Inside the Hall of Fame selection process: How I built Calvin Johnson’s presentation

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett | Detroit Free Press

Calvin Johnson did not need my help. Let me get that out of the way first.

Johnson, the greatest receiver in Detroit Lions history, was announced as part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s star-studded Class of 2021 over the weekend, and he got there on his own merits.

He was a three-time first-team Associated Press All-Pro selection in his nine NFL seasons, something just six other Hall-of-Fame receivers have accomplished in the Super Bowl era. He was a member of the 2010 All-Decade team. Historically, all-decade honors are a stepping stone to Canton. And he had one of the greatest seasons by a receiver in NFL history, when he caught 122 passes for a record 1,964 yards in 2012.

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Megatron was Hall-of-Fame bound no matter who presented his case at the Hall-of-Fame selection committee meeting in January. It just so happened the person tasked with that responsibility was me.

I have been a Hall-of-Fame voter for seven years. It’s a position I do not take lightly and an exclusive club — there are 48 of us — with immense responsibilities I feel fortunate to have.

Because it is both so private and so involved — unlike the Baseball Hall of Fame, where voters simply fill out a ballot, the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee spends a day debating the merits of each finalist — there has been a natural curiosity the past few days about the process through which Johnson was elected. The football version of how the sausage is made, if you will.

Hall-of-Fame bylaws state that most of what is said in the selection meeting is private. That’s to afford not only voters the right to speak freely about candidates, but also the people we talk to about each nominee. If a coach, opponent or teammate does not think a player deserves a gold jacket, for whatever reason, that can and should be part of the debate.

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As the committee’s Detroit representative — there is one voter for each NFL city, or two for cities with multiple teams, plus 16 at-large selectors — it is my responsibility to present the case of any modern-era Lions player who makes the cut to 15 finalists.

Johnson, as anyone who has watched the team play the past two decades could guess, was the first player I’ve had to present.

Perhaps for that reason, or perhaps because I believed so strongly in his case having covered all but a handful of his games in 2007-15, I started working on Johnson’s presentation last winter.

At the 2020 NFL combine, I canvassed a handful of coaches who either worked with or coached against Johnson for their thoughts on his candidacy. Everyone said Johnson belonged, which was expected, but it was the passion they spoke with and their explanation why that shaped the presentation I gave to the selection committee.

As dominant as Johnson was, no one cared about his statistics or the length of his career or how bad the Lions were during his playing days. Rather, they emphasized over and over what a game-changing talent he was, how defenses tried everything imaginable to stop him (and almost always failed), and how he did all the little things necessary to be great.

After the draft, with most people housebound because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I reached out to a handful of current and former defensive coaches and players to build off that theme: What unique things did they do to try and defend Johnson and why was he able to excel anyway?

I talked to most of his ex-quarterbacks, his coaches and several of the opponents who saw him most, including Charles Tillman, Lovie Smith, Dom Capers and Leslie Frazier, four men who faced Johnson twice a season for most of his career in the NFC North.

I spoke with Johnson over the summer for a podcast and wrote a piece in September on the 10-year anniversary of his catch-that-wasn’t against the Chicago Bears, then mostly let his candidacy simmer. Occasionally, during the course of making regular phone calls in season, I’d ask someone about Johnson’s candidacy and that of other potential finalists, but there was enough work to do during the season that my Hall-of-Fame duties took a backseat.

The Lions PR staff put together a glossy, 20-page book stating Johnson’s case for Canton that was mailed to some voters after the season, and launched a high-quality micro website to go with it. If you watched any of the Hall-of-Fame pre-selection coverage on TV, you probably heard some of the material in the book.

By the time Johnson was officially a finalist, and the Hall of Fame formally asked me to deliver his presentation, I knew most of what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. Then, I turned to you for a few final touches.

Before I sat down to write my presentation in mid-January, I put the topic of Johnson’s Hall-of-Fame candidacy on Twitter. Having rebuttals for your biggest concerns — he did not play long enough; his numbers don’t match up with some of the greats; he never won anything with the Lions — seemed appropriate given our typical selection committee debates.

Normally, the committee meets the day before the Super Bowl for a lengthy in-person discussion about the 15 modern-era finalists, plus nominees from the seniors committee and in the coach and contributor categories.

Due to COVID-19, we held this year’s nine-hour meeting by Zoom on Jan. 19.

One by one, we went through the list of 18 candidates until we came to Johnson. Each presenter has about 5 minutes to make a candidate’s Hall-of-Fame case — my presentation lasted about 6 minutes; the Hall released about half of it online — then the floor opens for discussion about that candidate’s merits, before the presenter is allowed a closing statement.

Johnson’s debate ran longest of anyone, about 39 minutes, though to be fair, some of that time was spent discussing first-ballot nominees and how long is an appropriate time to wait.

There is an old saying some voters adhere to: Jim Brown and sit down. As in, Jim Brown was so great that he did not need a presentation to get in, and if you do, there is no harm in waiting.

Peyton Manning got the Jim Brown treatment at this year’s meeting, and rightfully so given his accomplishments, while every other candidate had his case fully discussed.

Johnson was one of three first-year-eligible candidates elected, along with Manning and former Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson, while several finalists with much longer waits (Clay Matthews, Tony Boselli and LeRoy Butler) were passed over.

My personal philosophy on voting is to pick the five most worthy candidates, regardless of time on the ballot or position they played. To me, a player’s dominance for some stretch of time — if I consider them among the best few players at their position during their time in the league — makes them worthy of enshrinement, and Johnson certainly fit that bill.

Again, I cannot share specifics of what was discussed in the room, but my presentation was much more about Johnson’s dominance, the obstacles he overcame en route to greatness and the impact he had on all aspects of the game than about his statistical prowess. Others who spoke prominently in the room seemed to feel the same.

Johnson was dominant statistically — no receiver has come closer to 2,000 yards, and he has one of the best single-game performances in both playoff and regular season history — but his legacy cannot be defined by numbers alone.

In the final vote, the 15 modern-era finalist are reduced to 10, then to five, and each of the five finalists — the selection committee did not know who the final five were this year — receives a yes or no vote for enshrinement.

Johnson learned he was headed to Canton a few days later, when Hall-of-Fame president David Baker made a surprise visit to his house. Baker said Johnson got emotional both during that visit and again Saturday night, when his election was announced to the world.

“David’s the encyclopedia of the Hall of Fame, he let me know all the great facts and how many guys started playing the game as a kid, made it to the NFL, made it to just being a great player in the NFL, and hearing those and just hearing the magnitude (of) the numbers of the guys that have made it first ballot (was stunning),” Johnson said. “For me, the people, my peers, you guys that voted, it just says a lot for the way I played the game and I really appreciate you guys taking notice, 100%.”

Dave Birkett is a Hall of Fame voter. Contact him at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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