The final three players up for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year are offensive stars, each one from a different position. There’s a running back, a wide receiver and a tight end. With my previous selections, which I’ll recap in a bit, I’ve only two maximum spots left on my ballot. So let’s get to it, starting with a wide receiver who helped the City of St. Louis to its only Super Bowl victory.
Isaac Bruce, Wide Receiver: Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, 1994-2007 & San Francisco 49ers, 2008-2009
Bruce joined the Rams in their final year in Los Angeles (this, of course, before they moved back to Los Angeles from St. Louis a couple of years ago) as the 33rd overall pick out of Memphis. He, like the team as a whole, didn’t do much in 1994, but he exploded in 1995, catching 119 passes for 1,781 yards and 13 touchdowns. While he’d never again have 100 or more receptions, he would collect over 1,000 yards receiving another seven times in his career.
In 1999, Bruce was coming off an injury-plagued season in which he played just five games. With the ascension of quarterback Kurt Warner and the arrivals of running back Marshall Faulk (by trade with the Colts) and wide receiver Torry Holt (the No. 6 pick out of North Carolina State), Bruce regained his form as part of The Greatest Show on Turf, the Rams’ high-flying offense that enamored the league, captured two NFC titles in three seasons, and won Super Bowl XXXIV.
Today, Bruce’s 1,024 career receptions rank 13th all-time, while his 91 receiving touchdowns rank 12th and his 15,208 receiving yards rank fifth. He made four Pro-Bowls and was never elected All-Pro.
There are 17 wide receivers in the Hall of Fame, but only seven of them from the same era as Isaac Bruce–guys who played the bulk of their careers around the same time Bruce played: Jerry Rice, Cris Carter, Andre Reed, Tim Brown, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens and Randy Moss.
Among them, Bruce ranks sixth in receptions, fourth in receiving yards and seventh in touchdown receptions. His four Pro-Bowl appearances rank dead last. He joins Brown and Reed with zero All-Pro selections.
Here’s what hurts Bruce, though: from the time Holt showed up in St. Louis until the time Bruce left for San Francisco (where he did little), Holt was the Rams’ primary wide receiver. Of those nine seasons together, Holt was the team’s leading receiver eight times. For the bulk of his career, Bruce wasn’t even the best receiver on his team, let alone the league.
And because of that, he doesn’t get in.
Tony Gonzalez, Tight End: Kansas City Chiefs, 1997-2008 & Atlanta Falcons, 2009-2013
I’ll be blunt: of the 15 finalists, Gonzalez is the only lock to make the Hall of Fame this season. He is arguably the greatest tight end to have ever taken the field. In his 17 years, he made the Pro-Bowl 14 times while being named All-Pro six times.
His 1,325 receptions rank second all-time. His 15,127 receiving yards rank sixth all-time. His 111 touchdown receptions rank eighth all-time. And his 254 games started rank 10th all-time.
Among tight ends, only Antonio Gates has more receiving touchdowns (116 and counting), and none–none!–have more receptions or receiving yards.
If this group of candidates only has one player get elected, it will be Gonzalez. He’s bound for Canton this year.
Edgerrin James, Running Back: Indianapolis Colts, 1999-2005; Arizona Cardinals, 2006-2008; Seattle Seahawks, 2009
If Edgerrin James’ career had gone like his first two seasons, he’d join Gonzalez as a lock for Canton. But while he still had a stellar career, he couldn’t match his 1999 and 2000 seasons, and will not make it into the Hall of Fame.
The Colts took James out of Miami (Fla.) with the No. 4 pick in the 1999 draft, enabling them to deal Marshall Faulk and pair James with a young quarterback named Peyton Manning. In his rookie season, James made the Pro-Bowl and was elected All-Pro, as he finished with league-leading 1,553 rushing yards, another 586 receiving yards, and a league-leading 17 total touchdowns. Deservedly, he won Offensive Rookie of the Year.
In 2000, he again paced the league in rushing, this time with 1,709 yards, to go with 594 receiving yards. He led all players in yards from scrimmage with 2,303, and racked up 18 total touchdowns. While he made the Pro-Bowl, he was not named All-Pro, nor would he ever be named such again.
In fact, he would make only two more Pro-Bowls, in 2004 and 2005, years in which he ran for at least 1,500 yards. Yet, his receiving skills had diminished, and the Colts let him leave for Arizona after the 2007 season.
Even in the desert, James had two seasons of over 1,000 yards rushing. In 2008 with the Cardinals, he made his one and only Super Bowl appearance, a game in which Arizona fell to Pittsburgh. In his final season, as a member of the Seattle Seahawks, James touched the ball only a total of 49 times, rushing for a mere 125 yards and receiving only 19 yards.
Overall, James ended his career with 91 total touchdowns (which is, oddly the same number Isaac Bruce had), which ranks 31st all-time. The only top-ten categories in which James finished were touches (ninth) and rushing attempts (eighth). His 12,246 rushing yards rank 13th and his 80 career rushing touchdowns come in at 20th all-time. He ranks 27th all-time in all-purpose yards with 15,610.
There really aren’t that many running backs in the Hall of Fame to whom I can compare James. There is only one who began his career in the same year or later than James: LaDainian Tomlinson, who played from 2001-2011. Including Tomlinson, there are only six running backs in Canto who played in 2000 or later: LT, Thurman Thomas (who retired after 2000), Marshall Faulk, Curtis Martin, Emmitt Smith and Jerome Bettis. Of those six, again, only LT played anywhere near the bulk of his career in James’ era.
So, let’s compare James to Tomlinson. And really, it’s not even close: Tomlinson was far superior. Both played 11 seasons, and yet LT ranks ahead of James in every important category: Pro-Bowls, All-Pro selections, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns (145 to 80), total touchdowns (162 to 91), receiving yards and total yards (by nearly 3,000). To boot, LT won an MVP and Offensive Player of the Year Award.
Perhaps Tomlinson is the Gold Standard for today’s running backs. Perhaps no one will be able to match his numbers and accolades, therefore making him an unfair bar for comparison. But right now, he’s all we’ve got. And using him as a reference, there is no way that Edgerrin James belongs in the Hall of Fame.
The Canton Worthy Series Recap
In the first article, I looked at head coaches Don Coryell and Tom Flores.
In the second article, I looked at linemen on both sides of the ball.
In the third article, I looked at defensive backs, both safeties and corners.
And, of course, today I looked at offensive skill players.
Overall, I looked at the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 15 finalists and made sense of where they stand. A maximum of five of these players will get the call this year.
Of them all, I’m most confident that Tony Gonzalez will get elected.
One player I strongly considered, but ultimately passed on was Champ Bailey. If he gets in, he would deserve it. However, I felt like his career wasn’t quite there.
If I were to vote, I’d also stump for center Kevin Mawae, guard Alan Faneca and safety Ed Reed. Together, Gonzalez and those three would make tremendous additions to the Hall of Fame.