Tuesday, May 24, 2016
Best WRs By Decade: 1960s
Last year, I wrote an article breaking down the best quarterbacks by decade, followed by in-depth profiles of the greatest QBs in history. This year, I'm combining those two themes in a look at the best wide receivers ever, broken into decades. Because careers don't always fit cleanly into a single decade, I've gone in five-year increments. Last week, we covered 1950-59 and 1955-64. This is the third installment, examining 1960-69 and 1965-74. The great receivers of the early '60s, such as Raymond Berry and Tommy McDonald, were in last week's column.
Let's begin with some specific categories and honors, then we'll go in depth on the finest wide receivers of each decade.
Fastest Receiver: Lance Alworth
Best Deep Threat: Lance Alworth
Best Hands: Tommy McDonald
Best Possession Receiver: Lionel Taylor
Toughest Receiver: Tommy McDonald
Underrated in 2016: Gary Collins
Most Accomplished Postseason WR: Fred Biletnikoff
Best Single Season: Raymond Berry, 1960
Best Overall WR: Lance Alworth
This is probably the most difficult period in the history of major league football in which to analyze receiving statistics. Taking the numbers at face value, one would conclude that receivers in the American Football League were far, far superior to receivers in the National Football League. While I find it entirely plausible that the AFL had better receivers than the NFL, "far, far superior" they clearly were not.
I wish more people remembered the Cardinals' Sonny Randle and Bobby Joe Conrad, who were teammates from 1959-66. From 1963-66, the team also featured Hall of Fame tight end Jackie Smith. But there were no real playoffs at that time, and the Cardinals never reached the postseason. In 1964, they finished 9-3-2 (.750, since ties were excluded from the calculations), but ranked second in the East, behind the Cleveland Browns.
Ulmo Shannon Randle, Jr. — the "junior" means there were at least two men named Ulmo Shannon — had 5,996 receiving yards in his career, and made four Pro Bowls. He became a college football coach and broadcaster after his playing career. Bobby Conrad had 5,902 yards and made one Pro Bowl. Conrad also spent one season as a defensive back (4 INT) and one year as a halfback (441 career rush yards) before transitioning to wide receiver. Early in his career, Conrad was a successful returner (24.6 KR avg, 2 PR TDs) and a kicker (14 FG, 95 XP).
Most receiving TDs of the 1960s, NFL only:
1. Sonny Randle, 64
2. Gary Collins, 63
3. Tommy McDonald, 62
Gary Collins was a flanker and punter for the Browns from 1962-71. He was a good punter, with a career average of 41.0 and a league-leading 46.7 in 1965. He also led the NFL in receiving touchdowns in 1963, with 13. Collins scored double-digit TDs four times and made two Pro Bowls, but it was in the 1964 NFL Championship Game that he shined brightest, with 130 yards and all three Cleveland TDs. The following year, he scored a go-ahead touchdown in the Browns' Championship loss to Green Bay.
Collins also has the best TD-to-fumble ratio in history, granted that it's sort of a random stat. Of the 121 Modern-Era players with at least 50 receiving TDs, the top TD-to-fumble ratios are:
1. Gary Collins — 70 TD, 2 fmbl
2. Raymond Berry — 68 TD, 2 fmbl
3. Rob Gronkowski — 65 TD, 2 fmbl
4. Gene Washington (49ers) — 60 TD, 2 fmbl
5. Del Shofner — 51 TD, 2 fmbl
Sonny Randle (65 TD, 3 fmbl), Art Powell (81 TD, 4 fmbl), and Lance Alworth (85 TD, 5 fmbl) are also among the leaders. The worst ratios all belong to players who doubled as kick returners. The average, if you're interested, is about 6.25. Gary Collins was one of four wide receivers named to the NFL's 1960s All-Decade Team.
The Broncos' Lionel Taylor led the AFL in receptions five of his first six seasons, including the first 100-catch season in history, in 1961. Taylor wasn't especially fast, but he had size and exceptional hands. Taylor was known for one-handed catches that would still make highlight reels today. He had four seasons with over 1,100 receiving yards.
San Diego Chargers, 1962-70; Dallas Cowboys, 1971-72
542 receptions, 10,266 yards, 85 TD
I toyed with naming Lance Alworth as the most underrated receiver of the decade. He certainly wasn't underrated in the '60s, and he's well-known enough that many fans still recognize his name. But few casual fans would think of Lance Alworth when asked to name the greatest receivers in history.
Alworth, nicknamed Bambi because of his grace and athleticism, dominated the 1960s. He led the AFL in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns three times each. From 1963-67, Alworth had the most receiving yards in pro football by over 25%. He was a consensus all-pro pick every year from 1963-68, and from 1963-69, Alworth had seven consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons, more than any other two players combined during that time. AFL and Kansas City Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt blamed the league's reputation for weak defense on people watching Alworth's highlight films. "He made it look like a wide-open game because he was always open."
Alworth just might be the most complete receiver of the Modern Era. He was blazing fast, maybe the fastest player in football until Bob Hayes joined the Cowboys, and he had great cutting ability, though it was utilitarian more than flashy. Alworth had exceptional leaping ability and balance, and his hands were magnificent. I wrote last week about deciding between Ray Berry and Tommy McDonald for "best hands of the '60s", but Alworth could easily be in that discussion, as well. He was an impeccable route runner, certainly the best of his era. He's also one of the finest receivers ever with the ball in his hands, and gained huge yardage after the catch. In 1964, Alworth carried the ball three times and scored two touchdowns.
Charley Hennigan had a famous quote: "A player comes along once in a lifetime who alone is worth the price of admission. Lance Alworth was that player." Alworth isn't just some Hall of Famer who played 50 years ago, he's probably one of the five greatest receivers of all time.
Houston Oilers, 1960-66
410 receptions, 6,823 yards, 51 TD
No great player's recognition is more hindered by disrespect for the early AFL than Charley Hennigan's. 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 disregard the statistics of AFL receivers from the early '60s, except for maybe Don Maynard.
In 1961, Hennigan caught 82 passes, for 1,746 yards and 12 touchdowns. Those are extraordinary numbers in a 14-game season, no matter what the context. 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 sixth-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) still stands nearly half a century later. Recognizing that the AFL revolutionized passing and did feature many great receivers, Hennigan's accomplishments merit steep respect. 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.
On the 2009 Showtime series Full Color Football: The History of the American Football League, George Blanda said that rookie cornerback and future Hall of Famer Willie Brown was cut by the Oilers because he couldn't cover Charley Hennigan in practice.
New York Giants, 1958; New York Titans/Jets, 1960-72; St. Louis Cardinals, 1973
633 receptions, 11,834 yards, 88 TD
Say what you will about AFL receiving statistics, Don Maynard set all the records. He retired with the all-time marks for receptions, receiving yards, and receiving TDs. He had five 1,000-yard seasons, including four 1,200-yard seasons. He led all receivers in yardage in 1967 (1,434), led the AFL in touchdowns in 1965 (14), and led the AFL twice in receiving average, with a career mark of 18.7 yards per reception. A deep threat even late in his career — he had 938 yards and 20.0 yds/rec in 1969, when he was almost 35 — Maynard fit perfectly with quarterback Joe Namath.
The Don Maynard-style player doesn't exist in today's NFL: the deep threat who catches a lot of passes. It was never an abundant species, and it probably died out with James Lofton and Henry Ellard in the 1990s. Players don't average 20 yards per reception any more, and the ones who do are nowhere near the reception leaderboards. In 2015, seven players caught at least 100 passes. They averaged: 13.8 (Brandon Marshall), 13.8, 13.7, 13.5, 12.4, 11.1, and 10.5 (Jarvis Landry). The lowest average of Maynard's career was 14.6, in 1961. The game has changed, and the definition of "deep threat" has probably changed. In 2014, nine WRs caught at least 90 passes, with their average led by Jordy Nelson's 15.5. That's a deep threat today, a guy who averages close to 16 yards per catch. Randy Moss averaged 15.6 for his career. I don't think today's receivers are worse than those in Maynard's day, but I think the game has changed in a way that makes it less exciting.
Maynard had fifty 100-yard receiving games, a record that stood until Jerry Rice broke it in 1995. He's still sixth all-time.
Cleveland Browns, 1958-61; Washington, 1962-68
521 receptions, 7,954 yards, 65 TD
Bobby Mitchell is a Hall of Fame receiver who would have been a Hall of Fame running back if he hadn't switched positions in 1962. Mitchell was exceptional at everything. As a running back, he averaged 5.4 yards per carry. As a wide receiver, he twice led the NFL in receiving yards. He scored 8 kick return TDs and posted superb averages. He was the first African-American to play for Washington, a player good enough to overcome the team's tradition of racism.
When Mitchell moved to flanker in 1962, he immediately led the NFL in receptions (72) and receiving yards (1,384), the latter only the second 1,300-yard season in NFL history. The next year, Mitchell gained 1,436 receiving yards — after two seasons as a WR, Mitchell had two of the top three yardage totals in the history of the league. The following season, he led the NFL in receiving TDs. That was his age-30 season, but he continued to rank among the league leaders for another three years afterwards. He had a quiet 1968, then retired.
Over most of his career, Mitchell split the workload with other Hall of Famers: Jim Brown in Cleveland, and Charley Taylor in Washington. But Mitchell's speed and agility made him a threat every time he got the ball. At various times in his career, Mitchell led or tied for the league lead in rushing average (1961), receptions (1962), receiving yards (1962 and 1963), receiving touchdowns (1964), kickoff return touchdowns (1962, 1963, 1964), and punt return touchdowns (1958). When Mitchell retired in 1968, he and former teammate Jim Brown were the only players with six seasons of double-digit touchdowns.
Philadelphia Eagles, 1959; New York Titans, 1960-62; Oakland Raiders, 1963-66; Buffalo Bills, 1967; Minnesota Vikings, 1968
479 receptions, 8,046 yards, 81 TD
Art 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 defensive back and kick returner 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." Powell and Don Maynard were teammates for three years, and the statistical comparison favors Powell:
Powell remains ahead during his years with the Raiders:
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 and the first with five seasons of double-digit TDs. The yardage record was eventually tied by Maynard and passed by Alworth, but no one else matched them until Steve Largent almost two decades later (1983). The TD record was tied by Alworth and Bob Hayes, and broken by Cris Carter more than three decades later (1999). Powell ranked among the top five in the AFL in receiving yardage for seven consecutive seasons (1960-66). He was also a fine returner when he got the chance (27.6 KR avg, PR TD on only 15 attempts).
Fastest Receiver: Bob Hayes
Best Deep Threat: Paul Warfield
Best Hands: Lance Alworth
Best Possession Receiver: Fred Biletnikoff or Charley Taylor
Toughest Receiver: Charley Taylor or Otis Taylor
Underrated in 2016: Danny Abramowicz
Most Accomplished Postseason WR: Fred Biletnikoff
Best Single Season: Lance Alworth, 1965
Best Overall WR: Paul Warfield
This was the era of great downfield receivers. Lance Alworth might be the greatest deep threat of all time. Paul Warfield averaged 20 yards per catch and scored on 20% of his receptions. Bob Hayes was a record-setting sprinter and Olympic gold medalist. Homer Jones has the highest receiving average (22.3) of any player with at least 200 receptions, and he had three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons. And then there's Warren Wells.
Wells joined the Raiders in 1967, scoring 6 touchdowns on 13 catches. In 1968, he gained 1,137 yards and led the AFL in TDs. In '69, Wells led all receivers in yards (1,260), yards per reception (26.8), and touchdowns (14). In 1970, he scored double-digit TDs for the third consecutive year. In 1971, he had legal troubles. He was released before the season and never played pro football again. But during a career that was essentially comprised of three seasons, he caught 158 passes for 3655 yards and 42 touchdowns — a 23.1 average and 26.9% TD rate.
Danny Abramowicz was a 17th-round draft pick in 1967. He led the Saints in receptions, yards, and touchdowns every year from 1967-71, led in yards and TDs in '72. He had two more fair seasons with the 49ers, then retired. In 1969, Abramowicz led the NFL in receptions, topped 1,000 yards, and was named first-team All-NFL by the Associated Press. He was the Saints' only 1,000-yard receiver before the 16-game schedule, and in 1988 he became a charter member of the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame. Abramowicz retired with the NFL record for consecutive games with a reception, 105.
Oakland Raiders, 1965-78
589 receptions, 8,974 yards, 76 TD
Freddy Biletnikoff was never the "other" Raiders receiver, merely the less-exciting counterpart to Warren Wells and Cliff Branch. Biletnikoff once led the AFL in receiving average. He had deceptive speed, and in 1967, he caught 40 passes for 876 yards. A six-time all-star (4 Pro Bowls and 2 AFL All-Star Games), Biletnikoff was a tremendous route runner, with great hands. His hero was Tommy McDonald, and Biletnikoff shared McDonald's passion for greatness. He had the work ethic that separates the best possession receivers. From Ray Berry to Biletnikoff to Marvin Harrison, every generation has its receivers who are known for staying after practice, catching hundreds of balls when everyone else has gone home.
Biletnikoff only led the league in a major receiving category once (61 receptions in 1971), twice if you count yards per reception, and he only had a 1,000-yard season once (1,037 in 1968). But he was consistent, and he was the epitome of a big-game receiver. As a senior at Florida State, he scored four TDs in the Gator Bowl. In the AFL's 1968 Western Division playoff, Biletnikoff caught three touchdowns. In a 1969 playoff game, he caught two TDs in the first quarter, setting off a blowout victory. He was MVP of Super Bowl XI. Altogether, he had 70 postseason receptions, for 1,167 yards and 10 TDs — all records at the time.
Dallas Cowboys, 1965-74; San Francisco 49ers, 1975
371 receptions, 7,414 yards, 71 TD
Bullet Bob Hayes was the World's Fastest Man. He held world records in the 60-yard, 100-yard, 220-yard, and Olympic 100-meter dashes. He won gold medals in the 100-meter dash and 4 x 100 relay in the 1964 Olympics, then joined the Cowboys in 1965. He was the first man to win both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring.
Hayes was an immediate star in pro football. He led the NFL in receiving TDs in both of his first two seasons. He also led the league in receiving average twice, in punt return yardage once, in punt return average (20.8 in 1968), and in punt return TDs twice. He wasn't just a fast guy, he was a fast guy who was truly great at football.
Hayes was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, seven years after his death. He was certainly a great player, and he played on very successful teams. But what separated him from other borderline Hall of Famers was that Hayes changed the game. "There are a thousand sprinters who try out for football teams and 999 go home," Dan Fouts told Paul Zimmerman. Hayes was that one-in-a-thousand exception. Zimmerman noted that football-unready sprinters deluged the league after Hayes' success:
"I once saw the Jets keep a guy for three years on the basis of one overthrown pass. His name was Harvey Nairn. He'd been a hurdles champ in college, and one night in an exhibition game against Detroit he blew by the Lions' All-Pro cornerback Lem Barney and left him flatfooted on his way to a ball that was overthrown by five yards. Weeb Ewbank was on the sidelines, right next to the play, and he got a good look at Barney's face as the kid left him for dead. Ewbank never forgot it. Harvey hung around the Jets for three years, never catching a pass in a game, until Ewbank finally decided he simply couldn't play."
Hayes was a champion sprinter, but he was also a football player. Some fast guys go out for football and they just run 100% all the time. Hayes understood that he had to change his speed, but what separated him from 99% of the league was that he could slow down, vary his speed, and still be the fastest man on the field. He terrorized defensive backs and dictated coverage. There's probably never been another player quite like him.
649 receptions, 9,110 yards, 79 TD
Charley Taylor began his career as a running back. Halfway through the 1966 season, he moved to split end. He led the league in receptions (72), gained 1,119 yards (plus 262 rushing), and scored 12 TDs (plus 3 rushing). All of those were to be career highs, but Taylor led the NFL in receptions again the following season, and retired in 1977 as the all-time leader. Taylor and tight end Jerry Smith were the first pair of players to collectively go over 1,000 receptions while they were teammates, and they held the record for combined receiving TDs (132) until 1992.
Taylor was Rookie of the Year in 1964, made eight Pro Bowls, gained 10,598 yards from scrimmage, and scored 90 touchdowns. Like Fred Biletnikoff, he was consistent. Taylor was more physical than Biletnikoff. He was 6' 3" and 210 pounds, to Biletnikoff's 6' 1", 190, and Taylor acted like a running back after he caught the ball, sometimes running over defenders rather than trying to evade them. Dallas safety Cliff Harris described him as "physical, an intimidator." Taylor was also an excellent blocker. Ermal Allen, who spent his life in football — he played for Paul Brown and coached for Tom Landry — called Taylor the best blocking wide receiver he ever saw.
Taylor stayed in football after his playing career. He was Joe Gibbs' receivers coach in the '80s, working with Art Monk, Gary Clark, and Ricky Sanders, and winning three Super Bowl rings.
Kansas City Chiefs, 1965-74
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 surprising: 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 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-foot-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. A few years ago, Joe Posnanski suggested that Taylor was better than Charlie Joiner, Cris Carter, Tim Brown, and Andre Reed — but couldn't get into the Hall of Fame because "he played in such a different time and his numbers are so much less impressive."
Posnanski's larger point is sound — the numbers have changed in a way that makes it hard for older receivers to get their due — but Taylor's stats 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. Rather, his statistics 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 historical context, are nowhere near the level of the other players Posnanski mentioned.
Cleveland Browns, 1964-69, 1976-77; Miami Dolphins, 1970-74
427 receptions, 8,565 yards, 85 TD
Paul Warfield played his first 11 seasons teamed with an all-pro running back: Jim Brown, then Leroy Kelly, then Larry Csonka. He played on very successful teams, appearing in four NFL Championships with the Browns and three Super Bowls with the Dolphins, winning titles with both (1964, 1972, and 1973).
That combination — great running backs and successful teams — meant that Warfield played on run-oriented offenses, which limited his statistical production. At the same time, the threat he presented to defenses opened up running lanes. Warfield never caught more than 50 passes after his rookie year, and his career-high was 1,067 yards. But he led the league in receiving TDs twice, and he made eight Pro Bowls. His best season was probably 1971: he ranked second in receiving yards (996), led the league in TDs, played in the Super Bowl, and was a consensus all-pro.
Warfield was distinguished by his athleticism. He was fast, explosive, precise, and graceful. He was a deadly deep threat, who averaged 20.1 yards per reception, including a span of seven consecutive seasons in which he averaged over 20 yards per reception, with over 21 yards every year from 1967-71. Warfield's career totals are very good, but they don't do justice to the most dangerous receiver of his era.
Raymond Berry, Lance Alworth, Paul Warfield, Steve Largent, and Jerry Rice are the only Modern-Era receivers to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
This series continues with the greatest wide receivers of the 1970s.