Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Best Wide Receivers Not in the HOF: 1990s
Who is the best wide receiver eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but not yet enshrined? When football fans cry "snub," there's a good chance they're talking about a wide receiver. For years, it was Lynn Swann or Art Monk. Now, it's guys like Cris Carter and Tim Brown. Players at the other stat positions — quarterbacks and running backs — are elected to the PFHOF with much higher frequency than wideouts.
For this project, we'll examine in depth 25 eligible wide receivers with strong backing for the Hall of Fame: Cliff Branch, Tim Brown, Harold Carmichael, Cris Carter, Wes Chandler, Gary Clark, Henry Ellard, Irving Fryar, Charley Hennigan, Harlon Hill, Billy Howton, Harold Jackson, Herman Moore, Stanley Morgan, Drew Pearson, Art Powell, Andre Reed, Andre Rison, Sterling Sharpe, Del Shofner, Jimmy Smith, Mac Speedie, Hugh Taylor, Otis Taylor, and Billy Wilson. I believe only about five of those players deserve induction, but there's a case to be made for all of them.
It's difficult to compare players across eras at any position, and this is particularly true in the passing game, because the rules and statistics have changed so much. Today's wide receivers play 16-game schedules. They can't be bumped more than five yards downfield. Their quarterbacks are protected in ways Y.A. Tittle and Roger Staubach never dreamed of. They play in high-efficiency pass-oriented offenses, as opposed to the exciting but reckless bomb-it-down-the-field passing games of the past, when running was a way of life and throwing a sneaky change of pace or a mark of desperation. But we can certainly compare these players to their peers. Here's my list of 25, ranked by the number of times they were among the top 10 in their league in receiving yards:
Five: Brown, Carter, Clark, Jackson, Pearson, Shofner, Smith, Speedie, Wilson
Four: Branch, Ellard, Fryar, Hennigan, Howton, Moore, Sharpe, Otis Taylor
Three: Chandler, Hill, Morgan, Reed, Rison, Hugh Taylor
To keep the statistics from skewing, I used top-five rankings (instead of top-10) for seasons before 1970, when the leagues were 8-16 teams rather than 26-32. This affected Hennigan, Howton, Speedie, Hugh Taylor, and Wilson, once each. The two who stand out on the list, obviously, are Powell and Carmichael. But let's review each player's résumé, beginning this week with receivers of the 1990s. Please note that WRs of the late '80s and early '90s, like Reed and Sharpe, are in next week's column. If you're here for another era, check out our other articles in this series:
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1980s
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1970s
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1960s
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1950s
1988-2004, Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1,094 receptions, 14,934 yards, 100 TD
The Hall of Fame voters, in recent years, have almost entirely ignored special teams contributions. That hurts Brown, who was a dazzling punt returner (3,320 yds, 10.2 avg, 3 TDs). He made two Pro Bowls as a returner, in 1988 and '91, and in 2001 became the oldest NFL player (35) to return a punt for a TD. Brown also holds the rookie record for all-purpose yards (2,317), a record he took from Gale Sayers and has now owned for more than two decades.
Of course, Brown is most remembered as a receiver who was among the best at his position for a decade. He had nine consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons and ranks 4th all-time in receiving yards. He's 5th all-time in receptions and 6th in receiving TDs. The argument against Brown is that he was consistent rather than exceptional. He led the league in receptions once, never in yards or TDs. In his 17-year career, Brown made the Associated Press All-Pro team just once, as a second-team selection in 1997. Can a guy be a Hall of Famer even if he was never the best at his own position? Brown made nine Pro Bowls and was a second-team selection to the 1990s NFL All-Decade team.
1987-2002, Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins
1,101 receptions, 13,899 yards, 130 TD
Fourth all-time in both receptions and receiving TDs, Carter joined Jerry Rice as the starting wide receivers on the 1990s NFL All-Decade team. He was selected to eight Pro Bowls and was twice named first-team All-Pro. In 1994, he set the single-season record for receptions (122, since broken), and in three other seasons he led the NFL in receiving TDs. Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, and Carter are the only players in history with five straight years of double-digit receiving touchdowns.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame voters are the same people who select All-Decade Teams. In 2000, they chose Carter, not Michael Irvin, to join Rice on the All-90s Team. In 2007, though, they elected Irvin to Canton, and in each of the next five seasons, they've passed on Carter. Why did they change their minds? Carter was more productive in the 1980s, and Irvin didn't even play in the 2000s, so if Carter was even close in the '90s, it stands to reason he's ahead for their careers. Maybe it's a by-product of Irvin's fame and flamboyance, but Carter isn't exactly low-profile, either.
I was surprised when Carter didn't get elected to Canton in either of his first two years of eligibility. But I think the voters have been reluctant to enshrine him partly for the same reason Art Monk had to wait so long. Monk was repeatedly dismissed as a guy who caught 900 eight-yard hooks, and who wasn't the most dangerous receiver on his own team. Carter averaged just 12.6 yards per reception, one of the lowest marks in history for an elite wide receiver. Defenses fear the deep threat, the guy who can burn you on any given play. For Washington in the '80s and early '90s, that was Gary Clark, not Monk. For Minnesota, it was Randy Moss, not Carter. From 1998-2000, Carter caught 34 TD passes, more than anyone except ... Moss, who had 43.
Carter last led the Vikings in receiving yards in 1995. Thereafter, he was out-gained every year by either Jake Reed or Moss. And yet, half his production came after '95: five of his eight 1,000-yard seasons, four of his six double-digit TD years, overall about 47% of his statistical value. Essentially, Carter is battling the notion that he usually wasn't even the best receiver on his own team, that he was a system player who seldom had to deal with double-teams and caught a bunch of short passes. He was reliable more than explosive, and he was tough like Monk, not graceful like Lance Alworth or Lynn Swann. Carter just doesn't have the highlight reel those guys do, and he never won a championship.
1984-2000, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
851 receptions, 12,785 yards, 84 TD
Fryar was a late bloomer. The first overall pick in the 1984 draft, Fryar quickly made his mark on special teams — he was a Pro Bowl returner, with 3 punt return TDs in his first three seasons — but didn't emerge as a major receiving threat until he left New England to play for the Dolphins and Eagles. His first 1,000-yard season came in 1991, when Fryar was 29 and playing his eighth year in the NFL. He was 31 when he made his first Pro Bowl as a receiver, a 10-year veteran.
I view Fryar much the same way I viewed Rafael Palmeiro (before the positive test for PEDs). Fryar's career numbers are great for when he played, and he obviously was a good player for a long time. But he was never a guy we thought of as the best at his position. He made five Pro Bowls (one as a returner) and was second-team All-Pro twice (once as a returner). That distinguishes him from almost every receiver in history. But when you're talking about the Hall of Fame, does it distinguish him from guys like Cris Carter and Henry Ellard and Tim Brown?
Fryar eventually recorded five 1,000-yard seasons, and his accomplishments as a returner are significant, something that should factor into any consideration of his Hall of Fame case. It's natural, I think, to compare him to Ellard. They were drafted just one year apart, both were great punt returners early in their careers, both had most of their best seasons in the '90s, both had career numbers that looked exceptional before the explosion of receiving stats in the last decade or so.
Choosing between the two, I'd go with Ellard. He had more good seasons, more of his production came before league-wide receiving numbers went through the roof, and he had a stronger peak. Ellard had four seasons among the top four in receiving yards, Fryar none. They were both great players, but Ellard was more exceptional.
1991-2002, Detroit Lions, New York Giants
670 receptions, 9,174 yards, 62 TD
I know you probably don't think Moore belongs on this list. He's here for the statheads. I love stat geeks, and on some level I'm one of them, so let's review Moore's qualifications. He was a four-time Pro Bowler and made three All-Pro teams as a starter (more than Cris Carter and Tim Brown combined). His 1995 season ranks among the most impressive statistical seasons of all time: 123 rec, 1686 yds, 14 TD. Looking at the 1990s as a whole, Moore had more receptions than Andre Reed, more yardage than Henry Ellard, and more touchdowns than Michael Irvin. You can probably win a bar bet with that, by the way. Who scored more TDs in the '90s, Michael Irvin or Herman Moore?
Moore's problem is two-fold. One is that his production was largely limited to seven seasons. He had over 900 receiving yards every year from 1992-98, with one other year at 434, and nothing else over 200. When you're trying to stand out from contemporaries like Brown and Carter, who played forever, that's a real problem. Moore had four 1,000-yard receiving seasons in the '90s. That's good. But seven players had more (Brown, Carter, Ellard, Fryar, Irvin, Rice, Rison), and so far only two of them are in the Hall of Fame. Moore's other issue is that he played for the Lions at a time when (1) they weren't an elite team, (2) they had kind of a weird offense, (3) he was overshadowed by Barry Sanders.
Several years ago, Chase Stuart introduced a stat-based system that ranked Moore as the 23rd-most valuable wide receiver in history, ahead of players like Ellard (26), Reed (35), Art Monk (36), Gary Clark (46), Sterling Sharpe (48), Rison (72), and Fryar (unrated). How does Moore get that high in a statistical analysis? It's about his peak. Moore had three seasons of 100 receptions, trailing only Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, and Wes Welker (4 each).
Looking at each player's best seasons, though, it's not apparent to me that Moore stands out from the best of his contemporaries. Moore's relatively short prime overlaps precisely with an unprecedented statistical boom for receivers, further exaggerating his already impressive accomplishments. Putting numbers in context, how do Moore's best seasons look? Let's use 1994-98. During those five seasons, Moore ranked 11th, 3rd, 3rd, 6th, and 24th in receiving yards. That's an average of 9th or 10th. Those same seasons, he placed 23rd, 1st, 2nd, tied for 1st, and 8th in receptions — an average of 7th. His receiving TDs ranked 4th, 4th, 11th, 11th, and about 40th (actually a bazillion-way tie for 37th). That averages out to about 14th. Seventh, 9th, and 14th. That's obviously good, but it doesn't blow you away.
Sterling Sharpe's five best seasons (1989-90, 92-94) average 4th, 5th, and 5th. Andre Rison's average 5th, 9th, and 3rd. Cris Carter is 3rd, 9th, and 4th, Tim Brown 7th, 5th, and 19th. You know what, let's just do a chart. Average rank in five best seasons:
This is a quick-and-dirty rating method, underemphasizing the most important stat (yards) and unduly skewed by a couple of bad TD years, so I wouldn't want to draw any specific conclusions from it. But I believe it shows that even looking only at his best seasons, Moore is not strongly distinguished — at least not statistically — from other great receivers yet to be enshrined in Canton, most of whom had longer careers and more good seasons. Moore is remembered largely as a good player who was very productive in his system for about three years, and I believe that is a fairly accurate representation of his career.
1989-2000, Indianapolis Colts, Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders
743 receptions, 10,205 yards, 84 TD
A first-team All-Pro in 1990 and a five-time Pro Bowler, Rison had five 1,000-yard seasons and in 1993 tied Jerry Rice for the most receiving TDs in the NFL (15). In his final season, Rison became just the seventh player in history with 700 receptions, 10,000 yards, and 80 touchdowns. NFL players with four consecutive seasons of double-digit receiving TDs: Tommy McDonald, Jerry Rice, Rison, Cris Carter, Randy Moss, and Marvin Harrison.
This is an era in which the phrase "other than Jerry Rice" comes up often. We'll expand on this next week, but how would Rison's career look different without Rice in the landscape? In 1990 and 1991, Rison would have led or tied for the league lead in receiving TDs. He also would have led the NFL in receptions in 1990. He might have been first-team All-Pro in 1992, and likely in '93. That's a much different résumé, particularly on the touchdowns. Rather than three years finishing second and one tied for first, he's got two seasons alone at the top and another tied for the lead. A much different narrative builds around a player who always leads the league in an important stat like that.
Rison played for seven NFL teams. The most by any current Hall of Fame receiver is five (Tommy McDonald). A guy's career looks fragmented when he moves around so often, hard to view as a whole. Irving Fryar and Rison did a lot of the same things as Andre Reed, but the constant team-switching makes it hard, psychologically, to view them that way. During his NFL career, Rison caught touchdown passes from Jack Trudeau (4), Chris Miller (25), Scott Campbell (2), Billy Joe Tolliver (6), Wade Wilson (3), Bobby Hebert (11), Jeff George (9), Vinny Testaverde (1), Eric Zeier (2), Mark Brunell (2), Brett Favre (1), Elvis Grbac (7), and Rich Gannon (11).
Part of the reason Rison moved around so much is that he was viewed as a bit of a headcase. He was a showboat in Atlanta, but you can get away with that when you're performing at a high level. Rison signed a big free agent contract with the Browns, then publicly cursed at the Cleveland fans. He played for four teams in three years, his girlfriend alleged that he was abusive, he went to the Raiders — of course he went to the Raiders — and Rison even played for the Toronto Argonauts after his NFL career ended (winning a Grey Cup in 2004).
Rison was a Pro Bowler for the Chiefs in 1997, and a valuable player for the Packers in the 1996 postseason, so it's not like his talent dried up after he left Atlanta, or that he couldn't succeed without the run and shoot. But that was the widespread impression at the time; Rison's success with Green Bay was a real surprise coming from someone most fans thought was finished as an impact player.
The Hall of Fame argument in Rison's favor is that he has good career stats for his era, and he was a remarkable player in his prime, with five 1,000-yard seasons and four years of double-digit TDs. The counter-argument is that Rison only had six or seven seasons in which he provided real value for his team. He didn't live up to his contract in Cleveland, he got a bad reputation, Left Eye burned his house down, and he played for seven teams, eight if you count the Argos. His career stats are good, especially the TDs, but they aren't impressive when compared to contemporaries with longer careers, like Tim Brown, Cris Carter, Henry Ellard, Irving Fryar, and Andre Reed.
The off-field stuff isn't supposed to factor into HOF voting, but Rison's uneven career and locker room impact are fair game. Whether you like Rison for Canton probably depends partly on how much weight you give to those factors, and whether you're more interested in career accomplishments, or you're focused on the player's prime. From 1990-94, Rison was a truly great player.
1992-2005, Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars
862 receptions, 12,287 yards, 67 TD
You probably don't remember Jimmy Smith on the Cowboys in 1992. He played seven games and never caught a pass. He didn't play at all the next two years. Smith didn't become a full-time starter until 1996, when he was 27, an age when many players begin to decline.
Smith made the most of the years he did play, with nine 1,000-yard receiving seasons and five Pro Bowl appearances. Smith was only the third player with multiple seasons catching 110 or more passes, the first two being Jerry Rice and Cris Carter from 1994-95. He is one of only five receivers with nine or more 1,000-yard seasons (Tim Brown, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Rice), and one of five with six straight 1,100-yard seasons (Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, Moss, Rice). Smith led the NFL in receptions in 1999 (116), then the highest total in history outside the whacked '94-'95 seasons.
Smith was occasionally dogged by drug issues, and his four-game suspension in 2003 probably kept him from becoming the only person besides Rice with 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons. Smith retired when he was still a good player; his final season yielded 70 catches, 1023 yards, and 6 TDs. Smith in 2004 gained the third-most receiving yards ever by a 35-year-old (1,172), and he and Rice are the only players ever to gain over 1,000 yards in a full season after turning 36.
So in Smith you have one of the best old receivers ever, a guy who had a lot of good seasons, including five years over 1,200 yards and two seasons catching more than 110 passes. His detractors would point out that while Smith did have exceptional years, and did play well in several others, he had so few seasons on the field that his overall statistics don't measure up to the best players of his generation. Harrison, Owens, and Isaac Bruce all have far more impressive career stats.
Anything that causes a player's career to be broken up usually dampens the perception of his greatness. Smith was a star from 1996-2005. If that whole period had fallen into a single decade, how differently might he be viewed? Smith had more receptions and yards than anyone but Marvin Harrison, with the 4th-most receiving TDs (Harrison, Owens, Moss). When you think about someone who was maybe the 2nd-best receiver of the decade, certainly no lower than 4th — it's a different perception than right now. There's a comparison to be drawn between Smith from '95-'04 and Big Game Torry Holt in the 2000s, when BGTH led the league in receptions and yards, with about half as many touchdowns as Moss and Owens. Holt still has better numbers, but he played on a wild offense.
It's useful to me, in thinking about these issues, to break them down by era. Below, I've organized HOF receivers by the decade in which they most established their greatness.
1945-54: Tom Fears, Elroy Hirsch, Dante Lavelli, Pete Pihos
1955-64: Raymond Berry, Tommy McDonald, Bobby Mitchell
1960-69: Lance Alworth, Don Maynard
1965-74: Fred Biletnikoff, Bob Hayes, Charley Taylor, Paul Warfield
1975-84: Charlie Joiner, Steve Largent, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann
1980-89: James Lofton, Art Monk
1985-94: Jerry Rice
1990-99: Michael Irvin
Some of those assignments are close calls. Rice, for instance, was the premier receiver of the 1990s, and could easily fit into that block instead. Let's break this down a little more, looking at both the Hall of Famers and the contenders we've examined.
The chart above demonstrates the weakness of Moore's HOF case. He had three tremendous seasons, yes, but so did all the others, and they were effective players for much longer. Carter, in his third-best season, led the NFL in receiving touchdowns. Rison, in his third-best season, was 2nd in the NFL in both receptions and receiving TDs. Brown caught 90 passes for 1,344 yards. Irvin gained almost 1,400 yards and led all receivers in first downs. But those guys had a lot of other really good seasons, too. Moore didn't.
Just looking at career numbers, Fryar and Rison both compare well to Irvin. Obviously, there's more to it than that. Irvin had seven 1,000-yard seasons, two 1,500-yard seasons, five straight over 1,200. He was a team leader on a three-time Super Bowl champion. Fryar never caught 90 passes in a season, was never first-team All-Pro, only caught double-digit TD passes once. But he was an effective player for something like 15 years, and he was an impact performer on special teams. Rison was a great player basically all the same years as Irvin, and if touchdowns are a big deal to you, you could easily regard them as more or less equal. Of course, Rison doesn't nearly equal Irvin in the postseason, but that's a gap of opportunity as much as talent.
In most eras, there are 2-4 wide receivers honored with Hall of Fame recognition. From recent years, when the passing game has reached levels of unprecedented importance, so far there's just Rice and Irvin. But in looking at the early '90s, I don't think Fryar and Rison are as strong as some of the candidates I'll write about next week: Gary Clark, Henry Ellard, Andre Reed, and Sterling Sharpe. Rison was better, at his best, than Fryar, and that matters quite a lot. But Fryar was effective for so much longer, I think he did more to help his teams. To me, they're both great players, but probably not Hall of Famers. The guys who peaked a little later have a stronger case.
I understand why Brown and Carter haven't been enshrined yet. Receiving statistics are exploding, and their numbers don't look as glorious now that guys like Marvin Harrison, Randy Moss, and Terrell Owens have played full careers. Carter, once 2nd all-time in both catches and receiving TDs, is now 4th in both categories. The same thing happened to Brown with receiving yardage. Were we awed by their stats because they were truly great, or largely because of when they played and how the game is changing? Both players also have to fight the perception that they were good for a long time without being true standouts.
I don't buy that, for either one. Ron Wolf, the GM for the Packers in the '90s, told Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman, "When [the Vikings] got in close, it was Carter you had to worry about. When they needed the key first down, who did they go to? Moss? No, it was Carter." You remember the old highlight show line, "Cris Carter, all he does is catch touchdowns." When you talk about a player like Irving Fryar, I think there's some truth to the idea that he had a lot of pretty good seasons without necessarily establishing true greatness. Carter had eight 1,000-yard seasons, six years with double-digit receiving TDs, led the NFL in a major receiving category four times and at one point set the single-season record for receptions. Carter was a standout.
The same is true for Brown. This isn't a guy who caught 60 passes for 800 yards every year for 15 years. He gained 1,300 yards in a season four times, scored 100 touchdowns, caught 80 passes in a season 10 times. He was also one of the best punt returners of his generation, and still holds the rookie record for all-purpose yards. It's true that Harrison, Moss, Owens, and Isaac Bruce have caught Brown and Carter on the all-time lists, and it's true that Brown and Carter played at a time when receiving statistics exploded, to unheard-of levels.
But Harrison, Moss, Owens, Bruce — those are all great players. And if you look at the list of active players, there's really no one else who figures to pass Brown and Carter any time soon. Reggie Wayne is still years away, and it's too early to even make predictions about guys like Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. Besides, we should compare players to their contemporaries, not guys a decade younger. In the '90s, who besides Jerry Rice did what Brown and Carter did?
Jimmy Smith is a harder case. I don't even know whether to group him with the '90s guys or the best of the early 2000s. Chronologically, there's really no one to compare him to. Jimmy Smith was drafted in 1992. No current HOF receiver was drafted later than 1988 (Michael Irvin) and no likely HOF receiver was drafted between '88 (Tim Brown, Sterling Sharpe) and '94 (Isaac Bruce). Between 1988-94, you've got Andre Rison ('89) Herman Moore ('91), Keenan McCardell ('91), and Smith.
But you can't really compare Jimmy Smith to Rison, because Rison was basically finished by the time Smith became a starter. And you can't compare Smith to Isaac Bruce, because Bruce played until 2009. Comparing Smith to Keenan McCardell is just silly, which I guess leaves Herman Moore and maybe Rod Smith.
J.Smith: 862 rec, 12,287 yds, 67 TD
R.Smith: 849 rec, 11,389 yds, 68 TD
Moore: 670 rec, 9,174 yds, 62 TD
See? This doesn't really tell you anything. But you can't compare Smith to the guys who played most of their careers in the 2000s, because Smith was already in his 30s then.
Smith looks terrible on that list. Yeah, he had a bunch of good seasons, a nice prime, but so did all the others. I guess you could argue that Bruce spent a lot of time as the number two guy behind Holt. Then again, Smith didn't play on the kind of pass-oriented offenses most of the others did.
My silly side is insisting that Jimmy Smith should obviously make the Hall of Fame, because ... he's incomparable! But the truth, I think, is that he falls a bit short, maybe as much by bad luck as anything. The way the receiving game is today, I think we're going to see a lot of players string 1,000-yard seasons together, some of them as many as Smith. There will be about half a dozen who have great seasons like Smith in '99, and about half of those will excel even further, push the records set by superstars like Moss and Owens and Harrison. To me, those are the Hall of Famers, and Smith is just barely that next group down. Here's how I rank the best non-HOF receivers of the 1990s:
1. Cris Carter — Eight-time Pro Bowler, set single-season reception record, caught 1,100 passes for 130 TDs.
HOF Qualifications: EXCELLENT. He should be in.
2. Tim Brown — Great punt returner with 1,000 receptions, almost 15,000 yards, and 100 TDs.
HOF Qualifications: EXCELLENT. He should be in.
3. Jimmy Smith — Made five Pro Bowls, gained 1,000 yards in every full season as a starter, caught 110 passes twice.
HOF Qualifications: FAIR. He probably doesn't need to be in.
4. Irving Fryar — Five-time Pro Bowler and standout punt returner who played 17 seasons and scored 88 total TDs.
HOF Qualifications: POOR. He probably shouldn't be in. But he was a heck of a player.
5. Andre Rison — Touchdown machine in the early '90s who revived his career with a 54-yard TD in the Super Bowl and a Pro Bowl with the Chiefs.
HOF Qualifications: POOR. He probably shouldn't be in. But what a force at his best.
6. Herman Moore — Remarkably consistent in the mid-'90s, with three straight seasons of more than 100 receptions.
HOF Qualifications: POOR. He probably shouldn't be in. But again, heck of a player.
Read the other articles in this series:
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1980s
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1970s
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1960s
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1950s