Lynn Swann. Uninformative sideline reporter. Failed politician. And controversial Hall of Fame selection. Now when I was a kid, if you called Swann the best receiver in the game you were not making a particularly controversial statement. He almost certainly was the best receiver of his time. So why wouldn’t he be worthy of Hall of Fame induction? Simply put, the numbers. Or in his case, the lack thereof.
As of 2008, Lynn Swann currently ranks 177th all-time in career receiving yards, 83rd all-time in career receiving touchdowns, and he’s not even in the top 250 in all-time career receptions. And yes, the passing game of Swann’s era was a far cry from what we see today, but even if you only compare Swann’s numbers to the best of his contemporaries--Paul Warfield, Fred Biletnikoff, Charlie Joiner, Harold Carmichael, Harold Jackson, Cliff Branch, and Swann’s Hall-of-Fame teammate John Stallworth—his numbers are nothing special. In his nine-year career, he only had three excellent seasons (generously adjusting for his era). The best you could say is that Swann’s total numbers from 1975-1979 show him to have been the best receiver in football for that five-year time period. But you can’t say he dominated that time period. He never once led the league in receiving yards or receptions.
So how’d he make the Hall of Fame? Well, as you may have heard, Swann played for four Super Bowl champions. And, as you may have seen (at least in highlight form), Swann made a number of spectacular catches in those games. Swann was deservedly named MVP of Super Bowl X; I doubt Pittsburgh wins that game without him. Swann also played critical roles in his team's wins in Super Bowls XIII and XIV. (He barely played in the 1974 game, his rookie season; his team didn’t pass much that day anyway). Swann caught a total of 16 passes in three Super Bowls. By my count seven of those were big catches, that is, they played a huge role in those Steeler victories and, not incidentally, many of those seven were of the spectacular variety as well. Here’s the list of Swann's seven most important Super Bowl receptions:
Super Bowl X
1) First Quarter, from the Dallas 48, second-and-five. Swann makes an amazing 32-yard catch along the right side line. Swann made the grab while twisting his body in order to land in bounds. Pittsburgh scored a TD on the drive to tie the game at 7 apiece.
2) Second Quarter, from the Pittsburgh 10, third-and-six. Swann’s most famous catch, a 53-yard juggling catch down the middle of the field made while falling down with Mark Washington holding on to him. The drive ended with a missed FG try but if Swann doesn’t make that catch his team has to punt from its own goal line with two minutes still left in half and trailing 10-7.
3) Fourth Quarter, from the Pittsburgh 36, third-and-four. A 64-yard TD pass with 3:02 remaining. Ballgame. Steelers up 21-10. They hold on to win 21-17.
Super Bowl XIII
4) Second Quarter, from the Pittsburgh 34, first-and-twenty. A 29-yard pass following a ten-yard penalty.
5) The next play, a 21-yard catch. The 56-yard drive ends with a TD that gives Pittsburgh a 21-14 lead. Swann’s back-to-back grabs account for most of the yards on the go-ahead drive.
6) Fourth Quarter, from the Dallas 18, first-and-ten. An over the shoulder TD pass ending in cinematic fashion with Swann sliding into the end zone on his knees. Ballgame. Steelers up 35-17. They hold on to win 35-31.
Super Bowl XIV
7) Third Quarter, from the LA 47, second-and-six. A 47-yard TD catch to give Pittsburgh a 17-13 lead.
Seven catches. Three critical touchdowns. Three catches setting up touchdowns. The seven catches totaled 264 yards, almost 38 yards per reception. Swann’s career numbers were pedestrian. His career lasted only nine years. He had only three really good statistical seasons. On the other hand his teams won a ton of games and, with a lot of help from Swann when it counted, four championships. Can seven catches really justify induction into the Hall of Fame? The Hall of Fame voters thought so.