I have made no secret of my lukewarm feelings toward the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 2017 class. It enshrines a number of worthy players, but leaves several more decorated contenders on the outside looking in for another year.
That said, the enshrinement of one of those players – Terrell Davis – should be the best thing that ever happened to the case for one of the most dominant, but way too forgotten, dominant wide receivers of the late 1980s and early 1990s: one Sterling Sharpe.
I’ve seen his name come up a couple times in the comments section of our Hall posts. And I think it’s rightfully so. Here’s why:
A few years ago, we did a post looking at the then-stalled candidacies of Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Andre Reed. All three appeared deserving of consideration for the Hall, but their resumes seemed to be canceling each other out.
Now, they all eventually got in. And each of them warranted enshrinement. But in studying that post again and comparing each of their respective cases to the numbers posted by Sharpe during his injury-shortened seven years, I think if Sharpe had stayed healthy, he’d have been the best of the group.
First off, the arc of his career started earlier than that of the Brown-Carter-Reed trio. It took Cris Carter until his seventh season in the league under Vikings coach Dennis Green to make the Pro Bowl. His first two seasons did not add up to Sharpe’s first.
Reed made the Pro Bowl for the first time after his fourth season in 1988, the first of seven in a row.
Brown did make the Pro Bowl in his first season, but that was primarily on the strength of his 1,098 kickoff return yards, not the 43 catches, 725 yards and five TDs he produced. Sharpe caught 55 passes as a rookie in 1988 and made the Pro Bowl in his second season after posting a 90-1,423-12 stat line.
Second, despite playing just seven years, he retired as the second-leading Packers receiver in team history. Think about that – this is an original franchise. And in nearly 100 seasons, only one Packers receiver – James Lofton – had more receiving yards than Sharpe. Even in the 23 years since, as the NFL has turned into a pass-heavy league and Green Bay has had stars Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, only Donald Driver has eclipsed Sharpe’s yardage stats.
And it took Driver 12 seasons, 205 games and 1,234 targets to hit 10,137 yards, compared with the seven seasons, 112 games and 510 targets Sharpe had to get 8,134. Driver was a fine player, but forced to choose, I’d take a healthy Sharpe 100 times out of 100.
Finally, unlike Davis – or the previous poster child for short-but-Hall-deserving career numbers – Gale Sayers, Sharpe’s career was not on the downswing when he was forced from the game. His best three seasons statistically were his last three, when he put up a combined 314 catches, 3,854 yards and 42 TDs.
Davis, after compiling 1,106 carries, 103 catches and 53 scores during his 1996-1998 period of dominance, finished his career with three seasons in which he accumulated a total of 312 carries and 17 catches (he may be the modern-day poster child for RB-by-committee). Sayers’ final two campaigns consisted of four games played, 36 carries and a single catch that netted him -6 yards.
This isn’t a knock on Davis or Sayers. I definitely think Sayers belongs in Canton – he had five first-team AP All Pro awards in his first five seasons with the Bears before injuries derailed his career and he went to four Pro Bowls too. And while Davis’ period of dominance was shorter, he did carry a team to the Super Bowl twice during his run.
But Sharpe’s shortened career and his period of dominance were both longer than those of Sayers or Davis. He put up five Pro Bowls and three first-team AP All Pro awards in seven seasons. That three AP awards is more than Carter, Reed and Brown achieved COMBINED! And I would argue that he could, or even should, have gotten a fourth, with his 94-catch, 18-touchdown season in 1994. That 18 TD season was, at the time, second all-time, behind just Jerry Rice’s 22 TDs in 1987.
But the AP folks that season picked Jerry Rice (112-1,499-13) and Cris Carter (122-1,256-7) for the first team and Terance Mathis (111-1,342-11) and Irving Fryar (73-1,270-7) for the second team. So, it goes.
Nonetheless, pro-rate the numbers for Sharpe’s final three seasons out another four or five years – which still would mean Sharpe played significantly fewer years than did Brown, Reed and Carter – and Sharpe’s numbers would quickly close in on and eclipse those put up by that trio.
How did Sharpe compare with the best of all time, Jerry Rice? Compare the first seven years of Rice’s career with Sharpe’s seven seasons and the Packer great actually wins in total catches (595-526). Rice wins in yards (9,072-8,134) and TDs (93-65).
Compare them during the same seven years in which Sharpe played, and Rice wins (620-9,700-91 to 595-8,134-65), but one has to keep in mind that A) Rice was in his prime at that point and B) Rice was catching passes from Joe Montana and Steve Young during that time. Sharpe played with early gunslinging Brett Favre and the Majik Man, Don Majkowski. Both were solid at points, but Majkowski’s career arc was a quick one and Favre was just starting to really improve as Sharpe’s career ended.
Playoffs? Sharpe didn’t get a lot of opportunity in the postseason. The Packers were just starting to turn around two decades of futility when he got there. But he did get two games during the 1993 mini-playoff run, and he nearly single-handedly beat Detroit in the wild card round, posting a 5-101-3 stat line in a 28-24 win.
He represented well the following week, as well, with 6-128-1 in a loss to Dallas.
So, in conclusion, it’s true that Sharpe doesn’t have the Super Bowl cred that Terrell Davis does. But he had a longer stretch of dominance and was still on his way up when the neck injury ended his career. He clearly played a significant role in reviving the long-dormant Packers organization. He posted individual awards that outpaced three long-time greats who recently received their day in Canton. And when he was on the big stage he produced, arguably, he picked up his game even more.
How has this guy not even gotten into the Hall of Fame discussion? Give him his due. He deserves a bust in Canton.