When the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced its 15 modern-era finalists for the Class of 2018, three wide receivers were included. Not one of them was Sterling Sharpe.
This needs to stop. Sterling Sharpe — yes, our Packers rival, he of the Instant Replay Game and other adversarial efforts — needs to be in the Class of 2019.
And before you attack me with your digital pitchforks, please know I am fully aware that I am putting my Bears credibility on the line here. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t believe in it. In fact, I am doing it for us.
Let me explain.
Every Hall of Fame has its problems. Baseball’s Hall is facing an existential crisis due to the steroid era, with some of the greatest of the greats currently left out of Cooperstown.
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame has the opposite problem: it tends to induct every no-brainer, meaning the debate there is around players who are borderline, such as Tracy McGrady, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo, all of whom are in.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame has a different problem. It suffers from the exclusion of players not because of steroids or other threats to the game, but because of a perception of value and an ill-defined criteria. Players get excluded because the position they play isn’t flashy, because they were rarely in the highlights, or because in the most dangerous major American sport they were injured before they could fulfill their Hall of Fame potential.
That is where Sterling Sharpe comes in.
Until the final game of his career, all signs pointed to Sterling Sharpe not simply making the Hall, but going down as one of the greatest receivers to ever play . Drafted 7th overall in 1988, Sharpe played seven seasons, all for the Packers.
Here’s what he did:
- 5x Pro Bowl
- 3x 1st team All Pro
- 3x league leader in receptions
- 2x league leader in receiving touchdowns
- 1x league leader in receiving yards
- 1992: set NFL single-season record for receptions with 108
- 1993: set NFL single-season record for receptions, AGAIN, with 112
- 1994: tied for 2nd on the NFL single-season list with 18 receiving touchdowns
During Sharpe’s NFL tenure, only Jerry Rice — the undisputed wide receiver GOAT — was named 1st team All Pro more times than Sharpe among WRs:
- Jerry Rice, 49ers (1988, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994)
- Sterling Sharpe, Packers (1989, 1992, 1993)
- Cris Carter, Vikings (1994)
- Michael Irvin, Cowboys (1991)
- Haywood Jeffires, Oilers (1991)
- Andre Rison, Falcons (1990)
- Henry Ellard, Rams (1988)
In other words, the wide receiver hierarchy through 1994 — Sharpe’s final season — was pretty clear: Rice was 1st, Sharpe was 2nd, and there was a battle for #3.
So, what happened to Sharpe, you ask? Tragedy. Late in the 2nd quarter of Green Bay’s Week 16 game in 1994, Sharpe suffered a neck injury on a completely fluky play.
He missed the 2nd half of that game, was cleared to play the following week, caught nine passes for 132 yards and three touchdowns...
...and injured his neck again.
While his teammates went on to the playoffs, Sharpe could only watch.
As it turned out, his career was over. He was 29.
The benchmark for Hall of Fame players whose careers were shortened by injury is Gale Sayers, whose seven-year career included only two games in each of his final two seasons — followed by a 1st-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame.
More recently, Terrell Davis was elected to the Hall last year after missing the cut 10 times; Davis built himself a masterpiece during his first four seasons, and then played only 17 games in his final three years due to injuries.
Both Sayers and Davis suffered devastating knee injuries, which were certainly unfortunate, yet completely normal for their position. The injuries ground their careers to completion.
Sharpe, on the other hand, was felled by cruel fate. He was an ironman who did not miss a regular season game his entire career, adding two playoff games following the 1993 season (the first of which he won with a 40-yard touchdown catch).
The only games he missed when he was on a roster were the two playoff games after 1994.
When his career ended, Sharpe was two seasons away from immortality, both on an individual and team level. He ended his career 13th in NFL history in receptions, 18th in receiving touchdowns, and 29th in receiving yards. Over his final three seasons, he averaged 105 catches, 1,285 yards, and 14 touchdowns.
Receiving numbers skyrocketed league-wide in 1994 and 1995, so even if he continued at his 1992-1994 average for two more years and then retired after 1996, his career numbers and ranks would have been clear-cut Hall of Fame-worthy:
- 805 receptions (4th all-time)
- 93 receiving touchdowns (4th all-time)
- 10,704 receiving yards (11th all-time)
Now consider what happened with the Packers in the playoffs after 1994, 1995, and 1996: divisional round, then the NFC championship, then Super Bowl champs. Even ignoring the possibility that a healthy Sharpe might have helped the Packers advance further than they did in 1994 and 1995, they would definitely still win the Super Bowl in 1996.
Sharpe would have likely added two more Pro Bowl seasons in ‘95 and ‘96, and almost certainly one if not two more 1st team All Pro seasons as well. And he would have balled out in the Super Bowl, considering that his replacements Antonio Freeman and Andre Rison each scored long touchdowns (with Rison doing so in Sharpe’s #84, no less).
So let’s say that for whatever reason, Sharpe retired after 1996. Upon his retirement, a conservative estimate of his career would have looked like this:
- 4th all-time in receptions and receiving touchdowns
- 11th all-time in receiving yards
- 7x Pro Bowl
- 4x 1st team All Pro
- 5x league leader in receptions
- 3x league leader in receiving touchdowns
- 1x league leader in receiving yards
- Super Bowl champion
If that happened, he would not have merely been elected to the Hall — he would have been the sixth receiver elected on the 1st ballot, following his fellow Packers star Don Hutson, along with Raymond Barry, Lance Alworth, Paul Warfield, and Steve Largent — and a few years ahead of Jerry Rice.
Instead, Sharpe has been passed up for the Hall by two of his WR peers who were never 1st team All Pro — Andre Reed and Tim Brown — and this year was passed by two more who never earned that distinction: semifinalist Hines Ward and finalist Isaac Bruce.
Seriously, look at Sharpe against Ward and Bruce, and tell me who is most deserving of Hall of Fame consideration:
- Sharpe, 7 seasons: 595 receptions, 8134 yards, 65 TD
- Ward, 14 seasons: 1000 receptions, 12,083 yards, 85 TD
- Bruce, 16 seasons: 1024 receptions, 15,208 yards, 91 TD
- Sharpe: 5x 1,000 yards, 4x 10+ TD, 4x 90+ rec., 2x 100+ rec.
- Ward: 6x 1,000 yards, 3x 10+ TD, 4x 90+ rec., 1x 100+ rec.
- Bruce: 8x 1,000 yards, 2x 10+ TD, 1x 90+ rec., 1x 100+ rec.
- Sharpe: yards 1x, receptions 3x, touchdowns 2x
- Ward: none
- Bruce: yards 1x
- Sharpe: 112 receptions, 1461 yards, 18 TD
- Ward: 112 receptions, 1329 yards, 12 TD
- Bruce: 119 receptions, 1781 yards, 13 TD
- Sharpe: 1st team All Pro 3x, Pro Bowl 5x
- Ward: Pro Bowl 4x
- Bruce: Pro Bowl 4x
If you’ve read this far, I know what you’re thinking.
“Okay Jack, you made your point. Sharpe is a Hall of Famer. Whoopdy-freaking-do. WHY ARE YOU WRITING THIS ON WINDY CITY GRIDIRON, A *BEARS* SITE???”
The reason is simple: I respect the Hall of Fame, and I want voters to make complex, nuanced decisions that account for the totality of the game. That means not withholding 1st ballot from a guy just because a more highly-touted guy at his position is there the same year (Brian Urlacher), or not holding back on a guy who was the best ever at his position just because he plays special teams (Devin Hester), or not being too proud to right a wrong on a guy who should have gone in already (Jay Hilgenberg).
Understanding why it is important to support Sterling Sharpe on his road to the Hall of Fame allows one to understand why Urlacher should be 1st ballot, why Hester is a no-brainer, why Hilgenberg should finally get his due, and why so many other unheralded players — especially special teamers — need to get serious Hall attention.
I hope that fans and voters around the league start looking at the Pro Football Hall of Fame as an opportunity to honor the game’s greatest at every position, not just the most popular ones; to honor multiple players at the same position simultaneously when they deserve it; to go back and right wrongs when it’s warranted; and to be lenient toward players we all know were going to get in if the very nature of the game hadn’t stripped them of their odds.
And I hope that fans can start making passionate arguments for opposing players — even our hated rivals — because we love football and it’s the right thing to do.
I’ve made my argument for Hester, and next week I will write my definitive case for not only why I think Urlacher should be 1st ballot, but why he will be.
For now, though, I have other business, and since fans can nominate players for the Hall, I hearby nominate Sterling Sharpe for the Class of 2019 (with an email to the Hall to come this week). Even without the Bears factor, Sharpe deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. He’s earned it, and I sincerely hope we see him don the gold jacket.
After Urlacher, of course.