- Vincent Thomas
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When Chris Carter retired, he was second in career receptions and touchdowns, third in reception yards. All he did, the saying goes, was catch touchdowns -- from a revolving door of quarterbacks, of which only one (Warren Moon) sported similar Hall of Fame bona fides. This past season was his fourth season of eligibility for Hall induction and it was his fourth season getting the Heisman stiff-arm rejection.
Speaking of which, 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown, who when he retired after the 2004 season was one of only four receivers with 100 TD receptions, second in receptions and third in yards, got passed over again, too. During his 17-year career, he was a No. 1 receiver facing double coverage every Sunday.
And then there's Andre Reed (close to my heart as a native Buffalonian), who actually made it to the final round of voting. Along with Hall inductees Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas, he was the third prong in Buffalo's no-huddle offense. He was the dude that caught the tough passes over the middle and turned them into big gainers and the dude every bit as responsible for the Buffalo Bills' four straight Super Bowl appearances from 1990-1993 as Kelly and Thomas. This was his sixth year getting snubbed and told that he was great, but not that great.
Are you catching the trend here, so to speak? Just for good measure, remember that it took Art Monk -- only the NFL's career leader in receptions when he retired -- eight years to finally make the Hall. There are 21 modern-era wide receivers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, compared to 28 running backs and 23 quarterbacks, even though more players play the receiver position.
You can say that the recent class of wideouts are having a tough go at it when three of the very best can't get any love from the Hall. The receivers of the 1990s, perhaps the greatest era in league history, deserve more respect.
In and around the NFL, there's a widely held axiom that the farther away from the ball, the less important a player is -- at least on the offensive side of things. So receivers, out there on their islands, tend to get dismissed. Making matters worse for some, the rule changes that went into effect in 1978, disallowing corners to get into as much physical jostling as before and allowing offensive linemen to use their hands in pass protection, have further devalued the position.
"Some believe the changes in the rules have tilted the competition in the receivers' favor," said Darryl Ledbetter, a Hall voter. "Some of the thinking is, 'If you can't touch them, they should catch the ball 80 times a year.' If you're a traditionalist, it's all about smash-mouth football and you look down your nose at the new rules, like it's not real football."
Whether or not the three-plus decades of emphasis on the passing game appeals to your aesthetic or moral code of good football, there's still something awry with the general wide receiver dismissal we see with the Hall. Logic would tell us, after the rule changes, it became easier for receivers to get open, and NFL offenses reacted by passing more, which made game-changing No. 1 receivers that much more important. Super Bowl XXV was the last time there were more runs called than passing plays. This year's champs, Green Bay, passed 39 times and ran 13 times against Pittsburgh. Receivers' numbers have skewed upward and, if anything, their impact and importance on the field also has increased.
Tell that to the Hall voters, though.
"That's the misconception that we just have to deal with at our position," Reed told me, days after his most recent disappointment. "They think we're interchangeable, products of the system. But what they should really be asking is, 'Did defenses have to account for you?' Did you produce?' Being the product of a system is not fair to me. It's a dig on me to say that I could only flourish because of the offense I was in. I still had to make plays."
What's needed is a repositioning of the way the position is perceived.
Ever notice the way the man on the other end of the pass is typically ignored or, at least, undervalued? We hear about the "beautiful pass" much more than we hear about the "beautiful catch." Just how prolific would Kelly have been had his primary target, his go-to guy, not been a gifted player of Reed's caliber?
Even the "diva receiver" stigma is one of unfair dismissal (and a perception the next generation of great receivers to become eligible will spend more time deflecting during their wait). The quarterback position more truly fits the definition, yet it's the receivers that get that tag with a scoff and irritated wave-off. "Just shut up, go stand out there, run your route and catch the ball when the franchise quarterback throws it to you."
As it stands now, wide receiver is the Rodney Dangerfield of the skill positions. And the Hall situation is going to get worse. The voters can only select five finalists each year, and as Michael Irvin alluded to, there's already a logjam. When Reed, Carter and Brown finally make it in (most think they will eventually), Terrell Owens, Isaac Bruce, Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison and Hines Ward will be among the backup of worthy cases.
How much longer can voters say no to the standouts of the 1990s? Didn't they see Carter score 130 touchdowns?
He must have been invisible on the field.
No wonder today's receivers are break dancing or doing the Dougie and calling attention to themselves whenever they reach the end zone.
Vincent Thomas is a SLAM magazine columnist and a frequent contributing columnist and commentator for ESPN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @vincecathomas on Twitter.
The recent class of wideouts are having a tough go at it when three of the very best can't get any love from the Hall. The receivers of the 1990s, perhaps the greatest era in league history, deserve more respect.