In the NFL, it's extremely rare to credit one player with revolutionizing their position.
Shannon Sharpe did just that. He revolutionized the tight end position by becoming a valuable pass-catching threat.
Yes, other tight ends came before Sharpe and caught passes effectively—Ozzie Newsome and Mike Ditka to name a few—but Sharpe took the position to new heights in the Mile High City.
Sharpe wasn't the fastest player on the field (my dad used to always say he ran in slow motion) but his speed was too much for a linebacker to cover while his size was enough to overpower any safety.
In the 90s, when linebackers were more centered around being big hitters than covering receivers, Sharpe ran circles around them.
If a team decided to switch a safety onto him, it opened up the Broncos' other receiving threats and John Elway took advantage. And Sharpe still found ways to get open, out-muscling safeties for position.
In Super Bowl XXXII, mastermind Mike Shanahan knew the Packers would use LeRoy Butler to cover Sharpe and the great tight end enjoyed one of his best games blocking (yes, Sharpe was a beastly blocker too). Terrell Davis ran for 157 yards and three touchdowns, many runs going to Sharpe's side.
Sharpe was so valuable because he was a physical specimen, an anomaly on the football field that frustrated and confused opposing defenses.
Sharpe used his great size to become one of the NFL's best possession receivers—he was Elway's go-to-guy when the going got tough. On third downs, Sharpe was almost certain to move the chains.
One of his most important third-down conversions occurred late in the 1998 AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh. The Broncos had to move the chains to run the clock out on the Steelers or risk giving Pittsburgh the ball back with good field position. Elway dropped back and hit his good friend Sharpe across the middle for the first down that secured the Broncos' win and sent Sharpe to his first Super Bowl.
Sharpe's specifically unique skill-set made it easy to attack the seams of defenses. He could be seen galloping down the middle of the field wide open, catching over linebackers and in front of safeties.
Now, almost every offense exploits defenses in the same way.
In 2002, Shannon Sharpe enjoyed the game of his life against the loathed Chiefs, as he caught 12 passes for 214 yards (exceeding Jackie Smith's 212 set 40 years prior), including two touchdowns by going straight up the seam of Kansas City's defense.
Nowadays almost every team has their own Sharpe—an effective pass-catching tight end that can challenge defenses to cover yet another receiver.
And when it comes down to it, Sharpe is the greatest tight end of all time because of the numbers. His pure statistical production put him into first overall in a myriad categories at the time of his retirement.
And even though Tony Gonzalez has eclipsed him in many categories since then, it was Sharpe that paved the way for Gonzalez. Without Sharpe's superiority, Gonzalez couldn't have realized greatness as a tight end.
When Sharpe retired after 14 glorious seasons, he was the leader among tight ends all-time in career receptions (815), reception yards (10,060) and touchdowns (62), including 1,000-plus yards in three seasons and two years of 10-plus TDs.
Sharpe's 11 seasons of 50 or more receptions was tied for third all-time by any receiver, not just tight ends. The other three receivers to accomplish that feat? How do Jerry Rice, Andre Reed and Chris Carter sound? Those men were all the No. 1 receivers on their respective teams. Sharpe was a last-second option when Elway had to scramble for his life.
And don't forget, Sharpe was an bruising blocker—he could lay slobberknocking hits on linebackers if need be, and many 1,000-yard running backs were thankful to have Sharpe opening up holes for them.
Sharpe was an eight-time Pro Bowler, including seven-straight, that should have been nine-time except he missed part of the 1999 season due to injury. And he was a four-time Associated Press All-Pro, meaning Sharpe was unquestionably the top tight end in the game during those special seasons.
Shannon Sharpe was so dominant during his time in Denver that he was named to the 1990s All-Decade Team by the NFL.
Of course, while he was compiling all those huge numbers, Sharpe was an integral part of back-to-back-to-back Super Bowl teams. (Three rings for Sharpe, the first one he gave away to his brother Sterling, an important stat he holds over Gonzalez, who has zero.)
Sharpe was more that just about stats though, he was the very definition of a character, with a personality bigger than a stand-up comic's (and he had better jokes too).
In the midst of revolutionizing tight end play on the field, Sharpe was busy changing the game of talking smack, on the field, and off the field, through the media.
During the buildup of Super Bowl XXXIII, Sharpe and Falcon's DB Ray Buchanan exchanged a war of words started by Buchanan when he said Sharpe looks “Like Mr. Ed,” to which Sharpe replied, "Tell Ray to put the eyeliner, the lipstick and the high heels away. I'm not saying he's a cross-dresser, but that's just what I heard."
In one of his most famous outbursts, Sharpe was seen on the Foxborough Stadium sideline during the Broncos 38-6 plastering of the Patriots, yelling on the phone, “Mr. President. We need the National Guard! We need as many men as you can spare because we are killing the Patriots! So call the dogs off. Send the National Guard, please. They need emergency help!”
From Peter King's piece in 2004 on Sharpe, “Late in our talk, Sharpe said, 'One of the greatest things people didn't give me credit for was my mind. Every year I was in the league, I spent more time trying to beat the defender than he spent trying to beat me.'"
Sharpe's mind was definitely sophisticated. He thought about how best to verbally and mentally attack his opponents, getting them out of games before the first whistle blew.
“What do you think the record is when I caught a touchdown pass?" Sharpe asked in the midst of a smack-talk session. "Go look it up.” The greatest tight end caught TD passes in 50 games and his team 's record was 43-7 when Shape scored, including 23-0 the last 23 games he caught a touchdown.
Shannon Sharpe also understood the importance of interacting with his fans. He was beloved in Denver for getting close and personal with Broncomaniacs and for his fun and silly end zone celebrations. (Who could forget the "Hulk Flex" or the "Ride the Bronco"?)
On one night in Denver, my Mom and I took in a movie and when we were leaving, she started screaming, "Richie, that's...that's Shannon Sharpe!" Sharpe heard, came in close and put his head through the driver-side window of my Mom's car and simply said in his baritone voice, "Hello," and walked into the theater while signing autographs while talking with fans.
Sharpe was the bright personality of the Broncos—the X factor that kept the locker room loose while remaining a close confidant and veteran leader.
He was trusted by teammates—namely John Elway. Sharpe admitted he was told by the Duke of Denver that Elway would return in 1998 and Shannon actually kept it under wraps despite donning one of the biggest mouths sports has ever known.
Simply put, Sharpe was greatness personified.
Sharpe's superiority was akin to Elway's. Broncos' fans will never see the likes of a person that can play their positions like they could, ever again.
Of course, part of Sharpe's dominance was dictated by pioneering, advancing and revolutionizing the tight end position forever. Sharpe defined domination at that spot and forced both offenses and defenses to re-envision what a tight end was, and what it will be in the future.
In the end, this sentiment by Sharpe sums it all up: “Maybe some of the people didn't agree with some of the things I had to say. Maybe they didn't like me because I was a little arrogant and because I was cocky. But what I can honestly say, when they came to the games on Sunday, they were proud to see ‘84’ on their football team.”
Shannon, from one Denverite to another, Broncos fans were definitely proud to see you play, and even more proud to see you go into the Hall of Fame.
Rich Kurtzman is a freelance journalist actively seeking a career in journalism. Along with being the CSU Rams Examiner, Kurtzman is a Denver Nuggets, Denver Broncos and NBA Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com, the Colorado/Utah Regional Correspondent for stadiumjourney.com and a weekly contributor to milehighhoops.com.
Rich also heads up PR for K-Biz and Beezy, a Colorado-based rap group.
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