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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Catching a Spot in the Hall of Fame

So what exactly does it take to become a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

I suspect a number of current NFL wide receivers were asking themselves that very question after the 2009 Hall of Fame class was announced. Given the career statistics of the eligible wide receivers not chosen as part of the Class of 2009, the current receivers are probably wondering exactly what they will have to do to earn a bust in Canton.

Cris Carter and Andre Reed, who have the most catches of any players eligible for the Hall of Fame and rank third and sixth respectively for career receptions with more than 2,100 catches between them, were left off the list of players who will be inducted during the Hall of Fame Weekend in August.

Now the Hall of Fame selectors have a long history of making some of the greatest legends in NFL history wait beyond their initial year of eligibility before finally bestowing football immortality. Among the all-time greats who had to wait multiple years before getting their Hall of Fame bust were Fran Tarkenton, Sam Huff, Alan Page, Frank Gifford, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Willie Lanier and Willie Davis, so it isn’t a complete surprise that Carter has now been denied twice and Reed has missed out for the last three years. However, even recognizing that fact, they are just the most recent examples of seemingly deserving wide receivers that have struggled to catch the attention of HOF voters.

Perhaps more than any other position, the role and statistics associated with wide receiver have changed dramatically over the last fifty years as the NFL record books have gone from no players with 500 career receptions in 1960 and only four in 1970 to 106 today, including 85 who have joined the club since 1990. For that reason, the Hall of Fame selectors seem to be in a constant struggle with history to try and deduce which former pass catchers belong in Canton.

The first standard-barer for the position was the legendary Don Hutson who caught 488 passes for 7,991 yards and 99 touchdowns during an 11-year NFL career that ended in 1945. Not surprisingly, Hutson was a charter Hall of Fame inductee in 1963. However, what may be a little more surprising is that the first player to pass Hutson’s career reception total has never even sniffed Hall of Fame induction.

Billy Howton (shown above) was a consistent receiver in the NFL for 12 years, including the first seven following in Hutson’s footsteps with the Green Bay Packers. A four-time pro bowler and two time first team all-pro, he completed his career in 1963 as a member of the Dallas Cowboys and that season eclipsed Hutson’s career totals for catches and receiving yards, finishing his career with 503 catches for 8,459 yards and 61 touchdowns. Despite retiring as the leading receiver in NFL history and registering more 50 reception and 1,000 yardage seasons that Hutson, Howton has never been a finalist for the Hall of Fame.

Of the 20 Modern Era wide receivers that have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, eight, including 2009 selection Bob Hayes (371 catches, 7,414 yards) and 2001 inductee Lynn Swann (336 catches, 5,462 yards) have fewer receptions and yards receiving than Howton. In fact, four of Howton’s contemporaries, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, Tom Fears, Dante Lavelli and Pete Pihos, all have at least 100 fewer receptions than Howton, yet by 1976 all had received their Hall of Fame busts.

So why were these players easy Hall selections and Howton is still waiting? While Hirsch, Fears, Lavelli and Pihos were all exciting game-changers who played on championship caliber teams, Howton might be considered the NFL’s first “stats monster” as he gobbled up receptions and yardage playing primarily in anonymity for losing teams.

Howton’s reign as the all-time receiving leader didn’t last long as Raymond Berry eclipsed Howton’s career total in 1964 and since then, every eligible player who has concluded his career as the NFL’s career reception leader has earned induction into the Hall of Fame. Surprisingly, of these six players, only Berry and Steve Largent were selected to the Hall of Fame in their first season of eligibility. Charley Taylor was chosen in his second, but Charley Joiner was a finalist five times before being selected and Art Monk and Don Maynard were each chosen in their eighth year as a finalist. Of the 20 modern era wide receivers who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, only seven were selected in their first four years of eligibility.

That number will grow by one next year when sure-first ballot selection Jerry Rice becomes eligible, but it is tough to predict whether the inclusion on the ballot of Rice, who registered 447 more catches and 7,951 more receiving yards than any other player in history, will help or hinder the selection of other receivers from the modern era.

While Howton may have been the first “stats monster”, he certainly now has plenty of company. There are currently 17 wide receivers, including seven active players, with at least 800 career receptions and that number will continue to grow in the coming years.

How Hall of Fame voters choose to handle this position in the future will be very interesting. It is hard to predict whether the induction of Hayes, the former Olympic sprinter who ushered in the era of speed receivers in the NFL, will lead to the selection of other game-breakers from a by-gone era when career stats were not inflated or if his selection was a last gesture to the past.

While I think Carter, Reed and current receivers including Marvin Harrison and Randy Moss deserve enshrinement, I hope the selection committee will also continue to dig back into history to pull out worthy candidates from the past. Game-changers like Otis Taylor, Drew Pearson and Cliff Branch have been lost in this era of exorbitant stats, but all were important components of championship teams and made big plays when their teams needed them the most.

Who knows, there may someday even be room in Canton for the original “stats monster.”

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