As I flipped through channels on a lazy Saturday, I hit the NFL Network and allowed myself to be yelled at by one of my all-time favorite Green Bay Packers, Sterling Sharpe. I don’t think he was yelling specifically at me, though its hard to tell. Let’s just say I’m glad it wasn’t me that ticked him off.
As I heard him compare his career numbers to those of Calvin Johnson, it made me ponder two things. First, he’s still trying to compare his career to every wide receiver in the league twenty years after he was forced to retire?
But, secondly, it made me think about exactly what kind of career he might have had if he had been born just ten years later. I’ve alluded in my last few articles about the neck injury that he obviously played with for years before retiring, choosing to risk it by tying the back of his helmet to his shoulder pads to prevent any further injury. When he finally injured it again and had to retire, his career would be cut short at seven seasons at the age of 29.
But in those seven seasons, he managed to compile some awfully impressive statistics, catching 595 balls (still good for 62nd all time in the NFL) for 8134 yards (80th) and 65 touchdowns (45th). Donald Driver managed to extend his career for twice as long as Sharpe and still didn’t manage to break Sharpe’s touchdown total.
Sharpe was charismatic and polarizing. He immediately cut off the local press when he received some criticism as a rookie, leading to endless cheap shots from the local beat writers. Behind the scenes, he developed a reputation for being arrogant and a me-first player in the huddle. The season after he retired, ESPN did a feature in which Brett Favre and the rest of the Packers talked about how much better the team was without Sharpe. They complained about his constant talking and demanding the ball in the huddle. Chris Berman came out of the segment and went to a split-screen with Sharpe and tried to damage control, telling Sterling how much they loved him and how much he was missed.
The look on Sharpe’s face clearly communicated he wasn’t buying it. And that was the first time I watched him television and heard him yelling at me. Well, he wasn’t yelling at me, but perhaps at the world. Yelling that his glorious statistics and impact on the team was still important and should be respected.
But, in the end, Sharpe was a great player on teams ranging from terrible to average. And he never had a quarterback of the caliber of Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers in their prime. Oh, he had Brett Favre all right, but that was pre-MVP Favre, a kid so wild and undisciplined his head coach nearly benched him.
There were those who quickly dismissed Sharpe, as it was the year after his retirement that the Packers took that step from wild-card contender to Super Bowl contenders, and Favre won his first MVP without his former security blanket. A giddy fan base quickly chalked Sharpe up as a necessary casualty and embraced Antonio Freeman and Robert Brooks as their new favorite receivers.
Perhaps, Sharpe was born too early. Imagine, for a moment, that he entered the league ten years later than he did. Instead of having Randy Wright, Don Majkowski, Mike Tomczak, and an immature Brett Favre throwing him passes, he would have entered the league in 1998. Favre would have been a former MVP and Super Bowl Champion, and have most of the ego filled up in the huddle already.
Had Sharpe started his seven-year career then, at a point of transition from the old Holmgren era to the Rhodes/Sherman eras, he might have been in a position to make a larger impact on the postseason games. Remember, Sharpe only played in two postseason games in his career, going 1-1 in 1993.
Imagine the mature, aging Favre having Sharpe as a #1 receiver. Ron Wolf often reflected he had done very little to put top-flight weapons around Favre, and having Sharpe might have saved the wasted second-round pick of Robert Ferguson in 2001 and the washout of the first-round pick of Javon Walker in 2002.
Now, imagine that 2003 playoff game against the Eagles: you know, the 4th-and-26 game. How might that game have been different with Sharpe? How would all of those Sherman playoff games have been different with a truly great wide receiver in his prime, one that, yes, might challenge the abilities of the Calvin Johnson of today?
Perhaps, as is the custom of Favre-led teams, Sharpe wouldn’t have caught as many passes as when he was the only option in the late 80′s and 90′s. Maybe he wouldn’t have owned the record for most receptions in a season as he did in 1992. But maybe, he would have changed the complexion of those Sherman teams just enough to give them a little more success when it mattered.
Now, pretend that Sharpe’s career is juxtaposed ahead twenty years, and he enters the league as a Green Bay Packer in 2008, Aaron Rodgers’ first year as a starter. While the Packers had Greg Jennings and Donald Driver already at wide receiver, what might the addition of a player like Sharpe done for Rodgers’ formative years? More importantly, what might it have done for that Arizona playoff game in 2009, or the New York Giants playoff game in 2011? What might it have done for the San Francisco playoff loss last year, which would correspond to Sharpe’s best season ever in 1992?
Again, Aaron Rodgers likes to spread it around, and its unlikely that Sharpe would have as many receptions as he would have in his real career. But what would a mega-talented player like Sharpe have been able to contribute under some real leadership? Let’s be honest: Lindy Infante, who became the Packers’ head coach in 1988 (Sharpe’s rookie year), had a reputation for a country club atmosphere in the locker room, where the players took liberties and essentially ran the club as they saw fit. Imagine Sharpe entering the league under Mike McCarthy’s approach and Ted Thompson’s expectations.
It’s hard to say exactly how great of a player Sterling Sharpe truly might have been if his career hadn’t been cut short. To this day, he still ranks 14th all time in the NFL for most reception yardage per game (72.6). How long could he have continued that production? I’m sure he’s spent many hours extrapolating his statistics over eleven, twelve, and thirteen seasons. I’m sure he still measures those ghostly numbers against players like Jerry Rice and Calvin Johnson.
But even harder to say is how Sharpe might have fared under better leadership, catching passes from a mature NFL-great quarterback like Favre and Rodgers in their prime, with a talented team around him. Maybe instead of counting up his numbers and trying to compare them to the greats, he might be counting the number of Super Bowl rings on his hand.
Then, when I’m flipping through the channels on a lazy Saturday afternoon, Sterling Sharpe would be yelling at me about the quality of his playing days, not the quantity of his statistics.
C.D. Angeli is a lifelong Packer fan and feature writer at CheeseheadTV. He is the co-host of the weekly Packers podcast Cheesehead Radio and is the good cop running PackersTalk.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision.