By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Pro Football Hall of Fame will announce its 2020 induction class on Saturday. Of the 15 player finalists, seven positions are represented: running back, wide receiver, guard, tackle, defensive line, linebacker, and safety. Only four positions were represented in 2019.
The Hall of Fame has long been criticized for a narrow-minded approach in its induction process. And with a glut of unique players from a different era on the brink of eligibility, they’ll have to alter the way they evaluate candidates.
As slot receivers and receiving backs became the norm in the NFL, players once relegated to a unique set of skills became stars. So at some point soon, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is going to have to decide how they want to handle guys like Wes Welker and Matt Forte, who have undoubtedly left their mark but aren’t the traditional kind of candidates. The Hall of Fame committee has seemingly set a precedent that your uniqueness as a player, even when paired with impressive numbers, isn’t enough to carry you if you didn’t play a mainstream position.
Take fullbacks, for example. The last true fullback to be inducted into the Hall was Larry Csonka in 1987. Does the committee really believe that not one fullback since has impacted the game enough to earn football’s highest honor? Lorenzo Neal blocked for 11 straight 1,000-yard rushers and played in 221 consecutive games. Mike Alstott was a four-time All-Pro and retired holding many franchise records for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The real slight when it comes to fullbacks, though, is Larry Centers.
The 13-year pro entered the NFL as a fifth-round draft pick in 1990. Within a few years, he changed the way running backs functioned in the passing game – as a fullback.
Centers became the first back of any kind to catch 100 passes in a season in 1995 for the Arizona Cardinals, while falling just 38 yards short of 1,000. He followed that up with a 99-catch performance the next year. Centers ended up leading the Cardinals in receptions for four straight years from 1994-1997 – again, as a fullback – and left in 1998 as the team’s all-time leader in that category. In the last 22 years, only two Cardinals have surpassed him: Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
Centers would go on to play another five seasons between Washington, Buffalo, and finally, New England, where he won his only Super Bowl championship in 2003. He caught 19 passes from Tom Brady for 106 yards and a touchdown in nine games that year. When it was all said and done, the Stephen F. Austin product had some gaudy numbers to his name.
When Centers retired in 2004, his 827 career receptions ranked seventh all-time. He still holds the record for running backs and ranks fourth all-time in catches by non-receivers. At one point in his career he’d caught a pass in 128 consecutive games, which at the time was the third-longest stretch in NFL history.
After Centers’ 101-catch season in 1995, it would be eight years before another running back reached triple digits. LaDainian Tomlinson fell just short of his record with 100 even in 2003. Forte would eventually break Centers’ record with 102 catches in 2014. The Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey then broke that record twice, with 107 and 116 catches from 2018-2019. Centers and McCaffrey are the only two backs in league history to catch 90-plus passes in a season more than once.
Tomlinson, Forte, McCaffrey, Centers. That’s the entire list of backs to ever catch 100 or more passes in a season. Tomlinson has a bust in Canton, Forte has a case to be made, and McCaffrey will get in if he maintains his current pace for a long time.
So where does Centers fit in to this equation?
It goes beyond backs. Only 28 players in the history of the game surpassed Centers’ collective career numbers of 827 catches, 6,797 yards, and 28 touchdowns (per Pro Football Reference). Of those 28 – all wide receiver and tight ends – nine are already in the Hall of Fame. A handful of others such as Fitzgerald, Steve Smith, and Antonio Gates should go right in once eligible.
Lynn Swann, who is often used as the benchmark for Hall of Fame admittance, had less than half as many career catches as Centers (827 vs. 336) and fewer career yards (6,797 vs. 5,462).
Since becoming eligible in 2009, Centers has been listed on the 100-plus name “Modern Era” nominees list, but has never advanced beyond that. So as a new era of players approaches Hall of Fame eligibility, the voters are going to have to embrace unheralded specialists or leave some deserving players out of Canton.
If they decide to break that barrier, Centers would be an excellent place to start.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Hate mail? Let him hear it on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.