Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Best Wide Receivers Not in the HOF: 1970s
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 Andre Reed and Cliff Branch. 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, in alphabetical order. We continue this week with WRs of the 1970s. If you're here for another era, check out our previous 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: 1980s (Chandler, Clark, Ellard, Morgan, Reed, Sharpe)
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)
1972-85, Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders
501 receptions, 8,685 yards, 67 TD
Branch made four Pro Bowls, was four times first-team All-Pro, and played on three Super Bowl winners. He led the NFL in receiving touchdowns twice, and in receiving yards in 1974. From 1974-76, he was the dominant force at his position. During that three-year stretch, Branch caught 157 passes for 3,096 yards and 34 TDs. His three-year yardage and TD totals are the highest for any receiver in the 1970s, including the later years with a 16-game schedule. When you think about his numbers in the context of 14-game seasons and the defense-dominated '70s, they're nothing short of remarkable.
But Branch was only an exceptional player for those three seasons. He remained a good player for years afterwards, but there are lots of good receivers. His career-highs after '76 were 59 receptions (1980), and 858 yards and 7 TDs (both '81). Those are 16-game seasons, after the Mel Blount Rule and the changes that opened up pass blocking. That's when Steve Largent and James Lofton and the Air Coryell teams in San Diego were shattering receiving records. Branch actually led the Raiders in receiving only three times in his final nine seasons.
The 1970s Raiders have eight players in the Hall of Fame. Raider fans want Branch and Ken Stabler and Ray Guy and maybe a couple others in, as well. Those teams were consistently good, but they played in two Super Bowls. Can a team with a dozen HOFers really end up with just two championships? I know, they won in '83, but that's a different team: Marcus Allen, Howie Long, Mike Haynes ... the '70s Raiders already have an awful lot of Hall of Famers for a team that only won its own conference twice. If you really want to include '83, the Cliff Branch-Era Raiders, who won three Super Bowls, have twice as many HOFers as the 1980s 49ers, who won four. Branch is not a member of any NFL All-Decade team, receiving only one vote for the All-70s Team.
1971-84, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys
590 receptions, 8,985 yards, 79 TD
Carmichael begins this exercise in a hole, as the only player on the list who ranked among the top 10 in receiving yardage fewer than three times. How does a guy who didn't stand out in his own era deserve Hall of Fame recognition? For one thing, Carmichael ranked among the top 10 in receiving TDs eight times, and as a possession receiver, his yardage totals don't fully reflect his value. He was voted to the 1970s All-Decade Team as a backup and was second-team All-Pro twice.
During the 1970s, Carmichael ranked 2nd in receptions, tied for 2nd in receiving TDs, and 4th in receiving yardage. He also had several very good seasons in the '80s, making the Pro Bowl in 1980 and going over 1,000 yards in '81. In 1979, Carmichael broke the NFL record for consecutive games with a reception, eventually stretching the mark to 127 before it was broken by Steve Largent in 1986.
I have a strange theory: the 1982 strike kept Carmichael out of Canton. Look at the man's career stats. He fell just short of 600 receptions, 9,000 yards, and 80 touchdowns. Projecting his '82 season to 16 games, Carmichael reaches 618 catches, 9,405 yards, and 81 TDs. Reaching those round numbers makes his stats look a lot different. A seventh-round draft pick remarkable for his height (6'8"), Carmichael led the Eagles in receiving yardage seven times and played in four Pro Bowls. He led the league in both receptions and receiving yards in 1973.
1968-83, Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots, Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks
579 receptions, 10,372 yards, 76 TD
During the 1970s, Jackson led all players in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving TDs. Jerry Rice in the '90s and Jackson in the '70s are the only Modern Era players to lead any decade in every major receiving category. Beyond the overall numbers, he led the league at various times in all of those categories, actually led in yardage twice (1969 and 1972). Jackson made five Pro Bowls and was remarkably steady, with over 500 receiving yards for 13 consecutive seasons, breaking Raymond Berry's record of 11. Jackson's record wasn't tied until Tim Brown in 2003, and finally broken by Terrell Owens and Tony Gonzalez almost 30 years later.
In 1968, the Eagles finished 14th in the 16-team NFL in passing yardage, and 15th in scoring, with just 14.4 points per game. In 1969, Jackson's first year with the team, they ranked 7th in passing yards and tied for 8th in scoring, jumping to 19.9 ppg. Jackson led the team in touchdowns (9) and led the NFL in receiving yardage. When Philadelphia traded Jackson to Los Angeles in 1973, the 6-7-1 Rams improved to 12-2. Jackson led the league in receiving touchdowns and was a consensus All-Pro.
In the '70s, Jackson gained 7,724 receiving yards, far ahead of 2nd-place Ken Burrough (6,343), and even farther ahead of celebrated players like Harold Carmichael (6,080), Drew Pearson (5,713), Cliff Branch (5,520), and Lynn Swann (3,982). Yet Jackson wasn't chosen to the All-70s Team, and he has never been a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I suspect it is here that Jackson's consistency has worked against him. Like Cris Carter and Tim Brown, Jackson was seen more as steady than exceptional. He's also a victim of timing. Shortly before Jackson retired, the NFL moved to a 16-game schedule and made several rules changes to substantially open up the passing game. Jackson's accomplishments — he retired with the most receptions and receiving yards of anyone who played his whole career in the NFL — were quickly overshadowed by Steve Largent, James Lofton, and Air Coryell.
1973-83, Dallas Cowboys
489 receptions, 7,822 yards, 48 TD
Many fans identify the HOF plights of Cliff Branch and Pearson together. Great receivers of the mid-late '70s, played on terrific teams, had a few brilliant seasons but didn't keep it up, mentioned often as Hall of Fame snubs but never enshrined. For what it's worth, neither has ever reached the Finalist stage of voting. Going by career numbers, Branch has a far stronger case: 501 receptions, 8,685 yards, 67 TD. He's ahead in every major category, way ahead in touchdowns.
When the 1970s All-Decade Team was chosen, however, Pearson was a first-team selection and Branch was left off entirely. Their stats in the decade are comparable, but Pearson found the postseason glory that eluded Branch until the 1980s, and teammates called him Mr. Clutch. That shifted with the end of the decade. Branch emerged from Fred Biletnikoff's shadow and starred in two Super Bowl wins, while the Cowboys' dynasty began to decline and Pearson was surpassed by Cowboy teammate Tony Hill. Branch's stat line in the '80s dwarfs Pearson's, by over 1,000 yards — 50% more yardage.
A statistical oddity about Drew Pearson: in his two best seasons, he scored a combined total of four touchdowns. In 1974, Pearson set career-highs — in a 14-game season, no less — for receptions and receiving yards. In 1977, he led the NFL in receiving yardage and was a consensus All-Pro. Both years, he caught just two TDs. In his 11-year career, Pearson led the Cowboys in receiving TDs only twice (1975-76).
Pearson made three Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams, and from 1974-79, he was consistently among the top receivers in the NFL. 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. Swann, for instance, is generally thought of as a '70s guy. But since he caught only 11 passes as a rookie in 1974 and was a non-factor in Super Bowl IX, he fits better in the 1975-84 group. Let's break this down a little more, looking at both the Hall of Famers and the contenders we've examined.
There really aren't any Hall of Famers whose careers match up chronologically with Harold Jackson's. Joiner's best seasons came in the early '80s and the others all reached stardom in the '60s, whereas Jackson's career is truly centered in the '70s. Effectively, Jackson stands alone atop his era, leading all players in the '70s in every major receiving category — receptions, yards, and TDs.
Those of us who care about the Hall of Fame sometimes write derisively about "compilers" — that is, a compiler of stats, who has impressive career numbers without ever really being a great player. This doesn't apply to Jackson. He made five Pro Bowls and led the NFL in a major receiving category four times — more than Biletnikoff, Joiner, Irvin, Lavelli, Lofton, Monk, Stallworth, and Swann combined. Both the Eagles and Rams improved dramatically when they acquired Jackson. Look at that empty 1970s slot in the list of Hall of Fame receivers. Here's someone who would fit there perfectly.
If there's another receiver of this era who's worthy of HOF consideration, I suppose it might be John Gilliam, or Gene Washington of the 49ers, maybe Ken Burrough — or Carmichael, if you count him here instead of 1975-84. Stats again:
The interesting thing about this list is that many of these players need to be evaluated with serious consideration of their postseason accomplishments. Swann and Stallworth were legendary postseason performers. Pearson caught the pass that gave the play now known as a "Hail Mary" its name. Branch played very well in Super Bowls XV and XVIII and won three rings.
I would point out, though, that if we're trying to decide which potential HOF snub is most worthy of induction, we're arguing about who is the 5th-best receiver of the late '70s and early '80s. The late '80s and early '90s, meanwhile, have no one but Jerry Rice in the Hall of Fame. Were Branch and Carmichael and Pearson really more outstanding than Henry Ellard and Andre Reed and Sterling Sharpe? A wide receiver who was the 5th- or 6th-best of his generation is a player I'm okay leaving out of Canton. If a guy was the best receiver besides Jerry Rice, that's the sort of player I feel is a legitimate snub.
Branch, Carmichael, and Pearson were all very good receivers, and all had great seasons and unbelievable moments. But those are glimpses of greatness. They all had about three really good years, plus some others when they were above average. To me, no one from that group left a Hall of Fame legacy. Here's how I rank the best non-HOF receivers of the '70s:
1. Harold Jackson — Five-time Pro Bowler, first player to amass 10,000 receiving yards in the NFL.
HOF Qualifications: GOOD. He should probably be in.
2. Harold Carmichael — Four-time Pro Bowler whose size made him a unique threat to defenses.
HOF Qualifications: FAIR. He probably doesn't need to be in.
3. Cliff Branch — Four-time All-Pro and three-time Super Bowl champion who was exceptional in his prime.
HOF Qualifications: FAIR. He probably doesn't need to be in.
4. Drew Pearson — Had five standout seasons and played in seven NFC Championship Games.
HOF Qualifications: POOR. He probably shouldn't be in. But he was a 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: 1980s
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1960s
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1950s