In 1994, Cris Carter set an NFL record with 122 receptions over the course of a 16-game season. Shortly thereafter, the Pro Football Hall of Fame received and put up for display his full uniform, commemorating an achievement that figured to stand for some time.
They very next year, Herman Moore caught 123 passes for the Detroit Lions. Since then, the NFL has seen a 143-catch season (Marvin Harrison for the Indianapolis Colts in 2002) and another 123-catch campaign (Wes Welker for the New England Patriots in 2009). Welker also caught 122 passes this season. In fact, since Carter's 122-catch season, NFL wide receivers have produced 13 seasons that would have broken the record of 112 catches that Carter eclipsed in that 1994 season.
Carter was without question one of the best wide receivers of his era, but if I had to make an educated guess about why he has not yet been enshrined in the Hall of Fame, I would blame his timing. He produced his best seasons at the start of an NFL passing frenzy that has inflated statistics and left Hall voters reluctant to reward them.
There are 21 wide receivers in the Hall, fewer than any position except tight end, place-kicker or punter. And as the first chart shows, only four receivers whose careers began in the past 35 years have been elected. One of them, Art Monk, was enshrined 13 years after his retirement. A second, James Lofton, waited 10 years.
Hall voters might not agree, but the numbers suggest they haven't prioritized receivers as much as some other positions. And those who value the position have no doubt been torn in recent years by the presence of three quality candidates: Carter, Andre Reed and Tim Brown.
The second chart shows the receiving statistics of that trio over a relatively similar career span. Carter was a finalist in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Brown, who was also an elite kick returner, was a finalist in 2010. But Reed has been a finalist every year since 2007, and Carter's absence in 2011 suggests that Reed might have been pushed to the front of the line whenever a receiver (or two) is elected.
When he retired in 2002, Carter ranked second in NFL history in receptions and touchdown catches. He was No. 3 in total yards and total touchdowns. The NFL's offensive explosion has pushed him down in every category, and you hope he doesn't get permanently caught in the subsequent backlash. Catching 244 passes in two seasons, as Carter did in 1994 and 1995, was much more notable at the time than it is now.
While he will always be overshadowed by Jerry Rice, whose career more or less overlapped his, Carter also deserves some big-picture credit for sharpening the science of sideline footwork and warding off opponents with his arm. He was also as durable a receiver as this game as known, missing only four games in 14 seasons between 1988-2002.
I couldn't begin to tell you what might happen Saturday when voters convene to elect the class of 2012. Once again, Carter has joined Brown and Reed on the list of 15 semifinalists. Only five recently-retired players, along with up to two nominees from the seniors committee, can make it.
I'll leave you with what the late Detroit Lions beat writer Tom Kowalski a said in a post-vote discussion last year. (He also tweeted it, so it's not as if I'm giving away a privileged conversation.) Kowalski, a member of the voting committee, looked at the projected ballots for 2012, 2013 and 2014 and predicted that the "snubs" of 2011 would be rectified over the next three years. If that's the case, it's just a matter of "when" for Cris Carter.
Note: Carter is one of several former players with NFC North ties among the 15 semifinalists. That list also includes former Vikings defensive end Chris Doleman, current Green Bay Packers outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene and former Lions guard Dick Stanfel.