Best WRs By Decade: 1970s

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 1960-69 and 1965-74. This is the fourth installment, examining 1970-79 and 1975-84. The great receivers of the early '70s, such as Fred Biletnikoff and Paul Warfield, 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 — Cliff Branch or Isaac Curtis

Best Deep Threat — see below

Best Hands — Fred Biletnikoff + Stickum

Best Possession Receiver — Harold Carmichael

Toughest Receiver — Charley Taylor

Underrated in 2016 — Ken Burrough

Most Accomplished Postseason WRs — Lynn Swann and John Stallworth

Best Single Season — Cliff Branch, 1974

Best Overall WR — Harold Jackson

Kenny Burrough has no toes on his left foot. Following his retirement from football, complications from diabetes slowed the former Oiler. At 6-foot-3 and 215 lbs, Burrough was tall for that era, and stronger than most defensive backs, but he had speed, too. Burrough led the NFL in receiving yards in 1975, and had the second-most receiving yardage of the 1970s. He made two Pro Bowls and was a productive receiver in many other years, but he's seldom remembered today. Burrough, not Jim Otto, was the last NFL player to wear jersey number 00.

Another underrated player was the 49ers' Gene Washington. Part of his problem is that there were two Gene Washingtons. Eugene Washington was a two-time Pro Bowl receiver with the Vikings, who played from 1967-73. Gene Alden Washington was a four-time Pro Bowl receiver with the Niners, who played from 1969-79. Contemporary players with the same name, played the same position, both played it well enough to make multiple Pro Bowls. In 1969 and 1970, they both made the Pro Bowl, playing the same position for the same team.

It's the 49ers' Gene Washington that I particularly want to highlight. He led the NFL in receiving yards in 1970, receiving TDs in 1972, receiving average in 1974. He had the third-most yardage of any receiver in the '70s, and the second-most TDs (tied with Harold Carmichael). A first-round draft pick out of Stanford, he retired with 6,856 yards and 60 touchdowns. He also fumbled only twice in an 11-year career, which I highlighted last week.

There were many great deep threats in the '70s. Harold Jackson probably caught the most deep passes. But Cliff Branch and Isaac Curtis were great deep threats, too. Paul Warfield and John Gilliam were great deep threats. Charlie Joiner and Mel Gray and Gene Washington (the 49ers one again) were dangerous downfield targets. Haven Moses was for real. For about a decade after Bob Hayes entered the league, fast receivers were all the rage. And with offense depressed from about 1966-78, one-strike deep threats had huge impact in the low-scoring environment. A number of them excelled.

Harold Carmichael
Philadelphia Eagles, 1971-83; Dallas Cowboys, 1984
590 receptions, 8,985 yards, 79 TD

Harold Carmichael was a giant, 6-foot-8 and 225 pounds. His size gave him an advantage over every defensive back in the league, but his 14.9-yard average was low for that era. Carmichael ranked among the top 10 in receiving yardage only twice, but he made the top 10 in receiving TDs eight times. During the 1970s, Carmichael ranked 2nd in receptions, tied for 2nd in receiving TDs, and 4th in receiving yardage. He also had several very good seasons in the '80s: he made the Pro Bowl in 1980, went over 1,000 yards in '81, and gained the most yardage of any NFC WR to miss the Pro Bowl in 1982.

I've long wondered if the 1982 strike kept Carmichael out of Canton. Look at his career stats. He fell just short of 600 receptions, 9,000 yards, and 80 touchdowns. Projecting his '82 season to 16 games, Carmichael reaches 618 catches, 9,405 yards, and 81 TDs. Attaining those round numbers makes his stats look a lot different, the same way that new phone seems like a better deal at $195 than $200. A seventh-round draft pick, Carmichael led the Eagles in receiving yardage seven times and played in four Pro Bowls. He led the league in both receptions and receiving yards in 1973; his 1,116 yards were the most of any season in the post-merger 14-game schedule. In 1979, Carmichael broke the NFL record for consecutive games with a reception, eventually stretching the mark to 127 before it was broken by Steve Largent in 1986.

Isaac Curtis
Cincinnati Bengals, 1973-84
416 receptions, 7,101 yards, 53 TD

Isaac Curtis was fast. He terrified defenses and dictated coverage. Since no one could keep up with Curtis, defenses had to rough him up. This inspired the 1974 "Isaac Curtis rule" (a precursor to the "Mel Blount rule"), which limited defenders to one chuck of a receiver after five yards. While the later rule was put in to limit the way Blount controlled receivers, the earlier rule was instituted to limit the way defenders controlled Isaac Curtis.

He played for Don Coryell at San Diego State, then for Paul Brown and Bill Walsh in Cincinnati. The Bengals drafted him in the first round and paired him with quarterback Ken Anderson. Curtis led the league in receiving average in 1975, but never in any other major statistic. He never caught 50 passes in a season, never had 1,000 yards, and caught double-digit TDs only once, 10 in 1974. But like many great deep threats, he was an impact player whose value exceeded his numbers. Curtis made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, the first of four consecutive selections.

Mel Gray was fast, too. Like Isaac Curtis, he was a four-time Pro Bowler. Like Curtis, he never caught 50 passes in a season, never had 1,000 yards, and caught double-digit TDs only once. Like Curtis, he played for Don Coryell (who coached Gray's Cardinals from 1973-77) and teamed with a very good quarterback who is not in the Hall of Fame (Jim Hart). Like Curtis, his best season was 1975. That year, Gray was named first-team all-pro by every major outlet except the Newspaper Enterprise Association, which named Curtis ahead of him. Curtis' career stats are slightly better than Gray's:


Mel Gray the wide receiver, born in 1948, is no relation to Mel Gray the kick returner, born in 1961.

John Gilliam
New Orleans Saints, 1967-68, 1977; St. Louis Cardinals, 1969-71; Minnesota Vikings, 1972-75; Atlanta Falcons, 1976; Chicago Bears, 1977
382 receptions, 7,056 yards, 48 TD

John Gilliam played from 1967-77. During those 11 years, 28 NFL players had a 900-yard receiving season. Eleven of the 28 had multiple 900-yard seasons. Two of the 28 had three such seasons. And only one, John Gilliam, had four.

Gilliam was a track star at South Carolina State, with a 9.5-second 100-yard dash. That speed served him well in football. Gilliam was a successful kickoff returner (1884 yds, 25.5 avg, 2 TD) and an explosive downfield receiver. Twenty-eight of his 52 career touchdowns were on plays of at least 30 yards. That includes a 94-yard kickoff return TD on the first play in New Orleans Saints history. Gilliam led the NFC in receiving average in 1970, and led the NFL in 1972. He also tied for the league lead in KR TDs in 1969.

Gilliam made four Pro Bowls, all with the Vikings, though he probably was just as good with the Cardinals. During his three years in St. Louis, Gilliam averaged 46 receptions, 929 yards (best in the NFL), and 6.3 TDs, compared to 41 receptions, 824 yards (best in the NFL again), and 6.8 TDs with Minnesota. Over his seven seasons with the Cardinals and Vikings, Gilliam had 400 more yards than any other receiver in football. Gilliam's 7.3% advantage over second place is larger than Calvin Johnson's 6.0% first-place advantage during his career (2007-15).

Harold Jackson
Los Angeles Rams, 1968, 1973-77; Philadelphia Eagles, 1969-72; New England Patriots, 1978-81; Minnesota Vikings, 1982; Seattle Seahawks, 1983
579 receptions, 10,372 yards, 76 TD

In 1968, the Eagles finished 14th in the 16-team NFL in passing yardage, and 15th in scoring, with just 14.4 points per game. In 1969, Harold Jackson's first year with the team, they ranked 7th in passing yards and tied for 8th in scoring, jumping to 19.9 ppg. Jackson led the team in touchdowns (9) and led the NFL in receiving yardage. When Philadelphia traded Jackson to Los Angeles in 1973, the 6-7-1 Rams improved to 12-2. Jackson led the league in receiving touchdowns and was a consensus all-pro.

In the 1970s, Jackson gained 7,724 receiving yards, far ahead of 2nd-place Ken Burrough (6,343) — 22% ahead. During the '70s, Jackson led all players in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving TDs. Jerry Rice in the '90s and Jackson in the '70s are the only Modern Era players to lead any decade in every major receiving category. Beyond the overall numbers, Jackson led the league at various times in all of those categories, actually led in yardage twice (1969 and 1972). He made five Pro Bowls and was remarkably steady, with over 500 receiving yards for 13 consecutive seasons, breaking Raymond Berry's record of 11.

Jackson retired with the most receptions and receiving yards of anyone who played his whole career in the NFL, but he has never been a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Partly that's because his teams never won a championship, but he's also a victim of timing. Just as Jackson's career was winding down, the NFL moved to a 16-game schedule and made several rule changes to substantially open up the passing game. Jackson's excellent stats were quickly overshadowed by Steve Largent, James Lofton, and Air Coryell.

There are 25 Modern Era wide receivers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. These were their rookie years: 1946, 1946, 1947, 1947, 1955, 1957, 1958, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1964, 1965, 1965, 1969, 1974, 1974, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1985, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1988, 1996. Only one, Charlie Joiner, was a rookie between 1966-73. The players whose careers wrapped up just as receiving stats were exploding have all been undervalued. Something similar happened between 1948-54, the players whose careers ended just as the 14-game schedule and the wide-open AFL revolutionized receiving stats.

Drew Pearson
Dallas Cowboys, 1973-83
489 receptions, 7,822 yards, 48 TD

I've always linked Cliff Branch and Drew Pearson. Great receivers of the mid '70s to early '80s, played on terrific teams, had a few brilliant seasons but didn't keep it up, mentioned often as Hall of Fame snubs but never enshrined and never a Finalist. Going by career numbers, Branch has a far stronger case: 501 receptions, 8,685 yards, 67 TD. He's ahead in every major stat, way ahead in touchdowns.

When the 1970s All-Decade Team was chosen, however, Pearson was a first-team selection and Branch was left off entirely. Their stats in the decade are comparable, but Pearson found the postseason glory that eluded Branch until the 1980s, and teammates called him Mr. Clutch. That shifted with the end of the decade. Branch emerged from Fred Biletnikoff's shadow and starred in two Super Bowl wins, while the Cowboys' dynasty began to decline and Pearson was surpassed by Cowboy teammate Tony Hill. Branch's stat line in the '80s dwarfs Pearson's.

Drew Pearson — his real name, not a shortening of Andrew — was undrafted out of Tulsa, where the run-oriented offense limited his opportunities. His gifts were more subtle than Branch's speed or Harold Carmichael's size. Pearson had deceptive speed and acceleration, which allowed him to get open, and Hall of Fame cornerback Roger Wehrli marveled, "Drew simply had great hands ... anything he touched, he caught."

A statistical oddity about Drew Pearson: in his two best seasons, he scored a combined total of four touchdowns. In 1974, Pearson set career-highs — in a 14-game season, no less — for receptions and receiving yards. In 1977, he led the NFL in receiving yardage and was a consensus all-pro. Both years, he caught just two TDs. In his 11-year career, Pearson led the Cowboys in receiving TDs only twice (1975-76).

Pearson made three Pro Bowls and three all-pro teams, and from 1974-79, he was consistently among the top receivers in the NFL.


Fastest Receiver — Wesley Walker

Best Deep Threat — Cliff Branch

Best Hands — Steve Largent

Best Possession Receiver — Steve Largent

Toughest Receiver — Charlie Joiner

Underrated in 2016 — Alfred Jenkins

Most Accomplished Postseason WRs — Lynn Swann and John Stallworth

Best Single Season — Wes Chandler, 1982

Best Overall WR — Steve Largent

There were a lot of fast receivers in the late '70s. Cliff Branch and Isaac Curtis, whom I named as the fastest of the 1970s, began their careers in 1972 and 1973, respectively, and were very fast throughout the decade. James Lofton, a rookie in 1978, was very fast. John Jefferson and Stanley Morgan were fast. Wesley Walker made two Pro Bowls, in 1978 and '82. He averaged over 20 yards per reception in each of his first four seasons, including 24.4 in 1978, when he gained a career-high 1,169 yards and was named first-team all-pro.

Alfred Jenkins made two Pro Bowls, in 1980 and '81. In '81, he led the NFL in receiving yards and TDs, and he was a consensus all-pro. Jenkins played only eight seasons (not including one game in 1978), but he retired with 6,267 yards. He wasn't a great player, but he was very good, and he's seldom remembered today.

I should also mention Minnesota teammates Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White. They played together from 1976-82. White made the Pro Bowl in 1976 and '77, while Rashad made it four years in a row, from 1978-81. They formed a remarkably consistent partnership, keeping up a high level of success for an unusually long time. During their seven seasons together, the duo combined for 735 receptions, 11,002 yards, and 79 TDs. By comparison, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth (1974-82) combined for 635 receptions, 10,766 yards, and 95 TDs — fewer catches and yards, despite two extra seasons together.

Cliff Branch
Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, 1972-85
501 receptions, 8,685 yards, 67 TD

Cliff Branch made four Pro Bowls, was three times first-team all-pro, and played for three Super Bowl winners. He led the NFL in receiving touchdowns twice, and in receiving yards once. From 1974-76, he was the dominant force at his position. During that three-year stretch, Branch caught 157 passes for 3,096 yards and 34 TDs. His three-year yardage and TD totals are the highest for any receiver in the 1970s, including the later years with a 16-game schedule. When you think about his numbers in the context of 14-game seasons and the defense-dominated '70s, they're truly remarkable. From the AFL merger in 1970 through the end of the 14-game schedule in 1977, there were twelve 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Branch was the only player to reach 1,000 twice.

But Branch was only an exceptional player for those three seasons. He remained a good player for years afterwards, but there are lots of good receivers. His career-highs after '76 were 59 receptions (1980), and 858 yards and 7 TDs (both '81). Those are 16-game seasons, after the Mel Blount Rule and the changes that opened up pass blocking. That's when Steve Largent and James Lofton and the Air Coryell teams in San Diego were shattering receiving records. Branch led the Raiders in receiving only three times in his final nine seasons.

Branch's Raiders have 11 players in the Hall of Fame — Marcus Allen, Fred Biletnikoff, Willie Brown, Dave Casper, Ray Guy, Mike Haynes, Ted Hendricks, Howie Long, Art Shell, Ken Stabler, and Gene Upshaw — plus head coach John Madden. Branch's teams won three Super Bowls, which is great, but half the team is already in Canton. The Branch-Era Raiders have more HOFers than the Steel Curtain. They have more Hall of Famers than the 1980s 49ers and Joe Gibbs' Washington teams, combined. They have four times as many HOFers as the Dallas Cowboys dynasty of the 1990s.

Cliff Branch was a great receiver, but not a Hall of Famer. If he'd had one more year like he did from 1974-76, that might be enough. If we're going to induct more Raiders from the late '70s and early '80s, I'm more sympathetic to Lester Hayes than to Branch.

Charlie Joiner
Houston Oilers, 1969-72; Cincinnati Bengals, 1972-75; San Diego Chargers, 1976-86
750 receptions, 12,146 yards, 65 TD

It has become common to call Charlie Joiner overrated. He only made three Pro Bowls, which is low for a Hall of Famer, and he never led the league in a major statistic. He played for a prolific passing team. His career numbers are superb — he set records for receptions and yards — but maybe he was just a compiler, whose numbers look good because he played for 18 years.

Among the voices in this argument are some of my friends in the analytics community. I've written before how much I disagree with analytic stats that compare a player to league average, rather than replacement level. I'd rather compare a player's production to zero than to average. Joiner illustrates the problem. At age 27, an average season is evidence of mediocrity. But at age 37, an average season is evidence of excellence. Jerry Rice and Joiner are — by far — the most productive old receivers in history. Joiner gained 932 receiving yards in his second-to-last season, the most ever by a 38-year-old, and only Rice gained more yardage at age 39.

It's easy to dismiss some of Joiner's later seasons as compiling, padding his career totals with seasons that were above-average, but not exceptional. In Joiner's case, that isn't accurate. Sustaining an 18-year career as an effective player is extremely impressive. From 1983-85, Joiner was 36-38 years old. He caught 185 passes during those years, more than teammates Wes Chandler (177) and Kellen Winslow (168), more than Dwight Clark (176), more than the Marks Brothers (157 and 149) with Dan Marino. While he was 36-38, Joiner ranked among the top 20 receivers in the league in all three major receiving stats: catches, yards, and TDs. That's good performance in a player's prime. To do it at an age when most receivers are not just ineffective, but out of the game entirely, is a powerful positive distinction.

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. Pete Beathard, his quarterback in Houston, said, "Right away we knew he was the best receiver on the squad. He was devastating. No defensive back could cover him man-to-man." Bill Walsh, his offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, called Joiner "the most intelligent, the smartest, the most calculating receiver the game has ever known." Gary Green, a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback with the Chiefs and Rams, echoed Walsh, calling Joiner "probably the smartest receiver in the league ... he sees a zone so quickly."

Even in San Diego, Joiner was more than just a product of the system. People forget that Joiner had a 1,000-yard season in 1976. That was a 14-game season, 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).

Joiner also is one of the very few players to make a successful transition from deep threat to possession receiver. Over his first nine seasons, Joiner averaged 18.2 yards per reception. Over his last nine seasons, Joiner averaged 15.2 yards per reception, and only topped 18 in the first of those (18.4 in 1978). When the Chargers acquired J.J. Jefferson (and then Wes Chandler), Joiner's role shifted, and he made the transition smoothly.

Joiner was very fast and extremely intelligent. He had good hands and he was a great route runner. His versatility and longevity are both among the greatest in the history of the position. He set all-time records for receptions and receiving yards. Arguments that Joiner is overrated, maybe even that he doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame, rest on very shaky ground.

Steve Largent
Seattle Seahawks, 1976-89
819 receptions, 13,089 yards, 100 TD

Steve Largent set career records for receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. He made seven Pro Bowls. He led the NFL in receiving yards twice and had eight 1,000-yard seasons, probably would have had more if not for the 1982 and 1987 strikes. He was a scab in 1987, playing one of the three games in which replacement players were used.

Largent had many of the same strengths as Charlie Joiner. He was smart, a great route runner, and he had a long, productive career. Largent gained 1,000 yards at age 32, and certainly would have done the same at age 33 if not for the strike. Like Joiner, Largent set significant career records, and he was productive both as a downfield target and a possession receiver. Largent's supposed lack of speed has been badly exaggerated. He was deceptively quick, and he was among the top 10 in yards per reception in 1977 and '79. Largent's career average of 16.0 yards per reception is higher than Randy Moss's 15.6, and not consistent with the idea that all Largent did was go over the middle.

Largent was the first player to catch 100 touchdown passes. He is distinguished by his large number of very good seasons. He ranked among the top 10 in receptions nines times, the top 10 in yards and TDs eight times each. Largent also went 2-for-2 on extra points in his career, kicking successful tries in 1985 and '89.

John Stallworth
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1974-87
537 receptions, 8,723 yards, 63 TD

Johnny Lee Stallworth had five 100-yard receiving games in the postseason, including 115 yards and 2 TDs in Super Bowl XIII, as well as 121 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XIV.

By the numbers, Stallworth eclipses his teammate Lynn Swann. Stallworth made four Pro Bowls, Swann three. Stallworth had three 1,000-yard seasons, including 1,395 in 1984. Swann never had a 900-yard receiving season. Stallworth's career totals are ahead of Swann's by 201 receptions, 3,261 yards, and 12 TDs.

Those numbers are somewhat misleading. Although both players were rookies in 1974, Swann had his best seasons early — when the season was 14 games, the rules favored defense, and Pittsburgh was a rushing team, with HOF running back Franco Harris in his prime. Stallworth, who for many years had trouble staying healthy, had his best seasons when the season was 16 games, the rules favored passing, and Harris was no longer the focal point of the offense. They were both good players, both consensus all-pros (Swann in 1978, Stallworth in '79), and both great postseason performers. Stallworth had 1,054 yards and 12 TDs in 18 postseason games.

Lynn Swann
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1974-82
336 receptions, 5,462 yards, 51 TD

The word most often used to describe Lynn Swann was graceful. He studied ballet to improve his agility, and everything he did on the field was smooth. He was a brilliant athlete: fast, exceptional jumper, great balance, and of course, that famous agility and grace. He also had great football instincts, timing his leaps perfectly and extending his hands at just the right moment.

Swann was the Steelers' first-round pick in their famous 1974 draft, chosen ahead of Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster. Swann scored on a 54-yard pass (from Joe Gilliam, not Terry Bradshaw) in his first game, but as a rookie, he was largely a bystander to Pittsburgh's first Super Bowl title. Swann was used mostly as a returner; he led the league in punt return yardage, with a 14.1 average and a 64-yard touchdown against the Saints.

The next season, however, Swann became a star. He tied for the league lead in receiving TDs (11), made the first of three Pro Bowls, and was named second-team all-pro. He was MVP of Super Bowl X, in a performance that exemplifies Swann's career and the nature of his greatness: quality, not quantity. Swann had only four receptions, but they included: a leaping, 32-yard, tightrope reception on the sideline in double coverage; a diving, juggling 53-yard catch over Mark Washington; and a 64-yard touchdown that proved the difference in the game. Swann's four catches produced 161 yards and the game-winning TD.

In Super Bowls X, XIII, and XIV, Swann combined for 16 receptions, 364 yards, and 3 TDs. Over 16 postseason games, Swann totaled 907 yards and 9 TDs. He had a short career and his best seasons came before rule changes revolutionized passing and receiving stats, so Swann's numbers don't stand out, even in his own era. But he was a high-impact player who awed his audience and seemed to make his best plays when the team needed him most.

Swann has remained in the public eye following his playing career. He was a TV analyst, a politician, and now Athletic Director at USC.

This series continues with the best wide receivers of the 1980s.

Comments and Conversation

November 27, 2018

Jack H:

Funny that you mentioned Fred Biletnikoff + stickum as best hands. What most young people don’t know is that the gloves the receivers wear in the NFL today make catching the ball easier than using stickum. I laugh when people go on and on about Odell Beckham’s catch..and not because it wasn’t a spectacular play, it was an amazing play. It’s just that Steve Largent had at least 7-8 catches in his career as amazing as Beckham’s, only he was catching the ball with bare hands.

July 8, 2019

Niccolo Brooker:

no interest in mentioning Freddie Solomon ?

November 12, 2020

Quentin Raffensperger:

Cliff Branch did not elude a Super Bowl until the 80s. He won a Super Bowl in the 70s just like Drew Pearson. Oakland Raiders beat the Vikings. Just wanted to correct that.

January 23, 2021

ben meisner:

He didn’t say Branch didn’t win a Super Bowl. He said during the post season Branch was often overshadowed by Fred, who was money in the playoffs.
“Branch emerged from Fred Biletnikoff’s shadow and starred in two Super Bowl wins”

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