Chewing the Fat: HOFer Shannon Sharpe

The IAOFM staff discuss the career and impact of former Broncos and Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe, who will be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame today in Canton, Ohio. Sharpe is the fourth Bronco to enter the Hall, joining John Elway, Gary Zimmerman and Floyd Little, and he retired following the 2003 season as the NFL's all-time leader in receptions, yards, and touchdowns by a tight end.

TJ - Obviously, guys like Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez should be paying royalties to Shannon Sharpe.  Sharpe transformed the position of tight end at a time in which the league was really morphing into a passing league.  The way in which tight ends are used today is a reflection of several players (Ozzie Newsome, Kellen Winslow, Todd Christensen), but Sharpe more so than any of them.  His routes in the seam, across the middle, and in the soft spots of a zone defense set the stage for today's explosive offenses.

Ted - I’m an urban guy from Connecticut (seriously), and I grew up hooping and running the streets with the other residents of Norwich.  I recently got pulled into one of the memes going around Facebook along the lines of “You’re Probably From Norwich If...” and it’s striking how many people who were hoodlums when we were kids evidently haven’t changed much.  There were a lot of tough kids on some tough streets, and the only thing better than being able to fight (I was really skinny as a kid, and not at all outstanding in this area) was being able to talk trash.

My brother Chris and I were pretty outstanding in that area, and in the course of playing football and basketball and whatever else with the rest of the neighborhood talent, our verbal edge got really sharp.  It was all in the game, like they say in The Wire.  Talking about somebody’s mom was off limits, but you could say just about anything about them, and they’d come right back at you with their own insults.

Shannon Sharpe was my favorite football player when I was in my teens, because he was the best trash talker in the NFL.  This was the kind of dude I could see myself playing against on Chelsea Parade, and having as one of my buddies.  The only thing that wouldn’t fit in Norwich was the southern accent, but we would have all gotten used to it pretty quickly. Next thing you knew, the same dudes that wore their clothes backwards to school the day after Kris Kross hit it big would have been talking all southern too.

Mr. President, call the National Guard, because we are killing the Patriots!  I didn’t graduate Cum Laude, I graduated “Thank you, lawdy!”  This guy was just brilliant, and he hasn’t lost one iota of a step.  He was saying on Sirius the other morning when somebody asked if he was flying tons of people in for the once-in-a-lifetime experience, that being broke was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and he had no plans to experience it again.

Doug - Guys, what were your best memories of Shannon? For me, the Week 14 game-winner in 1998 against the Chiefs epitomized Shannon's career. Yes, he amassed unprecedented numbers from the TE position, but to me it's not the records that explain Big Play Shay's greatness. Rather, it was the seemingly countless times he came up big in the clutch; hence the nickname. Going back to the pre-Smith and -McCaffrey days when Sharpe was Elway's only legitimate weapon, Shannon always managed to get open and handle the throw from John - even if everyone in the stadium and watching on TV knew the ball was heading his way.

That TD reception against KC put Denver ahead after facing a late 10-point deficit and the looming likelihood that their bid at perfection would end at 12 wins. Fittingly, it would be Shannon's only catch of the game, and the victory would prove to be the last of Elway's remarkable comebacks. Who better to haul in that throw than John's favorite security blanket, Big Play Shay?

TJ - My best memory of Sharpe is not a game memory, although I certainly have many of them.   It was his demeanor after the Broncos lost to the Jaguars in the 1996 playoffs that stands out to me.  Sharpe had two catches for 31 yards, and he took the loss hard, much harder than even the fans did.  I remember his saying that the loss would set the Broncos franchise back "years."  Of course, the next year the Broncos won the Super Bowl.  Sharpe had the most receiving yards in his career that year.  Further, his blocking, which had been steadily improving over the years, seemed to be downright nasty.

Sharpe took the loss to Jacksonville as an opportunity to rededicate himself in the face of adversity.  That's the mark of a true champion and Hall of Famer.

Doug - I know I've already used up my "favorite memory" slot, but I'd be remiss to ignore Shannon's game-sealing catch in the 1997 AFC Championship game. Just five weeks prior, the Steelers had dealt a serious blow to the Broncos' hopes of winning their division or gaining home-field advantage, and therefore Denver had to return to Pittsburgh for the rematch. They'd jumped out to a 24-14 halftime lead, but were holding on for dear life in the second half as Kordell Stewart led Pittsburgh on a 10-play drive to draw within three points with 2:46 remaining. Now the Broncos were facing third down and six from their own 15-yard line, and the Steelers had all of the momentum; punt away here and it felt like Pittsburgh would have an easy time tying the game or even going ahead with a short field to gain.

Of course, this is where Elway called a play that Shannon didn't recognize, and when Sharpe yelled to his QB "What's the play?!" John responded, "Just get open!" As he seemingly always did, Shannon got open, caught Elway's pass for 18 yards and a first down, and Denver's 1997 Revenge tour was complete - they'd run over the Jaguars as payback for that '96 Divisional nightmare, squeezed by the Chiefs in their house of horrors also known as Arrowhead, and now they'd gotten the Steelers back for the earlier loss. Two weeks later they would take down the overwhelming favorites and defending champion Packers, but it was Shannon getting open on that third and six, more than any other play, that gave them the chance to do so.

Doc - I came away from thinking about the moments with Sharpe from over the seasons with more of a sense of an overview of Sharpe's career.  It started from his drafting in the seventh round in 1990 to the early competition with his brother Sterling as to who could catch more passes (Sterling in a walk, but you could see the competitiveness within him.) Then the hammeringly sick feeling of Sterling's injury, which could have easily been so much worse. It was followed by the heady feeling of the Super Bowl years: Sharpe's contributions on screens, short routes and longer passes, the playoff catches and his jack-hammering blocking, which was always so underrated.

TJ - He was totally comfortable in the zone-blocking scheme; Terrell Davis' cutback lanes were often a result of Sharpe's handiwork on a defensive end who was trying to avoid being hooked. Sharpe understood that to be a great blocker didn't mean pancaking a defender.  It meant preventing the defender from doing his job or containing his gap.

Doug - It's pretty laughable that a TE who helped pave the way for what CHFF yesterday called the greatest season ever by a running back (TD's '98 campaign) is routinely labeled as a guy who didn't block well. Not only that, but Shannon won three rings in four years with teams whose offenses centered around their running backs (Jamal Lewis and Priest Holmes in Baltimore).

Ted -  Let me tell you, those a-clown reporters who vote for the Hall of Fame have no idea what they’re talking about if they claim that Shannon couldn’t block.  He worked extremely hard at it, and he became more than respectable.  Nine guys had to block for the Broncos in the running game on every play, and nine guys did so.

You never hear Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez get criticized for their blocking, but Shannon Sharpe was a much better blocker than either of those players.  I am curious to see what the Peter Kings of the world will say when Gonzalez comes eligible for the Hall.

I almost lost my mind a couple years ago when Shannon got passed over for the first time, and the word came out that these morons had unilaterally decided that Shannon was actually a Wide Receiver, and that his stats therefore weren’t as good as everybody had thought.  Who are these clowns to revise history?

Doug - That's one of the worst facets of the HOF selection process; it's bad enough already that writers so often parrot each other's claims in their articles, like the recent misinformation about Denver's salary cap situation. But in the case of the HOF, these writers are given a hefty responsibility to decide how certain players will be forever remembered, and they need to show the process more respect. It shouldn't be that one guy says Shannon wasn't a great or dedicated blocker, or that he was really a WR and should be lumped in with the rest of them, and for these baseless claims to then become influential "facts." Thankfully though, they eventually got it right with Shannon - while watching his career unfold, there was hardly ever a doubt he belonged in the HOF. He was a game-changer with a peerless work ethic, and what a personality.

Doc - That very persona was topped off by Shannon's irrepressible laughter as Denver's first Lombardi Trophy was presented, and his more somber mentions of his early years on the farm, the way the work hardened him, and its continuing influence on him. As ever, that was broken by Sharpe's teasing story of a burglar trying to rob his family's house: Shannon claimed that they were so poor that they robbed him instead.

Sharpe's willingness to stand up for himself cost Denver two years of his services to Baltimore, where he played well but always looked odd, out of place in their colors.

Doug - Shannon's departure was quite discomforting, and of course it was magnified during the playoff matchup with Denver and his soul-crushing 58-yard catch-and-run TD. Naturally, Sharpe was reprising his "only receiving weapon" role with the Ravens, as he led the eventual SB 35 champs in receptions, yards and touchdown catches (67/810/5).

Ted - Of course, that Denver/Baltimore game was in the middle of a really remarkable streak that’s never been duplicated.  Shannon was part of teams that won 11 straight playoff games over a four-year period, and three Super Bowls.  Tom Brady and a group of several other Patriots won 10 in a row between 2001 and 2005, and got their own three Super Bowls, but the Broncos beat New England in the Divisional Playoffs that last year.  I remember thinking that day that they'd gotten it done for Shannon, leaving him all alone in holding the record for most consecutive playoff victories.

Doc - Shannon's return to Denver in 2002 was marked by an almost giddy reaction from the fans. There was a palpable feeling of anticipation when he came back:  Shannon was one of the rare athletes who was a joker, a character and still an incredibly hard worker. He kept his body in top condition and you knew that he was going to be ready for every game that he could get on the field for. He did a great deal to redefine the TE position for his own time period. How many TEs average over 63 catches per season over their final four years?

I can't imagine how a player so productive, so passionate and so talented could fail to make the Hall. He's more than earned it. Congratulations, Shannon.

Chewing the Fat