Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Best Wide Receivers Not in the HOF: 1980s
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 Tim Brown and Sterling Sharpe. Players at the other stat positions — quarterbacks and running backs — are elected to the pro football HOF 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, in alphabetical order. We continue this week with receivers of the 1980s and early 1990s. If you're here for another era, check out our other articles in this series:
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1990s (Brown, Carter, Fryar, Moore, Rison, Smith)
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1970s (Branch, Carmichael, Jackson, Pearson)
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1960s (Hennigan, Powell, Shofner, Otis Taylor)
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1950s (Hill, Howton, Speedie, Hugh Taylor, Wilson)
1978-88, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers
559 receptions, 8,966 yards, 56 TD
Wes Chandler is not often discussed as a Hall of Fame candidate. He did not have a long career, his best season was shortened by the 1982 strike, and his numbers are frequently dismissed as a by-product of the Air Coryell offense. In his prime, though, Chandler's stats are staggering. He merits HOF consideration based on quality, not quantity.
People forget that Chandler was a 1,000-yard receiver with the Saints, their only one between 1970 and 1987. He broke 1,000 again in 1981, his first year with San Diego, and then came 1982. In a nine-game season, Chandler finished with 49 receptions for 1,032 yards and 9 TDs. Projected to 16 games, he was on pace for 87 catches, 1,835 yards, and 16 touchdowns. That would be the second-best yardage mark in history, trailing only Jerry Rice (1,848) in 1995 — but '95 was the greatest season in NFL history for receivers, and Rice didn't lead the league in receptions or touchdowns. Twenty-three receivers had 1,000 yards that season, and Rice led second-place Isaac Bruce by only 67 yards. In 1982, Chandler led the league by over 200 yards. He averaged 129 receiving yards per game; only two other players even averaged 80, and one of them, Chandler's teammate Kellen Winslow, was at 80.1. I hate to say this about a strike year, but it's probably the most remarkable season by any receiver in the 1980s, including Rice.
Chandler was a good player for several years afterward, though of course he never performed at the same level again. He made two more Pro Bowls, for a total of four, but '82 was his only All-Pro year. He suffers most by comparison with his teammates, especially Winslow. All the Charger receivers put up big numbers in the early '80s, and Chandler's dominance faded with the team's offense.
1985-95, Washington Redskins, Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins
699 receptions, 10,856 yards, 65 TD
There's a particular breed of stats guys who love Gary Clark, while most fans remember him as a guy who had a few good years playing across from Art Monk. Let's start with the stats. Clark led Washington in receiving yardage six times, including the 1987 and 1991 Super Bowl seasons, and was the leading receiver in Super Bowl XXVI, with 7 catches for 114 yards and a score. He made four Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams, including a first-team selection in '87.
Clark played well for the USFL's Jacksonville Bulls in 1984, and made an immediate impact in Washington when the rival league folded. Clark was the first player in NFL history to catch at least 50 passes in each of his first 10 NFL seasons, and as of 2012 is still one of only three to accomplish the feat (Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt). For years, Monk was passed over in HOF voting partially because Giants players told the New York sportswriters that they were afraid of Clark, not Monk. Their lack of respect for Monk may explain why he caught 900 passes, but Clark was the deep threat and the touchdown guy — the one who would really make you look bad. Monk kept the chains moving, and that helps the team, but Clark could burn you deep and embarrass you. Undersized at 5'9" and 175 lbs., Clark nonetheless was also a relentless downfield blocker.
I've always thought it's a little unfair that we tend to judge players by what they did in a given decade. Clark's career split basically down the middle between the '80s and '90s, so that looking at either decade individually, he's not really a standout. Some of the other players in this study, like Henry Ellard and Andre Reed, have the same problem. But if you look at the 10 seasons from 1985-94, Clark probably has the best numbers this side of Jerry Rice:
Clark isn't usually regarded as a serious HOF candidate, because he only played for 11 seasons and doesn't have the big career numbers. Ellard and Reed played 16 seasons each, Irving Fryar 17. Obviously we shouldn't ignore that, but when they were in their athletic primes, Clark was perhaps the one who stood out most. Playing with a host of mostly mediocre quarterbacks (Jay Schroeder, Doug Williams, Mark Rypien, Steve Beuerlein), Clark posted five 1,000-yard seasons and is distinguished by truly great years in 1987 — when he didn't post huge stats because of the strike, but gained over 1,000 yards in just 12 games — and 1991, when he had more yards than Rice and more touchdowns than Michael Irvin.
Fifteen of the 21 wide receivers already in Canton played with a Hall of Fame quarterback. Clark had a cup of coffee with Dan Marino in 1995, but played almost his whole career with average QBs. The knocks on Clark are his short career, and the spotlight shared with Art Monk and Ricky Sanders. Was Clark truly a great player, or was he just on a good team, in the right system, with defenses concentrating on the Hall of Famer on the other side of the formation? Is it more fair to reward a player for sustained production when he was past his prime, or to judge receivers mostly based on how good they were at their best?
1983-98, Los Angeles Rams, Washington Redskins, New England Patriots
814 receptions, 13,777 yards, 65 TD
When he retired, I figured Ellard was a cinch for Canton. He was third all-time in receiving yards, tied with Lance Alworth and Michael Irvin for third all-time in 1,000-yard seasons (7). He had three seasons of over 1,300 yards, plus he was a superb punt returner: 11.3 average, 4 TDs, made the Pro Bowl as a returner in 1984. But receiving statistics have exploded since then, Andre Reed has emerged as the more celebrated receiver of the era, and Ellard has received very little support from the Hall of Fame voters, never even reaching the semi-finalist stage, the group of 25.
The case against Ellard, I suppose, is similar to that against Tim Brown: he was very good rather than extraordinary. Ellard made only three Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams, one of them as a returner. However, Ellard was not chosen to the Pro Bowl in 1990, when he was second not just in the NFC, but in the NFL, in receiving yards (1,294). The same thing happened in 1994, when Ellard's 1,397 yards ranked 2nd in the league, and he was passed over. Personally, I believe reaching 1,000 yards with Heath Shuler as your quarterback deserves a statue in your honor, to say nothing of almost 1,400, but evidently the voters weren't impressed.
Ellard may be tough to evaluate partly because he was sort of a unique receiver: a deep threat who caught a ton of passes. There are 24 players with at least 800 career receptions. Among those 24, Ellard has the highest average yards per reception — by almost a full yard. He's 0.95 ahead of Steve Largent, 1.35 ahead of Randy Moss, 1.90 in front of Irving Fryar, and better than two yards ahead of anyone else. James Lofton, who caught 764 passes and had an even higher average than Ellard, is really the only comparable player.
Altogether, Ellard was top-five in the NFL in receiving yards four times. Other players with four top-5 seasons since the merger: Jerry Rice (11), Randy Moss (7), James Lofton and Jimmy Smith (5 each), Tim Brown, Isaac Bruce, Gary Clark, Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, Michael Irvin, Steve Largent, Sterling Sharpe, Reggie Wayne. Most of that list is Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers, the exceptions mainly players with relatively brief careers. Ellard didn't have a brief career — he played 16 seasons. He actually ranks 9th all-time in games played by a wide receiver. At various times he led the NFL in receiving yards (1988), yards per reception (1996), punt return average (1983), and punt return TDs (1983 and 1984).
1977-90, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts
557 receptions, 10,716 yards, 72 TD
Morgan was the seventh player to reach 10,000 career receiving yards. That milestone has now been met 36 times (most recently by Steve Smith and Donald Driver), but it used to be a pretty big deal. Seldom among the league leaders in receptions, Morgan was a speed demon who three times led the NFL in yards per reception. He is the only player in history with at least 500 receptions to average more than 19 yards per catch, and this distinction will probably stand forever. Morgan was chosen to four Pro Bowls and two second-team All-Pro berths. His 38 career 100-yard receiving games were the 4th-most in history through 1987, trailing only Don Maynard, Lance Alworth, and Steve Largent.
Morgan, whose rookie year was 1977, played in essentially the same era as Largent, James Lofton, Wes Chandler, Roy Green, Drew Hill, and perhaps Art Monk (1980) or John Stallworth (1974). Morgan's statistics fit basically in the middle of the group:
What Morgan does not have, that most of the others do, are big seasons. He gained the 2nd-most receiving yardage in the NFL in 1986, apart from that never ranked higher than 9th. All the others have multiple seasons in the top five. Judged by his career numbers, Morgan has a borderline Hall of Fame case. Judged by how good he was at his best, and the length of his prime, his case is considerably weaker. He could dazzle you at any moment, but wasn't nearly as consistent as most of his peers. Do you prefer a player who is occasionally spectacular, or dependably productive?
1985-2000, Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins
951 receptions, 13,198 yards, 87 TD
How many great receivers have ended their careers in Washington? Several outstanding receivers spent most or all of their careers with Washington, but there's also Irving Fryar and Ellard and Reed, plus Keenan McCardell and Joey Galloway. It's like Florida for wide receivers.
You can sum up Andre Reed's career with two stats: he made seven Pro Bowls and was never first-team All-Pro. This is a player who was always good but seldom great. He never led the league in any statistic, and in his best season ranked 5th in the NFL in receiving yardage. Reed ranks 2nd in Super Bowl history in receptions (27) and third in receiving yards (323), but never won a championship.
This theme — always a bridesmaid, never a bride — to me doesn't fit a Hall of Famer. Reed was a very good player for a very long time, but isn't a Hall of Famer exceptional? In 1999, Reed passed Art Monk for the 2nd-most receptions in NFL history. But Reed himself was passed the very next year (by Cris Carter), then by Tim Brown, and now he's 10th, probably 12th soon. Derrick Mason only needs eight more catches to tie him, and Reggie Wayne (862) could pass them both in 2012.
Reed had four 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and he might have had five if not for the 1987 strike (he gained 752 yards in 12 games). But he was just the 25th player with four 1,000-yard seasons, and many of his contemporaries had as many or more. Brian Blades had four 1,000-yard seasons. Mark Clayton and Anthony Miller had five each. Henry Ellard reached 1,000 seven times. Today, Reed is one of 61 players with at least four 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Even his seven Pro Bowls are as much a reflection of the AFC's weakness as anything. Who was he beating out? Haywood Jeffires, Anthony Miller, and Al Toon? The competition (Clark, Ellard, Irvin, Rice, Rison, Sharpe) was all in the NFC.
Let's be honest about the quality of competition in the AFC. The AFC won three Super Bowls during Reed's 16-year career, and in his best season of those, Reed ranked 26th in the NFL in receiving yardage, even lower in receptions and TDs. While his peers in the NFC were going up against tough defenses, Reed feasted on the weak AFC East. During Buffalo's Super Bowl seasons, the Colts, Jets, and Patriots went a combined 61-131 (.318). The Dolphins were pretty good, but mostly because of Dan Marino, not a strong defense. We don't treat NCAA statistics from the SEC and the WAC equally, and from 1985-96, we shouldn't treat the NFC and AFC equally, either.
Reed's Bills were four times the best team in the AFC. Where would they have ranked in the NFC, competing with the 49ers, Dallas, Washington, the Phil Simms Giants, the Brett Favre Packers, the Mike Ditka Bears? Buffalo's dominance was at least partly an illusion created by lack of competition. To some extent, that has to color our assessment of Andre Reed, too. He was beating up on WAC defenders, and we're comparing him to guys who played in the SEC. It's not the same thing.
Even out of context, Reed's stats are more consistent than outstanding. Average receiving yardage in ___ best seasons:
* Sharpe only played seven seasons.
** Clark and Clayton played 11 seasons each.
Looking at each player's peak, Reed is wholly unremarkable. The more seasons you include, the more Reed's consistency elevates him. How you feel about Reed's Hall of Fame qualifications probably depends on whether you care more about how good a player was at his best, or how long he remained effective. Are you more interested in a player's 12th-, 13th-, and 14th-best seasons, or how outstanding he was in his prime and how many years he was among the very best?
Obviously, Reed was a great player. He did have some superb seasons, and he made a lot of terrific plays. I wouldn't want anyone to think I'm trying to imply otherwise, or insult one of the finest receivers of his generation. Reed was even a good runner, gained more rushing yards (500) than any career WR except Rice. But it seems to me that Reed's long career and his visibility on a high-powered offense that appeared in four Super Bowls have led him to receive more Hall of Fame support than other, equally worthy players.
The 1990s Bills already have more Hall of Famers (5) than any of the teams that beat them in the Super Bowl. Buffalo obviously had a lot of talent in those years, but did it really have more Hall of Fame-caliber personnel than the Giants (2), Washington (4), and Dallas (3)? How would you feel about Reed getting elected and the Bills having twice as many HOFers as the Cowboy teams that embarrassed them in two Super Bowls?
1988-94, Green Bay Packers
595 receptions, 8,134 yards, 65 TD
Sharpe never missed a game in his seven-year career, but a serious neck injury in 1994 forced him to end a career that almost certainly would have led to Canton. In just seven seasons, Sharpe led the NFL in receptions three times, in receiving TDs twice, and in receiving yardage once. He twice set the record for most receptions in a season, 108 in 1993 and 112 the next year. In his final season, Sharpe caught 94 passes for 1,119 yards and 18 touchdowns. He retired at age 29.
Andre Reed and Sharpe basically have the opposite problem getting into the Hall of Fame. Reed wasn't as exceptional in his prime, but he played at a high level for a very long time, whereas Sharpe was a superstar in a very short career. For three or four years, Sharpe was one of the best wide receivers we'd ever seen. He made five Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro three times. Despite his much shorter career, Sharpe had more 1,000-yard receiving seasons (5) than Reed (4), more years with double-digit TDs (4-1), more times leading the league in a major statistic (6-0), more 100-catch seasons (2-0), more 90-catch seasons (4-1), more of almost everything that shows an extremely high level of play.
But when you look at the many great receivers of this era, how do you take someone who only played seven seasons ahead of those who played 11, 12, 16, 17 seasons? Tim Brown and Michael Irvin began their careers the same year as Sharpe. In his 8th-best season, Brown gained 1,104 yards, Irvin 962. Cris Carter had 1,011, Henry Ellard 945, Gary Clark 892, Reed 880 — those players provided value to their teams years after the hardest part of Sharpe's job was finding a tie to match his suit.
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. Monk, for instance, played until 1995 and was one of the best receivers of the decade from 1985-94. Rice 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.
Morgan is hard to compare to the other players on this list, because he was such a different type of receiver, different than Monk in particular. Morgan was a down-the-field terror who averaged 19.2 yards per reception and gained at least 100 receiving yards in a game 38 times, the only player in history to average more than 19 yards per catch on at least 500 receptions. Monk was a big, strong receiver who would go over the middle, the premier possession receiver of his generation and one of the finest blockers ever at his position. Lofton was similar to Morgan, but clearly out of his league. Not very many players look good compared to James Lofton.
Chandler is a player you evaluate by his prime more than by his career numbers, who only had 10 seasons with any kind of production but was truly outstanding at his peak. It's certainly appropriate to put Chandler's career in the context of the crazy stats posted by all the Air Coryell receivers, but three of Chandler's five best seasons were spent at least partially with the Saints, and his performance in 1982 can't be explained just by a pass-oriented offense and a Hall of Fame quarterback.
In my mind, Hall of Fame receivers are standouts, the very best of their generation. Morgan and Chandler were terrific players, but sharing the spotlight with contemporaries like Largent, Lofton, and Monk, I'm just not sure they meet that standard. Stats again, looking at the next generation of great WRs:
If all you care about is career stats, you'd probably rank this group: Rice, Reed, Ellard, Clark, Sharpe. If you ranked them by peak performance, you might go: Rice, Sharpe, Clark, Ellard, Reed. Opposite order, other than Rice. Do you prefer sustained productivity or a brilliant prime? Let's look at things another way...
If Jerry Rice Didn't Exist
Jerry Rice, like Don Hutson 50 years before, was so exceptional that he completely skews our idea of what mere humans can accomplish. How might we view these players differently if Rice had never laced 'em up? Without assuming anything drastic, like the 49ers drafting Reed, or Sharpe staying healthy...
Gary Clark would have led all participants in the players' strike in receiving yards. J.T. Smith, who faced replacement players for three weeks while the rest of the league was on strike, still outgained Clark by 51 yards.
Sterling Sharpe would have led the league in every major receiving category. He led in receptions anyway, but finished 2nd to Rice in yards and TDs. Andre Reed probably would have been First-Team All-Pro, and Henry Ellard might have been Second-Team. Clark probably would have made the Pro Bowl.
Ellard would have led the NFL in receiving yards. Clark, Ellard, Reed, or Sharpe probably would have been First-Team All-Pro, and one of the others Second-Team All-Pro. Ellard probably would have made the Pro Bowl. Ellard would have become the first player since Lance Alworth to go over 4,000 receiving yards in a three-year period, and the only one ever to gain 1,250 yards in three consecutive seasons. He actually did this anyway, but his accomplishment was simultaneous with Rice, who did the same thing over the same three years.
Clark might have made the Pro Bowl.
Ellard would have led the NFL in receiving yards. Sharpe would have tied the single-season record for receiving touchdowns. Ellard, Reed, or Sharpe probably would have been Second-Team All-Pro, and Ellard probably would have made the Pro Bowl.
Ellard would have become 2nd all-time in receiving yards, behind only James Lofton.
Andre Reed would have become the NFL's all-time receptions leader.
I believe the players this most radically changes our views of are Ellard and Sharpe. Clark would have been a lot more prominent among the league leaders, probably would have made another Pro Bowl or two, and might have gotten the attention for his best seasons that instead was showered on Rice. Reed would have briefly held the all-time receptions record, and probably gotten at some point the All-Pro recognition that otherwise eluded him. But I imagine Ellard and Sharpe in particular would have been viewed much differently in Rice's absence.
Ellard would be, along with Raymond Berry, the only Modern Era players ever to lead the NFL in receiving yards three times. Heck, add Don Hutson in the early 20th century and Lance Alworth leading the AFL three times — that doesn't diminish anything. Alworth, Berry, Hutson, and Ellard. That's maybe the three best (non-Rice) receivers in history, and Ellard. He likely would have made several more Pro Bowls, and his climb up the record boards would have gotten more attention.
As much as anything, the difference between Ellard in his best seasons and the rest of the league becomes a lot more apparent when Rice isn't there to look just as good. Now in 1988, Ellard gains 1,414 yards and second place is Eddie Brown at 1,273. Ellard's all by himself. Two years later, Ellard leads the league with 1,294, way ahead of runner-up Andre Rison (1,208). That 1,294, leading the league by almost 100 yards, is perceived totally differently than when Rice gains 1,502 and Ellard is a distant second. You don't have to change anything Ellard does, but remove Rice from the picture and he emerges as a truly exceptional player.
This is equally true for Sharpe. With no Jerry Rice, who do fans think of as the greatest receiver in the NFL? Probably Sharpe. In 1989, he leads the league in every major receiving category. In 1992, he does again, the only player since Hutson to do so more than once. That same year, he breaks the single-season receptions record. In '93, he breaks his own record, extending the mark to 112. In his final season, he becomes the first player in history with three 90-reception seasons and ties the single-season record for receiving TDs. Sounds almost like Rice, doesn't it?
Without Jerry Rice, Sterling Sharpe probably takes over a similar reputation, the guy who's just on another level. Michael Irvin and Sharpe came into the league the same year, 1988. When Sharpe retired, he led Irvin in receptions (by 179), yards (1,199), and TDs (16), all by a huge margin. He simply was the most dominant receiver of his era ... except that Jerry Rice did exist, and no one else looks quite as good by comparison, even when you think you're adjusting your expectations. Here's how I rank the best non-HOF receivers of the '80s and early '90s, and this was not easy:
1. Henry Ellard — Seven 1,000-yard seasons, three times first or second in NFL in receiving yardage, excellent punt returner.
HOF Qualifications: GOOD. He should probably be in.
2. Sterling Sharpe — Forced to retire in his 20s, but led the NFL in a major statistic six times and broke the single-season reception record.
HOF Qualifications: FAIR. He probably doesn't need to be in.
3. Andre Reed — Four Super Bowl appearances, seven Pro Bowls, fourteen 500-yard seasons.
HOF Qualifications: FAIR. He probably doesn't need to be in.
4. Gary Clark — Two-time Super Bowl champion, five 1,000-yard seasons, playmaker who created opportunities underneath for Art Monk.
HOF Qualifications: FAIR. He probably doesn't need to be in.
I changed the order for Clark, Reed, and Sharpe several times, using almost every combination. They're very, very close, and in my mind they're all borderline candidates.
5. Stanley Morgan — Unique deep threat who only had one really outstanding season but was a threat to score on every play.
HOF Qualifications: POOR. He probably shouldn't be in. But he was a heck of a player.
6. Wes Chandler — Great receiver with two teams, historic season in 1982 was cut short by strike.
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: 1990s
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