Friday, March 30, 2012

Hall Call for Hines?

Now that Hines Ward has officially retired, it's time to think about whether or not he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Well, at least I thought it was time to think about it, so here goes...

Three things to keep in mind right off the bat:
  1. Hines is not a first ballot Hall of Famer.  That distinction belongs to players that were, without a doubt, the best player at their position in their era.  Guys like Elway, Montana, Bruce Smith, LT, Emmit Smith, Walter Payton, and the like.
  2. I'm talking about an entire body of work and the stats and results are the stats and results.  It doesn't matter at this point that Ward's 1,000th catch lost three yards.  It matters that he got there through 14 seasons of stellar play and how his level of play compares with his contemporaries.
  3. This blog is called Steelers N At, so I'm bound to be a little biased.
With that in mind, there are four primary things that the Hall of Fame selection committee keeps in mind when they determine whether or not a particular player makes the cut.  They are:
  1. Stats compared to contemporaries. Things change between eras, which means that you can't say Hines is a shoe-in because he has more catches, yards, and touchdowns than Ray Berry or Don Maynard.  You also can't factor in the system that the player was in during their career, which hurts Ward's favorite argument that he put up big numbers playing for a running team.  Randy Moss was productive in Oakland.  So was Tim Brown.  Ward had his best individual season when Tommy Maddox was his quarterback.  He was also productive with Kent "Indestructible" Graham and Kordell Stewart.  If you're a great player, you're going to get the ball, regardless of system, circumstance, or era.
  2. Pro Bowl and All-Pro nominations.  The All-Pro nominations carry more weight, because those are not open to fan voting and they consider both conferences.  If you are named to the All-Pro team, you are considered to be the best player at your position that year.  The Pro Bowl hasn't always been as much of a punch line as it is now, so it's still something important to factor in.
  3. Postseason performance and results (whether they were named MVP and whether or not their team won).
  4. Intangibles.  This is less of a factor, but it will give a slight boost to a player in terms of his overall score.
Stats compared to contemporaries:

This is where Ward faces his toughest challenge, since he has a number of guys in the queue ahead of them with gaudy stats and a number of guys behind him with gaudy stats.  Here are the seven comparable players that I came up with (and I'm pretty sure I missed at least one): Tim Brown, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Marvin Harrison, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Cris Carter.

Here are Ward's stats (receptions-yards-touchdowns-yards per catch): 1,000-12,083-85-12.1

Those are impressive, but look at his contemporaries:

Brown: 1,094-14,934-100-13.7
Holt: 920-13,382-74-14.5
Bruce: 1,024-15,208-91-14.9
Harrison: 1,102-14,580-128-13.2
Moss: 954-14,858-153-15.6
Owens: 1,078-15,934-153-14.8
Carter: 1,101-13,889-130-12.6

Ward is sixth in catches, last in yards and yards per reception, and seventh in touchdowns.  Not exactly shining statistics compared to his peers.  Carter has been finalist for induction the past five years and hasn't gotten in and Brown has been a finalist the past three with no luck.  That doesn't bode well for Ward, since Carter and Brown might will need to break through the gauntlet first.

Then you have the fact that Owens, Moss, and Bruce have some pretty eye-popping stats.  Moss is in and voters will probably eventually look past Owens' media circus personality -- not that Moss is exactly a choir boy -- and let him into the Hall.  Bruce is an interesting case because I was surprised by how comparable his stats were to Owens and Moss.  He's always been an overlooked player -- he put up 119-1,781-13-15.0 in 1995 and wasn't voted to the Pro Bowl -- and Hall voters might overlook him again.  Still, that's four guys ahead of Hines in the queue, to say nothing of veterans that deserve consideration like Henry Ellard.

What surprised me was that I thought Holt and Harrison would have more impressive stats.  Since neither particularly stands out, they might both need to sneak in on the veteran ballot at some point.  Harrison was, without a doubt, one of the best receivers in the league from 1999-2003, but he tailed off after that and Reggie Wayne became more of a focus on offense.

Interesting Stat: Ward, Brown, and Carter all averaged 8.3 yards per reception in their last season.  That has nothing to do with this argument, but I think it's interesting because I'm weird.

Pro Bowls and All-Pros:

Brown has the distinction of being the only player to be voted to the Pro Bowl in three different decades -- 1988, numerous times in the 1990s, and in 2001 -- and leads this list with nine total nominations.  But, even with nine Pro Bowl nods, he was never selected to the All-Pro team.  Here's how everyone stacks up (Pro Bowl, All-Pro):

Brown: 9,0
Holt: 7,1
Bruce: 4,0
Harrison: 8,3
Moss: 6,4
Owens: 6,5
Carter: 8,2
Ward: 4,0

The cases for Moss and Owens have improved and Carter and Harrison are certainly helped by this portion of their resumes.  Ward, Bruce, and Brown are all hurt by these numbers.  If they were never selected as one of the best players at their position in a given season, it becomes more difficult to crown them as one of the greatest players of all time at the position.  And that's what the Hall of Fame is all about.

Postseason statistics and results:

This is where Ward separates himself from the pack.  I had assumed that his playoff performance would be basically in line with his regular season performance, but that's not the case.  Everyone knows about the fact that he won the MVP in Super Bowl XL and that he's been to the big game three times with two wins.  But, the stats are surprising (games-receptions-touchdowns-yards per reception-SB appearances-SB wins):

Ward: 18-88-1,181-10-13.4-3-2
Brown: 12-45-581-3-12.9-1-0
Holt: 10-47-630-4-13.4-2-1
Bruce: 9-44-759-4-17.3-2-1
Harrison: 16-65-783-2-13.6-1-1
Moss: 12-47-865-10-18.4-1-0 (18-1, baby!)
Owens: 11-54-751-5-13.9-1-0
Carter: 14-63-870-8-13.8-0-0

If Holt and Bruce weren't both on the Rams team that won the Super Bowl following the 1999 season, Ward would have as many wins as all the receivers on this list combined.  He also has the only Super Bowl MVP award and leads in every category but yards per reception.

Harrison's and Carter's cases are hurt here because Carter never made it to the Super Bowl and Harrison put up lackluster stats given the number of games he was in -- and the number of offensive explosions the Colts enjoyed in the early rounds of the playoffs over the years.

When it comes to Hall of Fame voting, it is a known fact that postseason splash moments can make all the difference.  Ward's edge here is hard to over-state.  One other fact that I picked up somewhere: There are only two players in NFL history with 1,000 receptions and two Super Bowl rings.  That would be Hines Ward and Jerry Rice.


Here's where it gets interesting and kinda murky.  Everyone on this list has some warts, it's just that some are bigger than others.

Brown (not known as a great teammate, but no big warts)
Holt (good guy, but unspectacular and doesn't have an "it" factor)
Bruce (good guy, but unspectacular and doesn't have an "it" factor)
Harrison (may have killed a guy)
Moss (head case, not a great teammate)
Owens (head case that does sit-ups in his driveway in front of camera crews)
Carter (semi-head case and not terribly popular with the media, who hold some sway on inductees)

Ward was convicted of a DUI, but he stands out here without any major warts and some definite pluses in the Intangibles category.  He was an incredibly popular player and won Dancing With the Stars, which expands his overall appeal.  Everyone loves that, no matter how hard he got hit on a given play, he got up smiling.  He was the best blocking receiver of his generation.  That's a lot of feathers in his cap.

He was also voted the second dirtiest player in the NFL two years in a row and the crackback block rule is commonly referred to as the "Hines Ward Rule."  But, he was a hard-nosed, old-school player that could play in any era and the football purists that admire those qualities also vote for who gets inducted into the Hall of Fame.

When you break it all down, I have to say that, surprisingly, Brown and Harrison are on the bubble.  Holt will probably be viewed eventually as a very good player that wasn't good enough long enough to make the cut.  Moss and Owens are in for sure when you look at their body of work.  Bruce will probably be overlooked until he receives veteran consideration.  Carter may be in the same boat, but the queue is starting to ease up and he will probably get inducted in the next few years.

As for Hines?  All things considered, he's in.  It's going to take a while, but he certainly has the credentials for a bust in Canton.

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