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2011 Hall of Fame Polls: Shannon Sharpe

Posted by Neil Paine on February 2, 2011

After our look at Ed Sabol yesterday, it's back to players for the next 2011 Hall of Fame finalist poll. Here were Chase's thoughts from a year ago on Shannon Sharpe:

We continue the [Hall of Fame profiles] today, with a look at Shannon Sharpe. Part I of this post is a re-post of something I wrote last year:Part I

It took Art Monk eight years to make the Hall of Fame. While his career numbers were terrific, Monk's biggest problem was the lack of statistical single season dominance. He only ranked in the top 10 in receiving yards three times -- finishing fourth in '84, third in '85 and tenth in '89. But arguably Monk shouldn't have been compared to the star receivers of NFL history. As argued by Sean Lahman in the Pro Football Historical Abstract:

Even though Monk lined up as a wide receiver, his role was really more like that of a tight end. He used his physicality to catch passes. He went inside and over the middle most of the time. He was asked to block a lot. All of those things make him a different creature than the typical speed receiver.... His 940 career catches put him in the middle of a logjam of receivers, but he'd stand out among tight ends. His yards per catch look a lot better in that context as well.

I haven't heard anyone else suggesting that we consider Monk as a hybrid tight end, but coach Joe Gibbs hinted at it in an interview with Washington sportswriter Gary Fitzgerald:

"What has hurt Art -- and I believe should actually boost his credentials -- is that we asked him to block a lot," Gibbs said. "He was the inside portion of pass protection and we put him in instead of a big tight end or running back. He was a very tough, physical, big guy."

Monk has said similar things:

“In [1981] we were pass oriented and that didn’t work so well. So we went to a ground game. About this period of time we shifted a little into more of a balanced offense. I was moved from being just a wide receiver to playing H back. I would come out of the backfield and do a lot of motion. And we had a lot of success with that.”

More from Coach Gibbs:

'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.'

It's an interesting argument, calling Monk a hybrid tight end. But now that Monk is in the HOF, the more interesting argument points to Shannon Sharpe. Is he the anti-Monk? While Monk may have been a tight end in wide receiver's clothing, was Sharpe a wide receiver in tight end's clothing? When Sharpe -- easily one of the greatest TEs of all time -- was not elected to the Hall of Fame in 2009, people were surprised. I believe Mike and Mike on the radio were the first to report this, but several claimed that the HOF voters were considering Sharpe as a wide receiver, and not as a tight end. My first reaction to this was probably like yours -- how ridiculous. But now I'm not so sure. Is Sharpe a hybrid wide receiver?

Baseball, Fantasy Football and the NFL

Jeff Kent was a very good hitter who played second base, a position that historically was played by good defensive players who were not great hitters. Kent may have been a 2B, but he was not very skilled defensively and may have been better suited at first base (which is where he ended his career). But by playing Kent at 2B, that allowed his teams to get another big bat into the lineup -- first base could be filled by a typical power hitter. If you put Kent at first base, you're going to put your typical lightweight hitting 2B into the lineup. So the trade-off is a slightly worse defense but a much better offense. As long as your power hitter is respectable on defense, putting him in at 2B instead of 1B makes your whole team better.

In fantasy football, this becomes even more obvious. In Marques Colston's rookie season he was listed as a TE in some fantasy leagues. Playing him at TE instead of WR left room for an extra WR -- a fantasy owner could play Colston and three WRs instead of Colston, two WRs and a TE. Since WRs score many more points than tight ends, this made him one of the most valuable players in fantasy football leagues.

But that's *not* the case in real football. And that's why the situations are apples and oranges. There's nothing magical about the name you give to a player's position. The Broncos used Terrell Davis (RB), Ed McCaffrey (WR), Rod Smith (WR), Howard Griffith (FB) and Shannon Sharpe. The Redskins used Earnest Byner (RB), Gary Clark (WR), Ricky Sanders (WR), Don Warren (TE) and Art Monk. Is there a meaningful difference between those lineups? With Sharpe, you still needed a guy like Griffith in there to have six blockers. With Monk, Gibbs was still able to get two other athletic wide receivers on the field.

When we think of a tight end, we think of a hybrid blocker-receiver. But, as Lahman says:

[In the 1990s,] the tight end began to re-emerge as a major part of the offense. Rather than look for a player who could both block and catch passes, most teams split the position into two roles. There were blocking tight ends and receiving tight ends, and two guys would replace each other as the situation dictated. What this meant was that a receiving tight end didn't need to carry the bulk necessary to block a 300-pound lineman, so the position could be stocked with smaller but stronger and more athletic players. The key figure in that last shift was Shannon Sharpe, who emerged as a new kind of offensive weapon with his play for the Broncos. He was just 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, which most people considered too small to play tight end in the NFL. But he had the speed, strength and agility to create havoc for defenders.

During Sharpe's best years, the Broncos still carried two big blocking tight ends -- Byron Chamberlain (6'1, 250) and Dwayne Carswell (6-3, 290) on the roster. When Denver needed an extra blocker, those guys came in. And while Sharpe may have been a better blocker than guys like Dallas Clark or the Jets' Dustin Keller, these H-Back/slot receiver types are evidence that the tight end and the wide receiver positions are not binary options but rather they fall on a continuum. On one end, there are guys like Bob Hayes; closer to the middle are Art Monk and Shannon Sharpe and maybe a Hines Ward; on the other end is Bubba Franks. In that light, it's legitimate to wonder -- how much difference was there between Art Monk and Shannon Sharpe?

PFR lists Sharpe at 6'2, 225 and Monk at 6'3 and 210. While Sharpe looks a lot bigger, and their careers overlapped, some significant changes occurred in the NFL while these guys were playing. In Monk's breakout season, 1984, the average TE was 6'3 or 6'4 and 236 pounds. Ten years later, the average TE was 6'4 and 254 pounds. So Monk was about 25 pounds lighter than the average TE; Sharpe was a little shorter and about 30 pounds lighter than the typical tight end. In Monk's five 1,000 yard seasons, he averaged 13.8 yards per reception; the league average YPR for WRs was 15.2 in those seasons. In Sharpe's four big yardage years he averaged 13.0 YPR while the average WR averaged 13.7 yards per reception. Both were dependable, reliable possession receivers and had significantly better hands than the typical tight end. Both were much better blockers than your average WR but worse blockers than the average tight end.

If Sharpe is considered as a WR, he's in trouble. He ranked in the top ten just once in receiving yards, a tenth place finish in 1993. Like Monk, he has three Super Bowl rings, but that won't be enough if people compare him to Harrison, Owens and Moss. But the point of this post is that we shouldn't just think of these guys as tight ends or wide receivers, but as football players. And unlike in baseball, your contribution to your team can't be measured by what designation they put next to your name on the team roster.

Part II

So, all that said, is Sharpe a HOFer? Will Sharpe be a HOFer? Let's first start with his accomplishments as a tight end, ignoring whether or not he was unofficially a wide receiver:

  • Sharpe was named to the Pro Bowl eight times in his career, including an incredible seven-year stretch where he flew to Hawaii annually from 1992 to 1998. Only Tony Gonzalez (10) has been named to more. Before this season, only Charlie Sanders (HOF) and Steve Jordan had been named to more than five Pro Bowls, although Antonio Gates and Jason Witten have now been selected to six Pro Bowls apiece.
  • Sharpe was a unanimous first team All-Pro TE in four different seasons. Only Gonzalez (5) and Dave Casper have been named first-team All-Pro tight end by the Associated Press in four different seasons.
  • Sharpe is one of just 16 players to start for Super Bowl champions on multiple franchises. Of course, the man he lined up next to on the 1998 Broncos and 2000 Ravens, RT Harry Swayne, is also one of those sixteen.
  • When he retired, Sharpe was the record holder for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns by a tight end. Tony Gonzalez has since passed him, leaving Sharpe at #2 in all three statistics.

For what it's worth, Tony Gonzalez is a shoe-in for the HOF, and Gates and Witten look well on their way to being HOF locks, too. There are only seven tight ends currently in Canton, so the HOF (perhaps wisely) is almost certainly going to be adding more TEs in the next fifteen years. Players like Dallas Clark are going to leave voters scratching their heads: He had 100 receptions this season, 1100 yards and 10 touchdowns, becoming the first TE to hit the 100/1000/10 club. But Clark is used almost exclusively as a receiver, and if the Colts had a real tight end, perhaps they'd finish higher than 32nd in rushing yards. Of course, while the Colts are winning nearly every game they play, it appears they don't even need to run the ball. Clark is certainly a better fit for Indianapolis' offense than someone like Ben Hartsock was, but why do we call Clark a tight end and not a receiver? If his number was 88 instead of 44, would his chances of making the HOF one day be lower? Does that make any sense at all?

I don't know what should happen, but we can guess what will. The Hall will put off the question of what to do with the modern "tight end" and just focus on Sharpe's accomplishments, detailed above. While blocking isn't binary, the question will likely become "was Sharpe a good enough blocker for us to consider him as a tight end and not a receiver?"

Answering that question isn't easy. Sure, Sharpe was on teams that ran well, but those teams also ran well after he left, too. In Baltimore, Jamal Lewis had his 2,000 yard season after Sharpe left. In Denver, Sharpe's first exit coincided with the retirement of Elway and the injury to Davis, but I don't know if anyone suggests that the Broncos running efficiency in the '90s and '00s was due to Shannon Sharpe. He was light for a tight end, and the Broncos always had some other blocking tight end on the roster. Sharpe's value was more in the mismatches he created than in the name of his position, as he was often too fast for a linebacker and too big for a defensive back. Putting Sharpe next to Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey made for a potent offense, and combined with a dominant running game (and a HOF QB), you can see why those Broncos were hard to stop.

But even in Baltimore, Sharpe still excelled. For many, the lasting memory of Sharpe is the way he single-handedly gave the Ravens' passing game enough of a push to advance in each round of the playoffs. In the three AFC playoff games, Sharpe made a huge play in the second quarter of each game: a 58-yard touchdown against the Broncos to put the game out of reach; a 56-yard catch against the Titans to set up a game-tying touchdown; a 96-yard score against the Raiders that would prove to be the go-ahead score. Even without the advantages of a Hall of Fame quarterback of a pair of star receivers next to him, Sharpe still had a big year in 2000. At age 32, he ranked (a distant) second among all tight ends in receiving yards and receiving scores. While he was never a strong blocker, he was a big play-maker, successful on multiple teams, and one of the most memorable players of the '90s. Theoretical debates aside, he's a HOFer in the vision of almost everyone who ever watched him play.

Chances Shannon Sharpe will make the HOF in 2010? Good.
Chances Shannon Sharpe will ever make the HOF? Excellent.

What do you think?

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011 at 8:54 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.