Last Saturday afternoon, a few hours before the Pro Football Hall of Fame's latest class of inductees was announced, my son asked two thoughtful questions.
First was simply this: Did I think Shannon Sharpe would make it into the Hall this year, because wouldn't it be difficult for the Denver Broncos to have inductees in two consecutive classes (after Floyd Little last year)?
That one was easy to answer. Yes, I honestly felt Sharpe should be chosen this time. He was a tremendous pass-catching tight end, the National Football League's best at his position for most of the 1990s. Sharpe also was at his personal peak during a stretch when the Broncos were in their prime, capped by the back-to-back Super Bowl titles for the 1997 and 1998 seasons.
That's not all. Sharpe moved on to Baltimore in 2000 for a two-year run, just in time to help the Ravens to their only Super Bowl championship. (Although he never looked right in a Baltimore uniform and helmet.) He gave the Ravens perhaps their most unforgettable play, even through today, in the AFC Championship Game of 2000 against Oakland. On a third-and-14 from the Baltimore 4, Sharpe took a short pass, broke loose and motored to a 96-yard score, the only touchdown in the Ravens' 16-3 victory.
Three title rings with two teams, best at his position, with superlative numbers all the way through his final two seasons back in Denver, with 61 catches for 686 yards and three scores in 2002, followed by 62 receptions for 770 yards and eight TDs in 2003. Those stats, by the way, made him the first NFL tight end ever to surpass 10,000 career receiving yards. (He finished with 10,060.)
One more thing: He retired then, leaving at the age of 35, before going downhill. So all the memories of his career are good. On and off the field.
Those of us covering the Broncos in the 1990s, with John Elway evolving through the tenures of Dan Reeves and Wade Phillips to Mike Shanahan, marveled at how Denver's offensive game plans took advantage of Sharpe's multiple abilities. He drove opposing defenses crazy, not just because of his many mismatches against slower linebackers or smaller cornerbacks and safeties, but for another important reason. No matter what the down-and-distance situation, from first and 10 to all the subsequent possibilities, defenses couldn't narrow their focus with Sharpe in the huddle.
He could line up as a blocking tight end, and though his size (6-foot-2, 228 pounds) wasn't intimidating, his chiseled upper body gave him the strength he needed. He also could split out a few yards, more like an H-back, giving him more room to operate. He could go in motion from anywhere, then dart into defensive holes after the snap. And, of course, because he had excellent speed, Sharpe could line up as a wide receiver on any play.
Sharpe's personality helped his image even more. For years, he was the go-to guy inside Denver's dressing room, willingly and eloquently giving instant, candid analysis after every game. It wasn't BS, either. If the offense or defense warranted criticism, he'd say so without offending anyone.
Of all his entertaining quotes, the best one came in November 1996. Denver was pounding New England at Foxboro, Mass. NFL Films' sideline camera locked on Sharpe, and he gave an impromptu performance that soon went viral, grabbing the phone to the pressbox and shouting: "Mr. President, call in the National Guard! We need as many men as you can spare! Because we are killing the Patriots! We'll call the dogs off! Send the National Guard, please!"
As if his case needed strengthening, Sharpe has built his national profile even more since retirement, working for CBS Sports on its game-day studio coverage. Roll it all together, and you have a worthy Hall of Famer. And sure enough, he made it in his second year of eligibility.
My son did have that one other question: "Dad, if you had the choice of Shannon Sharpe making the Hall of Fame now or Randy Gradishar, who would you take?"
No hesitation. I'd pick Gradishar, Denver's all-world linebacker (1974-83) out of Ohio State, arguably the best NFL player who hasn't been enshrined.
Maybe someday. But that's another column.