There must be something about Cris Carter that Pro Football Hall of Fame voters don't like — something personal, I suspect. Otherwise, how can one explain Carter's exclusion from the last four classes to gain entrance to Canton?
The numbers suggest Carter is first-ballot material: His 1,101 catches rank third all-time behind Jerry Rice (1,549) and Marvin Harrison (1,102); his 130 receiving touchdowns trail Rice (197) and Terrell Owens and Randy Moss (both 153); and he ranks eighth all-time with 13,899 yards.
Carter earned an invite to eight Pro Bowls, was named to two All-Pro squads, and joined Rice as a first-team receiver on the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team (Michael Irvin and Tim Brown were on the second team).
I have always been one to defend Hall of Fame voters. Fans do not realize the difficult choices the 44-person committee face, and the fact is the pool of worthy candidates gets bigger and bigger each year while only five names are drawn from it (not counting the Senior Committee candidates, of course). I would also add that right now — and into the foreseeable future — no position will leave as many players out in the cold as wide receiver, thanks to the way the game has changed over the past two decades.
Still, when it comes to Carter, I cannot understand, nor can I defend, the Selection Committee's rationale. Once again, they've left one of the game's elite players to wait amongst its merely great ones.
Many have speculated as to why Carter continues to get passed over. Let's consider the factors voters might be weighing …
Drugs and alcohol
It has been well documented that Carter had some troubled times during his first three years in the league while playing for the Eagles. But since when has a checkered past caused voters to blink? Lawrence Taylor was a first-ballot guy; it took Irvin three tries. Besides, instead of dwelling on Carter's darkest days, let's focus on the better story — how he bounced back. He made magic from misery, and became a mentor to younger receivers (Randy Moss stood straight for as long as Carter demanded him to). In 1999, Carter was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year. That honor alone should have washed away anything that happened in Philadelphia.
A logjam at receiver
Sports Illustrated's Peter King hypothesized Carter's snub this year had something to do with Andre Reed's and Brown's presence on the list of semifinalists. I believe Reed and Brown deserve their day in Canton … just not before Carter, and it makes me cringe to think they somehow stole votes away from the Vikings' great. Neither Reed nor Brown was in the same class as Carter — not in terms of leadership, ability or performance. Reed gained 1,000 or more yards just four times (Carter did it eight years in a row) and caught 43 fewer touchdowns than Carter in the same number of career games. Brown's totals are much closer to Carter's, but he never reached the elite status that Carter did in the mid 1990s when he caught 122 passes in back-to-back seasons.
So what. Charlie Joiner doesn't own a ring. He's in. Steve Largent doesn't own a ring. He's in. James Lofton doesn't own a ring. He's in. Carter was a better all-around receiver than all of these men. Largent was a first-ballot pick; Lofton and Joiner got in on their fifth tries — which is now the best Carter can do.
Didn't play well in big games
As one friend pointed out to me last week, Carter managed just nine catches and 91 yards in two NFC championship games — not the stuff of first-ballot Hall of Famers. Fair enough. But in many of his playoff games Carter was his usual splendid self. I also would argue that many great receivers failed to show in big games. Take Shannon Sharpe, for example. Ultimately, one could argue that Sharpe — and not Reed or Brown — was most responsible for keeping Carter out of Canton this year. Voters tend to target only one player at each position, with receivers and tight ends lumped together. Thus, because Sharpe got in this year, no other tight ends or wide receivers could. Sure, Sharpe was part of three Super Bowl-winning teams, but his contribution in those games was minimal (eight catches for 69 yards and no touchdowns). Was he a big-game receiver? Hardly. Other than his 96-yard score against Oakland in the 2000 AFC championship game (his only catch that day), Sharpe performed below expectations in the months of January and February. Didn't seem to bother voters.
A product of the modern-day passing game
Someone like Largent receives more consideration among football historians because his numbers came right at the cusp of the passing craze. Prior to the 1980s, the game was dominated by defense, with passing kept to a minimum. The great receivers were easy to identify. Now every team has a 1,000-yard receiver (or two) and so the value of those accomplishments has been lessened. But in the case of Carter, I might argue that his numbers alone do not tell the whole story. Carter was in many ways the Lynn Swann of his era — able to bend, jump and dive to make a catch — only with far better totals. He was not a product of the times, but rather a pioneer — the first man to catch 120-plus passes in a season, and one of the first (along with Sterling Sharpe and Rice) to catch 100 or more passes in consecutive seasons.
The only thing I will accept as a reason for snubbing Carter is timing. In 2008, I suspect voters chose Art Monk over Carter because they believed Monk had been ignored for too long. Carter was the better choice, Monk the sentimental one. The following year, Bob Hayes stole the receiver spot thanks to the Seniors Committee. In 2010, Rice was not to be denied (nor should he have been). This year, though, the Committee has no excuse.
Tweeted Hall of Fame voter Tom Kowalski on Feb. 5, "My guess? All 10 of the "snubbed" candidates from this season will be in the HOF in the next three years"
That's great news, Tom. My suggestion: Take care of Carter next February. Then worry about the rest.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).