State Your Case: Eric Metcalf

The average length of his 57 NFL TDs was 36.3 yards.

(Published May 2020)

Eric Metcalf had electric moments in his NFL career. Hall-of-Fame moments.

But how many Hall-of-Fame moments do you need for a Hall-of-Fame career?

Metcalf has been out of football since 2002 and eligible for the Hall of Fame for the last 14 years. But he’s never been a semifinalist, much less a finalist. Metcalf has been a player whose candidacy has been damaged by his own versatility.

Metcalf wasn’t strictly a running back, although he did lead the Cleveland Browns in rushing as a rookie in 1989. He wasn’t strictly a wide receiver, although he did post a 100-catch season for the Atlanta Falcons in 1995. And Metcalf wasn’t strictly a return specialist, although he did go to three Pro Bowls for his ability to handle kicks.

Metcalf became the first player in NFL history with 7,000 yards in offense and 7,000 yards in kick returns — and remains one of just two players to accomplish that feat. He was a Swiss army knife in an offensive coordinator’s tool box.

Which brings us to the big plays. There was his 101-yard kickoff return against the Houston Oilers in 1990. His 92-yard punt return against the Cincinnati Bengals in 1994. His 69-yard touchdown catch against the Los Angeles Raiders in 1992 and 55-yard run against the New Orleans Saints in 1993. With a football in his hands, Metcalf was electricity in cleats.

Counting the playoffs, Metcalf scored 57 touchdowns in his 13-year career – 32 on receptions, 12 on rushes, 10 on punt returns and three on kickoff returns. He also threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Langhorne against the Oilers in 1989. Nineteen of his touchdowns covered more than half the football field. The average length of his 57 scores was 36.3 yards.

His signature game came in October 1993 against Cleveland’s arch-rival the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the first quarter, Metcalf returned a punt 91 yards for a touchdown to put the Browns up 14-0. But the Steelers roared back to take a 23-21 lead in the fourth quarter. Then Pittsburgh punter Mark Royals launched a 53-yard punt with 2:10 remaining but Metcalf returned it 75 yards for a game-winning score. He finished the day with 166 return yards, a team-leading 53 rushing yards and a team-leading three catches for 18 more yards.

Metcalf is the son of Terry Metcalf, the original jack-of-all-trades of the family. A third-round draft pick by the Cardinals out of Long Beach State, Terry played six NFL seasons and went to the Pro Bowl in half of them. He set an NFL record for yardage in a 14-game season in 1975 with 2,462 on rushes, receptions and returns. He led the NFL in kickoff returns in 1974 with an average of 31.2 yards and scored three times in his career on kickoffs and punts. He had rushes of 75, 62, 52 and 50 yards in his career, receptions of 50 and 43 yards plus a pair of 90-plus yard kickoff returns and a 69-yard punt return.

Like father, like son.

Cleveland took Metcalf with the 13th overall pick of the 1989 draft out of Texas. He spent his first six seasons with the Browns mastering the three R’s – running, receiving and returning — before he was dealt to the Atlanta Falcons in 1995.

Falcons coach June Jones had his Run-and-Shoot offense up and running with four wide receivers and envisioned Metcalf as a perfect slot receiver. He was right – Metcalf led the Falcons with 104 catches in his first season in the NFC, highlighted by an 11-catch, 155-yard game against the Saints. He caught a career-high eight TD passes that season.

Metcalf caught 54 passes the following season but was traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1997. He returned three punts for touchdowns that season to go to his third and final Pro Bowl. Metcalf played for five different teams over his final five NFL seasons – San Diego in 1997, Arizona in 1998, Carolina in 1999, Washington in 2001 and Green Bay in 2002. All wanted him for his return skills.

Metcalf retired with 3,453 punt return yards, fifth-best in NFL history, and scored touchdowns on punts for four different franchises – Cleveland, Atlanta, San Diego and Washington. He could lift the fans out of their seats with the football in the open field … but electricity alone doesn’t get you a bust in Canton. Statistics do — and Metcalf doesn’t have enough in any single category to command the attention of the voters.

Which is a shame. There were too many Hall of Fame moments in Metcalf’s career not to generate some discussion.

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