Brad Oremland is a longtime commenter and a fellow football historian. Brad is also a senior NFL writer at Sports Central. He’s also a semi-regular writer here, and you can view all of Brad’s Football Perspective writing at this page. Brad is working on a WR Project where he analyzes the best WRs over various ten year periods. That work is being produced over at Sports-Central, but Brad has offered to have it reproduced here as well. As always, we at the FP community thank him for his work.
Previous Best WRs By Decade Articles:
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 introduced this series with a look at the first decade of the Modern Era, 1945-54. This is the second installment, covering 1950-59 and 1955-64. The great receivers of the early ’50s, such as Tom Fears and Pete Pihos, 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: Bob Boyd
Best Deep Threat: Crazy Legs Hirsch
Best Hands: Billy Wilson
Best Possession Receiver: Billy Wilson
Toughest Receiver: Elbie Nickel
Underrated in 2016: Billy Howton
Most Accomplished Postseason WR: Tom Fears
Best Single Season: Crazy Legs Hirsch, 1951
Best Overall WR: Billy Howton
Crazy Legs Hirsch is the only receiver in the the Hall of Fame whose career centered in the 1950s, and even he fits questionably into the decade, with a career that spanned from 1946-57. Billy Howton’s omission from the Hall of Fame is especially puzzling. Howton had the most receiving yards of the ’50s, and in 1963, he became the NFL’s all-time leading receiver, the only player ever to hold that distinction who is not in the Hall of Fame.1
This was a strong era for HOF quarterbacks, with Bobby Layne, Y.A. Tittle, and Norm Van Brocklin all in the prime of their careers. Otto Graham and Johnny Unitas had some of their best seasons. Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Bob Waterfield, George Blanda, Bart Starr, Len Dawson, and Sonny Jurgensen all played part of the decade. Layne is the only great runner in that group, so obviously these guys were throwing to somebody.
Bob Boyd was the NCAA 100-yard dash champion. He was nicknamed Seabiscuit, after the racehorse. He played eight years in the NFL (all with the Rams), and had one truly excellent season. In 1954, Boyd led the league in receiving yards, with 1212. Only one player was within 200 yards of him; Boyd averaged 20 yards per game more than third place. He gained almost as much yardage as Hall of Fame teammates Elroy Hirsch (720) and Tom Fears (546), combined. That’s especially impressive because Hirsch himself was a top-10 receiver that season. Boyd had three other 500-yard seasons, and he led the NFL in yards per reception in 1953.
Chicago Bears, 1954-61; Pittsburgh Steelers, 1962; Detroit Lions, 1962
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 legacy 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, setting career-highs in receptions and yardage.2
Limited by injuries the following two years, Hill remained a good player, but he was never again a great one. The argument for Hill’s greatness rests especially on the excellence 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, Howton and Hill both gained over 1,100 receiving yards. No one else had even 900. They scored 12 and 11 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.
Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch
Chicago Rockets, 1946-48; Los Angeles Rams, 1949-57
387 receptions, 7,029 yards, 60 TD
Elroy Hirsch’s 1951 season just might be the most exceptional ever by a wide receiver. He set the record for receiving yards (1,495) and tied the record for TDs (17). No other receiver that year had half as many yards as Hirsch and half as many TDs. Gordie Soltau and Fran Polsfoot were the only players with half as many yards as Hirsch, and they combined for only 11 TDs, less than 2/3 of Hirsch’s total. Leon Hart was the only receiver with half as many TDs as Hirsch, and he had barely 1/3 as many yards (544).
The record of 1,495 yards in a season stood until the AFL’s 14-game schedule, and even there was matched only by Charley Hennigan and Lance Alworth. No NFL player topped Hirsch’s mark until 1985, in a 16-game schedule. Hirsch’s 16-game pace was 1,993, which would still be the record. But in 1951, both rules and strategy favored rushing, and Hirsch had to compete for targets with fellow Hall of Famer Tom Fears, who had broken the single-season reception record one year before.
I believe Hirsch was the first athlete commonly identified by both his given name and his nickname: Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. It’s not obvious whether Crazy Legs or Crazylegs is a better rendering of his name. Throughout his life, Hirsch’s friends would call him “Legs”. The nickname originated with sportswriter Francis Powers’ description: “Hirsch ran like a demented duck. His crazy legs were gyrating in six different directions all at the same time.” I wish it were still acceptable to describe a sports star running “like a demented duck.” This is why we don’t have interesting nicknames any more.
Hirsch began his pro career as a halfback with the AAFC’s Chicago Rockets, but the Rams switched him to end, where he had six 500-yard receiving seasons. He was the second player to reach 7,000 career receiving yards, the first being Don Hutson.
Green Bay Packers, 1952-58; Cleveland Browns, 1959; Dallas Cowboys, 1960-63
503 receptions, 8,459 yards, 61 TD
Billy Howton had the most receiving yards of any player during the 1950s, 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.
Seventeen 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, Jim Benton in a 10-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 37 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, Andre Johnson, Chad Johnson, Charlie Joiner, James Lofton, Art Monk, Andre Reed, and John Stallworth.
Tom Fears, Harlon Hill, and Billy Howton were the only NFL players with multiple 1,000-yard receiving seasons before 1961. Multiple seasons with more than 10 receiving TDs: Cloyce Box, Hill, Howton, and Don Hutson. The word standout dramatically understates what Howton did in the ’50s.
Howton ranked among the top 5 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? Howton was 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. Those factors probably limited his support in the first years after his retirement.
By the time those factors began to diminish in importance, he had slipped through the cracks. Howton mostly played on teams that weren’t very good, and he played in tiny Green Bay before the television era. He’s not on the regular ballot, so he’d have to go in as a Senior Candidate. 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. But Billy Howton was better than most of the wide receivers who are in the Hall of Fame.
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1947-57
329 receptions, 5,131 yards, 337 TD
Elbert Everett Nickel was the 8th player to reach 5,000 receiving yards and the 7th to catch 300 passes. He played for the Steelers when the franchise struggled even to be respectable. During Nickel’s 11-year career, the Steelers had a winning record only twice, and that includes 6-5-1 in 1949. Their only playoff appearance came in Nickel’s rookie year, when he played mostly on defense and special teams.
It’s difficult to classify Nickel as a wide receiver or a tight end. Pittsburgh Steelers literature lists Nickel as a tight end. But the modern tight end position didn’t really exist during Nickel’s career; Green Bay’s Ron Kramer, who played from 1957-67, is often considered the first tight end. Nickel weighed under 200 pounds, and he was a big-play threat, who led the NFL in yards per reception in 1949 (24.3). The following season he averaged 24.0. There’s very limited film of Nickel, but I would guess he lined up split or outside most often.
What we know is that Nickel was a good receiver and a fierce blocker, on the last team to switch from run-pass tailbacks to passing quarterbacks. Nickel led the team in receiving yards four times, made three Pro Bowls, and remained an effective player for longer than most of his contemporaries, with nine 300-yard receiving seasons.
San Francisco 49ers, 1951-60
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 (Don Hutson, Tom 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.
Receiving 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 led the NFL in most 50-reception seasons. He had five, and no one else had more than three. Wilson is one of seven different players to lead the NFL in receptions at least three times (Hutson, Fears, Pihos, Berry, Sterling Sharpe, Wes Welker).
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. Billy Howton, 342
3. Crazy Legs 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:
Wilson played with the Million Dollar Backfield. On a team featuring Hall of Fame running backs John Henry Johnson, Hugh McElhenny, and Joe Perry, Y.A. Tittle still found targets for Wilson. “He was one of the fiercest competitors I ever played with,” Tittle said. “Whenever we needed a big catch, I went to him because I knew he would make the play.” Tittle also said that Wilson had the best hands of any receiver he ever played with, a sentiment echoed by Hall of Fame tackle Bob St. Clair: “Billy had hands like glue. His ability to run after the catch was amazing. He is probably one of the most underrated players in NFL history.”
Bill Walsh personally campaigned for Wilson to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: “He was the top pass receiver of his time and one of the finest blockers, just a great all-around end,” Walsh told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. “Billy certainly should have been enshrined some years ago.”
Fastest Receiver: Del Shofner
Best Deep Threat: Del Shofner
Best Hands: Raymond Berry
Best Possession Receiver: Raymond Berry
Toughest Receiver: Pete Retzlaff
Underrated in 2016: Del Shofner
Most Accomplished Postseason WR: Raymond Berry
Best Single Season: Raymond Berry, 1960
Best Overall WR: Raymond Berry
I’m going to tip my hand for one item in next week’s article: I named Tommy McDonald as having the best hands of the 1960s. McDonald’s hands were legendary, and it risks credibility not to honor him as having the greatest hands of this era. But until late in Steve Largent’s career, Ray Berry was widely considered to have the softest hands of all time. It would risk credibility to name McDonald instead of Berry, too. It’s really close, obviously.
The profiles below don’t necessarily cover the five best receivers of the decade: they’re the five I most wanted to write about. That does lean toward the best players, but sometimes it’s players who are listed above, so I can explain why they were the toughest, or most accomplished in the postseason, or whatever. And sometimes it’s just because they’re interesting. That led me to write about R.C. Owens instead of Buddy Dial or Max McGee.
Buddy Dial played for the Steelers from 1959-63. He gained over 900 receiving yards four times, including 972 in 1960, when the season was only 12 games, and Dial ranked 2nd in the NFL. He was a big-play threat, who twice led the NFL in yards per reception. During his five seasons in Pittsburgh — he later played three low-impact years with the Cowboys — he led the NFL in receiving yardage (4,723) and averaged 21.6 yards per reception. His career average of 20.8 yards is the second-highest in history. He also scored 42 TDs on just 219 catches.
Max McGee had a fine career. He gained 600 receiving yards seven times, and just missed (592) an eighth. He caught 50 touchdown passes, led the league in receiving average in 1959, led in punting yardage twice, and made the Pro Bowl in 1961. He’s most famous, though, as Paul Hornung’s partying partner-in-crime, and for his performance in Super Bowl I. McGee was 34 by then, a backup to Carroll Dale and Boyd Dowler. Not expecting to play, he broke curfew before the game and had a hangover. Early in the first quarter, though, Dowler separated a shoulder, forcing McGee off the sidelines and into the game. He made a spectacular one-handed catch of a ball thrown behind him, then ran 23 yards, for a 37-yard touchdown and the game’s first score. He finished the day with 7 catches for 138 yards — 55% of Bart Starr’s 250 — and 2 TDs. McGee was a good receiver more than a great one, but he was a character and a clutch performer.
Baltimore Colts, 1955-67
631 receptions, 9,275 yards, 68 TD
Ray Berry probably worked harder for his excellence than any receiver in history. At 6-2 and 187, he wasn’t big. One of his legs was shorter than the other, and he wasn’t fast. His eyesight was weak. He didn’t start for his high school football team until he was a senior. He spent one year at junior college, then went to Southern Methodist, where he caught one touchdown pass in three years.
Berry developed 88 distinct moves for beating defenders, and he practiced longer and harder than anyone else. He led the NFL in receptions three times, led in receiving yards three times, led in receiving TDs twice. In 1960, Berry gained 1,298 yards; Buddy Dial was next, with 972. Berry had 34% more yards than second place. As a point of comparison, when Calvin Johnson set the single-season record for receiving yardage (1,964), he gained 23% more yards than 2nd-place Andre Johnson (1,598) and 30% more than 3rd-place Brandon Marshall (1,508).
Berry’s finest moment came in The Greatest Game Ever Played, the 1958 NFL Championship Game. He caught 12 passes for 178 yards and a touchdown, including 3 receptions on the critical fourth-quarter drive that sent the game into overtime.3 Berry retired as the all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards. He later went 48-39 as head coach of the New England Patriots, including an appearance in Super Bowl XX.
In my fourth year with the Patriots, Raymond Berry became the receivers coach. The first time he saw me he tossed me a football, standing about two feet away. I thought maybe there was a message written on it, like a note in a bottle someone finds washed up on shore. So I turned it over and looked at it on all sides. Nope, just a plain old NFL football. So I tossed it back to him. He tucked it away. Then he moved a step back and underhanded it to me. I tossed it back and he tucked it away. Pretty soon we were playing catch, overhand, and every time he got the ball he tucked it away. I got the message. He never said a word, but nothing he could have said would have been as effective as that little game of catch we had. From then on I tucked the ball away, even when someone just handed it to me.
– Pro Bowl tight end Russ Francis
(from The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football, by Paul Zimmerman)
Philadelphia Eagles, 1957-63; Dallas Cowboys, 1964; Los Angeles Rams, 1965-66; Atlanta Falcons, 1967; Cleveland Browns, 1968
495 receptions, 8,410 yards, 84 TD
In his second season, Tommy McDonald tied for the NFL lead in receiving touchdowns, 9. The next four seasons in a row, he had double-digit TDs. McDonald is one of only four NFL players to have four seasons of double-digit receiving TDs before the advent of the 16-game schedule. The others are fellow Hall of Famers Bob Hayes and Paul Warfield, plus the Browns’ Gary Collins.
As a running back at the University of Oklahoma, McDonald was a two-time All-American, won the Maxwell Award in 1956, and never lost a game. As a pro, he was distinguished by his excellent hands and his ability after the catch. Del Shofner, McDonald and Homer Jones were the only NFL players with three 1,000-yard receiving season prior to the 16-game schedule and the liberalized passing rules of the late ’70s.
McDonald was an imp. At 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds, he was among the smallest players in football, but he was lively and demonstrative, extraverted and energetic. He had great enthusiasm for football and he celebrated big plays. Quarterback Sonny Jurgensen said of McDonald, “Everybody thought that he was always inebriated, and he never took a drink … he was a lot of fun.” Jurgensen, who played with Hall of Fame receivers Bobby Mitchell and Charley Taylor and excellent receiving tight ends Pete Retzlaff and Jerry Smith, also complimented McDonald, “He was a guy that probably could catch the ball better than anybody I ever threw to … anything that he could touch he would catch.”
You might know McDonald as the last player not to wear a facemask. He absorbed immense punishment from opponents who thought they could take out the other team’s star receiver, a little guy with no facemask. Hall of Fame safety Larry Wilson marveled, “I don’t know how many times I hit Tommy McDonald and how many times I thought I killed him, and he would get up before I did.” McDonald once separated his shoulder, but got up and ran back to the huddle, staying in the game for two more plays so the opposing team wouldn’t know they had hurt him. Wilson added that McDonald had “more guts than sense.”
McDonald is a player who probably couldn’t exist in 2016. They’d make him play cornerback or kick returner because of his size, and his exuberant personality simply doesn’t fit in a league that prizes professionalism more than personality. He’d rub people the wrong way. But in his day, he was fiercely competitive, highly successful, and well-liked. The game could use another Tommy McDonald.
San Francisco 49ers, 1957-61; Baltimore Colts, 1962-63; New York Giants, 1964
206 receptions, 3,285 yards, 22 TD
Raleigh Climon Owens wasn’t a great receiver, but he’s one of the most interesting players in history. Owens was a good receiver: he had 1,032 yards in 1961, 6th-best in the NFL. But Owens was an exceptional athlete more than an exceptional football player. At the College of Idaho, Owens was a brilliant basketball player. He roomed with Elgin Baylor, and one year led the nation in rebounding, 27.5 per game. Owens averaged 20 points and 20 rebounds per game over his four-year college career and posted a double-double in every game. He still holds school records for field goals, free throws, and rebounds, and he was drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers before they moved to Los Angeles. Owens was just 6-foot-3, but he could outjump anyone for the ball.
As a professional football player, Owens is remembered for the Alley Oop. Quarterback Y.A. Tittle discovered that he could simply loft the ball to Owens, who would consistently outjump defenders to make the catch. In 1957, when Owens was a rookie with the 49ers, they trailed the Lions 31-28 late in the fourth quarter. Tittle launched a desperation pass from midfield, and Owens outleaped a horde of Detroit defenders to catch the game-winning touchdown. The play became a staple of San Francisco’s offense, and Owens acquired the nickname Alley Oop, or even just Oop. Variations on this play are common today, but Owens was the one who made it famous. The name, associated today with basketball, originated with Tittle and Owens.
Owens’ leaping ability extended to another play, one which is unique to him. In a 1960 game against the Lions, a Detroit field goal barely cleared the crossbar. A teammate joked to Owens, “I’ll bet you could’ve gotten to that, R.C.” The crossbar is 10 feet high, same as a basketball hoop, and Owens could dunk. He petitioned coach Red Hickey to let him try, but without success. When Owens played for Baltimore, however, head coach Weeb Ewbank thought it was a good idea.
On December 8, 1962, Washington’s Bob Khayat attemped a field goal from the 40-yard line. Owens lined up in front of the crossbar, waiting. As Khayat’s kick descended, Owens jumped and swatted the ball away. The NFL outlawed “field-goal tending” the following season, presumably because it was a fun play and the league hates joy, so Owens remains the record-holder for field goal tending. The measure of Owens’ vertical leap has not survived, but college teammate Ed “Buzz” Bonaminio remembered that Owens had “something like a 39-inch vertical leap.” Julio Jones jumped 38.5 inches at the 2011 NFL combine, so Bonaminio’s estimate would seem incredible if not for the historical record of Owens’ extraordinary accomplishments: rebounding, alley oops, field goal tending, and photos like this.
After his playing career ended, Owens returned to the 49ers in a management capacity, spending more than two decades in the front office and earning five Super Bowl rings. From 1979-2001, he held various positions for the team, including Director of Training Camp, Director of Alumni Relations, and playing Santa Claus at Christmas. Owens also has a historical footnote as part of the 49ers’ Alphabet Backfield from 1959-60: R.C. Owens, Y.A. Tittle, J.D. Smith, and C.R. Roberts. His move to the Colts inspired the short-lived “Rozelle Rule” concerning free agency. Owens wasn’t a truly excellent wide receiver, but he was a pioneer, with a unique and fascinating life in athletics. The Associated Press named Owens second-team all-pro in 1960. This was a poor selection, in my opinion, but it speaks to the esteem in which he was held. R.C. Owens was inducted into the 49ers Hall of Fame in 2011, and he died in 2012.
Philadelphia Eagles, 1956-66
452 receptions, 7,412 yards, 47 TD
Pete Retzlaff was 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds. That was too small to play tight end, even in the 1960s. John Mackey was 6-2, 224. Mike Ditka was 6-3, 228. Ron Kramer was 6-3, 234. Jackie Smith was 6-4, 235. But around 1963, Retzlaff moved from split end (where he had made two Pro Bowls) to tight end, making three straight Pro Bowls at that position.
His name was Palmer Edward Retzlaff, but he was called Pete, or Baron. He was a running back at South Dakota State, and never caught a pass until he came to the NFL. But in 1958, Retzlaff led the NFL in receptions. It was the first of nine consecutive seasons with at least 584 receiving yards. He and former teammate Tommy McDonald were the fourth and fifth players with nine such seasons, behind only legends Raymond Berry and Don Hutson, as well as the immensely underrated Billy Howton. When HOF quarterback Norm Van Brocklin moved from the Rams to the Eagles, he said that Retzlaff ran pass patterns a lot like his former receiver, Hall of Famer Crazy Legs Hirsch.
Retzlaff was second-team all-pro as an end in 1958, and as tight end in 1964. But his finest season was 1965. Retzlaff caught 66 passes, for 1,190 yards — second in the NFL — and 10 TDs, tied for third. He set career-highs in each statistic, and was a consensus all-pro. The Eagles retired Retzlaff’s No. 44 jersey, and he worked in the front office after his playing career.
Los Angeles Rams, 1957-60; New York Giants, 1961-67
349 receptions, 6,470 yards, 51 TD
There were basically just five seasons in which Del Shofner did anything (1958-59, 61-63), but all five years, he made the Pro Bowl and was first-team all-pro. The only Modern-Era NFL wide receivers with 5 or more first-team all-pro selections are Delbert Shofner, Jerry Rice, and Terrell Owens. 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 regarded, with Robert Griffin III, as one of the two greatest football players 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, his former roommate Jesse Whittenton shut Shofner down all game. In the ’62 title game, swirling winds and an icy field 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 impressive career 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.
If we exclude AFL statistics, then 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 a few years later.
We’ll continue this project next week with 1960-69 and 1965-74.