HOF: All Cris Carter did was ... play

All Cris Carter did, as the legendary Chris Berman made famous, was catch touchdowns. There were 130 of them in all, a total that ranked second in NFL history when he retired in 2002.

But behind the touchdowns, and at the root of the shoestring catches and sideline acrobatics, was a much more basic and fundamental accomplishment. It is said that the most important NFL attribute is availability, and in truth, all Cris Carter did was play -- every week, every month and every year.

As the chart shows, Carter played in more games than all but five receivers in NFL history. Between 1988 and 2001, essentially his entire career, Carter missed only four games; that absence came when he fractured his collarbone in 1992. His availability, sustained by elite conditioning and selective avoidance of contact, seems appropriate to recall as he heads toward his induction Saturday into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"I tried to be one of the best-conditioned athletes," Carter said, "and I just think that's a part of the level of success you have in the NFL. You already have some level of success if you make it. … But I believe that availability sets you apart from a lot of different people. It's a rugged game, and [availability] is underrated."

Most of you who watched Carter play would accept implicitly that he was in phenomenal physical condition. Toward the end of his career, he opened a speed camp for high school, college and NFL players to use during the offseason -- an operation that pre-dated today's agent-driven workout facilities. Carter's philosophy was simple: Receivers run more than any other position group, so they need to be in better shape than anyone else.

If he left a legacy in the game, Carter hopes that was it.

"We wanted to be the best conditioned players on the field," he said. "Now, you just don't see good receivers out of shape. You see them being some of the hardest workers if you look at it now. Andre Johnson, one of the hardest workers. Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, Roddy White, A.J. Green. That's one of the things that are common with most of the receivers now is they're hard workers. They realize that. I would say that Jerry Rice set that standard also. You've got to be in great shape."

And, quite frankly, you also have to be a realist. A receiver who regularly takes direct shots from defenders is going to find himself in the trainer's room. Carter recalled this pertinent advice he received from Chip Myers, who at the time was his receivers coach with the Minnesota Vikings: "Football is not a contact sport for wide receivers. It's an avoid-the-contact sport."

It might run counter to the macho vision of football, but a receiver can best help his team when he is healthy and available. Carter accepted contact when it was inevitable, avoided it when possible and has no shame admitting it.

"You have to be smart as a football player," he said. "The number one thing is to catch the football and maintain possession. … There is a fine balance there to when to get down and save yourself from some of those blows."

Maybe my appreciation for availability is too rooted in personal experience. I covered Cal Ripken and Brett Favre in my day, and while Carter never built a comparable streak of consecutive games played, he did share the same respect for the game. He wanted to play. Every day. All the time. And look where it got him.