Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Best Wide Receivers Not in the HOF: 1950s
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 Cris Carter and Mac Speedie. 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 Y.A. Tittle 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. We conclude this week with receivers of the late 1940s and the 1950s. 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: 1960s (Hennigan, Powell, Shofner, Otis Taylor)
1954-62, Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions
233 receptions, 4,717 yards, 40 TD
Hill's career spanned nine seasons. He had three great years to start his career, then three pretty good ones, followed by three where he did almost nothing. Essentially, his Hall of Fame case rests on those first three years.
In Hill's first three seasons, he never ranked lower than 3rd in receiving yards, twice led the NFL in yards per reception, and twice led in touchdowns. He earned All-Pro honors all three seasons, winning Rookie of the Year in 1954 and the Jim Thorpe Trophy, given annually to the Newspaper Enterprise Association MVP, in '55. Statistically, Hill was even better in '56, when he set career-highs in receptions and yardage. We're talking three seriously impressive seasons here.
Limited by injuries the following two years, Hill remained a good player, but he was never again a great one. The argument for Hill rests especially on the greatness of his first and third seasons. Apart from Billy Howton, no other receiver — including Hall of Famers like Dante Lavelli and Crazy Legs Hirsch — had two seasons that good in the 1950s. In Hill's rookie season, when he hauled in 1,124 receiving yards, third-place Pete Pihos had just 872. Hill and Bob Boyd were way ahead of the rest of the league. The Bears, 3-8-1 the year before, improved to 8-4 with Hill on the team.
Hill was probably the best receiver in the league in '55, but statistically, the other year that stands out is '56, when Hill helped the Bears to their first championship appearance in a decade. That season, Hill and Howton both gained over 1,100 receiving yards. No one else had even 900. They scored 11 and 12 receiving TDs, respectively. The third-highest total was 7. They were absolutely alone atop the league. The rest of Hill's career was marred by ankle problems, and in '57 the Bears immediately dropped to 5-7 with their star receiver struggling. Hill still holds the team record for 100-yard receiving games (19) and is one of only three Bears with multiple 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Hill set these marks in 12-game seasons. The NCAA's Harlon Hill Trophy, awarded to the most valuable player in Division II, is named in Hill's honor.
The problem with Hill's HOF case is that it rests almost exclusively upon three brilliant peak seasons. Fans and voters tend to recognize greatness most easily when it lasts for an extended time, often rewarding the light that shines longest rather than the one that shines brightest.
1952-63, Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys
503 receptions, 8,459 yards, 61 TD
When a 1950s All-Decade Team was chosen in 1969, Howton was not named to the team. Howton had the most receiving yards of any player during the decade, the 2nd-most receptions, and the 3rd-most receiving TDs. He played in four Pro Bowls and was All-Pro three times, twice on the first team. Howton twice led the NFL in receiving yards, joining Hall of Famers Raymond Berry and Pete Pihos as the only players of the decade to lead the league more than once. Howton became the NFL's all-time leading receiver in 1963, and is the only player ever to hold that distinction who is not in the Hall of Fame.
Eleven times in NFL history, a player gained over 1,000 receiving yards in a 12-game season (including Don Hutson in an 11-game season and Wes Chandler in nine games in 1982). The top six:
1. Crazy Legs Hirsch, 1951: 1,495 yards
2. Raymond Berry, 1960: 1,298
3. Billy Howton, 1952: 1,231
4. Bob Boyd, 1954: 1,212
5. Don Hutson, 1942: 1,211
6. Billy Howton, 1956: 1,188
Howton twice gained more yards in a season than Tom Fears or Dante Lavelli or Pete Pihos ever did. In fact, this extends to great players in 14- and 16-game seasons: Fred Biletnikoff, Cliff Branch, Harold Carmichael, Dwight Clark, Tommy McDonald, Drew Pearson, Lynn Swann, Charley Taylor, Paul Warfield ... there actually are 38 wide receivers who made multiple Pro Bowls in 14- or 16-game seasons but never had as many yards in a single year as Howton did in his second-best season.
We could do something very similar with TDs: Howton scored 13 TDs in 1952 and 12 in '56. Players who never had a season of 12 TDs include Tim Brown, Michael Irvin, Charlie Joiner, James Lofton, Art Monk, Chad Ochocinco, Andre Reed, John Stallworth ... NFL players with multiple 1,000-yard receiving seasons before 1961: Tom Fears, Harlon Hill, Billy Howton. Multiple seasons with more than 10 receiving TDs: Cloyce Box, Hill, Howton, and Don Hutson.
Howton ranked among the top five in the NFL in receptions four times, the top 10 eight times, so it's not like all he has are two great seasons. Why hasn't he been elected to the Hall of Fame? Honestly, I think he's just slipped through the cracks. Howton mostly played on teams that weren't very good, he played in tiny Green Bay before the television era, and not many people remember him at this point. He's not on the regular ballot, so he'd have to go in as a Senior Candidate, and that's chosen by a small committee. Statistics from that era don't look very impressive out of context, and not many people are willing to go to the trouble of studying receiving stats from the 1950s.
Howton was also the first president of the NFL Players Association, which earned him ill will in some quarters, and he was traded from Green Bay just two years before the Packers won their first championship under Vince Lombardi.
1946-52, Cleveland Browns
349 receptions, 5,602 yards, 33 TD
Mac Curtis Speedie — yes, his real name — began his career in 1946 with the Cleveland Browns, just like Hall of Fame receiver Dante Lavelli. A side-by-side look at their first seven seasons, both spent entirely with the Browns:
Unless all you value is touchdowns, Speedie looks like the more accomplished player. He was first team All-AAFC each of his first four years, and All-Pro in '50 and '52. Lavelli, of course, continued to play for another four years, making two Pro Bowls and winning two more NFL championships. Speedie, who clashed with head coach Paul Brown, bolted for the Canadian Football League, adding two All-CFL seasons before a broken leg ended his career.
Speedie was the most productive receiver in the history of the All-America Football Conference, holding numerous AAFC records.
Most receiving yards:
1. Speedie — 3,554
2. Lavelli — 2,580
3. Alyn Beals — 2,510
1. Speedie — 211
2. Beals — 177
3. Lamar Davis — 147
Most receiving yards, season:
1. Speedie — 1,146
2. Speedie — 1,048
3. Billy Hillenbrand — 970
Most receptions, season:
1. Speedie — 67
2. Speedie — 62
3. Speedie — 58
Speedie also scored the 3rd-most receiving TDs in AAFC history, trailing only Beals and Lavelli. He led the league in receptions three times and receiving yards twice. He also led the NFL in receptions in 1952, his final season before leaving for the CFL. The shape and span of Speedie's career — three seasons in the NFL, four in the AAFC, and two in the CFL — are probably the primary reason for his exclusion from Canton, but his icy relationship with the legendary Paul Brown certainly hasn't helped his chances. Add in lack of respect for the AAFC and the argument that anyone would have been successful catching passes from Otto Graham, and Speedie has a lot working against him. I doubt he'll ever be enshrined, but he was an exceptional player.
For years, the argument about Speedie's Hall of Fame qualifications has been simple. His advocates point out that Speedie compares favorably to Lavelli, while his detractors cite his short career in the NFL. For years, I've fallen into the first camp. Lavelli is in the Hall, and Speedie was even better than Lavelli, so he should be in, too. But is Lavelli deserving? To me, they're both borderline candidates. Lavelli's in, and I don't have a problem with that, and Speedie's out, and that seems reasonable, too. But Speedie was better than Lavelli.
1947-54, Washington Redskins
272 receptions, 5,233 yards, 58 TD
If there's one player in this study you've never heard of, it's probably Hugh "Bones" Taylor. He played forever ago, on teams that never made the playoffs. Despite the lack of modern-day notoriety, Taylor was one of the greatest receivers of his era. He gained 212 receiving yards in his NFL debut, a record that stood for 56 years (Anquan Boldin broke it in 2003), and was particularly noteworthy as a big-play TD receiver. Four times in his eight-year career, Taylor ranked among the top three in receiving TDs. He was the 2nd player in NFL history with 5,000 career receiving yards (Don Hutson was the first).
Most receiving yards in the NFL, 1947-54:
1. Hugh Taylor — 5,233
2. Tom Fears — 4,779
3. Crazy Legs Hirsch — 4,759
4. Pete Pihos — 4,755
Most receiving TDs in the NFL, 1947-54:
1. Taylor — 58
2. Pihos — 54
3. Hirsch — 39
4. Fears — 36
Fears, Hirsch, and Pihos are all Hall of Famers. Those players were better, in their best seasons, than Taylor — I do believe they all were better. Taylor never had a season like Hirsch in '51, or Fears in '49 and '50, or Pihos in '53. He wasn't a great returner like Hirsch, or a standout defensive player like Pihos, or a record-setting ground-breaker like Fears. But at 6'4", Taylor presented a (literally) huge challenge to defenders, and he was consistently among the top players in the league. Most 750-yard receiving seasons, through 1955:
1. Don Hutson, 5
2. Pete Pihos, 4
t3. Hugh Taylor, 3
t3. Billy Wilson, 3
Whenever you look at a list of the league's receiving leaders in the first decade of the modern era, Taylor is almost always at or near the top of the list. But wouldn't most good receivers lead the league if you matched the timeline exactly to the beginning and end of their careers? Actually, no. Below is a list of every player in the Modern Era who led the NFL in both receiving yards and receiving TDs over the course of his career:
Hugh Taylor (1947-54), Pete Pihos (1947-55), Don Maynard (1958-73), Lance Alworth (1962-72), Steve Largent (1976-89), Jerry Rice (1985-2004), Randy Moss (1998-2010). That's it, though Fred Biletnikoff (1965-78) and Terrell Owens (1996-2010) join the list if you excuse them a tie for the TD lead. Taylor probably is the least dominant player on the list, but he keeps awfully fine company. Pihos, Maynard, Alworth, Largent, Rice, Moss, and Hugh Taylor. Not bad. Everyone Taylor can be compared to is a Hall of Famer, except Billy Wilson...
1951-60, San Francisco 49ers
407 receptions, 5,902 yards, 49 TD
For the decade of the 1950s, Wilson ranks 3rd in receiving yards, 2nd in receiving TDs, and 1st in receptions. He made six consecutive Pro Bowls, from 1954-59. That doesn't include the 1953 season, when Wilson ranked 4th in receiving yardage and led the NFL in receiving touchdowns. He led the NFL in receptions three times and was the third player with 400 career receptions (Hutson, Fears). Wilson is tied for the most Pro Bowl selections of any wide receiver prior to the 1970 AFL merger, with Hall of Famers Ray Berry, Tommy McDonald, and Pete Pihos.
If that résumé sounds similar to Howton's, certainly there's a comparison to be drawn. Wilson doesn't have any seasons as mind-blowing as Howton in '52 and '56, but he was at or very near the top of the league every year from 1953-57. Receiver statistics changed dramatically in the '60s, with the birth of the wide-open AFL and the introduction of 14-game schedules, but through 1960, Wilson and Hutson led the NFL in most 40-reception seasons:
t1. Hutson, 7
t1. Wilson, 7
3. Tom Fears, 5
4. four players tied, 4
(Berry, Howton, Lenny Moore, Pihos)
Most 50-reception seasons:
1. Wilson, 5
t2. Berry, 3
t2. Fears, 3
t2. Howton, 3
t2. Hutson, 3
t2. Pihos, 3
Seven different players have led the NFL in receptions at least three times. Four of them are Hall of Famers (Hutson, Fears, Pihos, Berry), one is still active (Wes Welker), and the others are Sterling Sharpe and Wilson. Like Billy Howton and Hugh Taylor, Wilson is a player you compare almost exclusively to Hall of Famers. I noted earlier that Wilson ranks in the top three in every major receiving category of the 1950s, but I didn't show just how large the gap was between 3rd and 4th. Most receptions:
1. Wilson, 404
2. Howton, 342
3. Hirsch, 321
4. Elbie Nickel, 280
Most receiving yards:
1. Howton, 6,091
2. Hirsch, 5,973
3. Wilson, 5,851
4. Harlon Hill, 4,467
Most receiving TDs:
1. Hirsch, 49
2. Wilson, 48
3. Howton, 44
4. three tied, 40
(Hill, Hugh Taylor, Bobby Walston)
It's easy, when you look at receiving stats of the '50s, to conclude that none of the best receivers of this era, save Hirsch, are enshrined in Canton. 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. Hirsch, for instance, was a far more accomplished receiver in his last three seasons (1955-57) than in the late '40s, and could easily fall into the empty 1950s block. From 1946-49, though, he was used not only as a receiver, but a running back (133 carries), defensive back (8 interceptions), an occasional passer (21 attempts), and a star kick returner (27.0 KR avg, 13.6 PR avg, KR TD, PR TD). That's a more important part of his legacy than '55-'57.
Let's break this down a little more, looking at both the Hall of Famers and the contenders we've examined. Starting in the late '40s:
*includes AAFC stats
At this time in history, the NFL was a 12-team league in which offense revolved around the ground game. During the decade, teams passed 43.5% of the time, compared to 54.2% over the last 10 years. Do the 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-best receivers of this era really deserve Hall of Fame recognition? There were 24 starting receivers at this time; there are 64 today, probably closer to 80 when you consider how many teams use three WRs in their base offense. The 6th-best receiver in 1952 is roughly equivalent to the 20th-best receiver in 2011 (by yardage, that's Darrius Heyward-Bey). You have to draw the Hall of Fame line somewhere. I'm more sympathetic to the receivers who came along a few years later. Stats again:
It's tough for me to see how players like Mac Speedie and Hugh Taylor, great as they were, would rank ahead of someone like Howton, who dominated his era. Here's how I rank the best non-HOF receivers of the early Modern Era:
1. Billy Howton — Set all-time records for receptions and receiving yards and had two of the greatest receiving seasons in history.
HOF Qualifications: EXCELLENT. He should be in.
2. Billy Wilson — A six-time Pro Bowler who stands with Crazy Legs Hirsch and Billy Howton alone among the statistical leaders of the '50s.
HOF Qualifications: GOOD. He should probably be in.
3. Mac Speedie — Best receiver in AAFC history and Otto Graham's favorite target, with two 1,000-yard receiving seasons (14 games).
HOF Qualifications: FAIR. He probably doesn't need to be in.
4. Harlon Hill — Better, at his best, than any of these players except Howton. Had two or three really exceptional years.
HOF Qualifications: POOR. He probably shouldn't be in. But he was a tremendous player before injuries derailed his career.
5. Hugh Taylor — Superb in a short career, though he never reached the same heights as some of his peers.
HOF Qualifications: POOR. He probably shouldn't be in. But he was a heck of a player.
This is the final article in this series. Here's how I rated each player's HOF qualifications:
EXCELLENT: Tim Brown, Cris Carter, Billy Howton
GOOD: Henry Ellard, Harold Jackson, Billy Wilson
FAIR: Cliff Branch, Harold Carmichael, Gary Clark, Art Powell, Andre Reed, Sterling Sharpe, Del Shofner, Jimmy Smith, Mac Speedie, Otis Taylor
POOR: Wes Chandler, Irving Fryar, Charley Hennigan, Harlon Hill, Herman Moore, Stanley Morgan, Drew Pearson, Andre Rison, Hugh Taylor
Everyone on the list was a terrific player, but the Hall of Fame is pro football's highest honor, reserved for those who stand out not just in their era but in history. No disrespect is intended toward the players whose HOF cases rated as poor. If you'd like to see the rationale for the ratings, 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: 1960s
We'll wrap this up next month with a look at the best soon-to-be eligible receivers, including Isaac Bruce, Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, Keyshawn Johnson, Terrell Owens, and Rod Smith.