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Muhammad Ali Hasan

Muhammad Ali Hasan

Posted: October 8, 2010 02:01 PM

For the last two years, fans of Shannon Sharpe, like myself, have suffered the fate of seeing our favorite football player denied entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Many have said this is due to Sharpe spending most of his career in Denver, away from the big lights and attention of Los Angeles and New York, but I would deeply disagree.

After all, outside of Ozzie Newsome, Sharpe was the only tight end to ever grace a cover of Sports Illustrated by himself, and unlike Newsome, Sharpe's cover story was about him, not his team. In addition, since retiring from the NFL, Sharpe has served as one of the best sports commentators in America, covering the NFL with CBS every Sunday. For those who are fans of Sharpe, we know that attention has never been his problem.

Rather, the problem is blocking. Upon retirement, Sharpe would hold every major tight end record, catching more balls, accumulating more receiving yards, and scoring more touchdowns than any other tight end in NFL history. He would be elected to the Pro Bowl eight times, be given First Team Honors four times, and be named to the NFL's 1990 All-Decade Team. And most importantly, he would have the most Super Bowl rings of any tight end - three championships won - an accomplishment that dwarfs all other notes.

So what's keeping this fine player out of the Hall of Fame? Again, it is blocking. Throughout his career, Sharpe would be noted as an eminent 'receiver,' but a shadow campaign accused him of being a subpar blocker, the most important aspect to being a tight end, according to purists. And to this day, it is my belief that Hall of Fame voters are shutting out Sharpe, for this reason alone.

With that said, I proudly submit this point: among the NFL's elite tight ends, Shannon Sharpe was the best blocking tight end... ever.

As a former football player myself, no data is more useful in evaluating a team's ability to block than total rushing yardage, the number of yards gained running - in particular, since most tight ends are sent to receive during passing plays, rushing yardage becomes the best barometer for how we should measure a tight end's effectiveness, in terms of blocking.

Thus, consider the facts below, in comparing the current Hall of Fame tight ends against Shannon Sharpe -

Mike Ditka - Ditka had seven productive years, between 1961 and 1967. Within those seven years, Ditka's team outperformed the league average in rushing yardage only three times, and they were always far from first place. Ditka's best season as a blocker would come in 1965, when Chicago placed 3rd in rushing, out of 14 teams, a substandard resume for a blocking tight end.

Jackie Smith - Smith had eleven very productive years, between 1963 and 1974, all spent with the St. Louis Cardinals. Within those eleven years, the Cardinals would be above the league average in rushing yardage for six of those years, but far from a powerhouse. Of note, in 1970, St. Louis ranked 6th in rushing yardage out of 26 teams - Smith's best performance as a blocker.

Kellen Winslow - Winslow had nine productive years, from 1979 to 1987, all with the San Diego Chargers. Winslow, despite being regarded by some as the best tight end ever, has an atrocious record in terms of blocking. Of his nine years, San Diego would only be above the league average in total rushing once, in 1982, where they ranked 11th out of 26 teams.

Ozzie Newsome - Newsome had 13 productive years, from 1978 to 1990, all with the Cleveland Browns. Similar to Winslow, many argue that Newsome was the greatest tight end ever; however, Newsome's record on blocking, like Winslow's, is atrocious. Over his NFL career, Newsome's team would only be above the league averages in total rushing yardage three times, with his best year as a blocker coming during his rookie year of 1978, when Cleveland was 5th in rushing out of 26 teams.

Dave Casper - Although his career is longer on paper, Casper would enjoy eight productive seasons in the NFL, from 1976 to 1983, splitting time between the Oakland Raiders, Houston Oilers, and Minnesota Vikings. Of those eight seasons, Casper's teams would only be above the league average in rushing yardage three times. However, two of those three seasons were very successful, with Houston ranking 2nd in rushing in 1980, and the Raiders ranking 2nd in rushing in 1977.

John Mackey - Mackey, like Newsome and Winslow, is undeserving of the perception that he practiced great blocking. Although he played for ten seasons, Mackey had eight productive ones, where he was given significant playing time, all with the Baltimore Colts. Of those eight seasons, Baltimore would only enjoy two seasons in which its total rushing yardage was above the league average. Of note, Mackey's best year as a blocker came in 1964, when Baltimore was 5th out of 14 teams, in terms of rushing.

Charlie Sanders - Sanders had ten productive years, between 1968 and 1977, all with the Detroit Lions. I will admit, Sanders does test my theory on Sharpe being the best ever, considering that of those ten years, Detroit was above the league average, in terms of total rushing, for seven of those ten years.

Of note, Detroit was second in the league in total rushing yardage in 1970 and 1971, Sanders's best years as a blocker.

Tony Gonzalez - While he is not in the Hall of Fame as yet, many argue that Gonzalez is the best tight end ever, and certainly, Gonzalez has been a great blocker. And with his career continuing to this day, Gonzalez has had thirteen productive seasons, with the first starting in 1997 and most spent with the Kansas City Chiefs. Of those thirteen seasons, Gonzalez's teams have been above the league average in rushing for a total of nine times, excellent in comparison to most aforementioned. Of note, Kansas City was 4th in rushing in 1999, 3rd in 2002, 5th in 2004, and 4th in 2005.

Shannon Sharpe - Finally, I present you with the data on Sharpe. Similar to Gonzalez, Sharpe had thirteen productive seasons in the NFL, between 1991 and 2003, with 1999 not being included, due to injury. Most seasons were spent with the Denver Broncos, but Sharpe had two great seasons with the Baltimore Ravens in 2000 and 2001 as well. Again, like Gonzalez, of Sharpe's 13 seasons, his teams would be above the league average in rushing a total of nine times - but here's where Sharpe and Gonzalez contrast - of those nine times, Sharpe's teams would put up the following numbers in total rushing - Denver would be 5th in 1995, 1st in 1996, 4th in 1997, 2nd in 1998, 5th in 2002, 2nd in 2003, and lastly, Baltimore would be 5th in 2000.

For sake of comparison, while Gonzalez has carried his team to as many great seasons of rushing as Sharpe has, his teams have never ranked higher than 3rd. Sharpe, on the other hand, blocked for a team that was 1st in rushing in 1996, with two 2nd place finishes in 1998 and 2003. And of course, it was a major accomplishment for Sharpe to switch teams, later in his career, from Denver to Baltimore, only to propel Baltimore to 5th in rushing in 2000, compared to their 16th ranking in 1999, the year before Sharpe arrived.

And in regard to Charlie Sanders, while seven out of ten is just slightly better than nine out of 13, Sanders could never take his team to a first place ranking, like what Sharpe did above.

For purists who still argue that my quantitative data above is arbitrary, I encourage you all to dig out the tapes of the Monday Night Football game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots on September 7, 1998. In particular, I ask that you watch the first quarter, where you'll see a play, in which, when blocking for Terrell Davis, Sharpe completely levels Pro Bowl linebacker Chris Slade, sending him out of the game and onto the injury list. Sharpe's career was filled with touchdowns and diving grabs, but rarely did we see how talented a blocker he was, mainly because the cameras were never on him at these times - and if you doubt Sharpe's gifted blocking ability, then I suggest you ask Chris Slade how his concussion was after Sharpe's clean hit (and of sad note, Slade would never recover from Sharpe's hit, never seeing the Pro Bowl or the same production since that fateful thrash).

And more importantly, by panning the data above, one would be admitting that rushing yardage has nothing to do with good blocking, a road, I assume, most Hall of Fame voters would like to avoid?

But consider why we even have a Pro Football Hall of Fame?

Starting out around the 1930s, professional sports would be closely correlated with the civil rights movement, becoming one of the few institutions in America where minorities could be given a fair field to succeed. Ultimately, it was a ground that broke all barriers - if African-American, Native American, Asian and Latino athletes could compete so successfully as athletes, who was to say that they couldn't make great leaders in all areas? More importantly, sports is something that brought us together - baseball, basketball, and football fields were some of the first places to rarely segregate between races, making sporting events the first bastion of rebellion for those who desired an end to a racist world that would see its proper demise.

For our nation, the Hall of Fame isn't just a place that represents athletic accomplishment, but rather, a place that honors the leaders who were able to reverse the negative trends within our country.

So consider Sharpe.

In growing up, myself, as a minority in Colorado, Denver would always be dominated by white athletes. Dan Issel and Kiki Vandeweghe led the Denver Nuggets, while John Elway was always the headline for the Broncos. Like so many dynamics within Colorado, our athletes were white, conservative, apologetic, humble and most of all... winless.

And above all, talking trash was 'looked down upon' - it wasn't a 'conservative' ethos of living that Coloradans prided - and it was a big reason why we hated all those teams from New York and Texas, who talked so much smack, but always seemed to win the championships.

And while I never resented the white-centricity within Colorado sports, it broke my heart that successful minority athletes in Colorado were rarely celebrated. David Thompson, the best basketball player to ever wear a Nuggets uniform, would be known more for burning out on cocaine than he would be for his All Star games. And in the 1980's, the Broncos would claim the 'Three Amigos,' a trio of flashy African-American receivers that included Mark Jackson, Vance Johnson, and Ricky Nattiel - the great 'minority' hopes of Colorado!

Although Johnson would go on to play a wonderful (and very altruistic) role in campaigning against domestic violence, the 'Three Amigos,' throughout 1980's Colorado, were known more for reckless partying than they were for catching touchdowns.

But then came Sharpe...

Sharpe was everything a Coloradan wasn't supposed to be - brash, outspoken, full of trash talk, cocky... a man who never apologized.

Unlike the Three Amigos, Sharpe could back up his talk with acrobatic catches and sick blocks - and by doing so, he gave the Broncos something they sorely missed - a spine.

It was throughout the 1980's that the Broncos would suffer three, devastating losses in the Super Bowl, causing many fans to give up for good. But it was the emergence of Sharpe in the 1990's, who gave the team an image of one that never apologized. Rather than allow our coaches to humbly explain every loss, Sharpe was quick to grab all microphones, especially after losses, talking endlessly about why we were the best team ever known to man, despite any defeat... it was, as if... he was some arrogant Don Quixote? Completely crazy! A man who truly seemed to believe in... his own quixotic view of the world?

The Broncos a great team? Colorado home to a Super Bowl?!?

Crazy!

...but then something strange happened... we all, all of Colorado, every Denver Bronco... we all decided to believe in Sharpe's craziness! If we truly, irrationally, believed that we could be the best, the way Sharpe did... then maybe we would be?

And why not? Better to be high over irrational confidence... then live deflated, with apologetic humility?

So it would be in 1997, that the Broncos, despite playing as a Wild Card, would win four straight games, en route to their first championship, against the 13-point favorite, Green Bay Packers, who we were supposed to play 'doormat' to... a victory that shocked every fan... a victory that only the craziest could believe in.

Like the namesake he represented, Sharpe was a bucking Bronco, uncontrollable, fierce, full of endless energy, too prideful to be put down, preferring irrational, crazy, animal rage, over considerate, apologetic, conservative emotion. To me, and many in Colorado, he would become a hero - someone who never apologized... someone who taught us that winning was the reward you got for having that special ability to irrationally believe that you... that you are the best.

That's what Shannon Sharpe taught us.

On Sunday nights at Mile High Stadium, after every Bronco game, and I can attest to this personally, Sharpe was one of few players who made sure to interact with his fans and sign every autograph thrown at him. While many players, even subpar ones, would arrogantly pass by us with large entourages, Sharpe made a point to always mingle with us, whether it was a blizzard or hot sun, a win or loss... Sharpe brought us together, us Colorado fans of many different backgrounds, who finally found a leader to call our own... and ya know what?

We adored him.

As a gifted receiver and blocker (as proven above), Sharpe represents everything any team could ever want in a tight end. In winning three Super Bowls, he represents everything we could ask for in a winner. And in being himself, he transcended football, in ultimately bringing people of all different types together, under one umbrella, purely sharing in our love of a man whose personality was everything that conservative Colorado taught us not to be... cocky... loud-mouthed... arrogant... trash-talking... winners.

And last I checked, isn't this the kind of athlete that justifies why we even have a football Hall of Fame?

My Hall of Fame voters - you have no reason left to not vote this fine man into the Hall of Fame - the finest tight end to ever play the game - the finest blocker - one of your finest players ever - a winner - a leader - and most importantly, our beloved Colorado Bronco... our Shannon Sharpe.

 

Follow Muhammad Ali Hasan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HasanDaddy