Hot Hall ballot simmering

Brian Simmons circa 2006

If you think it's hot outside, the Cincinnati sauna has nothing on the upcoming election. No, not that election out of The College of the Electoral. 

With eight locks safely in the Hall of Fame after the first two ballots, the third class is a hard one to call when voting starts Monday to cut the preliminary field to 10 finalists on the road to the fans choosing the class of 2012.

Fans must vote for 10 names on the prelim ballot, where two at-large candidates who played huge roles in head coach Marvin Lewis's rehab effort have been added. Linebacker Brian Simmons (1998-2006) and center Rich Braham (1994-2006) make it 30 names after leading vote-getter Tim Krumrie, cornerback Ken Riley, and wide receiver Cris Collinsworth were elected to the 2011 class.

They joined the inaugural field of franchise founder Paul Brown, Pro Football Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Muñoz, all-time leading passer Ken Anderson, gamebreaking wide receiver Isaac Curtis, and 1988 NFL MVP Boomer Esiason.

In the fans' election that culminates later in the year when they must choose three names from the field of 10 finalists, there are no clear-cut favorites.

Super Bowl coach Sam Wyche, who also quarterbacked the original Bengals in three games in 1968, finished last year's finals in fourth place by appearing on 28 percent of the ballots, followed by running back James Brooks at 26.3 percent. That left the rest of the top 10 less than three points apart, ranging from six-time Pro Bowl cornerback Lemar Parrish at 19 percent to three-time Pro Bowl safety David Fulcher at 16.7.

In between tied at 18.5 percent were all-time leading scorer Jim Beech and Max Montoya, generally regarded as the team's best guard, and all-time leading rusher Corey Dillon came in at 17.7 percent.

Making things even more interesting is that franchise right tackle Willie Anderson is eligible next year, which will make it five years since he closed out his career playing one season with the Ravens.

The appearance on the ballot of Simmons and Braham reflect just how long Lewis has been coaching the Bengals. They were part of the core of his first team that began the climb back from 2-14 in 2003 at 8-8 and won the AFC North in 2005, and it was their final seasons in 2006 that had the Bengals moving to another transition.

Braham's knee injury in the second game of the season ended his career. Simmons's neck injury cost him seven games in what proved to be his final season in Cincinnati when the Bengals cut him Feb. 28, 2007 with two years left on his deal and third-rounder Ahmad Brooks was in the wings.

He hooked on with the Saints for one final season, but it took a while for the Bengals to replace Braham's brains and physicality at center and Simmons's knowledge, athleticism and versatility at linebacker.

Those aren't the glamour positions, but Simmons and Braham kept their units together through some difficult times at the turn of the century and during Lewis's first postseason bids.

Which is just the kind of intangible Simmons is seeking these days as he heads into his fourth season as the Jaguars East Coast scout. Now 37 years old and 14 years out of North Carolina, his goal is to be an NFL decision-maker who builds a team.

"I wish we could have won more games," Simmons said the other day from his Florida home. "No question about that. I wish we could have won the Super Bowl, but to come back and win the division with guys like Rich Braham and Willie Anderson, guys that had been through it all, that meant a lot."

How good was Simmons?

Good enough to be taken in the first round in 1998 with the 17th pick, which arrived via the Dan Wilkinson trade. He never went to a Pro Bowl, but he started at four different positions for three head coaches and four different coordinators. It was hard to get recognition on a team that didn't win more than four games from '98 until Lewis arrived in 2003.

"It'd be hard for me to think that anyone could have had a much better year than what I did in '01," which amounts to a guarantee by the modest, low-profile Simmons.

Starting 16 games at middle linebacker in '01, Simmons was a key figure in a defense that finished ninth in the NFL with 6.5 sacks, a club record for inside backers, and his 139 tackles were second on the team.

He was around long enough to start at left inside linebacker for Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense on Opening Day in 1999. When LeBeau switched to a 4-3, Simmons went to the middle for the 2000 opener and for Lewis's first game in 2003 he lined up on the outside at WILL and played there for the next three years until he was summoned back to the middle again when Odell Thurman was suspended. In his 115 starts in Cincinnati, 47 were at WILL, 46 in the middle, 21 at left inside and one at SAM.

Asked if the shuffling hurt his career, Simmons gave the classic Simmons-no-baloney-answer. Back when character was such an issue in the Bengals locker room, it was never an issue with Simmons.

"My whole thing is I wanted to be one of the answers for the problem, not the problem," he said. "I wanted to be a reason we won, not a reason we lost, and whatever that took."

The 6-3, 240-pound Simmons always took pride in the speed he had for a big man and he made more big plays at backer than anybody who played the position here since he arrived.

The list of his top five plays is recycled from the day he got cut, but it still shows their big-picture importance:

Dec. 4, 2005:The Bengals are locked in a surprising shootout with the Steelers at Heinz Field. It is 14-14 early in the second quarter and Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have traded two touchdowns on four straight possessions. But Simmons stops the Steelers by leaping in the air and tipping a Ben Roethlisberger pass to himself at the Steelers 32 and returning it 16 yards. The Bengals score six plays later to get the upper hand in a 38-31 win that virtually gives them their first AFC North title.

Oct. 19, 2003:The 1-4 Bengals, off a bye week, are starting slowly at Paul Brown Stadium, and it has all the aroma of an ugly 1-5. The Ravens are up 7-0 and are about to take a 14-0 lead. Certain death with record-setting Jamal Lewis and the Baltimore running game. But Simmons grabs victory from the jaws of defeat, not to mention the ball from Ravens rookie quarterback Kyle Boller for a fumble recovery at the Ravens 47. Moments later, Jon Kitna and Matt Schobel stun the Ravens with a 45-yard touchdown pass on third-and-a-million for a 7-7 tie midway through the first quarter. The Bengals go on to win, 34-26, and win six of their next seven to establish the Marvin Lewis era.

Sept. 19, 2004: PBS is all decked out for its first prime-time game in seven years in the Sunday night home opener, but the Carson Palmer era in Cincinnati has started shakily in his second NFL start. The Bengals trail the Dolphins at the half, 3-0, but Simmons steps in front of quarterback A.J. Feeley's sideline pass at midfield three minutes into the second half and takes it 50 yards for the only Bengals touchdown of the game. It allows Palmer to play his best football of the night in the final 1:53, when he bangs seven of eight passes for 53 yards to set up Shayne Graham's winning 39-yard field goal with two seconds left. And a quarterback is born.

Sept. 23, 2001: The Bengals are trying to go to 2-0 for the first time since 1995 and, yes, they are trying to do it against Lewis's defending Super Bowl champion Ravens at PBS. The Ravens, behind the torturous play of quarterback Elvis Grbac, are driving for more than 10 plays in what looks to be a deflating half-ending touchdown in a tight game. But a Grbac pass gets batted in the air once, twice, and Simmons leaps up to grab it in the end zone. Baltimore gets no points, and the Bengals go on to dominate the second half in a 21-10 victory that is one of the most impressive in memory.

Oct. 26, 2003: The 2-4 Bengals are trying to win back-to-back games for the first time in two years and are protecting a 27-24 lead against Seattle in the last six minutes at PBS. But Shaun Alexander and the Seahawks keep coming. Simmons intercepts a Matt Hasselbeck pass deflected by tackle Oliver Gibson at the Bengals 34. Then, with just under two minutes left and Seattle in field-goal range, Simmons deflects a Hasselbeck pass that is caught by cornerback Jeff Burris at the Bengals 24 to end it.

Willie Anderson summed up it up best the week after the Bengals clinched the North in '05 when he put Simmons in the context of the revolving door at backer.

"Brian is Marvin's eyes and ears on the defense," Anderson said. "He means so much to those young guys over there. The guy is just solid."

Braham was much the same thing on the other side of the ball. Like Simmons, he spanned eras and coaches. He played for both Dave Shula and Lewis, snapped the ball to both Boomer Esiason and Carson Palmer, congratulated both Carl Pickens and Chad Johnson after touchdown catches, and played on a line with both Bruce Kozerski and Andrew Whitworth.

How tough? In 2001 Braham played 98.8 percent of the snaps even though he was diagnosed with a herniated neck disc after the third game and medically cleared to have what would have been season-ending surgery after the season.

You can still see the poster the Bengals handed out at his retirement announcement in the 2006 finale in some of the assistant coaches' offices.

Simmons, the future GM, knows centers and backers have a tough time winning elections. He figures he may have to wait, but he doesn't think Dillon should have to.

He was stunned that the combustible Dillon, who had a love-hate and finally love relationship with the fans, finished ninth in voting last year in his first year of eligibility.

Simmons, the scout, has to think about it. But in the end, he figures Dillon is probably the best player he was ever with in the NFL.

"Wow, that must be personal," Simmons said. "I would think if he didn't get in last year, he'd get in this year. I have to be honest. Look at his stats. He was powerful. Corey ran hard and he was big. And he was faster than you thought."

All of which should make for a hotly-contested ballot.

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