The Hall of Fame Game: What is it and Why Play It?

Peter Diana photo, via Post-Gazette

by Rebecca Rollett

Let’s Have Some Football!

I think we’re all ready for some Steelers football by now. The off-season seemed even longer than usual this year—a barren wasteland of non-football activity. Thank heavens for the Pirates…

And I think I’m definitely in the minority here, but I like pre-season games. It gives a chance to shine to some young men who have aspired to make it to the NFL for perhaps most of their life. They finally have a shot at it, however brief the window may be.

And while a great many of them are going to fade away into the sunset in a few short weeks, perhaps never to be heard from again, they have these opportunities  to catch someone’s eye. Even if your current team doesn’t keep you on, maybe someone else will see something they like and pick you up. At least you had a chance.

And in fact preseason favorites do often get a more extended look. Linebacker Howard Johnson, better known as HoJo, made some pretty impressive-looking plays last summer, and was retained on the practice squad. He has another chance to grab a roster spot this season, although given the LB depth on the team at the moment, it maybe isn’t much of one.

But What is the “Hall of Fame” Game?

The fact that I don’t know about the Hall of Fame game demonstrates, I suppose, how short is my football fandom tenure and how little interest I take in other teams : ) But just in case any of you are also unaware of it, it turns out to be the traditional beginning of the preseason. Not surprisingly, it is played in Canton, Ohio on the same weekend as the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. 

It is generally although not invariably an AFC vs. NFC match-up. It was cancelled in 2011 during the labor dispute. I note that, had the labor agreement been ratified a mere three days earlier, the game would have been played. Knowing that at least the veteran players are probably not terribly keen on exhibition games which could result in injuries, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the players held out the extra few days just to make sure the game would be cancelled.

The History—Win, Lose, or Tie?

The first Hall of Fame game was in 1962, and was played between the New York Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals. (I only wish the St. Louis Cardinals were playing football this summer—they are getting pretty annoying to us Pirates fans.) It resulted in a 21-21 tie.

The following year is the first appearance of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the game. They were playing the Cleveland Browns, and the Steelers beat them 16 to 7. I found myself wondering if it was one of the few games the Steelers won in 1963.

When I looked up the Steeler record for that season I found a rather odd thing. The first game was at the Philadelphia Eagles, and resulted in a 21-21 tie. Both the 11th and 12th games of the season, at home against the Chicago Bears and the Eagles again, resulted in ties as well.

I wondered if there had been a rule change at some point between 1963 and now in regards to tie games, because they are rather unusual in my experience. At first, the only thing I could find was in 1972, when the league decided that rather than a tie game not counting at all in the standings, it would now count as a half a game won and a half lost. But back in 1963 the Steelers only got to count 11 of their 14 games, which seems rather harsh. As it happens, there were only five tied games that entire season, and the Steelers played in three of them.

But as I continued to Google I discovered that until 1974 the overtime period was only for playoff games, and after overtime was added for regular season games tied games became much more rare. And wouldn’t you know, the very first overtime regular season game in NFL history was played in September of 1974 between the Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and still resulted in a tie, of 35-35. The was the both the first and last tied game of the season. Since then the Steelers have only played one other game which ended in a tie, at home agains the Atlanta Falcons. There have only been 20 regular season tied games, total, since the rule change.

During the 1963 regular season, to return to Digression No. 1, the Steelers actually won seven of the 11 games left after you remove the ties. They split with the Cleveland Browns, the St. Louis Cardinals, and New York Giants, won both their games against the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys (which undoubtedly annoyed my father to no end,) and lost their single game to the Green Bay Packers. Not bad for a team who wouldn’t really be relevant for almost 10 more years.

But to return to the Hall of Fame game, the Steelers have played in it a total of five games thus far, with the most recent being in 2007. They have won three and lost two. Only the Redskins, Browns, (if you count both the pre-Ravens days and the expansion team), New Orleans Saints, Cowboys have played in five games. Everyone else has played four or less (much less in the case of the Carolina Panthers, who have played once, in 1995, and the Baltimore Ravens, who have never played in one at all, unless you count the four the pre-1999 Cleveland Browns played.)

The only five-game team to have won all of their appearances are the Redskins. With this season’s appearance the Steelers will be the only club to have played in six games. This is a nice coincidence, since they are the only team to possess six Lombardi trophies as well. It would be nice if the Steelers would stay ahead of that curve…

Why Play It?

I suppose the simplest answer is, because I said so. “I” in this case being the league office, who does the scheduling. But I think it is really nice for the Steelers to be able to play on the weekend when Jerome Bettis is inducted into the Hall.

And although it might not be “real” football, I’m eager to get a look at both the heralded and unheralded rookies, as well as a few of the veterans like the newly-well (we hope) Mike Mitchell and the newly-signed Brandon Boykin.

We all know the preseason games don’t mean anything, and they certainly don’t count for anything at the end of the year. But after the Steelers have gone 0-for about a million in the past few preseasons, it would be fun to see them assert their will. And since the past few seasons have also begun rather shakily for the Steelers, it would be nice to see guys on the field who seem to know what they are doing. And as soon as they look like they know what they’re doing, pull them and put in the rookies. Because in the end we mainly hope the Hall of Fame doesn’t lead to a World of Pain.

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