Sports Illustrated SI.com
November 27, 2006
Rethinking the Receivers: Irvin, Monk, Reed present Hall of Fame dilemma
Receivers with at least 750 career catches — Andre Reed (951), Art Monk (940), Irving Fryar (851), Henry Ellard (814) and Michael Irvin (750) — have been on the doorstep for years, unable to get in. Add up the total catches of Swann and Stallworth, 873, and you still don’t get to either Reed or Monk.
There are 39 selectors from the news media for the Hall — one hometown media person representing each of the 32 franchises, the president of the Pro Football Writers of America and six at-large reps (including me and Paul Zimmerman from Sports Illustrated). We vote by Dec. 15 for 15 of the 25 semifinalists, and we’ll discuss the final 15 plus the two Senior Committee nominees (Detroit tight end Charlie Sanders and Cleveland guard Gene Hickerson) at the voting session on Feb. 3 in Miami. Of those 17 candidates, we can vote in a minimum of three and a max of six.
It seems to me that the receiver discourse is handcuffing us because we can’t figure out what a Hall of Fame receiver is anymore. Either that or we don’t think the five guys with more catches than almost every Hall of Fame wideout ever are Hall-worthy.
“You guys are running the risk of becoming irrelevant,” Colts GM Bill Polian told me. As general manager of the Bills in their glory years, Polian saw Reed’s importance to Buffalo’s four Super Bowl teams, and he calls it “disgraceful” that Reed hasn’t been elected. “You’re just like the U.S. Congress, with all the bickering and infighting and ‘if this guy doesn’t get in I won’t vote for that guy’ stuff. You can’t get the right thing done.”
I mentioned this to Zimmerman and fully expected a full-frontal rip job on Polian. What I got from Dr. Z was this: “He might be right. Sometimes we get so involved with inner-sanctum nonsense that we lose sight of the big picture. It’s good to have an outsider knock us on our ass every now and then.”
With Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Jerry Rice — each of whom have caught more than 1,000 passes — coming up for election in the next four years, my feeling is it’s incumbent on us to break the logjam. This would be the year to do it. It’s not a strong year for new candidates, with Bruce Matthews, Terrell Davis and Randall McDaniel the best of the newcomers.
I’d say over the last five years, receiver-wrangling has taken up more than its fair share of time in the meetings. We just can’t agree on who belongs. I forget which year it was, but we spent 46 minutes debating the merits of Monk in one meeting. That’s the longest debate I recall in my decade-and-a-half at this post.
“The Hall of Fame is about impact, not statistics,” said one of the most responsible and conscientious voters in the room, longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News. “Sometimes it’s tricky separating the two. You can debate Monk, Irvin and Reed into the night. And we have. Clearly we haven’t been able to come up with a consensus opinion on their impact in the game and where they fit historically. That doesn’t mean the door has been closed on any of them.”
Many voters, including me, would like to see the 32-person panel increased to include long-time coaching and front-office authorities, and some current writers who aren’t now on the panel. Not just head coaches or big-name GMs either. I’d love to see Ron Wolf and Don Shula in the room for their decades of expertise, but two other names I’d propose are the advance pro scouts who critically analyzed players from their teams’ next games for years: Tim Rooney of the Giants and Bob Ferguson, the former Bills and Seahawks general manager. We’d be a better panel with those four men in the room, along with some veteran and sage football analysts like Vito Stellino and John Czarnecki, both of whom have chronicled the game with a critical eye for over 30 years. The number we work with now is sensible, I suppose. But why not make it an even 50? “Bringing in outsiders would inject new ideas into the discussion,” said veteran San Francisco scribe and voter Ira Miller. Hear, hear.
Back to the wideout question. The recent historical evenness of guards and wide receivers drives Polian crazy.
“I’m as old-school as football gets,” Polian said. “I love offensive linemen. But no defensive coordinator ever made a gameplan that said, ‘We’ve got to stop this guard to be able to win this game.’ Defensive coordinators often say that about receivers and design gameplans to stop them. If you eliminated Irvin, Reed or Monk from any game, or you eliminated a guard for the same game, which do you think would be more impactful on the offense that day? Missing the receiver, of course. I’m simply incredulous as a football man that these receivers can’t get in. There’s no question in my mind they all should be in.”
The game’s changing. This year’s college Game of the Century, Michigan at Ohio State, was as much a slap in the face about the passing game, and the importance of the receiver position, as you could ever see. Didn’t it seem like almost a run-and-shoot game for a while? I went back and looked at the play-by-play in the first quarter: 35 plays were run from the line of scrimmage. Ten were called runs, 25 called passes (including two sacks). That means in the college football game of the year, between two teams that for generations personified how football was a man’s game won by the team with the best running game and best run-defense, coaches called 71 percent passes in the first quarter. “Establish the run” used to be the mantra in football. That’s dead and buried. For the game, the two teams passed on 56 percent of the offensive snaps.
Sure, that’s college football, and it’s only one game. But it’s a barometer. If you can’t throw and catch, you’re not winning anymore. We’ve seen that in the NFL for the last generation. We’ve enshrined most of the great eligible quarterbacks from 1980 and on — Dan Fouts, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, John Elway, Dan Marino, Steve Young, Warren Moon, Troy Aikman. We’ve enshrined exactly one of the receivers who played his way into the Hall for what he did after 1980, James Lofton. Eight quarterbacks, one receiver. Isn’t that unjust?
In some ways I’ve been part of the problem. Even though Monk retired with the all-time receptions record, I’ve historically been anti-Monk for several reasons. He played 16 seasons and led his own team in receiving six times; only once was he voted first-team All-Pro. I questioned his impact on a team where the running game and Gary Clark, for many years, were the prime targets to stop by opposing defensive coordinators. I know. I watched the Giants do it nine times over four years against Washington. But last year, after a man I’d advocated got in (Harry Carson), veteran NFL writer Len Shapiro from the Washington Post e-mailed me and reminded me that everything Carson meant to the Giants, Monk meant to Washington. The leadership, the selflessness, the durable productivity … all the same. I decided I should re-think my position.
As I made my rounds of training camps this year, I asked veteran coaches about Monk and the one word that kept coming up was “unselfish.” His downfield blocking prowess kept coming up. His long-term numbers were almost Yastrzemski-like (one or two great years, lots of productive ones, very reliable). But when I talked to Joe Gibbs on Friday, the one thing that stood out was the body of work we don’t see — the downfield blocking, the quiet leadership, and this: Unlike his louder receiving mates Clark and Ricky Sanders, Monk, according to Gibbs, never once said he wanted the ball more. “We used him almost as a tight end a lot,” said Gibbs, “and not only did he do it willingly, he was a great blocker for us. If he’d been a squeaky wheel, who knows how many catches Art would have had. But he cared about one thing — the team.”
So many of the things Carson did can’t be quantified. Similarly with Monk. Not only did he lead the NFL in all-time receptions when he retired, but he blocked superbly and was the most important locker-room influence on a three-time Super Bowl champion. I’m voting for him.
I’ll support Monk and Irvin — the most important locker-room guy and a constant offensive weapon on a three-time champion — in my voting. I remain unconvinced about Reed. I saw a lot of the Bills in their Super Bowl prime, and I’m squarely in the corner of Thurman Thomas as the Bill’s other offensive weapon who deserves entry. Does Reed belong when all the other mega-catchers — Carter, Brown, Rice and, down the line, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens and Randy Moss — come before the committee in the coming years?