Fred Biletnikoff, Charlie Joiner, Steve Largent, James Lofton, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, Charley Taylor and Paul Warfield all played wide receiver in the NFL in the 1970s and all excelled.
All became Pro Bowlers during their careers and Hall of Famers after their careers.
Swann earned first-team NFL all-decade acclaim on his way to becoming one of the nine Hall of Famers from the most bountiful decade for receivers in NFL history. The other wide receiver spot on that 1970s all-decade first team went to Drew Pearson.
But Pearson is not one of the nine. He lacks a bust in Canton. In fact, he has never even been a Hall of Fame finalist. So his candidacy has never even been discussed.
Talk about someone whose career has been short-changed.
Long before Dez Bryant and long before Michael Irvin, Drew Pearson wore the 88 of the Dallas Cowboys. And he wore it well.
Pearson caught 489 passes for 7,822 yards and 48 touchdowns. Those statistics are dwarfed by the receivers of today, but Pearson played in a different era. A lack of receptions didn’t keep his contemporaries Warfield (427), Hayes (371) or Swann (336) out of the Hall of Fame.
Pearson’s 58 catches in 1976 were the most by any wide receiver in the NFC that season. Yes, 58 catches. That gave him his first and only NFC receiving title. The following season he caught 48 passes and led the NFL with 870 receiving yards — yes, 870 yards — averaging 18.1 yards per catch. Like I said, it was a different era back then. In 1979 he caught 55 passes with an 18.7-yard average.
“Drew wasn’t one of the fastest receivers in the league,” said his Hall of Fame teammate Tony Dorsett, “but he was one of the best route runners ever to play in the league.”
Pearson earned the nickname “Mr. Clutch” in Dallas for his penchant for the big catch. He caught the NFL’s first “Hail Mary” pass from Roger Staubach for the winning touchdown in the closing seconds of a 1975 playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings. Staubach explained afterwards that he closed his eyes, heaved the ball and said a Hail Mary on the 50-yard touchdown.
Pearson also caught a 50-yard bomb from Clint Longley in the closing seconds of a 1974 Thanksgiving game against Washington, giving the Cowboys a 24-23 victory over the Redskins. He caught a career-long 83-yard touchdown pass from Staubach in the fourth quarter to break open a tight game in the 1973 playoffs against the Los Angeles Rams.
Pearson also caught a 29-yard touchdown pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl X and almost rescued the Cowboys from the ignominy of that 1981 NFC championship game defeat at San Francisco.
On the play following San Francisco’s go-ahead touchdown on “The Catch” by Dwight Clark, Pearson beat cornerback Eric Wright deep but only a one-handed swipe by the 49er defender prevented a touchdown, tripping up Pearson and limiting the reception to 31 yards at the San Francisco 44. But that’s where the final Dallas drive ended.
But that shouldn’t have been where the story ended for Pearson. He played two more seasons before a tragic car wreck — one that took the life of his brother Carey — forced him to retire at the age of 33 because of a liver injury. At that point his 489 receptions, three Pro Bowls and all-decade acclaim became lost in the pages of the history books and his name never came up for Hall of Fame consideration.
Pearson was a college quarterback at Tulsa who signed with Dallas in 1973 as an undrafted free agent. Not only did he make the Cowboys, he wound up starting six games as a rookie for a Dallas team that would reach the NFC title game.
But the Drew Pearson story isn’t how he started his career. It’s what he did with his career. The Cowboys didn’t retire his number 88, but they only give it now to players the club considers worthy of wearing it. Which explains why the Hall of Famer Irvin wore it in the 1990s and Bryant now wears it in the 2010s.
The Cowboys inducted Pearson into their Ring of Honor in 2011. But that shouldn’t be the final honor of his career. He deserves discussion from the Hall of Fame selection committee for the ultimate honor in Canton.