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Historically speaking, does the Hall of Fame Game really matter?

The game doesn’t count for anything…right? Not so fast. 

NFL: AUG 02 Hall of Fame Game - Bears v Ravens

In around 36 hours, the Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys will duel in Canton, Ohio in the Hall of Fame Game. This year’s contest has extra meaning for Pittsburgh due to last year’s game being canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as numerous Steeler legends—Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca, Bill Cowher, Donnie Shell and Bill Nunn—being granted football immortality that very weekend.

The NFL preseason has been widely criticized for decades due to most contests incorporating matchups of second-, third- and fourth-stringers seeing action. Its games, further, usually don’t indicate much about the forthcoming season—ask the 2017 Cleveland Browns, who went a perfect 4-0 in the preseason but never earned a win during the regular season.

Conventionally, most teams play three preseason games under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). However, Pittsburgh and Dallas—and HOF Game participants before them—have an extra slate before official kickoff.

Fundamentally speaking, the Hall of Fame Game is, technically, just another preseason game: its outcome has no bearing on a record or a team’s skill.

Or so you’re led to believe.

Here at BTSC, we like to dig deeper and put the narratives to the test.

Today’s hypotheses: does playing in the Hall of Fame Game have an impact on the Steelers’—or other teams’—season? What about the result of the event, which is seemingly trivial?

Let’s put our scientific goggles on and find out.

The Steelers and the Hall of Fame Game

When Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger and other Steelers step foot onto the field at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, it will commence the organization’s seventh appearance in the festivities in Canton—ironically, tied for the most with the Cowboys.

In their prior six appearances in the Hall of Fame Game, the Steelers have gone 3-3. Somewhat shockingly, in the years that Pittsburgh has won the matchup (1963, 1983, 2007), the team has finished above .500 in each of those seasons, the latter two culminating in a 10-6 record and a postseason berth. Conversely, when the Steelers have faltered in Canton (1964, 1998, 2015), they have only had a winning record in one season (2015).

On average, the Steelers post 8.16 wins in years in which they participate in the Hall of Fame Game; for context, the team has accrued 10.6 wins per season the last five years, so Pittsburgh’s win totals don’t really seem to be affected by an extra preseason slate.

Similarly, the Steelers’ winning percentage in seasons involving the HOF Game stands at .552, whereas the franchise’s cumulative winning percentage is .538—a difference that is marginal at best.

Overall, does history indicate anything stark about the Steelers’ upcoming year and their involvement in the city that former president William McKinley made famous? Not really—though Tomlin & Co. should look to emerge victorious if the precedent of having a winning record is prescient.

The Rest of the NFL and a Canton Clash

The Steelers are far from the only organization to be included in the Hall of Fame Game. In fact, every team has played in the event since its inception in 1962.

Since that point, 55 total Hall of Fame Games have occurred, with winners being declared in 53 of them (two ended in ties). Of those 53 winners, 23 went on to make the playoffs (43.4%). Collectively, victors at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium compiled a .545 winning percentage during regular season competition.

Somewhat discouragingly, no member of the HOF Game has ever hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the end of that given season, although three of the four teams to reach the Big Game won during their time in Canton (1964 Colts, 1988 Bengals, 2001 Rams).

How about the teams that haven’t won the Hall of Fame Game? Well, it’s a difference that shines—though not as brightly as a quintessential yellow jacket.

In total, 57 squads have played in the Game but not come away with a W. Only 22 of those qualified for postseason action (38.6%). Moreover, such contingents went on to aggregate a .507 winning percentage.

Relative to the losers, the winners in the NFL’s birthplace have a 4.8% greater chance of making the playoffs. In terms of this season's postseason odds, that differential would move Steelers from 16th to 14th (40% to 44.8%), per Lineups.

Also, claiming the Hall of Fame Game garners a team a .038 greater winning percentage, yet that only translates to a little over half of a game.

Analyzing the situation more broadly, 45 of the 110 units (40.9%) to play in the Hall of Fame Game reached the playoffs. That mark is actually slightly worse than any team’s given odds in 2021, as 14 of 32 competitors (43.75%) will play in mid-to-late January. Winning percentage largely writes a similar story, as Hall of Fame Game participants’ combined winning percentage (.525) is just a hair superior compared to last year’s overall rate of victory (.516).

Does suiting up in front of 23,000 raucous fans wearing jerseys of all eras correlate to a better impending season? The jury is out.

But if the Steelers want to hoist a seventh Lombardi and etch more names in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, winning their additional preseason matchup may offer an advantage.