Does longevity still matter in the definition of football greatness?

Calvin Johnson (81) photo courtesy of USA Today

Only 48 of the 280 players enshrined in Canton played fewer than 10 seasons. That list could be growing.

Longevity matters.

At least it used to matter in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A Hall-of-Fame player has long been one who exhibited excellence over an extended period of time. Jim Brown winning eight rushing titles in a span of nine seasons. Reggie White capturing NFL Defensive Player-of-the-Year honors in 1987 and again a decade later in 1998. Walter Payton earning first-team all-decade honors in 1970 and again in 1980. Emmitt Smith amassing an NFL-record 18,000 rushing yards over 15 seasons and Brett Favre amassing 71,000 passing yards over 20 seasons.

There are 280 players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The average career of those Hall of Famers lasted 12.8 years. There are only 48 players enshrined in Canton who played fewer than 10 seasons. Twenty-two of them played pre-1950 when shorter careers were the rule rather than the exception. That leaves only 26 Hall of Famers over the last seven decades who played 10 seasons or less.

Clearly, short careers were once the exception. Jim Brown, Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers all played fewer than 10 seasons, and all were first-ballot Hall of Fame selections. And rightfully so.

But the committee has eased up on the reins in recent years. In 2016, the Hall enshrined 1950s' all-decade guard Dick Stanfel as a senior nominee. He played only seven seasons. In 2017, the Hall enshrined both 1990s' all-decade running back Terrell Davis and 1980s' all-decade safety Kenny Easley. Both played only seven seasons.

Tackle Tony Boselli, an all-decade selection in the 1990s, has been a Hall-of-Fame finalist each of the last three years. He has made strides, advancing in the cut from 15 to 10 in all three of his trips to the finals. He played only eight seasons.

So Davis, Easley and Stanfel became exceptions to the longevity rule. They were judged and enshrined based on short stretches of greatness. Davis authored only three Hall-of-Fame-caliber seasons. The same with Easley. He was a first-team All-Pro in only three of his seven seasons.

If it becomes a new rule that the Hall starts judging candidates based on their best three seasons, the bust room will become awfully crowded. Start commissioning busts for Priest Holmes, Sterling Sharpe, Rich Jackson and Bobby Dillon. All were the best at what they did in short windows – Holmes rushing the football, Sharpe catching it, Jackson sacking quarterbacks and Dillon intercepting passes.

Cecil Isbell, Chuck Foreman, Larry Brown, Billy Sims, Charley Hennigan, Fred Arbanas, Bill Fralic, Keith Millard, Tom Sestak and Bobby Boyd also would deserve to have short-but-brilliant careers examined by Canton. All saw their candidacies slide through the process unnoticed and into the senior pool.

But the selection committee did not hold the lengths of the careers of Davis and Easley against them. The committee also has warmed to the candidacy of Boselli, and there are two more such candidacies looming down the road – Calvin Johnson and Rob Gronkowski. Both retired after playing nine NFL seasons.

For a three-year window (2011-13), Johnson was the best wide receiver in the game. He led the NFL in receiving yards in 2011 with 1,681, then led the league in both receptions and yards in 2012 with 122 catches for an NFL-record 1,964 yards. He followed that up with a 1,492-yard, 12-touchdown season in 2013. He had four other 1,000-yard seasons and three other Pro Bowl berths in his nine seasons. But 66 percent of everyone enshrined in Canton won a championship. Johnson never won a playoff game in his career, much less a Super Bowl.

Gronkowski had a four-year window of greatness. He went to five Pro Bowls and posted four 1,000-yard seasons. He also set NFL records for the tight-end position with his 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011. But in his five non-1,000-yard seasons Gronkowski averaged only 42 catches for 630 yards and six touchdowns. His sterling post-season play that helped produce multiple Super Bowl rings should benefit him in the discussion, just as it did Davis.

Johnson becomes eligible for Hall-of-Fame discussion in 2021. Gronkowski will be eligible in 2024. Will Boselli still be waiting then? Will we see a Holmes and a Sharpe enter into the discussion by then? Will longevity still be an issue? If not, the Hall had better begin an expansion of the bust room. The line for election will soon be growing.

Comments (4)
No. 1-3
brian wolf
brian wolf

Longevity can really only go so far. Especially with todays free agency, where there is so much player movement, that a great career like Hardy Nickersons can be forgotten because writers only remember a players output for a particular team/city.

When players come into the NFL they want to absorb their coaching, stay in shape and do everything possible to stay healthy, help their team and win a championship but where is the fine line between consistent greatness, and trying to hold on to past memories or just compile statistics ?

Great players who sustained their greatness over at least six years of their career should be just as remembered as good players who stayed good for 15 years...Sometimes writers, fans and historians get caught up more in numbers and statistics than the "wow" factor, which is what our eyes see.

Yes Longevity of a career should be a major factor, but injuries or retirement shouldnt take away from what we see or judge to be great play from a great player.

Rick Gosselin
Rick Gosselin

Editor

Thumbs up or down on Priest Holmes and Sterling Sharpe?

brian wolf
brian wolf

Speaking of RBs with injuries, look at former Cardinals and Giants RB Otis Anderson. Everyone in the early 80s knew he would have a great career until he got hurt in 1985, then had to not only recuperate but went to the Giants, where he had to play his way back on the field and then became a Super Bowl MVP. Take away the injuries and he would have easily surpassed 12,000 career yds. When he went over the 10,000 yd mark before he retired only six or seven backs had done it. He also scored a TD in the 86/87 SB.