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How Will History Receive The NFL's Passing Explosion?

Derrick Mason's 943 catches puts him near the top of the NFL's all-time list, but the evolution of the league's passing game might leave him off Hall of Fame ballots. (AP)
Derrick Mason's 943 catches puts him near the top of the NFL's all-time list, but the evolution of the league's passing game might leave him off Hall of Fame ballots. (AP)

Imagine that your profession, whatever it is, has statistical rankings. Now imagine that of all the people who are doing, or have ever done, what you do, you are Number 11.

In sports, it's pretty good company. Willie Mays checks in at Number 11 on baseball's career hits list.

Until Derrick Mason retired earlier this week, his profession was catching passes in the NFL and with 943 receptions he is Number 11 on the league’s all-time list. But in today’s NFL, even eleventh place in a significant statistical category doesn’t guarantee you an exalted spot in league history.

Mason spent the bulk of the past 15 years with the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens. Although quarterback Steve McNair put up some nice numbers under center for both teams, Mason was only on a handful of squads that ranked among the league’s best offenses. He appeared in one Super Bowl, the Titans’ loss to St. Louis in 2000.

This season New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees broke Dan Marino’s single-season passing yardage record. He wasn't alone. Tom Brady hopped over Marino's mark, too. Derrick Mason’s career paralleled the ongoing spike in the NFL's aerial statistics. Among the top 20 receptions leaders, all but six began their careers in the 1990s. The old-timers on the list started way back in the 1980s. Steve Largent held the record for total catches when he retired in 1989. Today he’s 21st.

To be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, players must be retired for at least five seasons, so many of the most productive receivers aren’t on the ballot yet, but Mason and others shouldn’t hold their breath. Cris Carter (4th in receptions, 4th in receiving touchdowns) and Tim Brown (5th, tied for 6th) have yet to make the cut. Brown even has a Super Bowl ring, something that eluded Carter, Mason, and many others who posted large totals.

In an era when the benchmark numbers are constantly increasing, the standards for enshrinement are likely to keep shifting. Retiring with huge stats is no longer enough. Think about this: Keenan McCardell (883) has more catches than Jimmy Smith who has more than Muhsin Muhammad who has more than Larry Centers, who has more than the former all-time leader, Largent (819).

But if you retire as an all-time leader (current leader Jerry Rice, Largent, Charlie Joiner), you’re in. If you retire with big numbers and multiple Super Bowl rings (Rice, Art Monk, Michael Irvin), you’re in. And if your stats redefine a position (tight end Shannon Sharpe, who also had multiple rings), you’re in.

Otherwise, you might be sitting by the phone.

This program aired on January 11, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Doug Tribou Twitter Reporter/Producer
Doug Tribou was formerly a reporter and producer at WBUR and for WBUR's Only A Game.

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