Reprinted from Pro Football Weekly online
Pro Football Weekly
Quality or quantity? The debate rages on over Swann’s Hall of Fame credentials
By: John Turney
Monday, Jan. 22, 2001
Every year for the last 13 years, the day before the Super Bowl, a great debate begins. It entails the pros and cons of former Pittsburgh Steelers WR Lynn Swann and his worthiness of being inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Swann has been the most debated player in the history of the Hall of Fame, having been on the list of final 15 candidates a record 14 times, including the upcoming list for 2001. No player has been a finalist that many times without being voted in. Swann has been on that list every year since he became eligible in 1988.
This debate has, at times, been very contentious. Myron Cope, the Steelers' radio broadcaster and inventor of the "Terrible Towel," resigned from the selection committee because he felt he was getting too emotional and might be hurting Swann's chances of induction. Some of the voters even dread going over the same territory every year.
The debate goes something like this: The cons are articulated by people like Sports Illustrated's Peter King, who is one of the fairest and thoughtful voters on the Hall of Fame committee. The naysayers point to the fact that Swann averaged less than three catches per game for his career and say that is simply not a Hall of Fame number. The pro argument, as voiced by the likes of Paul Zimmerman, also at Sports Illustrated, goes something like this, "What do you want, quality or quantity? Swann's catches were mostly made downfield, his catches meant something and he played his best when the stakes were the highest."
Both sides seem to have merit, which is why there has been a stalemate on that committee for 14 years. There are enough of the voters on the "con" side to block those on the "pro" side but still enough of the pros to keep Swann's name on the list for more than a dozen seasons.
Swann's nine-year career was indeed short by usual Hall of Fame standards, but it should be noted that Swann had problems with concussions early in his career. He was knocked cold in 1975, a week before he played possibly the best game by a wide receiver in the history of the Super Bowl. The following year George Atkinson gave Swann his second major concussion in two seasons, inciting the debate of whether there was a "criminal element" in the game of football. However, it was not the concussion that cut Swann's career short.
It was always Swann's plan to play in the NFL for 10 years, but after his ninth, he was offered a television deal that dwarfed what he would have earned in the NFL. In 1982 the players were not pulling in the kind of dollars they are today, so financial stability was a factor. "I weighed the decision of playing another year to getting a foothold into my next career, and I think I made the right choice. I am still in broadcasting."
Swann has often jabbed at former Steeler head coach Chuck Noll, saying that his type of offense has kept Swann out of the Hall of Fame. Noll was a run-first coach. From 1974 to ’82, the Steelers ran the ball 58.9 percent of the time, among the highest percentages in the NFL for that period. Even in 1978, when the NFL loosened the rules to enhance the passing game, Noll wasn't having any, at least on a regular basis. The Steelers still threw the ball 100 to 150 fewer times than teams like San Francisco, San Diego, Cleveland, Seattle, Minnesota and a few others whose receivers put up big numbers, and therefore gained the attention of the Hall of Fame voters.
Still, when the Steelers threw, their passes were down the field. During that same period of 1974-82, the Steelers averaged 14.1 yards per completion, the second-highest average in the NFL. While the Raiders talked of the vertical game, it was the Steelers who practiced it most effectively. The Steelers’ offensive game plan was simple: pound the ball with Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier and when a shot was available down the field, take it. Terry Bradshaw's credo, "Throw deep," wasn't just idle talk for the Steelers; it was a reality.
No one has ever questioned Swann's talent, just his career numbers. However, when looked at in context, his numbers look excellent. Swann averaged 46 catches per 16 games for 753 yards and seven touchdowns. Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner was called by Bill Walsh "the smartest, most calculating receiver the game has ever known." Which may be true, but his career average was not much more than Swann's. Over his 18-year career, Joiner averaged 50 catches and 813 yards and 4.4 touchdowns per 16 games. That is roughly one extra 15-yard curl, a pattern that Joiner was the master of, every four games. Of course, compared to Joiner, Swann averaged an additional touchdown every six games. Joiner retired as the leading pass catcher in NFL history, thanks to some degree to being part of a forward-thinking head coach who put the ball in the air 55 percent of the time. Had Swann played for those Chargers teams, many think he would have put up great numbers in a "Air Coryell" offense.
The case is similar to Art Monk, who is eligible for the Hall this year. Monk averaged 67 catches for 909 yards and five touchdowns per 16 games. Compared to Swann, Monk averaged about one 1.3 more catches for almost 10 extra yards every game. With Monk, however, you would have to give back a touchdown every seven games. So what do you want, more catches or more touchdowns? The Steelers’ coaches chose an offense that would get them championships. Damn the statistics, full trap ahead.
The reasonable point here is that eras changed during Swann's career. Great players like Monk and Joiner were on the leading edge of a passing revolution in the NFL that began in 1978. Receptions were easier to get, due to rule changes in pass defense and pass blocking. The numbers that receivers post are more staggering every season, culminating with the St. Louis Rams’ passing offense that broke so many records the past two seasons.
Of course, the Hall of Fame should never be decided on speculation, but if Swann could play in the Rams’ offense of today, a reasonable observer would have to concede that he would put up huge numbers. Seeing Isaac Bruce — the clean cuts, the body control, the acceleration — reminds some experts of Swann, but with the talent edge going to Swann. The same holds true for Marvin Harrison, who dons Swann's number and slight build, but Swann's athleticism had a certain grace and beauty to it. Swann could have made a living winning those old, made-for-TV "Super Stars" competitions that Swann just dominated. Regardless of what Swannie did, he did it well and with style.
Swann reflects back to the days when they would watch the Chargers on film and be amazed at the number of balls that were available. "We were lucky to throw 15 to 20 passes a game. In our offense you had to be happy to get three or four in a game; now they get that many in a quarter." Today it would be a different story. "I know with that same group of guys and running a big-time offense like the 1999-2000 Rams, John (teammate WR John Stallworth) and I would do what they are doing today in terms of catches, yards, whatever. Theo Bell, Jim Smith and Bennie Cunningham were all excellent players who could play today. I'll say this: It would be fun."
The strongest case to be made for Swann is that he played best when it counted most, in the playoffs. Swann did come up huge in 16 postseason games. He caught 47 passes for 906 yards for an 18.9-yard average and nine touchdowns — against playoff competition in a run-first era. In those 16 games the Steelers came out victorious 13 times, including four times in the Super Bowl. Swann made a couple of big catches in the AFC championship game that propelled the Steelers into Super Bowl IX against the Vikings.
Swann was the MVP in Super Bowl X with perhaps the best "big" game any receiver has ever played. He made four catches, three of the circus variety, for 161 yards, including the game-winning grab. "Terry Bradshaw only threw five passes to me that day." What Swann won't tell you but knows in his heart is that a normal wide receiver could not have made three of those catches. They were too difficult, too unique to his set of skills — in a word, too much Swann.
He caught the go-ahead pass in Super Bowl XIII that put Dallas in a hole. On that one, Swann called the play in the huddle because he saw the Dallas cornerbacks coming up. He knew they were biting on the three-step drop. So Swann waited for Bradshaw to pump-fake, and that was his signal to blow by the corner. He did, and that touchdown, for all intents and purposes, sealed the Cowboys’ fate that day.
The following year there was Super Bowl XIV, in which he made a spectacular, leaping 47-yard touchdown reception that gave the Steelers the lead. On that catch, Swann outleaped the Rams’ two best defensive backs, Pat Thomas and Nolan Cromwell. Cromwell was so close to knocking it down that, to this day, it nearly kills Ram fans to see that highlight. A few plays later, Swann was knocked out of the game with yet another concussion, and it became Stallworth's turn to catch the game-winning touchdown pass.
When Swann decided to retire after nine seasons, he felt he had gotten all he could out of football — All-Pro, Super Bowl MVP, Pro Bowls, Super Bowl rings. All that is left is the Hall of Fame. His choice of health and a new career in the media has definitely affected his chances. Had he played a few more years, his regular-season numbers might look better. But would they make him a greater player? Absolutely not.
Jerry Rice, the king of all wide receivers, paid Swann the best compliment ever. It was done in a subtle way, the way jocks talk to each other, simple, direct and sincere, "He walked up to me," Swann remembers, "and said, ‘Swannie, you were "the Guy," to everybody.’ "Swann knew what that meant. Swann knew he had made an impact.
Swann knows that he had an impact. He is secure with the fact he has Super Bowl rings. He is secure in the knowledge that he did his job, he made the touch catches, he went across the middle, he played great in big games, he brought skill and grace to the WR position and also brought intelligence and knowledge of the game. He remembers making an impact his rookie year as a punt returner. He knows the answer to the question: "Was he good enough to be in the Hall of Fame?" The question he can’t answer is whether the selection committee voters know it too.
The debate will rage once again on Super Bowl Saturday, and the committee will let us know whether quantity or quality. But time may be running out for Swann, who has this year and next to be voted in. Unless that is, Swann becomes the subject of a regular debate at the Hall of Fame Seniors Committee meetings each August.
Let's hope the air conditioning is in working order for those sessions—if they occur.
John Turney is the researcher/historian for the Dick Butkus Football Network and a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association.