As best as I can surmise, there are three primary reasons why Harrison shouldn’t be selected in 2014. Two of those reasons can be addressed rather easily, but let’s start with the more complicated issue to analyze.
Harrison’s numbers are inflated because of Peyton Manning
Jerry Rice is the greatest wide receiver of all time. Rice was probably better at his position than any football player has ever been at theirs. Rice might be the most dominant sportsman of his generation. Rice probably isn’t in the discussion of greatest athletes in the history of mankind, which is about the only negative thing I’m willing to say about him. All of that is important background to say, being worse than Jerry Rice is not a negative, but just a fact of life as a wide receiver.
We all know that Harrison benefited greatly from playing alongside Peyton Manning, perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time. Roughly 87% of Harrison’s receiving yards came from passes out of Manning’s right arm. I’m not going to try to tell you how much of a discount rate should be applied to Harrison’s numbers because of Manning. Instead, let’s work the opposite way.
Take a moment and create a mental picture of a first-ballot Hall of Fame wide receiver. Now, put that receiver with Peyton Manning for a decade. What sort of numbers would this receiver produce? We know he couldn’t become the most statistically dominant receiver ever. But would he be number two? Number three?
Harrison isn’t the only wide receiver to spend most of his time with a Hall of Fame quarterback, of course. We all know that Rice was able to spend much of his career catching passes from Joe Montana and Steve Young, but he’s not alone, either. Several Hall of Fame wide receivers gained the majority of their receiving yards from Hall of Famers, including Charlie Joiner (63% of his receiving yards from Dan Fouts and 11% from normative HOFer Ken Anderson), Michael Irvin (79%, Troy Aikman), Don Maynard (52%, Joe Namath), Charley Taylor (67%, Sonny Jurgensen), and Raymond Berry (58%, Johnny Unitas). In Pittsburgh, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth had the chance to catch passes from Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw and play opposite shutdown defenses that helped them earn four rings. Hall of Fame hopeful Andre Reed had 71% of his receiving yards came from Jim Kelly, while future HOF hopeful Reggie Wayne has spent nearly his whole career catching passes from Manning or Andrew Luck.But, for the sake of argument, I’m willing to set the bar pretty high for Harrison. We know that no one can touch Rice. And I’m going to exclude Don Hutson from the discussion, since well, he’s already entrenched in the innermost circle of the Hall of Fame and did most of his work in the pre-WWII era. But I think it’s pretty easy to make the case that Harrison is the second most statistically accomplished wide receiver since 1950. And if that’s the case, how can he be excluded from Canton? After all, he’d be doing exactly what the mythical first-ballot HOF wide receiver would have done.
So, let’s get to the threshold question: is Harrison the second-most dominant wide receiver, at least statistically? Looking at career totals places too much of an emphasis on longevity and is biased in favor of more modern players, but there are several ways of measuring wide receiver dominance. Let’s start with a Gray Ink test, which 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.
This method is very biased in favor of receivers who played in smaller leagues. Lance Alworth, Maynard, and Art Powell played the majority of their careers in the AFL, which had between 8 and 10 teams. To indicate those players who are at an obvious advantage, I’ve listed (1) the first and last year of each wide receiver’s career and (2) in the far right column the percentage of each player’s total points that came from their time in the AFL. Those three each finish in the top five, along with Rice and… Harrison.
|Rk||Receiver||First||Last||Rec||Rec Yd||Rec TD||Pts||% AFL|
Of the top 20 names on this list, thirteen began their careers in 1965 or earlier, when league sizes were significantly smaller. The other seven names are Rice, Harrison, Randy Moss, Steve Largent, Cris Carter, Terrell Owens, and Sterling Sharpe. That’s a pretty good sampling of the most dominant receivers of the last 40 years, and Harrison has everyone beat other than Rice. (By the way, did you notice that Rice is over 100 points ahead of everyone else!)
The Gray Ink test is simple to understand but obviously has some drawbacks. Here’s another method, which measures excellence and controls for different league sizes. For every season since 1950, N represents the number of teams in that league. Then, I made N/2 (rounded up, if necessary) represent the baseline wide receiver: so in 2013, WR16 is the baseline, while it’s WR5 when we’re discussing the 1966 AFL and WR14 when looking at the 1977 NFL. Then, determine who is the baseline wide receiver in each season in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns (a different receiver in each statistic, of course), and the give every wide receiver who finished above the baseline credit only for their production above the baseline. Finally, we sum the totals for a career grade.
Let’s begin with receptions. This season, Pierre Garcon led the NFL with 113 catches, while the person with the 16th most receptions in 2013 had 85. That means Garcon is credited with 28 catches above the baseline. The best single season since 1950 using this method came from Harrison in 2002, when he caught 143 passes and the baseline receiver had 81 receptions. That means Harrison gets marked down for +62 for that season (as an aside, how insane is it that Harrison caught one in every 72 completed passes in the NFL that year). Over the course of his career, Harrison caught 189 passes over the baseline. That’s third since 1950, behind only Rice and receptions machine Wes Welker. Take a look at the leaders:
|Rk||Receiver||First Yr||Last Yr||Rec|
We can do the same thing for receiving yards. The best season comes from Elroy Hirsch, who had 1,495 receiving yards in the 12-team NFL in 1951. That was 906 more yards than the receiver who ranked 6th in receiving yards! Harrison’s best year came in 2002, when he produced 634 yards over the baseline. I think receiving yards is the best of the three receiving stats to judge wide receivers, and in this metric, only Rice is ahead of Harrison. Welker, who narrowly edged Harrison in receptions over the baseline, comes in at #26 in this metric. Of note: Megatron is already in sixth place on the career list.
|Rk||Receiver||First Yr||Last Yr||Rec Yd|
|51||Gene A. Washington||1969||1979||779|
Finally, let’s apply the same principles to receiving touchdowns. Rice (’87) and Moss (’07) both tied for the most receiving touchdowns over the baseline in a single season, with 15. A couple of Harrison’s contemporaries have him beat by this metric, which drops him all the way down to…. fourth.
|Rk||Receiver||First Yr||Last Yr||Rec TD|
|19||Gene A. Washington||1969||1979||15|
You might be surprised to see Harrison so high on the list: after all, he’s ahead of Cris Carter, who ranks 4th on the career receiving touchdowns list. But that’s a function of longevity: Harrison had more receiving touchdowns in his three best seasons (44-43), and his best four (56-55), five (68-66), six (80-76), seven (91-85), eight (101-94), nine (109-101), ten (116-107), eleven (122-113), twelve (127-119), and thirteen (128-124) best seasons, too. That’s all Harrison played, but Carter picked up six more touchdowns in his three worst seasons.
Moss and Owens ranks ahead of Harrison on this list, and that seems appropriate to me. But look at where the three ranked in all three metrics. Harrison was 3rd in receptions, 2nd in yards, and 4th in touchdowns. Moss was 19th, 3rd, and 2nd. Owens was 42nd, 20th, and 3rd (although in his defense he would look better on a per-game basis, as he usually missed a couple of games each season).
If you want more nuanced analysis about Harrison’s statistical dominance….
- When I ranked the most dominant wide receivers of all time — based purely on advanced statistics — Harrison ranked third, behind only Rice and Hutson.
- When analyzing why Paul Warfield was underrated, I look at the production of the top wide receivers in history on a per pass attempt basis over the course of their seven best seasons. Harrison was 3rd, behind only Rice and Alworth.
- Looking at True Receiving Yards, Harrison ranks 2nd (behind Rice) on the career weighted list, and third on the list of best six seasons (behind Rice and Alworth).
I won’t argue too much if someone wants to say Alworth was statistically superior to Harrison, although I’m not sure if that’s a particularly relevant debate for us to engage in. And, of course, Rice and Hutson have their places on Mount Catchmore. But if you gave Peyton Manning a first-ballot, HOF-caliber wide receiver, I don’t know what more you could expect from him other than to be the 2nd most statistically dominant wide receiver since at least 1970. And that’s exactly what Harrison is.
The Wide Receiver Backlog
I get it: It took Carter six tries to make the Hall of Fame, Tim Brown and Andre Reed are once again finalists. The wide receiver backlog is another reason proffered as to why Harrison should not be selected this year. All else being equal, I don’t have a problem with the idea that a younger player should have to “wait his turn” in order to ensure that older players aren’t forgotten. And I personally think at least Brown and perhaps Reed deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. And I agree that putting Harrison in on the first ballot could conceivably hurt both of their chances of getting to Canton.
Here’s the problem: we’re not in “all else being equal” territory. In the Gray Ink test, Harrison had 168 points (ranking 3rd), Brown had 86 (ranking 30th), and Reed had 60 (ranking 59th). Harrison ranked 3rd-2nd-4th in receptions-yards-touchdowns over the baseline. In those same categories, Brown ranked 13th-21st-53rd. Reed ranked 47th-77th-87th. Yes, Harrison had Manning, but… he literally did as much as you could possibly expect, producing the second most statistically dominant career by a wide receiver other than you know who. To not vote for Harrison because you don’t want Brown or Carter left behind is to assume that they have similar enough cases for induction. I won’t tell you how to weight “statistical production” versus everything else, but Harrison has a significant head start on the group.
Alleged shooting of Dwight Dixon
The details are pretty murky on this one, but Dwight Dixon alleged that Harrison shot him in April 2008. Here’s what we know: Harrison was never charged with a crime related to the incident. Not murder, not reckless whathaveyou, not obstruction of justice. Nothing.
That doesn’t mean Harrison didn’t shoot Dixon, of course. But I have no way of knowing, and I don’t think any of the Hall of Fame voters have any way of knowing, either. And, frankly, it’s not their job to know. Here’s what the HOF has to say regarding off-the-field conduct:
The only criteria for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame are a nominee’s achievements and contributions as a player, coach, or contributor in professional football in the United States of America.
Had Harrison actually been found guilty of a felony, I wouldn’t necessarily argue with voters who chose to ignore that particular bylaw. Jim Tyrer had an arguably HOF-worthy career, but his chances of Canton evaporated the moment he killed his wife and then turned the gun on himself.
But being accused by a civilian of committing a felony just as clearly falls short of the standard to bar induction. I have no idea where Dixon’s claim falls on the spectrum of “completely unsupported nonsense” to “Harrison did it” but we know he wasn’t charged with a crime. There are people who believe Ray Lewis is guilty of murder and we know that he obstructed justice, but I don’t think that’s going to prevent him from being a first-ballot selection. Was Harrison’s “off-the-field issue” issues1 more of less severe than those of Lewis? Jameis Winston just won the Heisman Trophy despite facing a rape accusation that may have been more credible than Dixon’s, but again, I’m not in the business of judging the credibility of accusations.
And in this particular case, waiting doesn’t seem likely to solve matters. This time next year, we aren’t going to know whether Harrison was guilty of shooting Dixon. I can understand the reluctance to honor a felon — frankly, how can anyone not understand that — but an uncharged accusation does not make the accused a felon.