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How can Canton grade today's WRs with old-timers?
In a quiet piece of news this week, the St. Louis Rams “acquired” Isaac Bruce via a trade with the 49ers on Monday. After 16 NFL seasons, Bruce (known around the league as “The Reverend”) retired in Rams blue on Wednesday.
Bruce exits the game as a Super Bowl champion and two-time participant, fifth on the league's all-time career receptions list (1,024), second all-time in receiving yardage (15,208) and ninth in TD catches (91). He holds just about every Rams franchise receiving record, dating back to his rookie season in 1994 when the team still played in California.
Why not? Because he played wide receiver. And when it comes to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, receivers are about as welcomed as BP executives at a World Wildlife Federation luncheon.
Two seasons ago, after a particularly strong individual effort in a Steelers game of great importance, my FOXSports.com colleague Adam Schein referred to receiver Hines Ward as a “sure-fire Hall of Famer” in a column of his. I immediately texted Senor Schein with a stern message of great concern. "Relax with that ‘sure-fire Hall of Famer’ stuff’, dude. Remember, he's a wide receiver."
He hit me back with an equally concerned text message about two minutes later: "Who is this?"
Now, I love Hines Ward as much as the next guy. He’s without question the best blocking wide receiver of his generation, the winner of two Super Bowl rings and a Super Bowl MVP. But a sure-fire Hall of Famer? No, not quite. In fact, he will probably be on the outside looking in.
When it comes to wideouts and Canton, there are simply no “sure-fire” anythings.
It’s completely worthless comparing the Hall of Fame receivers of yesterday to the guys from today’s era. Why? Because it was a different game in the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s. Teams ran the ball first; passed the ball second. There were just 14 games in a regular season; not the 16 there are now. The numbers are like apples and oranges, too. The forgettable Dennis Northcutt currently has 12 more career receptions than Hall of Famer Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. Wes Welker, a six-year NFL veteran, already has 15 more career grabs than Hall of Famer Paul Warfield did during his entire career. Antonio Bryant — yes, that Antonio Bryant — already has one more catch than Hall of Fame Cowboys WR Bob Hayes.
In the next 5-10 years, 12 of the top 18 players on the career reception list will be eligible for the Hall of Fame. They can't all be sporting yellow jackets on a podium in August.
So, which ones will? I've taken a noble (or futile?) stab at figuring it all out.
NO HALL FOR YOU
Recently retired players who are definitely out, but worthy of mention:
NFL All-Time Receptions Leaders (pre-1980)
NFL All-Time Receptions Leaders (1980-present)
Keenan McCardell (Cleveland, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, San Diego, Washington, 1992-2007): 13th all-time on career reception list, two fewer career TDs than Michael Irvin, two-time Pro Bowler, Super Bowl winner (2002), 12th-round draft pick in 1992.
Jimmy Smith (Dallas, Jacksonville, 1992-2005): 15th all-time on career reception list, 36th in receiving TDs, five-time Pro Bowler.
Keyshawn Johnson (New York Jets, Tampa Bay, Dallas, Carolina, 1996-2006): 22nd on career reception list, 28th in career receiving yards, three-time Pro Bowler, Super Bowl champion in 2002, tremendous blocker.
Ricky Proehl (Phoenix/Arizona, Seattle, Chicago, St. Louis, Carolina, Indianapolis, 1990-2006): 37th on career reception list, played in four Super Bowls (won two).
Troy Brown (New England, 1993-2007): 77th all-time on reception list, Pro Bowler in 2001, three Super Bowl rings, heart and soul of Patriots in second half of career, eighth-round draft pick in 1993.
Rod Smith (Denver, 1995-2006): 18th on reception list, 33rd in receiving TDs, 21st in career receiving yards, two-time Super Bowl champion, three-time Pro Bowler.
Joe Horn (Kansas City, New Orleans, Atlanta, 1996-2007): 49th on career reception list, four-time Pro Bowler.
Active players who are definitely out, but worthy of mention:
Muhsin Muhammed (Carolina, Chicago, 1996-current): 16th on all-time career reception list, 20th in receiving yards, two Super Bowl appearances, one-time All Pro, two-time Pro Bowler.
Derrick Mason (Tennessee, Baltimore, 1997-current): 14th on all-time reception list, 23rd all-time on receiving yardage list, one Super Bowl appearance, all-Pro special teams player in 2000, Pro Bowl receiver in 2003.
Joey Galloway (Seattle, Dallas, Tampa Bay, New England, 1995-current): 31st on all-time career reception list, 23rd on career TD list.
Chad Ochocinco (Cincinnati, 2001-2009): 33rd on all-time reception list, six-time Pro Bowler, two-time first-team All-Pro.
Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis, 2001-2009): 34th on career reception list, four-time Pro Bowler, two-time Super Bowl participant.
Active players -- simply too soon to tell:
Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
Andre Johnson, Houston Texans
Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
Brandon Marshall, Denver Broncos/Miami Dolphins
Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers
Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys (yeah, I said it)
IN CANTON CONVERSATION
That all leads us to our final eight candidates. Using recent Hall of Fame induction classes as a barometer, let’s just assume that in the 1995-2015 era, a maximum of five receivers will make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That means that three of the following very worthy eight candidates will be left on the outside looking in. Want to start a bar-room brawl over a good, ol' fashion sports debate? This is just one man’s opinion, but here’s how I see it working out in Canton over the next 5-10 years.
BOOK YOUR TICKETS
Active or recently retired players who are definitely in:
Marvin Harrison (Indianapolis, 1996-2008): Second on all-time reception list to Jerry Rice, fifth on receiving yardage list, fifth on receiving TD list, eight-time Pro Bowler, three-time first-team All-Pro, Super Bowl champion.
In short: Peyton Manning’s go-to guy for 12 tremendously productive seasons.
Cris Carter (Philadelphia, Minnesota, Miami, 1987-2002): Third on all-time reception list, fourth on receiving TD list, eighth on receiving yards list, eight-time Pro Bowler, two-time first-team All-Pro.
In short: Can’t keep him out much longer; his numbers hold up.
Randy Moss (Minnesota, Oakland, New England, 1998-current): Second on all-time receiving TD ist, sixth on all-time receiving yardage list, 10th on receptions list, single-season record for receiving TDs (23 in 2007), Super Bowl participant in 2007, seven-time Pro Bowler, four-time first-team All-Pro.
In short: The down years in Oakland and off-the-field issues may cause some voters a bit of hesitation, but the production and overall dominance is simply too much to deny.
Terrell Owens (San Francisco, Philadelphia, Dallas, Buffalo, 1996-current): Third on all-time receiving yardage list and receiving TDs list, sixth on receptions list, Super Bowl participant in 2004, six-time Pro Bowler, five-time first-team All-Pro.
In short: Forget the drops, the circus act off the field wherever he goes and the forgettable '09 season in Buffalo because T.O.'s a five-time first-team All-Pro with his name sprinkled all over the league’s record books. He’s also a gamer, having played the best game of his career in a Super Bowl on a recently fractured leg. He’s in, I have no doubts about it.
Torry Holt (St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, 1999-current): 11th on receptions list, 10th on receiving yards list, seven-time Pro Bowler, one-time first-team All-Pro, Super Bowl champion in 1999, two-time Super Bowl participant.
In short: Outside of Rice in the late '80s and early '90s, there’s been arguably no more consistent receiver over a eight-year span in NFL history than Holt from 2000-2007. In each of those eight seasons, the Rams receiver caught more than 80 passes and had more than 1,175 receiving yards. He led the league in yardage twice and receptions once, and went to seven Pro Bowls in eight years. With two 50-catch seasons in New England, he’ll find himself above his old teammate Bruce on the all-time reception list. He’s in.
CLOSE, BUT NO CIGAR
So, who’s not going to Canton? Here are three wideouts right on the cusp that I currently have on the outside looking in:
Tim Brown (Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, 1988-2004): fourth on all-time reception list and all-time receiving yards list, sixth on receiving TD list, Super Bowl participant, nine-time Pro Bowler.
Why not: It’s tough to make a case against anyone who’s been to nine Pro Bowls and is fourth all-time in two of the three most important WR statistical categories. But in Brown’s ultra-productive 16-year career, he only surpassed the 100-catch plateau once (1997) and was never a first-team All-Pro. Though he did compile an astounding nine seasons of 80 catches or more, he only had one utterly dominant campaign (1997 with 104 catches, 1,408 receiving yards) and was never considered one of the two or three dominant receivers in the game. His special teams brilliance and longevity may help him with some voters, but I can’t put him in over any of the five names above.
Isaac Bruce (Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers, 1994-2009): Second all-time on receiving yardage list, fifth on receptions list, ninth on all-time receiving TDs list, Super Bowl champion in 1999, two-time Super Bowl participant, four-time Pro Bowler.
Why not: Few NFL receivers have been as good for as long as Isaac Bruce was. Even in 2008, his 15th season at the age of 36, “The Reverand” led the 49ers in receptions with 61 hauls. Though his name is found high on several of the all-time lists, he never was a first-team All-Pro and only went to four Pro Bowls. Bruce only caught more than 100 balls once (1996) and failed to break 80 catches after his 2000 season. A great, beloved NFL player, yes. But I can't say he's a Hall of Famer.
Hines Ward (Pittsburgh Steelers, 1998-current): 12th all-time on career reception list, 24th in career receiving yards, 22nd in receiving TDs, four-time Pro Bowler, two-time Super Bowl champion, Super Bowl XL MVP, widely regarded as best blocking receiver of his era.
Why not: Cue the hate mail from every Steelers fan with an Internet connection and a pulse. If Ward does get in, it won’t be because of the statistics. Though he likely still has a few seasons left, he’s not going to finish with numbers in the same stratosphere as Owens, Moss or Harrison. He also won’t finish with the same individual accolades or honors. Ward’s never been a first-team All-Pro, has only been to four Pro Bowls and has never led the league in any major receiving statistical category.
That said, he’s only missed six games in 12 years, has caught over 80 balls six times, and has blocked like arguably no man has blocked from his position before. Two Super Bowl rings don't hurt, either. I just can’t put Ward in over Holt. Of course, I may very well be in the minority. And if I'm anywhere near Pittsburgh, I've already been thrown out of the bar for even weighing in on it.
What do you think?
I’d love to know.
After all, when it comes to wide receivers and Canton, your guess is as good as mine.
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