ATLANTA — Three defensive backs got the call to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, but former Bucs safety John Lynch's long wait will continue.
Longtime Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey and former Ravens safety Ed Reed were elected in their first year of eligibility by voters who gathered for a seven-hour meeting the day before Super Bowl LIII.
Lynch, 47, who starred for the Bucs (1993-2003) and Broncos (2004-07) and is now general manager of the 49ers, was denied for a sixth straight year in the final 15. For the second year in a row, the nine-time Pro Bowl player failed to advance past the first vote of finalists to the round of 10, along with four former greats: Raiders coach Tom Flores, Chargers coach Don Coryell, Rams receiver Isaac Bruce and Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour.
But for towering tight end Tony Gonzalez, the Hall vote was a slam dunk.
The 6-foot-5 Gonzalez, who turned the celebratory post-TD dunk over the crossbar into an art form, was voted, joined by two more first-time nominees, defensive backs Champ Bailey and Ed Reed, along with another defensive back, Ty Law, and center Kevin Mawae; Law and Mawae were both in their third year as finalists.
The contributor nominees, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and Cowboys and NFL executive Gil Brandt , each made it, as did senior Johnny Robinson, the defensive back who helped the Chiefs win Super Bowl IV.
Gonzalez, 42, started in Kansas City and finished in Atlanta, where voters met on the eve of the Super Bowl to select the Class of 2019; they didn't need much time to debate his worthiness.
In short, Gonzalez had more than his fair share of chances to dunk. (Maybe not by accident, the NFL banned the practice in 2014, the year after he retired.)
The most prolific pass catcher at his position over a 17-year career, Gonzalez caught 1,325 passes (second in NFL history) for 15,127 yards (sixth) and 111 touchdowns. He was a six-time All-Pro, made 14 Pro Bowls, and his 916 catches with the Chiefs set one of 22 franchise records he held upon his retirement.
"I knew I had a good chance, I'm not going to lie about that," he said. "Still, when you hear the knock, your heart drops."
As it turns out, Gonzalez isn't the only one who can get good air.
"Threw my phone across the room," Mawae said of his reaction upon learning he was in. "I had a higher vertical than at the combine."
This marks the first time more than two defensive backs have made it in the same class. The glut likely hurt Lynch, who of the 15 finalists in 2014, his first year of eligibility, is the only one who has not been enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
Former Broncos safety Steve Atwater, 52, was a finalist for only the second time in his 15th year of eligibility. Atwater, a big, physical player like Lynch, made it to the round of 10.
Bailey, 40, played 15 years — five with Washington, then 10 more with Denver after Washington swapped him for running back Clinton Portis. Like so many great cornerbacks, Bailey did not rewrite the record book, partly because he was, for much of his career, considered the best cover guy, so offenses simply avoided him.
Still, he made three All-Pro teams, 12 Pro Bowls and a none-too-shabby 52 interceptions. His best-remembered pick was a 103-yard return against the Patriots' Tom Brady in the 2006 playoffs that did not go for a touchdown. Denver did score shortly afterward, though, on the way to the win. Eight years later, Bailey made his only Super Bowl.
"This is home and timing was just right for it," said Bailey, who grew up in Folkston and played college ball at Georgia.
Reed, 40, won his only title in the 2012 season, his last with the Ravens.
Running the defense from his safety position, he was a standout playmaker on a roster full of them, including fellow Miami alumnus and Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, along with Terrell Suggs and Peter Boulware. Reed finished with 64 interceptions, leading the NFL three times.
"Smartest player I ever coached," said Reed's former coach, Brian Billick.
Law, 44, was a lot like Bailey — a rock at the corner who quarterbacks avoided. He finished with 53 interceptions and three Super Bowl rings, all with the Patriots. When they beat the Rams for their first title in 2002, Law returned a pick 47 yards for a score that gave New England the lead in the second quarter; it didn't trail after that.
Law was one of the many high-profile players Bill Belichick was willing to cycle out, and his final five years were spent with Kansas City, Denver and two stints with the Jets, including 2005, when he made a career-high 10 interceptions.
"It's surreal to get this honor while my former team is playing," said Law, who will be on hand when the Patriots play the Rams on Sunday.
Mawae, 48, a second-round pick in 1994, played 16 seasons for the Seahawks, Jets and Titans. He made three All-Pro teams and joins Mike Webster, Dwight Stevenson and Jim Otto among the few true centers in Canton.
Bowlen, 74, goes in after what some believe was a longer-than-necessary wait. He is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, which has put the future of the Broncos' franchise on uncertain ground.
His youngest daughter, Annabel, said they face-timed their dad when the family received the news.
"A lot of tears in the room," she said.
Bowlen was key in securing the NFL's future via a number of multibillion-dollar TV contracts. The Broncos have largely prospered during his tenure, winning more than 60 percent of their games. That included the 1998 Super Bowl, when the owner famously shouted "This one's for John" — a tribute to John Elway winning his first title.
Brandt, 82, spent 29 years with the Cowboys, where his keen eye for talent helped turn Dallas into "America's Team." He chose eight future Hall of Famers, including Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly and Bob Hayes. He employed computers for evaluating talent and came up with pchological tests for draft prospects, two tools no NFL team could do without in the modern game. Brandt also was elected for his role as the NFL's resident draft guru.
Robinson, 80, was chosen by the Dallas Texans in the first AFL draft. The Texans became the Chiefs, and the Chiefs became Super Bowl champions. A teammate of his, Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier, said Robinson was the key to a defense that helped Kansas City to two AFL titles, each of which landed the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.
Information from the Associated Press contributed to this report.