Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Best Wide Receivers Not in the HOF: 1960s
Who is the best wide receiver eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but not yet enshrined? When football fans cry "snub," there's a good chance they're talking about a wide receiver. For years, it was Lynn Swann or Art Monk. Now, it's guys like Tim Brown and Otis Taylor. Players at the other stat positions — quarterbacks and running backs — are elected to the PFHOF with much higher frequency than wideouts.
For this project, we'll examine in depth 25 eligible wide receivers with strong backing for the Hall of Fame: Cliff Branch, Tim Brown, Harold Carmichael, Cris Carter, Wes Chandler, Gary Clark, Henry Ellard, Irving Fryar, Charley Hennigan, Harlon Hill, Billy Howton, Harold Jackson, Herman Moore, Stanley Morgan, Drew Pearson, Art Powell, Andre Reed, Andre Rison, Sterling Sharpe, Del Shofner, Jimmy Smith, Mac Speedie, Hugh Taylor, Otis Taylor, and Billy Wilson. I believe only about five of those players deserve induction, but there's a case to be made for all of them.
It's difficult to compare players across eras at any position, and this is particularly true in the passing game, because the rules and statistics have changed so much. Today's wide receivers play 16-game schedules. They can't be bumped more than five yards downfield. Their quarterbacks are protected in ways John Unitas and Roger Staubach never dreamed of. They play in high-efficiency pass-oriented offenses, as opposed to the exciting but reckless bomb-it-down-the-field passing games of the past, when running was a way of life and throwing a sneaky change of pace or a mark of desperation. But we can certainly compare these players to their peers. Here's my list of 25, ranked by the number of times they were among the top 10 in their league in receiving yards:
Five: Brown, Carter, Clark, Jackson, Pearson, Shofner, Smith, Speedie, Wilson
Four: Branch, Ellard, Fryar, Hennigan, Howton, Moore, Sharpe, Otis Taylor
Three: Chandler, Hill, Morgan, Reed, Rison, Hugh Taylor
To keep the statistics from skewing, I used top-five rankings (instead of top-10) for seasons before 1970, when the leagues were 8-16 teams rather than 26-32. This affected Hennigan, Howton, Speedie, Hugh Taylor, and Wilson, once each. The two who stand out on the list, obviously, are Powell and Carmichael. But let's review each player's résumé, in alphabetical order. We continue this week with receivers of the 1960s. If you're here for another era, check out our previous articles in this series:
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1990s (Brown, Carter, Fryar, Moore, Rison, Smith)
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1980s (Chandler, Clark, Ellard, Morgan, Reed, Sharpe)
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1970s (Branch, Carmichael, Jackson, Pearson)
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1950s (Hill, Howton, Speedie, Hugh Taylor, Wilson)
1960-66, Houston Oilers
410 receptions, 6,823 yards, 51 TD
Probably no one's HOF case is more hindered by disrespect for the early AFL than Charley Hennigan. We can argue about when the American Football League started catching up to the NFL, but all serious analysts recognize that competition in the AFL in the early 1960s was not at the same level as in the NFL, and in particular, that the receiving stats from that era need to be taken with a grain of salt. All of that is true, but it's led some people to completely disregard the statistics of every AFL receiver from the early '60s, except for maybe Don Maynard's. In a project to identify the best wide receiver seasons of all time, Chase Stuart, employing an immense adjustment to AFL statistics, ranked the NFL's Tommy McDonald ahead of Hennigan in 1961. Let's take a quick look at their stats that season:
I realize Hennigan was facing AFL defensive backs, and playing for the Oilers at a time when George Blanda threw on pretty much every down, but how do you downgrade a season like that? Hennigan's 1,746 yards still is the third-highest total ever in a season — the record stood for 34 years — and he did it in 14 games. Hennigan's 272 yards against the Patriots stands as the AFL single-game record, and his single-season record for 200-yard receiving games (3) probably will never be broken. Recognizing that the AFL revolutionized passing and did feature many great receivers, how do you look at maybe the greatest receiving season in AFL history and say it's not one of the top 50 of all time? The top three single-season receiving totals in AFL history:
1. Charley Hennigan, 1961 — 1,746
2. Lance Alworth, 1965 — 1,602
3. Charley Hennigan, 1964 — 1,546
I don't care what league you play in, when a guy is killing you badly enough, you assign extra defenders to him. With a defense's ability to adjust, I believe there's an effective maximum to the statistics a receiver can realistically compile. If you put Jerry Rice on the '61 Oilers, how many yards would he have? I'd bet about the same as Hennigan. Looking at 1961 AFL receiving stats with a skeptical eye makes sense, but there's a certain point at which a receiver can't realistically do any more, no matter his talent.
Hennigan also was the first receiver with more than 100 catches in a season, hauling in 101 in 1964. He was basically done after that. Limited by injures, Hennigan gained under 1,000 yards in 1965-66 combined, then retired. He played in 5 AFL All-Star Games (more than any WR but Alworth), was first-team All-AFL three times, and was a second-team receiver on the AFL All-Time Team, behind only Alworth and Maynard.
There are two major arguments against Hennigan: a very short career, and the quality of opposition in the AFL in the early 1960s. It also bears mention that the Oilers passed much more often than most teams in that era, so Hennigan had many opportunities for receptions. This story was told by Hennigan's old quarterback, Hall of Famer George Blanda, on the 2009 Showtime series Full Color Football: The History of the American Football League.
"[Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown] couldn't cover Charley Hennigan in practice, so he was let go, and the Broncos picked him up. The next year we played Denver, and Charley needed nine catches to break Lionel Taylor's record of 100 receptions in a season. Charley got the nine he needed, with Willie covering him. Willie's in the Hall of Fame. Charley Hennigan should be, too."
1959-68, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Titans, Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings
479 receptions, 8,046 yards, 81 TD
Powell is listed with five different teams, but almost all of his career contributions came with the Titans (1960-62) or Raiders (1963-66). He was a return specialist with the Eagles in 1959, a role player for the Bills in '67, and a non-factor on the Vikings in '68. During his seasons in New York and Oakland, though, Powell was among the most productive receivers in football. Paul Zimmerman (Dr. Z) called Powell "the most feared receiver in the early days of the AFL", placing him ahead of Charley Hennigan and Don Maynard. Powell and Maynard were teammates for three years, and the statistical comparison favors Powell:
Powell remains ahead during his years with the Raiders:
The problem is that Powell's career basically ends there, while Maynard played for another seven years, including two of his best seasons. But clearly, Powell was an elite receiver in his prime, measuring up against the best the AFL had to offer. He made the official All-AFL team five times, four as a starter. He twice led the league in receiving yards, and twice in touchdowns. He caught the third-most passes in league history, behind only Lionel Taylor and Maynard, gained the third-most receiving yards (Lance Alworth and Maynard), and scored more touchdowns than anyone but Maynard. He was named to the AFL All-Time Team, joining Hennigan on the second team behind Alworth and Maynard.
Powell was the first player in history with five 1,000-yard receiving seasons. He was eventually tied by Maynard and passed by Alworth, but no one else matched them until Steve Largent almost two decades later (1983). Powell ranked among the top five in the AFL in receiving yardage for seven consecutive seasons (1960-66). With so many positive distinctions working for him, the HOF argument against Powell is the same as Hennigan's:
1. Style of play and quality of defense in the early AFL
2. Short career
Comparing the two players, it's hard not to rank Powell at least slightly ahead. He caught more passes for more yards and more touchdowns, had more good seasons, and sustained his success with two teams, lending credence to the idea that he wasn't simply a product of his system. Powell was also a fine returner when he got the chance.
1957-67, Los Angeles Rams, New York Giants
349 receptions, 6,470 yards, 51 TD
Delbert Shofner's stats don't look impressive compared to his contemporaries in the AFL, but the passing environment in the NFL during the '60s was substantially different than in the new league. There were basically just five seasons in which Shofner did anything (1958-59, 61-63), but all five years, he made the Pro Bowl and was first-team All-Pro. He was among the NFL's top four in receiving yards all five times, and top-10 in both receptions and receiving TDs all five times. Modern-Era NFL wide receivers with 5 or more first-team All-Pro selections: Del Shofner, Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens. That's it. Shofner led the NFL in receiving yards in 1958, and he was a solid punter early in his career (153 punts, 42.0 average).
A track star at Baylor — where he is still widely regarded as the greatest football player in school history — Shofner was the NFL's premier deep threat while he was active. Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle said that of all the receivers he played with, Billy Wilson had the best hands, and Frank Gifford was the smartest, but Shofner "was the best and most dangerous of all" because he could score from anywhere on the field. Throwing short to Shofner, Tittle said, was like asking Mickey Mantle to bunt.
Although he played in three NFL Championship Games, Shofner never had a signature performance. In 1961, he was shut down by his former roommate, Jess Whittenton. In '62, swirling winds and an icy field in the title game took away the deep pass. In '63, when the Giants faced one of the greatest defenses in history, Tittle threw five interceptions and Shofner dropped a pass in the end zone. In 1964, Shofner was coming off his third straight championship appearance, and third straight season of 1,100 receiving yards — the first player in either league to do so — and was still only 29. But that season, and the rest of his career, were cut short by illness and injury. Shofner played only six games in '64, and he never came all the way back after that.
Shofner doesn't have the stats because of his health problems, and he doesn't have the signature moments on a big stage to make up for it. Although there are numerous instances in which he made great plays and led his team to victory, they didn't happen in the right three games. Shofner nonetheless was chosen to the 1960s NFL All-Decade Team, basically just on the strength of three seasons, and he set multiple records during his career.
I mentioned in Powell's summary that he was the first player in history with five 1,000-yard receiving seasons. For almost 20 years, Shofner was the only NFL player with four 1,000-yard receiving seasons (1963-81). He was eventually tied by Hall of Famers Steve Largent and Charlie Joiner. Raymond Berry didn't have four 1,000-yard seasons. Tommy McDonald didn't, Charley Taylor didn't, Cliff Branch didn't ... just Shofner. And yet this guy has been lost to the winds of time.
We can't even blame this on lack of exposure. Shofner played in New York, when the Giants were the best team in the Eastern Conference, making three straight title appearances. But when we evaluate careers, we tend to look (logically enough) at career statistics. And because Shofner only had five productive seasons (seven if you want to be generous), his career stats aren't especially impressive. His best seasons came right before the explosion of televised football and the NFL's surge in popularity, and he's been largely forgotten in favor of players who reached stardom just two or three years later.
1965-74, Kansas City Chiefs
410 receptions, 7,306 yards, 57 TD
Otis Taylor has been cited as a Hall of Fame snub basically since 1980, when he first became eligible for induction. He's off the regular ballot now, and would have to be nominated by the Seniors Committee, but here's something odd: Otis Taylor was never a finalist for the Hall of Fame. Not once was he even among the final 15 players considered for enshrinement.
Taylor played in the 1966 AFL All-Star Game and in two Pro Bowls, and he was a first-team All-Pro in 1971. He was also a hero of Super Bowl IV, with 6 receptions for 81 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown to effectively clinch the game. Taylor caught a short pass, then ran 41 yards to the end zone, breaking two tackles along the way. The 6-3, 215-lb Taylor was also regarded as a fine blocker. He led the AFL in receiving TDs in 1967 and led the NFL in receiving yardage in 1971.
There are a hundred stories about Taylor. He was particularly distinguished by his ability with the ball in his hands — sprinter's speed and very hard to bring down. He's one of those guys who passed the eye test but didn't have huge numbers. Paul Zimmerman, for one, was always a vocal advocate for Taylor's HOF case. I hope you'll forgive me a digression, but here's a long excerpt from a post by Joe Posnanski:
"When Charlie Joiner retired, he had the record for most receptions and receiving yards in a career. He was elected into the Hall of Fame 10 years later. He is now 29th all-time in receptions, and many receivers with dramatically better numbers — such as Cris Carter and Tim Brown and Andre Reed — are having a heck of a time getting into the Hall of Fame.
Cris Carter: 1,101 catches, 13,899 yards, 130 TDs
Tim Brown: 1,094 catches, 14,934 yards, 100 TDs
Andre Reed: 951 catches, 13,198 yards, 87 TDs
Charlie Joiner: 750 catches, 12,146 yards, 65 TDs
"Well, we all know, the times have changed in football. Rules have changed. Defenses have changed. Strategies have changed. Football, even more than baseball, should have statistics like OPS+ or ERA+ that are adjusted to the time. For instance, I happen to think that Otis Taylor was a better receiver than all four of them but he played in such a different time and his numbers are so much less impressive (410 catches, 7,306 yards, 57 touchdowns) that he simply cannot get any Hall of Fame momentum."
The thing is, Taylor's numbers are not less impressive because of when he played, or least not exclusively. By the numbers, Taylor doesn't compare particularly well even to his contemporaries. His stats are unimpressive because he played on a run-oriented offense and had a fairly short career. Here are career figures for some of the better receivers who began their careers between 1963-67:
Statistically, Carter and Brown and Reed and Joiner are among the very best of their eras. Joiner set major receiving records, and the others would have if not for Jerry Rice. Otis Taylor simply is not a statistical standout, even in his own era. He's comparable to Roy Jefferson or Gary Garrison, who were very good players, but ... well, you know that joke about the Hall of the Very Good. Taylor's stats, even in context, are nowhere near the level of the other players Posnanski mentioned.
Joe went on to imply that Joiner may not deserve his bust in Canton, that he was enshrined at least partially due to an accident of timing. I'm sure there's some truth in that, but Joiner's career is impressive on several levels. He played for 18 seasons, and you have to be pretty darn good just to last that long. This wasn't holding on as a role player, either — Joiner gained 932 receiving yards in his second-to-last season, the most ever by a 38-year-old, and only Jerry Rice gained more yardage at age 39.
Joiner didn't blow our minds the way Largent and Lofton did, but he was consistently a very good player. We think of Joiner with the record-setting Air Coryell offenses of the '80s, but he was also one of the most accomplished receivers of the '70s, one of only five players to top 6,000 receiving yards in the decade. People forget that Joiner had a 1,000-yard season in 1976, in 14 games and without Don Coryell or Kellen Winslow or John Jefferson or Wes Chandler or Chuck Muncie. The second-leading receiver on that team was fullback Rickey Young (441 yards). The top WR apart from Joiner was Dwight McDonald (161 yds).
Bill Walsh called Joiner "the most intelligent, the smartest, the most calculating receiver the game has ever known." Looking at the length and quality of his career, Joiner is comparable to Isaac Bruce or Don Maynard. Those players were better at their peaks, but neither had as many good seasons as Joiner. Maynard is a solid Hall of Famer, not borderline at all, and I'll support Bruce when he becomes eligible. Joiner belongs.
It's useful to me, in thinking about these issues, to break them down by era. Below, I've organized HOF receivers by the decade in which they most established their greatness.
1945-54: Tom Fears, Elroy Hirsch, Dante Lavelli, Pete Pihos
1955-64: Raymond Berry, Tommy McDonald, Bobby Mitchell
1960-69: Lance Alworth, Don Maynard
1965-74: Fred Biletnikoff, Bob Hayes, Charley Taylor, Paul Warfield
1975-84: Charlie Joiner, Steve Largent, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann
1980-89: James Lofton, Art Monk
1985-94: Jerry Rice
1990-99: Michael Irvin
Some of those assignments are close calls. Mitchell, for instance, was a star running back and kick returner in the '50s; he didn't switch to wide receiver until '62. McDonald was almost as good in the late '60s as the late '50s, and easily could rate with Alworth and Maynard rather than Berry and Mitchell. Let's break this down a little more, looking at both the Hall of Famers and the contenders we've examined. To be fair, we should probably separate the AFL guys.
Looking at the numbers, you can see why Hennigan, Powell, and Shofner aren't in Canton. Their career statistics aren't nearly at the same level as those of their HOF contemporaries. The argument is that these players didn't stick around past their primes to pile up big numbers, but performed at exceptional levels when they were on the field. Hennigan had the greatest prime, Powell the most good seasons, Shofner a combination.
The receivers of the 1960s are already well-represented in Canton, from Berry and McDonald to Biletnikoff and Warfield. How many more receivers of this era do we want to honor? Hennigan was a great player ... for two or three seasons. Powell put up huge numbers ... in the early AFL, where records were broken left and right. I'm most sympathetic, actually, to Shofner, who had five truly great years, helped the Giants to three straight championship appearances, and was a greater standout in the NFL than Powell in the AFL. Stats again, looking at the end of the decade:
There are already four Hall of Fame receivers who began their careers in 1964 or '65. That doesn't mean we can't induct another; Otis Taylor was by all accounts a remarkable player, and if you value quality over quantity, he certainly has a case. To me, though, he's the 5th-best receiver of his own era, and we're turning away guys from other eras who stood out from their peers in a way that Taylor didn't. Here's how I rank the best non-HOF receivers of the '60s:
1. Del Shofner — First four-time 1,000-yard receiver in history, five-time All-Pro.
HOF Qualifications: FAIR. He probably doesn't need to be in.
2. Otis Taylor — Big, talented receiver with all the skills. Made big plays when the stakes were highest.
HOF Qualifications: FAIR. He probably doesn't need to be in.
3. Art Powell — Scored 81 TDs and seven times ranked among AFL receiving leaders.
HOF Qualifications: FAIR. He probably doesn't need to be in.
4. Charley Hennigan — Had two unbelievable seasons and set a single-season yardage record that stood for 34 years.
HOF Qualifications: POOR. He probably shouldn't be in. But he was a heck of a player.
Read the other articles in this series:
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1990s
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1980s
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1970s
Best Wide Receivers Not in the Hall of Fame: 1950s