It’s amazing how I continue to be amazed by sports things at this point in my life.
I’m 50. I’ve seen it all, or all that I could see, anyway.
Two people I saw a good bit of early in my sports fandom were Steelers receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Swann and Stallworth were both selected by Pittsburgh in the 1974 NFL Draft. They each played integral roles in the team’s four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s, with Swann earning MVP honors in Super Bowl X and Stallworth catching the game-winning touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw early in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIV.
Also, they both made the Hall of Fame, with Swann finally receiving the honor in 2001—or 19 years after he retired. Stallworth got the call one year later—or 15 years after hanging up his cleats for good.
The two combined for 837 catches for 14,185 yards and 114 touchdowns.
None of what I have just mentioned about Swann and Stallworth surprised me one bit. It’s all been well-documented. It’s all well known.
But you know what else is well known, especially if you just visit a player’s Wikipedia Page? The number of Pro Bowls he was elected to during his career.
Judging by their storied careers, I would have guessed that each guy was named to the Pro Bowl countless times. That would have been a horrible guess.
Nope, Swann and Stallworth earned Pro Bowl honors three times each. What about All-Pro accolades? Swann was voted a First-team All-Pro in 1978 and a Second-team All-Pro in both 1975 and 1977. As for Stallworth, he was named a First-team All-Pro in 1979, the same year he was voted team MVP, and Second-team All-Pro in 1984, the same season that he set single-season franchise marks for both receptions (80) and yards (1,395).
How could this be? How could two future Hall of Fame receivers get overlooked so many times during their time in the league?
Yes, their numbers weren’t the greatest, but it was a different era, and relative to the era in which they played, they were two of the more explosive and dynamic playmakers at the position. They were arguably the best receiving duo of the 1970s.
Anyway, despite the incredulous tone I’ve presented in the article up to this point, I actually think it’s kind of neat that Swann and Stallworth weren’t highly-decorated receivers during their time. Why do I say that? Because being a Hall of Fame player is more than just about Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. It’s more than just about stats.
There is something to be said for passing the eye test. There’s something to be said for knowing a Hall of Fame player when you see one.
Swann and Stallworth may not have been First-ballot Hall of Famers, and it may have taken them longer to be enshrined than they would have liked, but when they eventually made it in the early 2000s, it just felt right.
Obviously, playing in so many important postseason games, and actually coming through with clutch contributions, helped the cause. It also didn’t hurt to be on four Lombardi winners—to say otherwise would be disingenuous. But I think that further proves my point.
Today, more than at any other point in the history of sports and Halls of Fame, we seem to be too preoccupied with numbers. If a player didn’t reach a certain statistical threshold relative to his position during his playing days, he just doesn’t deserve to get in.
Hines Ward falls into that category. Yes, he caught 1,000 passes during his career. True, he had over 12,000 receiving yards. Yes, he played on two Super Bowl winners and was voted MVP for one of them, but these things may never help his cause.
Ward was voted to the Pro Bowl four times and was named a Second-team All-Pro three times, but he was never considered to be the best receiver of his era.
But he did pass the eye test.
The same can be said for Antonio Brown, who actually was the best receiver on the planet from 2013 through 2018—only the greatest six-year statistical run for a receiver in the history of the NFL. Brown may or may not be done with the NFL, but if he is, he’ll leave the game with 928 receptions for 12,291 yards and 83 touchdowns. Brown has been to seven Pro Bowls, and he’s been named an All-Pro five times—including four First-team honors. He even won a Super Bowl as a member of the Buccaneers in 2020.
Many say that’s not enough, that Brown is both a victim of the statistically-potent passing era in which he’s played and a victim of his own off-the-field circumstances.
But Brown has more than passed the eye test. In fact, I’d say anything he does from this point on is extra credit.
Antonio Brown, like Hines Ward, is a Hall of Fame football player.
A Hall of Fame player is a Hall of Fame player. You know one when you see one, regardless of numbers, Pro Bowl honors or circumstances.