It's a testament to the incomparable success of the Patriots in the almost 30 years since Mr. Kraft bought the most irrelevant franchise in North American pro sports, playing in the most decrepit venue since Thunderdome, that they can continue to churn out team Hall of Fame ballots like this one. In the wake of inducting Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Matt Light, Kevin Faulk and Willie McGinest (this is unexpectedly awkward) from the same era. This ballot is so stacked that Wes Welker, who made five Pro Bowls, two All Pros and is third in franchise history in receptions and receiving yards, couldn't make the medal stand.
But you only get one choice. Dante Scarnecchia automatically gets in as a sort of position coach version of the Assumption of Mary, because some just don't need to prove they're worthy. But one of these guys has to be voted in by fans. So let's break down the choices and their chances:
The case for, from Patriots.com:
[W]as the head coach of the New England Patriots for four seasons (1993-96) and led the team to the playoffs twice. After inheriting a team that had finished 14-50 in the previous four years, including an NFL worst 2-14 season in 1992, he brought the clout of a two-time Super Bowl Champion to the Patriots sidelines, infusing instant credibility in 1993. In 1994 … earned Parcells NFL Coach of the Year honors. … [A]n 11-win season in 1996 [earned them] a trip to the Super Bowl for just the second time in franchise history.
We've been down this road with Tuna before. Instant credibility. COTY. A Super Bowl trip. And of course he's in Canton, which you would think would automatically get him into Foxboro. And for sure, he's locked up the voting bloc of Boston Media Members Over the Age of 60 to the point he doesn't need to campaign in their district. But with Parcells, there are mitigating factors. Yes, he turned the franchise around, tearing down the tent of the Clown Show that preceded him and laying the infrastructure for what would become an impenetrable fortress later on. But he was .500 in his four seasons, thanks largely to a 6-10 third year in which, by his own admission, he was out of shape and mentally checked out. He was so miserable he dragged the organization down with him, which is why he asked for his contract to be shortened, which Mr. Kraft was plenty eager to accomodate. And that laid the infrastructure for their messy public divorce. Everyone remembers that ended with Parcells not flying home with his players and coaches. But that is tiny, fingerling potatoes next to the fact he ran up a phone bill in his hotel room in New Orleans, making calls to New York doing work for the Jets team he denied he had any intention of going to. I hate to go negative, because he did, in fact, give a not-at-all-serious football franchise the sort of gravitas no one else could have. And he could not have been more entertaining while he was doing it. But all this needs to be factored in. It doesn't help his cause any that voting is done online, while his biggest constituency spends most of their screen time struggling to log onto their healthcare portal.
Odds of making it in: 1 in 3
The case for:
Logan Mankins is recognized as one of the best offensive linemen in franchise history. He played nine of his 11 NFL seasons with the New England Patriots after joining the team as a first-round draft pick in 2005. The three-time team captain earned six Pro Bowl selections and six All-Pro honors (2007, 2009-13) during his Patriots career, including first-team Associated Press All-Pro honors following the 2010 season. … With Mankins in the lineup, the Patriots offense finished in top 10 in eight of his nine seasons with the Patriots – 2005 (7), 2007 (1), 2008 (5), 2009 (3), 2010 (8), 2011 (2), 2012 (1), 2013 (7). … He is a two-time All-Decade Team member (2000s and 2010s) and was named to the Patriots' 50th Anniversary team.
Simply put, Mankins is the second best player at his position in the history of the franchise. Which is all the more impressive when you factor in who he's behind:
The challenge when talking about an offensive lineman is that data is hard to come by. You can cite the analytics and how many games he played and numbers like those offensive rankings the Pats mentioned. But it really is more anecdotal. And if anecdotes were stats, he'd have led all interior lineman in the league. Same with getting up in an opponent's grill if he thought he was cheapshotting a teammate, particularly Tom Brady.
Nobody in football played with a meaner streak than he did. And no one was ever quicker to throw the first punch. But like most guys who are truly tough, he didn't have to talk a big game. In fact, he was one of the most soft-spoken badasses in Boston sports history. Instead he proved his toughness by starting all 16 games for his first five years in the league, six times in his Pats career, and most impressively, once playing an entire season with ACL and MCL tear in the same knee. Which nobody knew about until he had surgery after the season was over. It's not easy to make the case for an interior lineman, but it should be for this one.
Odds of making it in: Even money
The case for:
Mike Vrabel is a three-time Super Bowl Champion and is recognized as one of the most versatile linebackers and best free agent signings in team history. … Vrabel played a major role in the Patriots dynastic run that included three Super Bowl championships in four years (2001, 2003 and 2004). He exemplified positional versatility during his Patriots tenure by starting at both inside and outside linebacker, regularly lining up on offense in short-yardage and goal-line situations, and continually making valuable contributions on various special teams units. As a Patriot, he caught eight regular season passes and two more in the playoffs. All 10 of his receptions were for touchdowns, including touchdown receptions in back-to-back Super Bowl wins over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII and Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. He earned Pro Bowl and first-team Associated Press All-Pro honors following the 2007 season. … This is Vrabel's seventh consecutive selection as a Patriots Hall of Fame finalist.
There are plenty of choices for The Big Bang moment when the universe gave birth to the Patriots Dynasty. Mr. Kraft hiring Belichick. Belichick drafting Tom Brady. The Mo Lewis hit on Drew Bledsoe, and so on. But I'm picking one that brought immediate results. And that was the first minute of Free Agency in 2000. Back then it started at midnight on Friday. And as soon as it started, Vrabel got a call from Belichick, who proceeded to cite chapter and verse of all these plays he'd made while being a backup spare part in Dick LeBeau's Pittsburgh scheme. Vrabel signed within hours and paid dividends as their full time outside linebacker/special teamer/tight end secret weapon from the jump. In addition to those Super Bowl touchdowns, his blitz in Super Bowl XXXVI forced Kurt Warner to hurry his throw, forcing a Pick-6 by Ty Law in a game that was decided on a last second field goal. He still remains the best free agent signing in team history, despite being a role player before he got here and moderately priced on a team that was still reeling from the salary cap Shawshank Pete Carroll/Bobby Grier put it in. In that way, he's practically the quintessential Belichick Guy. And let's not discount that last line. Seven years is enough.
Odds of getting in: 1 to 5
I apologize if this doesn't make sense. I don't know how odds work and was promised there'd be no math. Just take my word for it. It is Mike Vrabel's time to don the hallowed red jacket.