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Why is John Lynch always a finalist and never a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee?

John Romano | This is the seventh consecutive year the former Bucs great has reached the final stage of voting. And his candidacy actually seems to be going backward.
Former Bucs safety John Lynch, who is trying to get San Francisco in the Super Bowl this season as the 49ers GM, is a finalist for the Hall of Fame for the seventh time. Voting takes place the day before the Super Bowl.
Former Bucs safety John Lynch, who is trying to get San Francisco in the Super Bowl this season as the 49ers GM, is a finalist for the Hall of Fame for the seventh time. Voting takes place the day before the Super Bowl. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 6, 2020

TAMPA — Check the finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame from 2011-15, and you’ll find a treasure chest of memories.

Bettis and Faulk. Strahan and Dent. Even a couple of guys named Sapp and Brooks. In all, 29 players were named finalists during that five-year span and 28 went on to have their busts permanently enshrined in Canton.

And yet for John Lynch, the history-defining phone call still has not come.

The former Buccaneers safety is the unfortunate holdout from that group of sure bets. He was a semifinalist on his debut ballot in 2013, and has been a finalist every year since. Of the 15 names on the 2020 ballot, to be considered the day before the upcoming Super Bowl, no one has been a finalist more often.

So why does it feel like Lynch is farther from enshrinement than ever before?

His candidacy seems to be going backward. Lynch initially went from a semifinalist to a finalist, then a top-10 selection in 2016 and 2017. At that point, his election seemed like a mere formality. Yet, in each of the past two years, Lynch has failed to make the top 10.

That’s a troubling trend. Nor is the timing getting better.

Related: FROM JANUARY 2019: What’s easy to miss about John Lynch when considering his entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Three safeties — Ed Reed, Brian Dawkins and senior candidate Johnny Robinson — were elected the past two years. Troy Polamalu makes his ballot debut this month, and Charles Woodson will show up in 2021. Then there is Steve Atwater. The former Denver safety was behind Lynch in voting for six consecutive seasons, then passed him last year to reach the top 10 for the first time. He’s back on the ballot this year.

That’s a lot of big-name safeties for a position that was overlooked by Hall voters for decades. And, in Lynch’s case, there is another tricky factor.

The longer we get away from his career, the harder it is to see what made Lynch such a special player.

In this 2012 file photo, John Lynch (47), a member of the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Super Bowl team, waits to be introduced during the 10-year anniversary of the Super Bowl win.
In this 2012 file photo, John Lynch (47), a member of the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Super Bowl team, waits to be introduced during the 10-year anniversary of the Super Bowl win. [ Times ]

Sheer numbers were never going to get Lynch in the Hall of Fame. He wasn’t a ball hawk at safety like Reed, and he didn’t blitz as much as Dawkins. To appreciate the glory in Lynch’s game, you had to watch him week after week.

Only then would you see the player who made receivers skittish about crossing routes. Only then could you appreciate why opposing running backs used to hit the hole with something akin to dread.

Lynch was a linebacker held captive in the defensive backs’ meeting room. He could punish ball carriers like few others. He played with a passion and fearlessness that belied his easygoing spirit and football intelligence.

If Warren Sapp was Tampa Bay’s edge, and Derrick Brooks was the team’s heart, then Lynch was its conscience. He was here before the rest of them. He caught the tail end of those 12 consecutive seasons of double-digit losses and was instrumental in turning the page.

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Related: FROM 2019: John Lynch misses out on Pro Football Hall of Fame

Still, Lynch had to bide his time while defensive coaches inexplicably chose Marty Carter to start at strong safety for a couple of years. He had to wait for Tony Dungy to arrive and install Lynch as one of the caretakers of the famed Tampa Two defense.

He never came close to leading the league in interceptions, and advanced statistics say there are other defensive backs who were more productive and never made the Hall of Fame. So, no, he is not the best player on the current ballot and I doubt if anyone would argue the point.

It’s probably fair to say that Polamalu and five returning top-10 candidates have a head start on Lynch already this year. Considering a maximum of five modern-era players will be elected off this ballot, that doesn’t bode well for Lynch’s chances.

The hope is that voters just needed a few extra years to get over their Tampa Bay fatigue. Sapp made it in 2013. Brooks made it the next year. And Dungy made it two years later. That was three names in four years from a team that won one Super Bowl.

Lynch, who is now San Francisco’s general manager, was never a slam dunk candidate, so maybe voters wanted a little distance before adding another member of that Buccaneers defense.

Hopefully, that’s all it is. After all, the numbers eventually point to Lynch’s election.

He made nine Pro Bowls, and every eligible defensive back with a similar resume is already enshrined. And almost every player who has been a finalist seven or more times has eventually gotten in.

And yet, there are exceptions. Dolphins guard Bob Kuechenberg was a finalist eight consecutive years from 2002-09. He died last year without ever being elected.

Lynch, 48, is still a young man and has plenty of chances on the ballot. It’s true this may not be his year, and next year really doesn’t look good either.

The hope is that future voters won’t be blinded by numbers and instead remember his impact.

After all, few ever made a more lasting impression.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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