list from 15 to 10. (And later down to five.)

By now, Bruce should be moving forward in the process, making progress, garnering more support, and getting closer. Instead, No. 80 has been bumped aside in the vote from 15 to 10.

Why? Well, either the presentation on Bruce’s behalf is ineffective, or the voters have their minds made up in advance and aren’t giving Bruce his due respect and consideration. And actually, both things are probably true. The presentation by “Los Angeles” committee member Howard Balzer (who is based in St. Louis) didn’t stir any reaction or stimulate discussion in the meeting room during Saturday’s session. Cleveland voter Tony Grossi times all of the presentations each year, and usually files a report on ESPN Cleveland. You can read it by clicking here.

On Saturday the Bruce presentation lasted only 7 minutes 36 seconds … the fewest amount of time devoted to any of the 15 modern candidates that weren’t considered a virtual lock. (The committee wisely declined to waste much time talking up Gonzalez or Reed; there was nothing to debate.)

According to Grossi,   “The productive St. Louis Rams receiver did not gender any discussion beyond his presentation.”

Ouch. That stings. And it stinks too. But I’m not surprised.

Bruce is a great player without a nation.

First, the Rams are in Los Angeles now … and L.A. doesn’t care about Bruce because his outstanding career was played out in St. Louis. (When Bruce retired after the 2009 season, he ranked second in league history in receiving yards, fifth in receptions and ninth in touchdown catches.

The Rams organization has done nothing to advance Isaac’s cause other than to send some basic stats to the committee — numbers that the voters already have, anyway. And that “help” from the Rams amounts to, well, nothing.

Second, St. Louis is no longer relevant in NFL circles,  and that attitude is seeping into the Hall of Fame voting. Bruce doesn’t have a single, strong, passionate, convincing advocate in the room. And voting blocs have formed to throw support behind select candidates, a regrettable development that will work against Bruce.

So who will rally around Bruce?  Unfortunately, that’s his biggest problem. Bruce  is a victim — in an indirect but very real way — of the Rams’ move to Los Angeles. He’s part of the collateral damage.

It’s pathetic.  This special man and player deserves better.

In theory the  road to Canton should be easier for Bruce in 2020. But it would be a huge mistake to assume that he’s in. His odds are better because only one notable first-time eligible will appear on the 2020 ballot: longtime Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. He has excellent credentials including two Super Bowl rings, four first-team All-Pro honors, eight Pro Bowl selections, and the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award.  Others that may receive some perfunctory support are wide receiver Reggie Wayne, and linebacker Patrick Willis. Only Polamalu seemingly rises to the level of first-ballot status. Even if Polamalu generates sufficient first-year support for Canton, that leaves four other spots for modern-era candidates.

And if Bruce is chosen as a finalist again, he’d be right in there with much of a returning group of candidates that will include (in all likelihood) safety John Lynch; guards Alan Faneca and Steve Hutchinson; offensive tackle Tony Boselli; running back Edgerrin James and defensive lineman Richard Seymour. There will likely be holdover support for other candidates including the late Cardinals and Chargers coach Don Coryell, Raiders coach Tom Flores, and safety Steve Atwater (a native St. Louisan.)

It’s an easier path for Bruce. But that doesn’t make it an easy path.

Here’s what needs to be done: a coordinated effort by the Los Angeles Rams, and the St. Louis Rams delegation, to launch an effective campaign for Isaac Bruce. If done properly and professionally, these campaigns can make a difference — simply by raising awareness for the candidate. And by imprinting his name in the minds of the voters who receive testimonials from a powerful legion of supporters who offer heartfelt and impactful endorsements.

The Washington Redskins helped wide receiver Art Monk  finally get over the top and into Canton through a campaign push that prompted many voters to reconsider Monk’s case. And that’s healthy. Voters should always keep an open mind  and welcome any information that comes their way.

The Rams should combine the STL and LA families to get behind Bruce in a common-cause rally for a deserving candidate. Individual letters of endorsement should be sent to the Hall of Fame selection committee by Rams owner Stan Kroenke, GM Les Snead, coach Sean McVay and LA-based Hall of Famers Jack Youngblood, Jackie Slater, Tom Mack, Kevin Greene and Eric Dickerson.

And the same applies to the St. Louis wing, with individual letters of support from Dick Vermeil, Mike Martz, Charlie Armey and Hall of Famers Kurt Warner, Orlando Pace, Marshall Faulk and Aeneas Williams. And include the former Ram Jerome Bettis, who was Bruce’s teammate in 1994 and 1995 before getting traded to Pittsburgh where he continued building his Hall of Fame career.

And the letter-writing initiative should be expanded to include coaches and players who competed against Bruce during his successful NFL career.

This endeavor would require time, effort, and patience. (Throw determination in there too.) But it can be done. Other teams and and fan bases have done the same — working hard in a relentless push for Hall of Fame candidates that distinguished their team, their sport, and the community.

Bruce meets every standard. But he needs widespread support to remind everyone what he meant to the Rams in St. Louis. And what he means to the Rams’  historical legacy in Los Angeles too. After all, the LA Rams drafted him in 1994. And Bruce will be part part of the franchise there, asked to participate in team and community events.

A unified LA-STL campaign could be the only way to ensure that No. 80 will receive the support of voters who seem to be forgetting about him.

In 2021, three powerhouse names will appear on the Pro Football Hall of Fame ballot for the first time: quarterback Peyton Manning, cornerback Charles Woodson and wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

So if Bruce doesn’t make The Hall in 2020, his wait could drag on for a long time.

And that would be terribly wrong, and horribly sad.

Just because his team moved, Bruce should never have to pay the price by being left behind in his candidacy for Canton.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie