Frank Wycheck does not belong in the Hall of Fame

In the thread where we discussed picking a tight end for the Tennessee-era team, I mentioned, in response to a comment, that there’s no way Frank Wycheck makes the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This post is why I’m right and those of you who disagree with me are wrong.
Before I start into the argument, I would like to note a couple things. First, sometimes I’m indulging my contrarian side. That’s not the case here. I firmly believe that both Frank Wycheck will not be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and that he should not be elected. Second, arguing that he isn’t a Hall of Famer shouldn’t be taken to indicate that he wasn’t a very good and valuable player for the Titans, because he was.
Probably the best book on who should make a sports Hall of Fame comes from baseball, and Bill James in particular. In The Politics of Glory, he comes up with a couple ways to think about whether a player belongs in the Hall of Fame. There are some statistical categories that don’t apply to football at all, and also a couple key questions that are good for us to use as a starting place. Note these aren’t the exact questions (see here for an as-applied example in baseball), but I’ve instead adapted them for football:
1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in the NFL? Did anybody suggest while he was playing he was?
2. Was he the best player on his team?
3. Was he the best player in the league at his position?
4. Did he have strong performances in key games, particularly in the playoffs?
5. How did he compare statistically to his contemporaries?
6. How do his statistics compare with other players at his position who weren’t contemporaries?
7. Is there any reason to believe he is significantly better or worse than his statistics suggest?
8. Is he the best player at his position not in the Hall of Fame?
9. How many All-Pro and Pro-Bowl seasons did he have?
I don’t explicitly address all of these questions below, but they’re the kind of questions you should keep in mind when evaluating whether or not Wycheck or anybody else belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Let’s start with a look at Frank’s statistical profile. 155 career games, 135 starts, including 7 straight years with at least 15 starts. That’s pretty good longevity for a tight end. One of the questions not listed above, which probably applies more to football than to baseball, is “how good a player was he, and for how long”. Tight ends generally have a relatively short shelf life (Kinney, who was probably the best tight end in the 2000 draft, only played in 83 games), so 7 good years is a solid resume. And, in those 7 years, he had at least 40 receptions every year, and 5 times broke 60, reaching his career high of 70 twice, in both 1998 and 2000. Overall, Frank had 505 receptions, 5th all-time among tight ends.
How does this look, though? Wycheck led his team in receptions every year in his heyday, from 1996-2000, which is unusual for a tight end. The caveat, though, is that the Oilers/Titans receiving corps those years was generally quite poor, with arguably only Derrick Mason in 2000 being an average or above-average wideout. With an inexperienced quarterback and a lack of viable other options, an above-average player like Wycheck becomes more valuable. A better idea of Wycheck’s quality can be gained by looking beyond receptions to the other receiver stats: yards and TDs. Only twice, in 1997 and 1998, did Wycheck lead the Oilers in yards receiving. His per-reception averages are also generally mediocre; while he had seasons 11.8 and 11.9, 4 of his 7 peak seasons saw him average <10 yards a catch. Moreover, while a tight end is a stereotypical red zone threat, Wycheck only once had more than 4 TD receptions in a season, led the Oilers/Titans in TD receptions only twice (tied with Willie Davis in each of 1996 and 1997), and had a mere 28 TD receptions for his career.
Let’s compare these statistics with a couple tight ends not in the Hall of Fame. First, let’s look at Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez is still playing and of course not eligible, but the beginning of his career overlapped with some of Frank’s key years, so it’s a reasonable comparison. Gonzalez has (thus far) 820 career receptions. This is, obviously, far beyond Frank’s career total of 505. Gonzalez has accumulated this total in 174 games, 158 starts; this is longer than Frank’s career, but encompasses the same number of seasons. Gonzalez played more, sooner, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe this is because he should have. Gonzalez has meant more to his team; he’s led the Chiefs in receiving yards 6 times and receptions 9 times. Comparatively, Gonzalez has meant more to the Chiefs than Wycheck did to the Titans. Gonzalez also has a significantly better yards per reception average (his worst season, 10.5 ypr, is better than Wycheck’s career average), and he also has had significantly more touchdowns, 8 times with 5+ and a career total of 66.
The second TE is Shannon Sharpe. Sharpe, like Wycheck, retired after the 2003 season, so they’ll be part of the same Hall of Fame class. Like Gonzalez, Sharpe’s statistical resume is significantly better than Wycheck’s. Sharpe only led his team in receiving yards 3 times, but he played in 204 games, 169 starts, so he had a longer career; totaled 815 career receptions, significantly outpacing Frank’s stats; led his team in receiving yards three times; totaled 62 career touchdowns, with two seasons of 10 TDs each; and averaged more yards per reception every year of his carer he played more than 5 games than Frank did for his career.
Since Frank’s career overlapped with Sharpe for all of his and Gonzalez for some of his, how did they fare in comparison? Frank made 3 Pro Bowls-decent enough, but was never named All-Pro. Sharpe, by contrast, made 8 Pro Bowls, and 4 times was an All-Pro. For Gonzalez, that’s 9 Pro Bowls and 4 times All-Pro. Based on the raw statistics and peer recognition, I therefore submit to you that Gonzalez and Sharpe both clearly belong in the Hall of Fame before Wycheck.
Frank does still have those 3 Pro Bowl appearances, so let’s see how that compares to guys in the Hall of Fame. Check out the list by position on the HOF website: there are a mere 7 modern-era TEs in the Hall of Fame. They are Dave Casper, Mike Ditka, John Mackey, Ozzie Newsome, Charlie Sanders, Jackie Smith, and Kellen Winslow. Please note that since these guys played before the modern-era passing emphasis, they won’t have the same reception stats, so I’ll limit this to honors they received. Casper made the Pro Bowl 5 times and All-Pro 4 times. Ditka made the Pro Bowl 5 times and All-Pro 3 times; ditto fro John Mackey. Ozzie Newsome was more comparable, in that he made the Pro Bowl thrice and All-Pro once, but was 6 times voted second-team All-NFL, an honor Wycheck never received. Ozzie also led his team in receiving yards 5 times, more than Frank, played more games, had better stats in his peak years, and ended up with 150+ career receptions. Charlie Sanders was 7 times a Pro Bowler, and made All-Pro thrice. Jackie Smith made 5 Pro Bowls, was voted 2nd team All-NFL 3 times, and led his team in receiving yards 4 times. Finally, Kellen Winslow made the Pro Bowl 5 times and All-Pro 3 times (yes, again). Again, all 7 of the tight ends already in the Hall of Fame were judged significantly better in comparison to their peers than Wycheck was to his.
Let’s also compare Wycheck to some TEs not in the Hall of Fame. Dave Christensen maybe should be in; he was a 5-time Pro Bowler and twice All-Pro. Mark Bavaro, who didn’t put up Frank’s reception stats but is considered probably the best blocking TE of the modern era, made the Pro Bowl and All-Pro twice each. Ben Coates, who had nearly as many catches as Wycheck for more yards and more TDs, made the Pro Bowl 5 times and All-Pro twice. Brent Jones made the Pro Bowl 4 times. Jay Novacek made the Pro Bowl 5 times and was All-Pro once. Even somebody like a Charlie Young made 3 Pro Bowls and was All-Pro once. Keith Jackson is another guy-the career wasn’t as long, but he was All-Pro 3 times and had 5 trips to Hawaii. I would submit that all of these guys have better credentials in terms of how good they were in comparison to their peers than Wycheck.
Let’s go back to that value question. The non-Tennessee perspective clearly held that the other tight ends were better than Wycheck at the time of Frank’s best performances. The statistical record seems to back that up. Why, then, should someone with less peak value be elected? Is there something about Frank’s career we’re not capturing with the look at the record thus far?
I really don’t think so. He was a useful blocker, but subjectively I thought Erron Kinney at his peak was a better blocker than Frank at his peak. Wycheck was not known around the league as a particularly great blocker. Playoff performance is one way of differentiating players; for example, Lynn Swann would almost certainly not be in the Hall of Fame if not for some exceptional playoff performances. Frank’s playoff record, though, features only one particularly good game: the win against Pittsburgh in 2002, when he had 10 catches for 123 yards and a touchdown. He never had more than 41 yards in any of the other 8 playoff games he played in, nor did he have a TD reception in any of those games. Far from being an aid to his case, that’s a damning indictment. Nor can it reasonably be said that he really starred in any regular season games; only once, in a win at Detroit in 2001, did he have 100 yards receiving in a game, and he hit that mark on the nose. No particularly memorable performances to offset the lack of postseason success, then.
Frank Wycheck was a good and valuable player for the Oilers/Titans, but he’s a long, long way away from meeting the standards established for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and behind a long and increasing list of players at his position in terms of deserving enshrinement.