John Lynch is a nine-time Pro Bowler, a Ring of Honor member for two different NFL franchises, a Super Bowl champion and perhaps the most feared hitter of his generation. He is also a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the seventh year in a row, and that alone indicates he is already considered worthy of a bronze bust in Canton in 2019.
Hall of Fame voters have been closely examining Lynch's candidacy every January since he first became a finalist in 2014, while working with the limiting factor of only being able to select five inductees for each class. Those seven years as a finalist put Lynch in the company of almost exclusively Hall of Famers: Of the 14 other people who have been Hall of Fame finalists for seven consecutive years, 13 have gained entry into Canton.
There have been a total of 21 Hall candidates before Lynch who were finalists at least seven times overall, not necessarily consecutively, and 19 of them now have spots in Canton. Two examples from the past decade are wide receiver Andre Reed, voted in as an eight-time finalist in 2014, and defensive end Richard Dent, selected in his seventh year as a finalist in 2011. To put it another way, Lynch was on a list of 17 candidates when he first became a Hall of Fame finalist in 2014; the other 16 have all since been inducted.
Lynch would be welcomed into the Hall by current members of his ranks.
"He has a chance to get voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which I would endorse," said former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, a member of the Hall's Class of 2006. "I played against John. I covered him as a broadcaster. He was a hell of a football player. He definitely deserves immortality in Canton, Ohio."
Lynch's repeated status as a Hall finalist mirrors his nearly-annual visits to the Pro Bowl over a decade of dominance (1997-2007), and that also represents one of his best arguments for induction. He made his first five trips to Hawaii with the Buccaneers in the six-year span from 1997-2002, then moved on to the Broncos in 2004 and was again chosen for the all-star game in each of the next four years. Lynch's continued impact after changing teams a dozen years into his career is an indication of his talent and adaptability, as he was asked to play a new role in a very different scheme in Denver. Seven of his 13 career sacks came in his four years with the Broncos as he was more frequently deployed near the line of scrimmage and as a pass-rusher. He did so at a Pro Bowl level.
Throughout his career, Lynch helped his teams rank among the very best defenses in the NFL. He was a starter and a leader on a Buccaneer defense that ranked in the NFL's top 10 in each of his last seven years with the team. In three of his four years in Denver, the Broncos were a top-10 scoring defense. Lynch's transition from an all-star in Tampa to an all-star in Denver are an indication that his peers viewed him as one of the best of his generation at the safety position, and that NFL fans believed his hard-hitting style and clutch plays were critical to his teams' success.
"John was as good as any safety I ever played against," said Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders, who shared the NFC Central with Lynch for four years. "He reminded me a lot of guys like Ronnie Lott and Steve Atwater. He was a terrific player, a great defender, a fierce defender. He could knock the snot out of you.
"John Lynch didn't just play the position, he occupied a spot in your mind and you had to be aware at all times where he was on the field."
Lynch's nine Pro Bowls put him in elite company, the majority of which is already enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Since the annual Pro Bowl began in 1950, there have been 79 players (so far) who have been selected to that game at least nine times. Lynch is one of only six players on that list who were Hall of Fame-eligible prior to this year but not yet enshrined, and one of only three whose careers began in the Super Bowl era. The other eligible players meeting that criteria are offensive linemen Ruben Brown and Alan Faneca.
Of those 79 players on the list of nine or more Pro Bowl selections, 64 are already in the Hall of Fame and another 10 are either still active or retired but not yet eligible. Many of those 10 appear to be Hall shoo-ins, from Julius Peppers to Drew Brees to Larry Fitzgerald, not to mention Peyton Manning, who thinks Lynch is deserving of the same honor.
"John was a safety that you always knew where he was," said Manning. "I think there are only certain guys like that, where you know where No. 47 is on every play. I can assure you all receivers and tight ends always knew where he was. He was such a physical football player, what I would call an impactful tackler. Any receiver going near or across the middle with No. 47 in the area knew what he was getting into. He was always there. You could see it very often on film, after an early hit how he would affect a receiver, his confidence going across the middle or anywhere near there the rest of the game."
In addition, Lynch was a four-time Associated Press All-Pro, twice as a first-team selection. He was also a first-team choice to the Pro Football Writers Association All-Pro team in an additional season in which he wasn't on the AP list. All of those honors indicate that the media professionals covering the NFL agreed that Lynch was one of the league's best safeties for a good portion of his career.
And, of course, Lynch's resume includes another milestone important to Hall of Fame voters: He won a Super Bowl as part of the Buccaneers' 2002 championship team. Not including first-year eligibles, Lynch and Faneca, who won a championship with Pittsburgh in 2005, are the only eligible players with nine NFL Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl ring who have not yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
During eleven seasons with the Buccaneers and four with the Broncos, Lynch racked up 1,054 tackles, 26 interceptions, 13 sacks and 15 forced fumbles. Since the sack became an official statistic in 1982, only nine NFL players at any position, including Lynch, have accumulated at least 1,000 tackles, at least 25 interceptions, at least 10 sacks and at least 15 forced fumbles. Four of those nine already have bronze busts. Four of the other five are eligible for the Hall of Fame but have not yet been elected, and Lynch leads that group with nine Pro Bowl selections.
Is it any wonder that Lynch has the rare honor of being inducted into the Rings of Honor of those two different NFL franchise? Both the Buccaneers and Broncos gave him that honor in 2016.
"John Lynch is a Hall of Famer on and off the field," said Jon Gruden, the Buccaneers' head coach during the team's 2002 Super Bowl run. "His preparation, consistency and hard-hitting style will fit perfectly with the all-time greats. If you can find a more impactful teammate, leader and performer than John Lynch then, great, put him in too."
Despite possessing a 95-mph fastball that made him a second-round pick of the MLB's Florida Marlins, Lynch chose football after being taken in the third round by the Buccaneers in 1993. And yet he still became a closer, or rather "The Closer," a nickname bestowed upon him by former Tampa Bay Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin. Kiffin came up with the name after seeing his cerebral safety come up with a series of critical late-game plays. Those included an interception that sparked a comeback in the 1999 NFC Divisional Playoff Game against Washington and the pick that sealed Tampa Bay's wild 38-35 win over St. Louis in a 2000 Monday Night Football appearance.
Lynch's penchant for late-game heroics is not just anecdotal; it's supported by his career statistics. Of his 26 interceptions, 14 were secured in the fourth quarter. Eleven of those 14 fourth-quarter picks came when his team was either up or down by seven points or less. Getting his takeaways at such important moments is likely the reason that 21 of his 26 picks helped his team win games.
"Some guys hit home runs with the bases empty," said former Buccaneers defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. "John Lynch hit them with the bases loaded."
Some of Lynch's tackles were as memorable as those key takeaways. The incredibly elusive Sanders described a tackle by Lynch in 1997 as the hardest he had ever been hit, and former Ram Marshall Faulk had similar comments after the aforementioned Monday-nighter in 2000. Sanders and Faulk, of course, are both in the Hall of Fame already; one imagines they would be quick to welcome Lynch into the fold.
In fact, Lynch's reputation as an intimidating hitter spread far and wide during his career. This is reflected in the list of the "Top 10 Most Feared Tacklers in NFL History" produced by NFL Films in 2009. Lynch made the list, along with the likes of Jack Tatum, Lawrence Taylor and Dick Butkus. Five of the other nine players on the list are already in the Hall of Fame, most likely because they were feared hitters and all-around star performers.
For instance, Lynch's total of 26 interceptions would be on the low side among all the defensive backs in the Hall of Fame, including the safeties. Ken Houston, as an example, had 49 interceptions, while Mel Renfro had 52. But Lynch's pick total should be viewed as part of an overall package that also included his thunderous hits and his importance to one of the best defenses in NFL history.
Lynch was part of the "Big Three" in Tampa that formed the initial nucleus of a defense that would have almost a decade of sustained success. The other two in that group were Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp, Hall of Fame inductees in 2014 and 2013, respectively. Brooks and Sapp were first-ballot selections, and deservedly so, but Lynch's importance to that defense and the Buccaneers' long-awaited franchise turnaround should not be understated.
"John Lynch is one of the core players who turned this team around and made it great, and I mean that in regards to both his play on the field and the way he conducted himself off the field," said Buccaneers Co-President Joel Glazer. "He was always one of those players you couldn't help rooting for, because he worked so hard at the game, obviously cared very deeply about the team's success and was a true professional in every sense of the word."
Lynch's combination of powerful hitting, instincts, coverage skills and sheer desire were as critical to the Buccaneers' success as Sapp's pressure up the middle and Brooks' sideline-to-sideline range. Tony Dungy, Tampa Bay's head coach from 1996-2001 and a primary architect of that great defense, said that Lynch had the most difficult job on the field, one that required him to hold up against big backs near the line, to cover tight ends and receivers and be responsible for huge areas of the field in the secondary. Mike Tomlin, the current Steelers head coach who inherited Lynch when he became the Buccaneers' defensive backs coach in 2001, agreed.
"Numbers don't tell the full story of John's impact," said Tomlin. "He absolutely destroyed the tight end-side run game of everyone we played. He also blew up the 'B' gap, and he did it in an unselfish manner."
Lynch could do it all at the safety position, and he'll be long remembered for both his hard hits and his role in the Buccaneers' resurgence. Sapp and Brooks, his comrades in that resurgence, made it into the Hall in part because voters felt they had changed the way their positions were played. According to at least one of his peers, Lynch did the same, and for that he deserves a spot in Canton.
"Meeting John was at the top of my list when I made the Pro Bowl after my second year," said former Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders, who also played in Dungy's defense and was the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "His longevity, respect and playmaking ability are what I strive for in this league. His play changed the dynamics of the safety position."
Indeed, like Brooks and Sapp, Lynch helped define how his position was played during his era. The excellence of his play was recognized, year after year, by his peers and those who covered the game closely. He was a Super Bowl champion, a leader, a Pro Bowl regular and a tone-setter for one of the best defenses in league history. John Lynch was all of those things, and now it is time for him to also assume the title of Hall of Fame inductee.
"He always answered the bell for his team," said Manning. "[He was] just a guy that you had to factor in every time you played against him. There are just not many guys like that. There are certain players that you factor in like that. Those guys are in the Hall of Fame – guys like Rod Woodson, Deion Sanders, Derrick Brooks – guys that you had to know where they were every single play. That was coach's orders. Coaches told you, 'Hey, be sure you know where No. 47 is. Know what he's doing. Just factor him in.' John Lynch had that type of respect from coaches and players, and he deserved that kind of respect.
"That's why, in my opinion, he belongs in the Hall of Fame."