Could the Bucs Be Canton Bound Next Summer?

Warren Sapp will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 3 as part of the Class of 2013, in a ceremony held in front of the Hall in Canton, Ohio.  Since Sapp will become the second person in the Hall of Fame who spent the majority of his career with Tampa Bay, it’s a virtual certainty that a group of Buccaneer reps will be on hand in Canton that day, as well.

It’s even possible that the entire team will get a trip to Canton for the weekend.

One day after Sapp and the other six members of the Class of 2013 have their bronze busts unveiled, two teams will kick off the NFL’s 2013 preseason schedule with the annual Hall of Fame Game at Fawcett Stadium, right next door to the Hall.  The two opponents in that game have not yet been announced, but there’s reason to believe the Buccaneers are on the short list of possibilities.

We base this on a couple of Hall of Fame Game matchup trends.  The most significant trend is that there is often a connection between at least one of the competing teams and at least one of the new inductees, at least in the last dozen years or so.  In 11 of the last 13 years, beginning in 1999, at least one of the competing teams in the Hall of Fame game doubled as the primary team of one of the inductees.  For instance, the matchup of New Orleans and Arizona last summer coincided with the induction of former Saints tackle Willie Roaf.  In 2010, the Cowboys got a trip to Canton to see former Dallas running back Emmitt Smith enter the Hall, and the Bills played the Titans in 2009 when all-time Buffalo greats Bruce Smith and Ralph Wilson, Jr. went in.  (There was no game in 2011 due to the work stoppage.)

The best example of this was way back in 2000, when San Francisco almost had to be chosen (and was, facing New England) to see former 49ers Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana and Dave Wilcox all go in together.  The last time neither team had a tie to the enshrinees was in 2007, when Pittsburgh played New Orleans.

This trend started right after the Buccaneers’ most recent (and only second) trip to the Hall of Fame Game in 1998.  Unless one counts Tampa Bay’s tenuous connection to inductee Anthony Munoz, the long-time Bengal who signed with the Buccaneers in the summer of 1992 but retired in August after suffering a preseason injury, there was no tie between the two teams and the five enshrinees.

The Buccaneers did not play in the Hall of Fame Game when their other bronze bust was sculpted.  DE Lee Roy Selmon was enshrined in the summer of 1995 but the game was played between the NFL’s two new teams, Carolina and Jacksonville.  That’s another Hall of Fame Game trend, bringing in expansion teams (see also Cleveland in 1999 and Houston in 2002), but it has no bearing on this year’s selection.

Now, if one considers the ties between this year’s enshrinees and their primary teams, it’s clear why the Buccaneers would be on the short list.  The connection is generally between modern-era inductees and not the Senior Committee selections, so we can probably discount Dave Robinson (Green Bay) and Curley Culp (either Kansas City or Houston/Tennessee).

The remaining five inductees are Sapp (Tampa Bay), Larry Allen (Dallas), Cris Carter (Minnesota), Jonathan Ogden (Baltimore) and Bill Parcells (N.Y. Giants, presumably).  Note that Dallas just played in the game three years ago, so would seem to be an unlikely choice.  Tampa Bay was last in Canton in 1998 and Minnesota in 1997.  Baltimore has never played in the Hall of Fame Game, but before we pencil them as the likely choice, consider that the Ravens are now the reigning Super Bowl champions.  Would the NFL actually have one of the two teams that played the longest into one season be one of the two teams that starts the earliest the following campaign.  Doubtful, and it’s worth noting that no reigning Super Bowl champ has ever played in the Hall of Fame Game.

We could add a little bit of speculation that would reduce the list even further.  In almost every season since 2000, there has been a connection between a competing team and one of the enshrinees who made it in as a first-year-eligible, if there were any first-year-eligibles to choose from.  That was true of Emmitt Smith-Dallas in 2010, Bruce Smith-Buffalo in 2009, Darrell Green-Washington in 2008, Reggie White-Philadelphia in 2006, Dan Marino-Miami in 2005, John Elway-Denver in 2004, Jackie Slater-St. Louis in 2001 and the Lott/Montana combo-San Francisco in 2000.

Three first-year eligible candidates were chosen for enshrinement this year: Sapp, Allen and Ogden.  If we discount Dallas because they just played the game in 2010 and Baltimore because they’re the raining champs, you’re left with Tampa Bay.

That’s all speculation and guesswork, of course.  The game is not obligated to invite a team with a connection, or more specifically a connection to a first-year-eligible enshrinee.  The Vikings, who get a new Hall rep this year in Carter, would also seem like a strong possibility, even if Carter is not a first-year-eligible choice.  Could the Hall pair up the Bucs and the Vikings?  Generally the game has been held between one AFC team and one NFC team, but exceptions have been made, as was the case just last year with New Orleans and Arizona.

The announcement of the Hall of Fame Game matchup should come out well before the rest of the 2013 schedule in April.  If the Bucs are chosen, they will play five preseason games this summer and will also be able to start training camp one week earlier than the 30 teams not playing in Canton.

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