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A case for Sterling Sharpe as a deserving Pro Football Hall of Famer

Sharpe’s star burned brightly before it burned out, but that brief career is still worthy of inclusion in Canton.

Sterling Sharpe - Green Bay Packers - File Photos

Simply put, Sterling Sharpe’s career was a brief blaze of glory. The Green Bay Packers receiver posted one of the most prolific seven-year stretches of wide receiver play in NFL history in his short career, one that ended far too early due to a neck injury.

This week, Sharpe’s name appeared on the list of semifinalists for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2023, the first time that he is being considered by the Hall’s Seniors Committee for the honor. With Sharpe getting little to no traction as a modern-era candidate over the past 25 years, perhaps the Seniors Committee will give him his due and seriously consider him for enshrinement.

After all, Sharpe’s peak was truly legendary. And if you subscribe to the adage that people belong in the Hall of Fame if you can’t tell the story of the NFL without them, then he certainly deserves enshrinement. Let’s take a look back at that story and that career.

After the Packers made him the 7th overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, Sharpe posted a very solid rookie season with 55 receptions for 791 yards and a touchdown. However, the Packers were simply bad that season, going 4-12 with the quarterback combination of Randy Wright and Don Majkowski.

Year two in 1989 was Sharpe’s breakout. The sophomore receiver earned his first of five Pro Bowl selections and his first of three first-team All-Pro honors thanks to a season that saw him lead the league in receptions with 90. His 1,423 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns were second only to Jerry Rice (1,483 and 17), who would be Sharpe’s only real competition for the title of “best NFL receiver” over the full seven-year period when Sharpe played.

The connection that Sharpe shared with Majkowski was at its peak that season. Sharpe recorded six games of 100 yards or more and he scored at least one touchdown in each of those six contests. He even hit the 150-yard mark three times that fall; when he took over a game, he was truly unstoppable.

The Packers would finish 10-6 in 1989, narrowly missing out on a playoff spot, but they fell back to Earth in the following two years before head coach Lindy Infante was fired. Sharpe’s production slipped a bit in 1990 and 1991 as well, due in no small part to Majkowski starting just eight games each season. Still, 1990 saw Sharpe post his highest yards per reception mark of his career at 16.5, as he managed to earn another Pro Bowl honor with 1,105 yards on just 67 catches from Majkowski and Anthony Dilweg.

With that said, Sharpe’s splits with and without Majkowski in 1990 were stark. With the Majik Man starting under center from week 3 through week 11, Sharpe totaled 733 receiving yards for an average of 91.6 per game — even better than his average in 1989. But without Majkowski throwing him the ball, Sharpe was held under 50 yards per game on average.

1991 was the only year aside from Sharpe’s rookie season in which he did not go to the Pro Bowl, with Majkowski banged-up and splitting time with Mike Tomczak. His 961 yards and four scores was still plenty respectable, however, particularly given the team’s overall offensive struggles.

The 1992 season saw everything change, however. When Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre arrived in Green Bay, Sharpe exploded.

The Favre-to-Sharpe connection was remarkable for three seasons, all of which saw Sharpe in the Pro Bowl as he earned his other two All-Pro nods. He set an NFL record for receptions in 1992 with 108, then broke his own record a year later by catching 112 passes. The ‘92 season saw him lead the NFL in receiving yards (1,461) and touchdowns (13) as well, and he finished fourth in the Associated Press’ voting for both the NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year awards.

In 1993, Sharpe drew even more passes from Favre and although his catch rate and yards per reception dipped a bit, he still earned All-Pro honors and MVP votes. In fact, only one other receiver received any votes for MVP at any time during these seven seasons (Rice, of course).

That season’s defining moment came in the playoffs, however. Sharpe’s touchdown from Favre at the Pontiac Silverdome knocked the NFC Central champion Detroit Lions out of the playoffs and was ranked #64 on the NFL’s 100 Greatest Plays countdown, which was compiled in 2019.

Finally, in Sharpe’s last season of 1994, he posted another Pro Bowl season, catching a league-leading 18 touchdown passes. That mark tied for the second-most in league history at the time and still holds up in a tie for the third-most all-time (a mark that Davante Adams matched in 2020).

Sharpe’s final career regular season stat line is as follows:

  • 595 receptions, 8,134 yards, 65 touchdowns

During those seven seasons, the only player with more counting stats than Sharpe in any category was Jerry Rice, who shattered and still holds career records in all of those areas. The next-closest player in those categories was either Andre Reed (518 receptions and 7,408 yards) or Andre Rison (60 touchdowns) and in all cases, that represents a substantial dropoff from Sharpe to the #3 option. Sharpe was also the only wide receiver not named Jerry Rice to receive votes for Most Valuable Player in that time frame, doing so in two different seasons (1992 and 1993).

Furthermore, Sharpe did not miss a game until his neck injury late in the 1994 season, which he played through in that year’s season finale (recording 9 catches for 132 yards and three touchdowns, by the way) before being shut down for the postseason — and eventually for his career.

Finally, there’s the speech that Sterling’s brother Shannon Sharpe gave at his own Hall of Fame induction in 2015:

My big brother Sterling. I’m the only player of 267 men that’s walked through this building to my left that can honestly say this. I’m the only pro football player that’s in the Hall of Fame and I’m the second-best player in my own family. If fate had dealt you a different hand, there’s no question, there’s absolutely no question in my mind that we would be the first brothers to be elected to the Hall of Fame.

(To) the 44 men and women that I thanked and congratulated earlier for bestowing this prestigious honor upon me, all I do is ask. All I can do is ask, in the most humblest way I know how, is that the next time you go into that room or you start making a list, look at Sterling Sharpe’s accomplishments for (a) seven-year period of the guys that’s in the Hall of Fame at the receiver position and the guys that have the potential to be in this building ... the next time you go in that room, think about Sterling Sharpe’s numbers for seven years.

While there are numerous other deserving men on this year’s list of semifinalists, we at Acme Packing Company also humbly ask those evaluating this year’s list to take a close look at Sterling Sharpe. They may well find that his numbers and his story are indeed deserving of his own bust in Canton.