Each year in early August, football royalty gathers up in Canton to help usher in a new class into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Heading into the voting on the Saturday before this year's Super Bowl there was a name that seemed to be a lock to gain entry as a first ballot Hall of Famer. Instead, Orlando Pace was passed over in favor of a number of candidates who had already been on the ballot for multiple years.
The big man from Sandusky made quite a name for himself when he arrived in Columbus to play for the Buckeyes, becoming just the second true freshman to start in his first game in an Ohio State uniform. Pace became famous for the "pancake block" and earned the nickname "The Pancake Man" during his time with the Buckeyes. While Pace was famous for his monstrous blocks, the most impressive stat during his time at Ohio State is he didn't allow a sack in his last two years at the school.
Not only did Pace win the Lombardi Trophy as the best lineman or linebacker in college football in 1995 and 1996, but he also took home the Outland Trophy in 1996 as the best interior lineman in college football. Pace was the only two-time winner of the Lombardi and just the 12th player in history to win both the Lombardi and Outland awards. In 1996, Pace finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting, which was the highest finish for a lineman since Hugh Green finished second in the voting in 1980.
The dominant play Pace exhibited for the Buckeyes led to Pace being taken first overall in the 1997 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams. Pace was the first offensive lineman to be taken with the first pick in the draft since Ron Yary in 1968. After a three-week holdout in training camp before he agreed to terms with the Rams, it didn't take Pace long to become a fixture on the St. Louis offensive line for years to come.
During his rookie season, Pace played in 13 games, starting in nine of those contests. 1998 was even better for Pace, as he had a full training camp under his belt, starting all 16 games on his way to be named a Pro Bowl alternate. Even though Pace was starting to excel for the Rams, the team's performance didn't quite match, with Dick Vermeil's team only being able to muster a 4-12 record during the year.
The performance of the Rams quickly turned around in 1999, and a major reason for that was due to the play of Pace. After the team had to turn to Kurt Warner at quarterback when Trent Green went down in the preseason to injury, the Rams offense was pretty much unstoppable most of the year on their way to a Super Bowl win. Pace was the anchor of the offensive line and for that he earned not only his first Pro Bowl selection, but also was selected first-team All-Pro.
After Vermeil retired and Mike Martz took over as head coach, the Rams weren't able to make it back to the Super Bowl in 2000, but Pace played 1,006 of the 1,013 offensive snaps for St. Louis as the team set a NFL record for most passing yards in a season. An even more incredible feat during the season for Pace is he was one of three offensive linemen on the Rams that wasn't flagged for holding during the year.
Pace may have only missed seven offensive plays in 2000, but he bettered that in 2001, playing 100% of the snaps for the Rams as the team made it back to the Super Bowl, which they ended up losing to New England. For the third straight season St. Louis topped 500 points during the season, with Pace being named to his third straight Pro Bowl for his work as the anchor of the offensive line.
2002 might be a season in which both Pace and the Rams might want to forget for the most part. Despite missing six games during the year due to a couple of injuries, Pace was still elected to his fourth straight Pro Bowl. Coincidentally, with Pace making only 10 starts during the year, St. Louis only scored 319 points during the season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1998.
The next three seasons saw Pace avoid the injury bug, starting all 16 games in those years. In 2003 and 2004 the Rams were able to make the playoffs with Pace back to full strength. All three of those seasons saw Pace earn Pro Bowl selections, running his streak to seven straight years of being considered one of the best at his position in the NFL.
The 2005 Pro Bowl would be the final one Pace would appear in though. In 2006, Pace would start eight games before tearing his triceps, which ended his season. In the following season, Pace was injured for the year in the season opener against Carolina, which would end up being his final game as a member of the Rams. In each year during his career with the team, the Rams threw for at least 3,000 yards, living up to the billing as the "Greatest Show on Turf".
Pace would move on to play for the Chicago Bears for a year, but after the injuries of the past two years he wasn't quite as dominant as he was with the Rams. During his short time with Chicago, Pace would start 11 games but a groin injury in late November slowed him and he finished out the season as a backup. Following being released by the Bears after the season, Pace called it a career after 13 years in the NFL.
So why wasn't Pace a part of last night's induction class? A big reason why he was likely passed over feels like it didn't have anything to do with his playing career, but rather how the classes are structured. The maximum number of non-senior committee inductees is five, making it hard enough to be inducted into the hall. Once it was announced that Will Shields would be inducted after four years on the ballot, the dream of Pace being a first ballot Hall of Famer was erased.
This year's induction class was mostly made up of players that had already been on the ballot for a number of years, and they were finally getting their due after years of being passed over. This was Charles Haley's 11th year on the ballot, Tim Brown's sixth year, and Jerome Bettis' fifth year. The only first ballot inductee this year was the late Junior Seau.
Not saying the players inducted in this year's class weren't worthy of gaining entry into the hall, it's just hard to swallow Pace missing out because the voters were probably putting off his induction to make room for Shields. Being a first ballot Hall of Famer would've been the capper on Pace's outstanding NFL career. Since 2000, Jackie Slater, Larry Allen, Jonathan Ogden, and Walter Jones have been the only offensive lineman elected to the hall on the first ballot. Jones and Pace were in the same draft class, and their dominance during their time in the league was fairly similar, which makes Pace being omitted even more puzzling.
The good news is it shouldn't take too much longer before the master of the pancake block is fitted for his golden jacket and his bronze bust is enshrined in Canton. When Pace does join the elite company in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he will be the 10th Buckeye to gain entry. Only USC and Notre Dame have produced more future hall of famers.
2016 might very well be the year when Pace is giving his speech on a Saturday night in August in Canton, with the only real lock to be inducted being Brett Favre. Pace should get some competition from Alan Faneca in terms of votes, but much like how Pace had to wait so Shields could get inducted this year, the situation feels like it will be Faneca waiting a year so Pace can enter the hall. It should be interesting to see exactly how the votes shake out the day before the Super Bowl.