MIAMI – The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 48-person selection committee will meet here early Saturday morning. Their job will be to whittle a list of 15 modern-era finalists down to the five who ultimately will be enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
Not up for debate again this year is a player from the Buffalo Bills’ glory years who did his job better than it’s ever been done. Despite being one of 25 semifinalists for the seventh time since becoming eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2002, Steve Tasker failed to make the cut to the 15 finalists who “get into the room.”
That’s in reference to Saturday’s meeting, when presentations are made on each candidate’s Hall qualifications. In Tasker’s case, that would be an important step. It would allow the selection committee to hear the case for a player who starred primarily on special teams.
“I've always said, it's just cool to be in the conversation, you know?” Tasker said. “Every time I see that list (of candidates), no matter how big it is, I have a hard time putting myself on that list. I've got a lot of love and respect for those guys. It's pretty flattering to be included in the conversation.”
While Tasker took the news of not being included in stride, former teammates and opponents weren’t as accepting.
“I am extremely disappointed. If there is anyone who has a complete body of work that has played this game, it is Steve Tasker,” said Bills legend Bruce Smith, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and Tasker’s teammate during the Super Bowl years. “The fact that he's gotten snubbed for a number of years, that is extremely disappointing. He is the greatest all-around special teams player that's ever played the game – hands down.”
Respect from his peers is more than enough for Tasker, who played 13 NFL seasons and was an instrumental part of four straight Super Bowl teams. A ninth-round draft pick of the Houston Oilers, Tasker came to the Bills in 1986 and established himself as a star on special teams. Despite being just 5 feet, 9 inches and 185 pounds, he was a big hitter as a gunner on kickoff and punt coverage.
Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy was a former special teams coordinator who put a heavy emphasis on that phase of the game. He would tell Tasker that there was about a 2% difference between the best and worst teams in the league. It was up to Tasker, then, to make sure that was a 2% advantage for the Bills.
“I tell people this: ‘Great is you did something spectacular in a moment in time. Greatness says I did something spectacular over time, all the time.’ He did spectacular stuff all the time,” said former Cowboys receiver and Hall of Famer Michael Irvin. “Everybody said when they went in those special teams meetings, 'This No. 89 right here, we've got to do something to stop this fella,’ and he still got it done. He still made those plays. That's how you determine this guy belongs among the greats.”
Tasker, whose No. 89 was added to the Bills' Wall of Fame in 2007, has enjoyed a long career in broadcasting since retirement, first at CBS and currently on the Bills' daily radio show that airs on WGR-550 from noon to 3 p.m. and is simulcast on MSG.
“I played against a lot of really tremendously good football players and great football teams,” Tasker said. “We were always really proud of our team, even if the midst of losing four Super Bowls. We had a lot to be proud of. I know there was a great amount of respect for the guys we had on our team and the things we were doing. I'm flattered by the things, especially the guys that played with me and against me, had to say about it. Those are always the ones you cherish. The coaches who coached against you, the players who played against you, and your teammates – those voices are the ones that really mean the most.”
Tasker is running out of time as a modern-era candidate. Players are eligible for 25 years after retirement, which for Tasker came in 1997, meaning he’s got two more chances. If he falls short the next two years, his candidacy would move to the Seniors Committee.
“I try not get my hopes up. I trust those guys in the room. There's a lot of really good journalists in that room,” Tasker said of the selection committee. “A lot of guys who have covered a lot of football. The Hall of Fame is supposed to be really difficult to get into. They guard it as fiercely as they should. I have no problem with the process. I think those guys, they do a nice job. They take it very seriously, and I'm good with that.”
Special teams is underserved in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Even though coaches commonly refer to it as the third phase of the game, there are just two true kickers (Morten Andersen, Jan Stenerud) and one punter (Ray Guy) enshrined.
“People kind of joke around about how there should be a Special Teams Hall of Fame, just for special teams players, returners, kickers, punters, coverage guys,” said Titans Pro Bowl punter Brett Kern, who grew up in Grand Island watching Tasker.
Short of that, Tasker is left waiting.
“I remember growing up, looking up to him and thinking about how hard he had to work to be the best special teams player he could be,” Kern said. “It's a gritty job. You're not necessarily the highest-paid player, the most famous guy on the team, but it shows a lot about who you are as a person and your character and your will, to go out there and dominate on special teams like he did.”
Kern’s idea of a separate Hall of Fame might be a stretch, but perhaps he’s onto something. What if, Tasker was asked, the Hall had special criteria for special teams players?
“No, you don't need to separate into groups,” he said. “If a guy should go in, he should go in. They don't even need to label guys as contributors or coaches or anything else – if the guy has done enough, put him in without a designation. He's a Hall of Famer – not a contributor, not a coach, not a player – just a guy who belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You don't need to label guys in order to make it easier or more relevant for them to get in. The Hall of Fame is what it is. It doesn't need to change, particularly not because of me or anybody else.”
Even if he doesn’t make the Hall of Fame, Tasker showed players who came after him that they can have long, successful NFL careers as special teams players – even if that remains somewhat looked down upon.
“Everybody views this game differently,” said Matthew Slater, who has had a long career as a special teams standout with the New England Patriots. “They view the third phase of the game as a little bit less valuable than the other two. I can understand why some people see it that way, but obviously myself and many others don't see it the same. What he was able to do over the course of his career, I think it highlighted the value of that third phase.”
Tasker played in 169 career games, including 160 for the Bills. He offensive contributions were minimal – 51 catches for 779 yards and nine touchdowns. There was always a belief, though, that he could have done more on offense if needed. In Tasker's penultimate season, he had 21 catches for 372 yards and three touchdowns in just eight games. His legacy, though, is as a specials teams ace.
Slater spoke to The Buffalo News last week about Tasker’s candidacy while at the Pro Bowl.
“You really look at a guy that defined the role that players like myself and others have now, you look no further than Steve,” he said. “He set the bar, he set the standard. I think it's because of him that guys like myself have been able to have a career in this league. He's a special player. I've said it all year long, 100-year anniversary of this league, you start telling unique stories about so many of the great players that have played in this league, and you can't tell all those stories without telling his.
“I'd love to see him one day get into Canton. I think he deserves it. I'm not one of these guys who lobbies for these sort of things, but I'd certainly like to see Steve get the recognition that I truly believe he deserves.”
Right or wrong, there is an idea that if Slater is ever going to make it to the Hall of Fame, Tasker has to go in first to open the door.
“I don't know that anybody 'has to' go in,” Tasker said. “Me or Matthew – or anybody else. Every player is different, every situation is different.”
Both players, though, have compelling cases.
Tasker is a seven-time Pro Bowler and the only special teams player to ever win the game’s MVP award, in 1993. He was named a first-team All-Pro five different times by either Pro Football Weekly or the Pro Football Writers.
Slater, meanwhile, passed Tasker by making his eighth Pro Bowl last week. He’s also a two-time, first-team All-Pro.
“It's very, very humbling. It doesn't seem real, but again, Pro Bowls are what they are,” Slater said. “I think Steve in his career and what he was able to accomplish, I would put him ahead of me. He deserves to be mentioned as the single best special teams player of all time. Whether or not (his election to the Hall of Fame, should it occur) opens doors, I don't know. That's not for me to say. I certainly think he's very deserving.”
There is no doubt that choosing players for the Hall of Fame is a difficult job. Different eras, as well as different positions, have to be taken into consideration. What is the value of an offensive guard compared to a cornerback? What about a linebacker or a fullback? Making those comparisons equally is not easy.
The 15 modern-era finalists who will be discussed Saturday are safety Steve Atwater (Broncos, Jets), offensive tackle Tony Boselli (Jaguars), wide receiver Isaac Bruce (Rams, 49ers), safety LeRoy Butler (Packers), guard Alan Faneca (Steelers, Jets, Cardinals), wide receiver Torry Holt (Rams, Jaguars), guard Steve Hutchinson (Seahawks, Vikings, Titans), running back Edgerrin James (Colts, Cardinals, Seahawks), safety John Lynch (Buccaneers, Broncos), linebacker Sam Mills (Saints, Panthers), safety Troy Polamalu (Steelers), defensive lineman Richard Seymour (Patriots, Raiders), linebacker Zach Thomas (Dolphins, Cowboys), wide receiver Reggie Wayne (Colts) and defensive tackle Bryant Young (49ers).
If Tasker never makes that list, he’s at peace with his career.
“I’m not going to hire a PR firm to get me in or a website or anything like that,” he joked. “I'm good with the way they do it. If I'm supposed to be in, I'll probably get in. And if I don't, it's because I wasn’t. You've got to be happy with that.
“Rarely do you see a guy play the game because he wants to get into the Hall of Fame. Most of the time, that's the cherry on the cake. I'm really happy with how it went for me in the league, with the guys that I played with, and the coaches I played for and the fans I played for. I have nothing to regret about how it went for me.”