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Shannon Sharpe: The Best Blocking Tight End Ever?

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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.