There’s no debate: Isaac Bruce is a Hall of Famer

SI Cover: Isaac Bruce and the Rams, Catch em if you can

When news broke that the Rams were bringing Isaac Bruce back to St Louis in a gentleman’s agreement with the 49ers, so he could retire as a Ram, I was happy, but not surprised. This was a natural move, and had been in the works for a while. And I was grateful to the 49ers (yes, that’s the last time you’ll see me write those words) for acceding to the Rams’ and Isaac’s request so graciously.

However, the debate that has emerged over his Hall of Fame credentials has surprised me, saddened me even. How can a player who is second only to the great Jerry Rice in career receiving yards, whose career spanned 16 years, a four-time Pro Bowl electee, and who was as fine a citizen of the NFL as you could ask for … how could he not be a first-ticket inductee?

Nevertheless, we have a prominent national writer with HOF voting credentials — ESPN’s Mike Sando — openly questioning Bruce’s candidacy. (Emphasis mine.)

“Yes, I believe Isaac Bruce is a Hall of Famer,” Miklasz tweeted Monday. “So many big catches in big games and has the bulk stats. Also: great leader.”

Statistical inflation at the receiver position makes it harder to differentiate players by the numbers. The quality of Bruce’s receptions will be key in evaluating his candidacy. Some will ask whether Bruce was even the best wide receiver on his team. Bruce also wasn’t as prolific finding the end zone as some other elite receivers.

Miklasz’s point about Bruce being a great leader could be important in differentiating Bruce from candidates at a position known for producing players with reputations for selfishness. But Bruce will still have a tough time breaking through a logjam at the position.

— Mike Sando, ESPN: “Isaac Bruce and the Hall of Fame

I would immediately call this guy an idiot, a buffoon, a jackass, but Sando is actually one of the more thoughtful and reserved football writers out there. So rather than write the scathing diatribe I was going to pen, I pegged Sando on Twitter.

@espn_nfcwest with respect to your piece on Bruce, do you really think there’s a debate about his HOF credentials? Should be a shoo-in.
@RamsHerd Jerry Rice was a shoo-in HOF receiver. Isaac Bruce and others are not close to that level of candidate. Uphill fight for most WRs.
@espn_nfcwest well, Rice was obvious. But aren’t Bruce, Tim Brown, Marvin Harrison et al obviously deserving as representatives of the era?
@RamsHerd Bruce part of group that will siphon votes from 1 another and require time to sort out.

So let’s thoughtfully and maturely consider Bruce’s place within that group — and, one by one, dismiss the arguments against the candidacy of this all-time great.

“The Hall of Fame is not the ‘Hall of Very Good’ “

There are only 11 wide receivers in the HOF, which is by far the least among skill positions. By comparison, there are 26 quarterbacks, and 37 running backs, halfbacks, and tailbacks (and one wingback – Joe Guyon). Even offensive linemen are better represented, with 25 tackles, 16 guards and 10 centers.

Obviously, this reflects the league’s storied history of smashmouth football. But just as obviously, there is a massive generational correction coming that must reflect the league’s definitive shift into a passing league.

And waiting in the wings, we find Isaac Bruce in very good company with fellow elites Tim Brown, Cris Carter, and active players Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens. This is not a “logjam.” This is a group of generation-defining receivers who all belong.

The Hall of Fame voting process is designed to reward careful scrutiny, and it does create an artificial logjam for voters that leads to several tough decisions. This much is clear. But the voters as a group should take a hard look at the current imbalance in receiver talent, and at the nature of the game over the past twenty-five years, and this so-called problem will resolve itself.

“Isaac wasn’t even the best receiver on his team”

This argument is specious, plain and simple. Firstly, it ignores the many years at the beginning of his career, from 1994-1999, when Isaac clearly was the best receiver on the team, and second only to Rice in his division. These years were his youthful, athletic prime — but they also included his first introduction to the injury list, missing eleven games in 1998.

When he was on the field, though, he ranked among the game’s elites: He led the NFL in yards per game from 1995-1999, and rated top-ten in total receptions, yards, and scores.

Then compare Bruce to his receiving cohorts for this five-year period:

1995-99: The ‘Lost’ years of Isaac Bruce
  Receptions Yards TDs
Ike 368 5,556 38
All other Rams receivers 488 6,966 38

Secondly, this so-called argument punishes Bruce for being paired with another multiple-Pro-Bowl receiver in Torry Holt. Holt was a phenomenal talent with slightly stickier fingers and flashier on-field demeanor; Bruce was a silent assassin with unparalleled ability to make cuts and finish plays. The two of them pushed each other to greater levels of excellence, and along with Marshall Faulk, brought the Rams’ offense into record-setting heights. And the two are widely considered to be one of the ten best receiver tandems in the history of the game. Among the others listed, only one pairing — Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell — does not have a Hall of Famer or HOFer-to-be.

Sure, it was fun to argue “Holt vs Bruce” by the water cooler, or in the run-up to your fantasy draft. But that doesn’t — and shouldn’t — imply that either was somehow lacking.

(However, in terms of longevity, Holt hasn’t reached the career milestones or the intangibles as a “complete” receiver that Bruce has, and if he doesn’t experience a rebirth with the Patriots, I’d put him on the outside looking in as far as the HOF.)

“He played for mostly lousy teams”

I’m sorry, are we criticizing Isaac Bruce the GM? Isaac Bruce the coach? Or Isaac Bruce, the wide receiver who made the Pro Bowl while catching passes from Tony Banks and being flanked by Eddie Kennison? Come off it. This is not a worthy argument.

The simple truth is that the Rams were in complete disarray when they arrived in St Louis. Isaac Bruce was their only player of any redeemable excellence, and his play was often the only thing keeping his team in the game. He toiled for a broken organization and kept his mouth shut despite all hell on the roster around him — a mark of his perennial courtesy and self-control. And when the Rams drafted Holt, rather than demand a trade or publicly demand the ball, Bruce took it as a personal challenge to step up and earn his reps, earn his routes, and earn his receptions.

Final thoughts

I’ve never been to Canton. To be honest, growing up as a Bucs fan in the 70s and 80s, I never had much interest in touring a museum of players who made their careers beating the living crap out of my team. But I’ve grown to appreciate the greatness of the game itself, and thanks to the glory years of the Rams, I’ve had the fortune to get a little taste of NFL Championship-caliber football.

When my son gets old enough, we’ll make the pilgrimage. And when he asks about the glory years of the St Louis Rams, I fully expect to be able to point to the bronzed figures of Isaac Bruce, Marshall Faulk and Kurt Warner as the embodiments of our generation of elite football.

They belong. Bruce belongs. Do the right thing and vote him in. Period.