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 sixth year in a row, and that alone suggests a very serious candidate to receive 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 six years as a finalist put Lynch in the company of almost exclusively Hall of Famers: Of the 22 other people who have been Hall of Fame finalists for six consecutive years, 21 have gained entry into Canton.
There have been a total of 31 Hall candidates before Lynch who were finalists at least six times overall, not necessarily consecutively, and 27 of them now have spots in Canton. Two very recent examples are wide receiver Tim Brown and defensive end Charles Haley, both of whom were voted into the Class of 2015 in their sixth year as finalists. 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’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 80 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.
(Three players meeting that criteria are eligible for the first time this year and are also finalists: Champ Bailey, Tony Gonzalez and Ed Reed. The other three are comprised of linebacker Maxie Baughan, who played from 1960-74, and a pair men who played the majority of their respective careers in the AFL in the 1960s – guard Walt Sweeney and tackle Jim Tyrer. Sweeney and Tyrer mostly played in AFL All-Star games, which were separate from the NFL Pro Bowl, but the NFL now includes those games in its Pro Bowl counts.)
Of those 80 players on the list of nine or more Pro Bowl selections, 61 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 Tony Gonzalez 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 three-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. In fact, the other three – Rodney Harrison, Donnie Edwards and Ronde Barber – combine for one fewer Pro Bowl choice than Lynch.
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.