'Unstoppable' Sterling Sharpe carried offensive load for Packers

Impressive receiver in his prime was as good as it gets in the NFL

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Former Packers WR Sterling Sharpe

Team historian Cliff Christl has been writing the official biographies of the members of the Packers Hall of Fame. Those bios will be posted periodically on packers.com.

Sterling Sharpe

  • Inducted: 2002
  • Wide Receiver: 1988-94
  • Height: 6-0; Weight: 207
  • College: South Carolina, 1983, '85-87

Honors:

  • Associated Press All-Pro Team (chosen since 1940): 1989, '92, '93
  • Pro Bowl Selection (played since 1950): 1989, '90, '92, '93, '94
  • Press-Gazette All-Century Team: 1999

Sterling Sharpe was a running back in a wide receiver's cleats. That's not to say he wasn't as gifted as most of the other outstanding wideouts in the current age of fastbreak football; it merely means that Sharpe had a unique skill-set that allowed him to be one of the best after-the-catch receivers, maybe in NFL history.

Compared to his Pro Football Hall of Fame contemporaries, Sharpe wasn't as rangy as Dallas' 6-foot-2 Michael Irvin and couldn't match the Raiders' Tim Brown's 4.35 speed coming out of college, but neither of those two could fight off cornerbacks and bust tackles like Sharpe, and they never carried the offensive load that Sharpe did, either.

"He was an unstoppable, remarkable receiver," Packers Pro Football Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf said of Sharpe. "When you review what he accomplished, it's truly legendary. He was the only offensive weapon we possessed yet the opponent's defense couldn't stop him. He should be in Canton. He's much better than most of the people that have gone in recently at his position."

Selected with the seventh overall choice in the wide receiver-rich 1988 draft – Brown went sixth and Irvin 11th – Sharpe caught a club, rookie record 55 passes his first season. He also played at a reported 217 pounds, dropped 11 passes and scored only one touchdown on a 24-yard catch late in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss in the 14th game of the season.

A year later, a trimmed-down Sharpe enjoyed a breakout season, catching a league-leading 90 passes, including 12 touchdowns, the most memorable being the 14-yard game-winner in the "Instant Replay Game," a 14-13 victory over Chicago. His 90 receptions and 1,423 yards also set single-season team records. "The biggest thing was how he improved off the line of scrimmage," said then Packers receivers coach Buddy Geis. "And the weight (loss) was a huge factor, no doubt."

Over the next two seasons, Sharpe's numbers were down – 67 catches in 1990 and 69 in '91 – but he played with four different quarterbacks on teams that were a combined 10-22. Plus, he played the final month of 1990 with three broken ribs.

What launched Sharpe's career into a new, rarified stratosphere was the arrival of Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre in 1992. Holmgren's West Coast offense, focusing on a ball-control passing game, was a perfect match for Sharpe's skills, and Favre's playmaking ability arguably surpassed any other Packers quarterback, at least at that point in history.

What's more, the Packers didn't have many other weapons besides Sharpe. In 1992, their leading rusher was Vince Workman with 631 yards and their other starting wide receiver was Sanjay Beach, who finished with 17 catches and 122 yards. In truth, a young, unbridled Favre, especially when he was confused by a defensive scheme, would sometimes take the snap, drop three steps, catch a glimpse of Sharpe and rifle the ball at him as hard as he could.

"I thought he was one of the best receivers I'd ever seen," Ted Thompson, who was hired by Wolf as a pro personnel assistant in 1992 and later became general manager, said in a 2013 interview. "(Sharpe) was kind of our whole offense. Instead of running the ball, we just threw him slants."

In 1992, Sharpe set an NFL record with 108 catches and also led the league with 1,461 yards and 13 touchdown receptions. A year later, he broke his own record with 112 catches, accounting for 1,274 yards and 11 touchdowns, although he was bothered by Achilles and turf toe injuries that prevented him from practicing for most of the second half of the season.

Healthy or not, thanks to his rare combination of strength and quickness, Sharpe was still virtually unstoppable. And the Packers were determined to maximize his ability. In 1993, they threw it to him a league-high 193 times.

"The more times Sterling touches the ball, the better chance we have to win," Jon Gruden, who was an original member of Holmgren's staff and wide receivers coach from 1993-94, once said. "It's no different than when the Chicago Bulls rode Michael Jordan for those three championship rings."

Because he lacked great speed, Sharpe was never considered a dangerous deep threat. Where he was most effective was inside the hashmarks and inside the opponent's 20-yard line. He was fearless. He had a special feel for finding open spaces when plays broke down and Favre abandoned the pocket. And, more than anything, tackling Sharpe anywhere on the field was more like tackling the great Barry Sanders, a stumpy 203-pound running back, than the comparably great Jerry Rice, a graceful, 6-2, 200-pound wide receiver.

In 1993, for example, Sharpe caught 83 percent of his 112 passes within 10 yards of the line – with his average catch point 6.8 yards – but averaged 11.4 yards per catch.

"To me, it's an incredible statistic what he does after the catch," said Gruden. "I like to look at the great receivers in all of football – the Michael Irvins, the Sterling Sharpes, the Jerry Rices, the Andre Risons, all those great receivers – to see what they get after the catch, and Sterling's right up there on top of the league."

Sharpe started the 1994 season by walking out of camp the day before the opener over a contract dispute, only to settle matters that night and play the following day. He ended the season by missing the Packers' two playoff games when it was discovered that he had two loose vertebrae at the top of his spinal column. In the second-to-last regular-season game, Sharpe had experienced temporary paralysis in both arms following a collision and a week later endured a burning sensation in his right arm after sustaining another blow.

Sharpe underwent surgery for a neck fusion of his top two vertebrae in early February 1995 and less than a month later the Packers waived him. Sharpe's career was over at age 29. At the time, Wolf said: "My experience in pro football is you get a Hall of Fame-type player at his position every 20 years. He was either No. 1 or No. 2 when they called the role. So, you don't replace a player like that." Nevertheless, the Packers won a Super Bowl two seasons later.

In seven seasons, Sharpe never missed a regular-season game. He played and started 112. He also caught what was then a club-record 595 passes. His career yardage total of 8,134 yards was second to James Lofton and his 65 touchdowns were second to Don Hutson. Sharpe's average per catch was 13.7 yards. Additionally, he and Favre connected on 41 touchdown passes, also a team record at the time for a receiver-quarterback duo.

Sharpe also played in two postseason games following the 1993 season, catching 11 passes for 229 yards, a per-catch average of 20.8. The most memorable of those receptions was his 40-yard, final-minute game winner in the corner of the end zone at the Pontiac Silverdome that gave the Packers a 28-24 victory over Detroit in an NFC Wild Card playoff.

Born April 6, 1965. Given name Sterling Sharpe.

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