Calvin Johnson may retire, after nine NFL seasons. That decision is being compared to another Lions great, Barry Sanders, who walked away from the game in his prime. Barry Sanders was an easy selection for the Pro Football Hall of Fame when the time came. There is no guarantee, though, that Calvin Johnson will join him if indeed Johnson is done.
Now, before I go further, let me say that I think Johnson is a Hall of Famer. But if you think he is a clear-cut choice, you have not been paying attention to how the Hall of Fame has handled the selection of wide receivers for the last four decades, and more pertinently, the recent selections.
Terrell Owens has five first team all pro selections at wide receiver, the second most in the last 45 years, behind Jerry Rice. So, when you see this, you really think that Calvin Johnson is a lock when he comes up on the ballot in half a decade from now?
The wide receiver position is backlogged and all over the place. Politics is paramount. Here is a list of what I think are the 50 best receivers since 1970–excluding young guys under 30 (Julio, Brown, Green, for example) and guys who were past their prime in the early 70’s (Alworth and Maynard). I put together a version of the black ink/gray ink test from Bill James, looking at how frequently guys were selected for awards (pro bowl, first team all pro) and led the league and were top 5 in receiving categories.
The list is sorted by the gray ink score (3 points for all pro, 1 for pro bowl; 1 point for every top 5 season, 2 more points for leading the league). I highlighted those in the Hall of Fame in red (darker if selected in the first three years of eligibility). Those in blue are not yet eligible and haven’t been voted on yet.
There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason, at least based on career finishes in key categories and being selected as the best receiver in a given season. Jerry Rice is his own category, lapping the field. There are more Hall of Famers on the bottom half of this list. That is a combination of compilers who were pretty good for a very long time, and guys who had other things going for them (rings).
As you can see, Moss, Harrison, Owens and Holt are up now. Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald are soon to follow. Several of those players would appear to have cases stronger than any candidate not named Jerry Rice, since the selection of Lance Alworth. Yet, we get lots of drama and delays.
Not only does Calvin Johnson have to deal with that, but there is a legitimate question – if we are rewarding peak over longevity (something that seems dubious with past receiver decisions) – of how Sterling Sharpe affects this. Sharpe actually looks quite good next to Johnson. His career was cut short by injuries, whereas Johnson is making a choice. They were both all pro three times, and Sharpe actually led the league slightly more often. I have a difficult time saying Johnson is clearly in when that comparison exists.
Calvin Johnson will likely have support. He’s popular, he doesn’t rub people the wrong way like Terrell Owens. But in this game of politics, he’s also going to be facing questions. If you don’t think that people will point out that he never played on a team that won a playoff game, think again. (Johnson would join Cortez Kennedy, O.J. Simpson, Lem Barney, and Dick Butkus on that list among modern players in the Hall). Let’s face it, the Lions aren’t the most storied franchises. If you don’t think teams that have been featured prominently in the postseason, and have large fanbases, will have their pockets of support that further dilute the receiver selections, then you haven’t paid attention to the process. (And yes, I’m thinking of Hines Ward, Wes Welker, and the like).
Calvin Johnson is more likely than not to be selected some day. But it’s no lock, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we are still having this discussion in a decade.