Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson admits he's been thinking about the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Maybe like a kindred soul, the Hall of Fame has been thinking about him, too.
"Look at Calvin Johnson, where he was drafted, his package coming in with that size and speed and his production since he got here," said Dallas Morning News sports columnist Rick Gosselin, a member of the Hall of Fame selection committee. "I don't know that you're going to find a better receiving candidate for the Hall of Fame in the next 10, 15 years."
Dan Pompei is a longtime Chicago sports writer who also sits on the Hall's 46-member selection committee that meets each year at the Super Bowl to vote on four to seven new members. He agrees Johnson has put together an impressive resume since his 2007 rookie season.
"I think if he does what he has done for the first six years of his career for another six years or whatever, he's going to have a tremendous case," Pompei said.
Johnson has never been shy about admitting he sets high standards for himself. While he hasn't exactly gotten himself measured for a golden jacket or written out his enshrinement speech, Johnson certainly has the Hall on his mind.
"I can't lie," he said. "It's been thought about. It's hard not to think about it when you see, one, the Hall of Fame ceremony every year and the kickoff to the season with the Hall of Fame Game. It's hard not to think about those things, you know?"
Today in Arizona, NFL fans get to ponder historic possibilities themselves when they watch two players with some of the strongest Hall of Fame credentials among active receivers, Johnson and Cardinals seven-time Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald, engage in a tacit game of one-upmanship.
"You definitely want to be on your 'A' game," Johnson said with a smile. "You definitely want to put up some numbers."
Well, why would today be any different? Johnson, 27, and Fitzgerald, 30, have done nothing but put up numbers season after season as dominant and decorated players.
Johnson, a three-time Pro Bowler and the NFL record-holder for single-season receiving yardage, is beginning his seventh season and has 492 receptions and 54 touchdowns.
Fitzgerald, a key player in Super Bowl XLIII, is in his 10th season and has 772 receptions and 79 touchdowns.
A generation ago, 1,000 catches and 100 touchdowns could have been a lock for the Hall of Fame and Johnson and Fitzgerald would be in lockstep on their march toward the Hall if they played back then.
But those thresholds applied more to the league's pre-pass-happy era, before the NFL shackled defenses and created an offensive boom town.
"The numbers that were once used I don't think can be used anymore," Pompei said. "I think this is something that the board of selectors is kind of struggling with, to figure out just exactly what a Hall of Famer wide receiver is in the new era."
Gosselin cited the case of Paul Warfield, a Hall of Famer with the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins, who had 427 career catches in 1964-77.
"He had to fight for every inch of space on his pass route," Gosselin said. "He had defensive backs jostling him every step of the way.
"Now, you basically can't touch these guys. They get a free release off the line. It's a matter of catching the ball once it's thrown to you, and that's why the numbers have gone through the roof."
Players are eligible for enshrinement five years after their retirement. Cris Carter had 1,101 catches, 130 touchdowns and eight Pro Bowls on his resume, but statistical inflation made him wait to enter the Hall until his sixth season of eligibility.
"There were a couple years there where when the voters walked out of the room and awful lot of people were stunned that he wasn't in," said Jeff Legwold, a Hall of Fame selector who covers the NFL for ESPN in Denver. "It just shows the difficulty at making the call at that position because the numbers are so staggering for people that you have to find a way to separate."
The irony is a deliciously cruel as it accurate. Even in the Hall of Fame, receivers have to gain separation.
"Calvin, it's still early in his career," Gosselin said. "I think when it's all said and done, if he keeps doing what he's doing, he's got a strong case.
"Larry Fitzgerald's going to have a very strong case. But this a (selection committee) group that right now appears to be reluctant to put receivers in."
Gosselin cited several players, including 1970s all-decade receivers Harold Carmichael and Drew Pearson, who have never even been discussed.
"We've all heard people say it: It's not the Hall of Very Good," Legwold said. "It's a pretty common refrain when people talk about the Hall of Fame. But it really isn't.
"It's hard to get in and the people running the Hall of Fame think it should be hard to get in. It takes an awful lot for a player to get there and I think that's why it means so much."
Johnson and Fitzgerald face different challenges on their path. Johnson is armed with a young and consistent quarterback in Matthew Stafford, but his body takes a pounding and he knows it.
"It's a combination of how long do you want to play?" Johnson said. "How long will your body allow you to play? If you really want to do it, then you're going to keep on playing to try to meet those stats.
"But at the same time, you've got to listen to your body. When your body says it's time to hang 'em up, it's time to hang 'em up."
Fitzgerald has struggled with the bumpy ride he has taken on the quarterback carousel without Kurt Warner.
"His career screamed Hall of Fame when he played with Kurt Warner," Gosselin said. "All of the sudden, Kurt Warner leaves and he's got three and four different quarterbacks in a given season and he's not putting up the numbers and his name kind of fades a little bit."
The process of induction can resemble building a legal case inside a courtroom. Every piece of statistical evidence, nuance or context helps.
"Larry's got a very impressive career," Pompei said, "and I know he's going to be a guy who the Hall of Fame board is going to be talking about one day."
When a player simply becomes part of the discussion, Gosselin said, it's a huge step. And that's why Johnson and Fitzgerald, who have starred in commercials and on video game covers -- and are part of the NFL's ubiquitous televised era -- could have a huge advantage when their names appear before the selection committee.
"There's been so much hype around Johnson and Fitzgerald," Gosselin said. "It's not like they're coming out of the blue like a Harlon Hill or a Billy Wilson.
"Everybody knows Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, and that'll get them a leg up, that'll get them into the finals their first year of eligibility. And once you get in the room, you're a strong candidate to get in."
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