Best WRs By Decade: 1945-54

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. This first piece covers 1945-54. Next week, we'll do 1950-59 and 1955-64, continuing with 1960-69 and 1965-74 the following week, and so on.

Let's begin with some specific categories and honors, then we'll go in depth on the finest wide receivers of the era. 1945-54 represents the beginning of the NFL's modern era. It was around this time that receivers stopped stopped doubling as defensive players, and started playing a major role on offense. In short, it was in the late 1940s and early 1950s that the modern position of wide receiver emerged.


Fastest Receiver: Mal Kutner

Best Deep Threat: Hugh Taylor

Best Hands: Dante Lavelli

Best Possession Receiver: Tom Fears

Toughest Receiver: Pete Pihos

Underrated in 2016: Ken Kavanaugh

Most Accomplished Postseason WR: Tom Fears

Best Single Season: Crazy Legs Hirsch, 1951

Best Overall WR: Pete Pihos

The Cardinals haven't won a championship since 1947. Mal Kutner led the NFL in receiving yards that season. He led the league again in 1948, also led in touchdowns, and was a consensus all-pro. A three-sport star at the University of Texas, Kutner was the first Longhorn to make first-team All-American in football, and he is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

After serving in World War II, Kutner joined the Cardinals, excelling immediately on both offense and defense. As a 25-year-old rookie, he ranked 3rd in the NFL in receiving yards and intercepted five passes on defense. The following two seasons, he led the league in receiving yardage both years, and helped the team reach back-to-back NFL Championship Games. He retired after only five seasons, returning to Texas to enter the oil business. His 21.1 receiving average is the 5th-highest in history, and 3rd-highest among post-War players.

Ken Kavanaugh was even more explosive than Kutner. He averaged 22.4 yards per reception, and scored 50 TDs on just 162 catches (30.9%). He also scored touchdowns in three NFL Championship victories: 1940, 1941, and 1946. In '41, Kavanaugh led the Bears in receiving yards, scored on more than half his catches, and scored the only receiving TD in Chicago's 73-0 NFL Championship win. Then he went to war. He was a decorated captain in the US Army Air Corps, flying 30 missions over Europe. He returned to win another championship and lead the NFL twice in receiving TDs. Kavanaugh still holds team records for receiving touchdowns in a season (13) and career (50).

I named Pete Pihos the toughest receiver of this era, and he certainly was tough. But "wide receiver" wasn't really a position at this time: Pihos was an end. As an offensive end, he caught passes and blocked on outside runs. As a defensive end, he played the run and rushed the passer. The modern tight end position didn't really exist in the '40s and early '50s; Green Bay's Ron Kramer, who played from 1957-67, is often considered the first tight end. But contemporary ends like Detroit's Cloyce Box (who was 6' 4", 220) and Pittsburgh's Elbie Nickel (who was 6' 1", 196) are sometimes listed as tight ends. Both were tough, productive players who are seldom remembered today.

Jim Benton played from 1938-47, so he's not really a Modern-Era receiver. But he led the NFL in receiving yards in 1945, in receptions and yards in 1946, so his best years were in this time period, though Benton also led the league in receiving TDs in 1939. When he retired, Benton ranked 2nd all-time in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving TDs, trailing only the immortal Don Hutson. Benton actually had more than twice as many catches (288) and yards (4,801) as third place. When the Rams won the 1945 NFL Championship, Benton had 1,067 receiving yards. The rest of the Rams combined had 800. Even more remarkable, Big Jim played only nine games that season (out of a scheduled 10). On Thanksgiving, he caught 10 passes for 303 yards, a record that stood four decades. He also caught a touchdown pass for the Bears in their 1943 NFL Championship victory. Jim Benton is not in the Hall of Fame, but he probably should be.

Tom Fears
Los Angeles Rams, 1948-56
400 receptions, 5,397 yards, 38 TD

Tom Fears began his career as a defensive end. In his first game, he intercepted two passes and returned one of them for a touchdown. Head coach Clark Shaughnessy immediately switched Fears to offense, where he led the NFL in receptions. The following season, Fears broke Don Hutson's single-season record with 77 receptions, and led the NFL in receiving TDs. The year after, he broke his own record, catching 84 passes, a single-season record that stood until the AFL and its 14-game schedule. That includes 18 catches in a single game, a record that lasted more than 50 years. In 2016, it's still tied for the third-highest in history.

Fears led the NFL in a major receiving category five times, but he was also a distinguished postseason performer. His performance in the 1950 National Conference Championship Game is not widely remembered in 2016, but it was famous for many years. With the Rams down 7-3, Fears caught a 43-yard touchdown pass to get the lead. On the next possession, he caught a 68-yard TD pass. In the third quarter, Fears hauled in a 27-yard touchdown. The Rams won 24-14, with Fears scoring all three touchdowns. A year later, Fears scored a game-winning 73-yard TD in the fourth quarter of the NFL Championship Game. It was the Rams' last title until Isaac Bruce did nearly the same thing 48 years later, in Super Bowl XXXIV.

Like many men of his generation, Fears began his career late because of the War. Unlike many of them, he got a late start because he prioritized education. Drafted by the Rams in 1945, Fears instead finished college. He turned 25 during his rookie season and retired after only nine years. He had multiple contract disputes with the Rams, but he loved football, and remained in the game as a coach for many years. He had back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons in 1949-50, the first player to top 1,000 yards more than once.

Dante Lavelli
Cleveland Browns, 1946-56
386 receptions, 6,488 yards, 62 TD

Gluefingers. It's one of the most flattering nicknames ever given to a receiver. Dante Lavelli was the big-play threat for the Browns when they were a dynasty — the greatest dynasty in the history of professional football, with 10 consecutive championship appearances and 7 titles.

On a team loaded with playmakers — including Marion Motley, Dub Jones, Mac Speedie, and Otto Graham, perhaps the best ever at the quarterback sneak — Lavelli's individual stats were consistently good, but seldom great. He never led his league in any major statistic. He never caught 50 passes in a season, never scored double-digit TDs, set a career high of just 843 yards in a season (granted that he played 12- and 14-game seasons, in an era when rules and strategy favored running).

Lavelli is in the Hall of Fame for the same reason as players like Charley Taylor, Charlie Joiner, and Tim Brown — he was very good for a long time. Unlike Taylor, Joiner, and Brown, Lavelli also played on winning teams, with seven championship victories. In the 1950 NFL Championship Game, probably the most important game in the history of the Cleveland Browns, Lavelli set a postseason record with 11 receptions, and scored two TDs in Cleveland's 30-28 nail-biter victory.

Pete Pihos
Philadelphia Eagles, 1947-55
373 receptions, 5,619 yards, 61 TD

Pete Pihos led the NFL in a major offensive category six times, but he may have been even better as a defensive player. Beset by injuries in 1952, the Eagles needed Pihos to focus on defense. He only caught 12 passes that season, but on October 26, 1952, Paul Zimmerman counted six sacks by Pihos against the Giants. Pihos was named first-team all-pro as a defensive end. He switched back to offense the following season, and led the NFL in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving TDs. He made four straight all-pro teams — one on defense, three on offense — then retired, still the best player in football at his position.

Pihos played better at the end of his career than any other receiver in history, but he wasn't a late bloomer. In his second season, Pihos ranked 2nd in the NFL in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving TDs. He was an all-league selection six times: 1948, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1954, and 1955. He was also named second-team all-NFL by at least one major organization in 1947 and 1950, giving him eight all-league recognitions in nine seasons.

Both Tom Fears and Pete Pihos were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease prior to their deaths in the early 2000s. We're still learning about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) today, but it's astonishing and sad how many old players suffered from symptoms we now associate with head trauma.

Mac Speedie
Cleveland Browns, 1946-52
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

Most receptions:
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 — 3 seasons in the NFL, 4 in the AAFC, and 2 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.

The argument about Speedie's Hall of Fame qualifications is simple. His advocates point out that Speedie compares favorably to Lavelli, while his detractors cite his short career in the NFL. For years, I fell 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.

Hugh Taylor
Washington, 1947-54
272 receptions, 5,233 yards, 58 TD

Hugh "Bones" Taylor 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 greater players. 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. Below is a list of every player in the Modern Era who had the most receiving yards and most receiving TDs over the length 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 (1998-2012), Calvin Johnson (2007-15). 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, Megatron, and Hugh Taylor.

We'll continue this project next week with 1950-59 and 1955-64.

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