We continue our “Packers 100” countdown looking at the best wide receivers in franchise history. Green Bay Packers football is just 93 days away. You can find the full countdown here.
3. Sterling Sharpe
The number-three wide receiver could have easily been standing alone at the top of this class and surely would have had his own bust in Canton, Ohio had he been able to tack a few more years to his brief, but dominant pro career that saw him continually toy with defenses that didn’t double cover him or roll zones his way.
Sterling Sharpe was a six-foot, 210-pound powder keg that combined speed, body control and his signature brand of physical play to become the pre-eminent wide receiver of his day.
Numbers-wise, no one could touch Green Bay’s “Big Cheese” as he was reaching his prime years in the early 1990s. Sharpe had more receptions and touchdowns than Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Cris Carter and Tim Brown during a three-year period from 1992 through 1994.
Unlike Donald Driver, Sharpe wasn’t a Cinderella story who had to work his way to the top from obscurity; he was the seventh-overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft who set school records with 169 career receptions and 2,497 receiving yards in the powerhouse Southeastern Conference (SEC) as a South Carolina Gamecock.
Coming off a dismal 5-9-1 season, the Packers needed their prized first-round pick to be an instant-impact player and Sharpe didn’t disappoint. He started 16 games and caught 55 balls as a rookie and followed that up with a 90-catch, 1,423-yard campaign, which broke Don Hutson’s records in both those categories.
Sharpe teamed up with quarterback Don “The Majik Man” Majkowski and a host of rag-tag, no-name pass catchers to finally give the Packers a much-needed jolt of enthusiasm in 1989 by winning 10 games, many of which were of the nail-biting variety. It had been 11 years since Green Bay actually produced more victories than losses at that point.
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In the early going, Sharpe was jovial among teammates, but media-shy around reporters. He didn’t crave the spotlight and went as far as describing himself as a “construction worker” who took great pleasure in getting dirty with his opponents across the middle.
The unglamorous and physical receiver was a perfect match for the football-crazed small market of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
One would never know Sharpe possessed 4.4 speed with his stocky build. But he wasn’t only fast, No. 84 was an acrobat that adjusted to all kinds of wayward throws that most of his peers wouldn’t have come close to holding onto.
The Chicago-born and Georgia-raised wideout had elite burst that allowed him to zoom by defensive backs with one explosive step.
After two seasons in which Sharpe’s numbers experienced slight declines across the board, the fifth-year veteran finally found the quarterback who would lead him to unmatched greatness over the next three seasons in Week 3 of the 1992 season.
Enter rifle-armed gunslinger Brett Favre. The freckled-face 23-year-old quarterback and his go-to playmaker hooked up for 45 touchdowns during that period, including regular and post-season play.
The lethal combo would make the Packers a perennial contender, as they combined for a memorable comeback performance in a Wildcard playoff win over the Lions. Sharpe caught three touchdowns in that contest, including a last-minute game-winning 40-yard bomb that put the Packers ahead 28-24.
Sadly, his reign as the league’s most prolific pass catcher came to an abrupt end in a 1994 Week 16 contest versus the Atlanta Falcons. On what would be that last play in a helmet and shoulder pads, Sharpe’s attempt to block an opposing safety resulted in a cervical spine injury that would require the fusion of two loose vertebrae.
Ironically, the safety on the other end of the collision was Sharpe’s former college teammate Brad Edwards, who used to routinely face off against the star receiver during practice sessions in Columbia, South Carolina.
Prior to the devastating injury, Sharpe had never missed a regular-season game in his seven seasons in Packers News.
The cruelest part of the 29-year-old’s sudden departure from the game he loved was that Green Bay was on the precipice of greatness with Super Bowl appearances in the years following his retirement.
Just imagine the kind of dynasty the Packers could have built with Sharpe as their centerpiece pass target going into the late 1990s.
While you will often hear several media personalities and various members of the NFL community pine for Terrell Davis—who also experienced a brief, but dominant career— as a future Hall-of-Fame inductee, not enough is said about Sharpe getting his own yellow jacket.
No. 84 may not have TD’s Super Bowl rings, but he was an unstoppable force whose emergence coincided with the resurgence of the Packers as an NFL power after some long, miserable years in the 1970s and 80s. He was the ultimate difference maker who scored 27-percent of his team’s touchdowns from 1988 through 1994.
Also noteworthy is the fact that Sharpe never played with other pass targets that could regularly deflect double-team or bracket coverages away from him. Rice had John Taylor, Irvin had Alvin Harper…Sharpe had Perry Kemp and Charles Wilson.
One reason why Hall-of-Fame voters aren’t giving him serious consideration stems from the fact that the wide receiver position has seen a statistical boom over the past 20 years thanks to teams employing a more wide-open style with the increased usage of multiple-receiver sets.
Whether his bust ever enters the hallowed halls of Canton will never affect the place Sharpe continues to hold in the hearts of devoted Cheeseheads who won’t soon forget his integral role in pulling the Packers up from the dregs of mediocrity.
The affable and articulate former receiver has gone on to carving out a successful career for himself over the years as an analyst for ESPN and The NFL Network. His knowledge and passion for the game of football are evident whenever he appeared on his Playbook show, which was recently (and inexplicably) cancelled.
Sharpe may have only had seven years to show the world his extraordinary athletic gifts, but they were seven special ones.