Marvin Harrison’s Hall of Fame Case: The Ink Test

I shouldn’t have to make a case for Marvin Harrison for the Hall of Fame. 

It shouldn’t be necessary.

Harrison’s ticket to Canton on the first ballot should be a foregone conclusion thanks to 1,102 catches for 14,580 yards and 128 touchdowns.  I shouldn’t have to defend an 8 time Pro Bowler and 3 time All Pro. 

Unfortunately, a Hall of Fame voter, and an influential one, publicly doubts Harrison’s inclusion.  I’ve written about Peter King’s ill-informed assault on Harrison on multiple occasions, but today I want to address a specific complaint he has.

He has argued Harrison is too similar to Chris Carter, Tim Brown, and Andre Reed to be a lock for inclusion.  There are many ways that King misses the boat on this point, but let’s start by comparing the raw career numbers for the men.

Games Rec Yards TD YPR Pro Bowls All Pro
Harrison 190 1102 14580 128 13.2 8 3
Carter 234 1101 13899 130 12.6 8 2
Brown 255 1094 14934 100 13.7 9 0
Reed 234 951 13198 87 13.9 7 0

On the surface, King has a point.  Carter and Harrison’s numbers are virtually indistinguishable.  All four men have a lot in common.  The major difference comes from the games played column.  Harrison had a much shorter career than the other three.  He played 44 fewer games than Carter or Reed. That’s the equivalent of more than two and half full seasons.  He played 65 fewer games than Tim Brown, which means he put up more catches and touchdowns and almost the same number of yards in FOUR fewer seasons worth of games.

Harrison was more intensely productive than any of these other three players, and there’s a great way to prove it.  The ‘black and grey ink tests” have been around for a long time, especially in baseball. The idea is to count up how many times a player lead the league in key statistical categories. This is known as the ‘black ink test’.  The grey ink test does the same thing, but counts players’ rank in the top 5 or 10 in key categories.  These tests are a great way to find out which players were truly dominant and which players merely compiled stats thanks to long careers. 

There is another major advantage to the tests: they allow us to compare players from different eras. We know that the NFL passing game has changed dramatically. It’s impossible to compare John Stallworth to Marvin Harrison based on receiving numbers.  However, the black and grey ink tests show us how dominant a player was compared to his peers.  No matter how many games were in a season or what rules were in place, leading the league in receiving is an accomplishment.  Being consistently in the top 5 in touchdowns or catches is an accomplishment.  These tests show us how dominant a player was in relation to the other players they played against. 

In running the numbers for wide receivers, I decided to compare the following set of current and recently retired players to all Hall of Fame wideotus:

Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, Chris Carter, Terrell Owens, Andre Johnson, Tim Brown, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Rod Smith, Reggie Wayne, Hines Ward (a King favorite), and Andre Reed.

I also ran the numbers for the following players already in the Hall:

Hutson, Rice, Alworth, Berry, Pihos, Hirsch, Mitchell, Fears, Hayes, Lofton, Warfield, Maynard, Largent, Irvin, Swann, Monk, Beiletnikoff, McDonald, Taylor, Stallworth, Joiner, and Lavelli.

I know that not all of those players were strictly wideouts. As times changed names and positioning were different. Let’s set that aside for the moment.

This is the black ink test* for wideouts:

Black Rec Yards TD YPR Total
Hutson 8 7 9 2 26
Rice 2 6 6 14
Alworth 1 3 3 7
Berry 2 2 2 6
Pihos 3 2 1 6
Moss 5 5
Harrison 2 2 1 5
Hirsch 1 1 1 2 5
Carter 1 3 4
Holt 1 2 1 4
Mitchell 2 2 4
Fears 3 1 4
Owens 3 3
Johnson 1 2 3
Hayes 1 2 3
Lofton 2 2
Warfield 2 2
Maynard 1 1 2
Largent 2 2
Brown 1 1
Bruce 1 1
Rod Smith 1 1
Wayne 1 1
Irvin 1 1
Swann 1 1
Monk 1 1
Beiletnikoff 1 1
McDonald 1 1
Reed 0
Ward 0
Taylor 0
Stallworth 0
Joiner 0
Lavelli 0

*Notes:  Hall of Famers in black.  For players who played during seasons with two football leagues (AFL or AAFC), the player had to lead BOTH leagues in the category in order to get credit for a black ink point.  This is to avoid giving an undue advantage to players who didn’t actually ‘lead football’ in a category.

What this shows us is that in terms of being a dominant, league leading wideout, Harrison sits near the top of the list. The only players with more ‘black ink’ than Harrison are all in the Hall of Fame.  It also shows that he was more dominant than Carter (who has a solid 4), Brown (who only lead the league in yards one time), or Reed who never lead the NFL in any category ever.  It also shows just how incredible Don Hutson was, even in comparison to Jerry Rice.

The grey ink test is even more impressive for Harrison.  Grey ink tests can be based on any set of criteria, but this one gives credit for finishing in the top 5 in a statistical category.  Again, the goal is to show statistical dominance by illustrating how often a wideout was among the top five in all of football.

Grey Rec Yards TD YPR Total
Hutson 10 11 11 7 39
Rice 9 11 11 1 32
Maynard 6 6 6 6 24
Alworth 5 7 5 5 22
Moss 2 7 8 3 20
Berry 5 4 4 5 18
Harrison 5 4 8 17
Warfield 3 5 8 16
McDonald 4 4 5 2 15
Lavelli 4 4 4 3 15
Carter 6 7 1 14
Owens 2 3 8 1 14
Hirsch 3 2 4 5 14
Pihos 4 4 5 13
Holt 4 4 2 2 12
Mitchell 5 2 3 1 11
Lofton 1 5 5 11
Hayes 2 3 2 4 11
Largent 1 3 6 10
Beiletnikoff 4 2 3 1 10
Irvin 3 4 2 9
Fears 4 3 2 9
Brown 2 4 2 8
Rod Smith 3 2 2 1 8
Joiner 2 2 1 3 8
Wayne 3 4 7
Taylor 4 1 2 7
Bruce 1 4 1 6
Ward 2 1 3 6
Stallworth 1 2 3 6
Johnson 3 2 5
Reed 2 2 4
Swann 1 2 1 4
Monk 3 1 4

Again, Hutson and Rice show why they are the most dominant pass catches of all time.  This test again shows Harrison’s versatility and dominance.  He has a nice spread among touchdowns, catches and yards.  Harrison ranks 7th best on this list (just behind Ray Berry).  The only players in the top 10 that aren’t in the Hall of Fame already are Moss and Harrison.

This test doesn’t come out too badly for Chris Carter.  His score of 14 is just outside the top 10, and is in strong company with other Hall of Famers.  Brown and Reed do not fare well, however.  They are clearly exposed as stat compilers rather than truly dominant players.  Brown’s score of 8 is less than half of Harrison’s (in four more seasons).  Reed is tied for last on the list with Art Monk and Lynn Swann who were elected to the Hall because of Super Bowl rings more than because of stats.

I’m not an ‘anit-compilerite’.  I am not arguing that Brown or Reed are not Hall of Famers.  I certainly think Chris Carter will be and should be.  I think the Hall needs to be a balance of sustained excellence (Emmitt Smith) and short bursts of brilliance (Gale Sayers).  In this case, Harrison’s volume stats are clearly equal to or superior to the three players in question.  What these tests show is that he was more dominant, consistently ranking at the top of the NFL in the key ways we measure wideouts.

King’s folly in comparing Harrison to Carter, Reed and Brown is that while Harrison is undoubtedly similar to these other borderline Hall of Famers, he was also superior to them and far more dominant. It’s true that the Manning factor could work against Harrison, but that would ignore other advantages these wideouts had.  Carter played alongside Randy Moss; Reed had a Hall of Fame QB in Jim Kelly and played next to a Hall of Fame wideout in Lofton for several seasons.  Brown had fine seasons with Rich Gannon.  Most great wideouts had other great players alongside of them.

Should Marvin Harrison be a lock for the Hall of Fame?

Without question.

Will he be?

It’s up to men like Peter King to read the research and make the right choice.

Grey Catches Yards Touchdowns YPA Total
Hutson 10 11 11 7 39
Rice 9 11 11 1 32
Maynard 6 6 6 6 24
Alworth 5 7 5 5 22
Moss 2 7 8 3 20
Berry 5 4 4 5 18
Harrison 5 4 8 17
Warfield 3 5 8 16
McDonald 4 4 5 2 15
Lavelli 4 4 4 3 15
Carter 6 7 1 14
Owens 2 3 8 1 14
Hirsch 3 2 4 5 14
Pihos 4 4 5 13
Holt 4 4 2 2 12
Mitchell 5 2 3 1 11
Lofton 1 5 5 11
Hayes 2 3 2 4 11
Largent 1 3 6 10
Beiletnikoff 4 2 3 1 10
Irvin 3 4 2 9
Fears 4 3 2 9
Brown 2 4 2 8
Rod Smith 3 2 2 1 8
Joiner 2 2 1 3 8
Wayne 3 4 7
Taylor 4 1 2 7
Bruce 1 4 1 6
Ward 2 1 3 6
Stallworth 1 2 3 6
Johnson 3 2 5
Reed 2 2 4
Swann 1 2 1 4
Monk 3 1 4
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