From the time Drew Pearson caught his last pass for the Dallas Cowboys in December 1983 to when he finally learned he would be immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, more than 37 years of futility had passed.
For nearly four decades, he’d watched 21 of his fellow 22 AP first-team all-decade offensive and defensive selections for the 1970s receive their shiny busts in Canton.
Meantime, Pearson had never even been a finalist, which would have enabled the Hall of Fame’s selection committee to discuss if he was worthy of joining the all-time greats. He also saw almost every receiver who was named to a first-team all-decade team from 1930 to 2010 — a span of 80 years — get into an exclusive club while he was left out.
Pearson watched as 10 fellow receivers who caught passes in the 1970s get enshrined — Lance Alworth, Fred Biletnikoff, Harold Carmichael, Steve Largent, James Lofton, Don Maynard, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, Charley Taylor and Paul Warfield — yet he never received the call to the Hall until Saturday night.
“Now, you are giving me the chance of immortality and the legacy of that is amazing,” Pearson said upon receiving the good news from Hall of Fame President David Baker.
While Pearson reached his ultimate destination, his journey to Canton should be a cautionary tale for next year’s first-time eligible players. It’s a group that will include receivers Anquan Boldin, Andre Johnson and Steve Smith, who will likely be joined by several receivers who return from previous ballots such as Torry Holt, Reggie Wayne and Hines Ward.
Pearson was named first-team AP All-Pro three times, was a three-time Pro Bowler and won a Super Bowl. He was also named by the Hall of Fame committee as the best receiver for the 1970s along with Swann, who was named first-team All-Pro just once and made the same number of Pro Bowls. Swann, who won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was enshrined in 2001.
Carmichael and Warfield, the second-team all-decade receivers for the 1970s, got enshrined in 2020 and 1983, respectively.
So how does what happened to Pearson impact current and future receivers on the ballot?
Well, it’s complicated, very, very complicated.
First, you have to ask: What makes a Hall of Fame receiver? Is it catches? Is it yards or touchdowns? Is it Pro Bowl, All-Pro or All-Decade selections? Is it Super Bowl titles? Or a combination of all of them?
The answer is perhaps all of them — or none of them.
“The game has changed,” said Rick Gosselin, who has been on the Hall of Fame voting committee for the past 25 years and prepared Pearson’s case for enshrinement to present to the committee. “It has changed tremendously.
“Back in the 1970s, if a receiver caught 50 passes and had 1,000 yards, you made the Pro Bowl. Now, you need 100 catches and 1,500 yards to be a Pro Bowl receiver — that’s how much the game has changed. In those terms, the receiving numbers in today’s game are artificial.”
Today’s NFL is a pass-happy league. Receivers are bigger, faster and stronger and defensive backs are no longer able to play as physical as they did decades ago. The terms “defense-less receiver” and “concussion protocol” weren’t even used when Pearson played. That’s when receivers could be man-handled by defensive backs, who were free to launch helmet-first at them like 200-pound missiles.
Collectively, Pearson’s three Pro Bowls, three first-team All-Pros and first-team all-decade team are unmatched by any first-time eligible receiver next year, or any receiver expected to return to the ballot in 2022.
Of the receivers on the ballot for the first time in 2022, Andre Johnson made seven Pro Bowls but made just two All-Pro teams, while Smith made five Pro Bowls and is a two-time first-team All-Pro. Boldin made three Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl, but he never was a first-team All-Pro.
Of the two receivers who were Modern-Era finalists this year and are expected to return to the ballot next year, Holt made seven Pro Bowls, one All-Pro team and won a Super Bowl, while Wayne was a six-time Pro Bowler, made one All-Pro first team and won one Super Bowl.
Ward, who was a Modern-Era semifinalist this year, was a four-time Pro Bowler, was never a first-team All-Pro and won two Super Bowls.
Now, look at the nine other receivers — Donald Driver, Henry Ellard, Chad Johnson, Derrick Mason, Muhsin Muhammad, Jimmy Smith, Rod Smith, Wes Welker and Roddy White — who were nominated for the Hall of Fame this year but didn’t even make the cut to the semifinal list.
These players, none of whom made an all-decade first-team, could all be in the mix next year, and in future years, too.
“If you look at what has happened previously, the committee likes players who have won a championship and made an all-decade team,” Gosselin said.
Now, let’s look at statistics, where every receiver likely to be on the ballot has more than the 489 receptions, 7,822 receiving yards and 48 touchdowns that Pearson amassed during his 11 seasons as a Cowboy.
In fact, it’s not even close.
Johnson is 11th all-time in catches (1,062) and receiving yards (14,185) to go along with 70 touchdowns. Boldin is ninth all-time in receptions (1,076) and 14th in yards (13,779) and tied for 25th in touchdowns (82).
Wayne is 10th in catches (1,070) and yards (14,345) to go along with 82 scores. Holt is 21st in catches (920), 16th in yards (13,382) and tied for 38th in touchdowns (74). Ward is 14th in receptions (1,000), 26th in yards (12,083) and tied for 16th with Warfield and Alworth in scores (85).
Now, look at the committee’s voting history when it comes to receivers. Of the 29 receivers enshrined in Canton, no class has ever had more than two receivers. The best decade for receivers was the 2010s, when seven got in, but the first five — Jerry Rice, Cris Carter, Andre Reed, Tim Brown and Marvin Harrison — all got enshrined in different years, while Randy Moss and Terrell Owens got in together with the Class of 2018.
The committee’s by-laws allow for between four and eight new inductees to be selected annually, provided a candidate receives 80 percent of the 48-member committee’s vote required for enshrinement.
It’s likely today’s wide receiver hopefuls will have to wait their turns to get in — if they get in at all — since they could split the committee’s vote for years, maybe decades.
If Rice, Carter, Reed, Brown and Harrison — many of whom competed against each other for votes on the same ballot — had to wait their turns, who’s to say the same won’t hold true for today’s candidates?
After all, only seven receivers — Calvin Johnson, a first-team All-Decade receiver for the 2010s who got in this year, Moss, Rice, Largent, Warfield, Alworth and Raymond Berry — are first-ballot Hall of Famers. And what have Andre Johnson, Smith or Boldin done to be on that level?
Not all Hall of Famers are created equal; that’s why linebacker Chris Hanburger had to wait 27 years and linebacker Lawrence Taylor didn’t have to wait at all.
In fact, looking at all players — regardless of position — who are eligible next season because they played at least five years and have been out of the game for five years, none is a lock to get into the Hall of Fame at all, let alone on the first ballot.
Quarterback Tony Romo, defensive ends Robert Mathis and Mario Williams, linebackers Chad Greenway and DeMarcus Ware and defensive end Vince Wilfork all had good careers, but were they Hall-of-Fame-good?
They could very well wait decades for an answer.
Just like Pearson.
–Jon Gallo, Field Level Media