I let this fester and sit for a few hours. I thought some more, I read some more, and I tried to defuse the confusion which borders on anger.
But no, I still can’t comprehend why Marvin Harrison isn’t a first-ballot hall of famer.
Saturday night the 2014 inductees were announced, and much to the chagrin of Warren Sapp — who just might be a horrible person — it was a group highlighted by Michael Strahan, who ranks fifth on the all-time sack list, and holds the single-season sack record with his 22.5 in 2001. Yes yes, we all know Strahan’s final sack that year had an odor to it. But during any discussion of Brett Favre’s faint it’s always been odd to me that we just cast aside Strahan’s other 21.5 sacks. There’s prestige that comes with holding a record, but even at 21.5 Strahan would still be third on the all-time sack list, and at a mark only two others have bettered since 1984. That’s Canton stuff, and there’s no reason why he should have had to wait a year.
Beyond Strahan, Seahawks tackle Walter Jones (widely regarded as the best left tackle of all-time) and Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks made it on their first ballot, and they were joined by cornerback Aeneas Williams, and former Bills wide receiver Andre Reed.
Which is where we arrive back at Harrison, through Reed. Again, why?
Harrison finished his career with 14,580 receiving yards and 128 touchdowns. That’s a fair distance ahead of 2013 inductee Cris Carter on the yard counter, and Harrison played two fewer seasons. He’s also only two touchdowns behind Carter on the all-time list, and most impressively, Harrison ranks third all-time in receptions with 1,102, behind only Jerry Rice and Tony Gonzalez (related: any meandering through the NFL’s digitally dusty archives quickly reminds you of how not fair Rice’s career was, as he finished with 1,549 catches).
Reed is a fine receiver, and is fully deserving of this honor. Just not now and not ahead of Harrison, a receiver who he trails in career touchdowns by 41, and yards by 1,382, even though he played three more seasons. Worse, Reed had four +1,000 yard seasons to Harrison’s eight, and his highest per game average in any year was 82.0 yards. Harrison? He went over 100 yards per game twice, topping out at a clip of 107.6 yards in 2002.
About that 2002 season: it was quite nuts. That was the year when Harrison caught 143 balls (Reed’s single-season high was 90), a mark that still stands as the single-season record, and it’s not even a little bit close even with Calvin Johnson’s yearly insanity. Herman Moore (1995) and Wes Welker (2009) are far behind at 123.
Harrison was 30 years old during that season, an age we now recognize as one where wide receivers can begin creeping towards a sudden decline. Yet it was also a year when he accumulated 1,722 yards, which stood as the third best season of all-time then, and it’s since been bumped only to fifth.
If you don’t like a focus on career totals and definitely not a single miraculous season (though Harrison did far more than that, but I digress), recently the always numerically excellent Chase Stuart over at Football Perspective provided a solution for you. It’s called the Gray Ink test, which sounds far more nerd-like than it really is, I promise. I’ll let him explain both the methodology and how Harrison fits in…
It assigns points for finishing in the top ten in a category in a given season (a tenth-place finish is worth 1 point, a ninth-place finish worth 2, and so on). For example, in 2000, Harrison led the league in receptions (worth 10 points), finished 6th in receiving yards (5 points), and 2nd in receiving touchdowns (9 points). So for that season, he gets 24 points. Two years later, he led the NFL in both receptions and receiving yards and ranked 3rd in touchdowns, giving him 28 points for his work in 2002. I did this for every season of his career, and for every season of every other wide receiver’s career since 1950.
It’s designed to measure how far ahead of his peers a player was — or at least the vast majority of his peers — in each season that he played using the primary metrics of receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. If we eliminate all receivers who played solely in the AFL prior to the merger from Stuart’s study, we’re left with only two names at the top: Jerry Rice, and Harrison.
It’s all baffling until we settle on what likely became the three main reasons why Harrison was excluded, and he wasn’t given the honor of being a first-ballot hall of famer. Or at least these are my best guesses.
He was a product of Peyton Manning: Sunday night we’ll all watch one of the best quarterbacks in football history play in what could be his final Super Bowl, and Harrison spent all but two seasons of his career catching passes launched by that magnificently golden arm.
For some reason, he’s punished because of that, and quickly it’s forgotten that Rice had Joe Montana and then Steve Young, Reed had Jim Kelly, Michael Irvin had Troy Aikman, and Lynn Swann had Terry Bradshaw. Having a historically great wide receiver-quarterback combination takes two people, and the greatness of one doesn’t suffer due to the greatness of the other.
He might have shot someone: This gets murky fast, and really, that’s the point. Documented in an ESPN Magazine story which paints the picture of a far different Marvin Harrison than the one we had come to know and love on Sundays (HINT: this one carries a gun), Dwight Dixon accused the former Colt of shooting him in the hand, a shoot which was one of many fired on a Philadelphia street that night in April of 2008. Dixon, a drug dealer, died two years later in a separate shooting.
I’m about to bend your mind with this hot take: shooting people is bad. We all know this, but we also know that Harrison was never convicted or even charged of any crime. Sure, some shadow still lingers because Harrison’s gun was used, and authorities couldn’t determine if it was in fact Harrison who actually did the shooting. But doesn’t that sound an awful lot like the same shadow still cast over Ray Lewis’ night gone wrong all these years later? And is there any doubt he’ll still be a first ballot hall of famer four years from now?
If there was a conviction and Harrison served time for a crime he committed, we could have this conversation. But there wasn’t one and he didn’t, so we should focus on football.
There’s a pretty massive wide receiver clog
This one is legit, sort of. When Cris Carter was inducted last year, it was his sixth try. He waited that long because during his first year of eligibility is was Michael Irvin’s turn, and then during his second year it was Art Monk’s turn, and then came Bob Hayes in 2009, Rice in 2010, followed by two more years of getting jobbed and significant names at other positions.
This year I wouldn’t have hated including Tim Brown over both Reed and Harrison, though I still wouldn’t have loved it due to Harrison’s aforementioned staggering numbers in far fewer games (Harrison played 190, while Brown played 255, and Reed played 234). Brown played his last game four years earlier than Harrison, and for much of his career he dealt with far inferior quarterback play while still posting nine straight seasons with over 1,000 yards. Now both Brown and Harrison have to wait, and next year they get company in the form of Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, and we’ll be one year closer to the Randy Moss fun. The clog will live on until we expire.
But I’m not sure waiting ever has to matter. Every year the process of determining the new hall of fame inductees is one rooted in comparison to peers, which implies both a comparison between the players being considered for selection, and a look at how far ahead they were of the other receivers in their era.
In both conversations, Harrison is superior.