While the roots of American Football can be traced back to the 17th century, the game as we know it today did not really begin to take shape until 1880. While the first game of intercollegiate “American Football” was famously played between Rutgers and Yale in 1869, it hardly resembled today’s game. Beginning in 1880, Walter Camp, the “Father of American Football” added stability to the game at annual intercollegiate rules conferences. He proposed that the number of players on the field at a time be reduced from 15 to 11 from each team. He also added the line of scrimmage and the snap from center to quarterback to add form and order to the game. In 1882 he proposed the first down and distance rules, originally requiring an offense to travel a minimum of five yards in three plays; a failure to do so would be a turnover.
By 1889, the game had adopted the official playing field size used today (120 by 53 1/3 yds) and mandated paid officials for each game. Camp also decided to include all scoring plays in the game today, albeit scored differently: a touchdown (four points), kick after touchdown (two points), safety (two points), and a field goal (five points). These rules conferences grew in attendance, as more schools adopted the sport. Camp also selected the first annual All-American Football teams, even decades after leaving the game.
Even with Camp’s innovations, football was still a dangerous and even deadly sport that often involved large groups of players charging at one another in “wedge” formations. By 1900, 43 colleges competed in intercollegiate football games. Still, the long-term viability of the game was in doubt. In 1905, after 19 fatalities reported nationwide from playing football, the game’s most important fan decided he had to take action. That man was none other than newly re-elected president Theodore Roosevelt. He called a meeting with the leaders of intercollegiate football and implored them to make the game safer. Roosevelt himself was an avid fan of the game, and two of his sons were currently playing in college at the time.
The leaders obliged, and in 1906 they founded the organization that would become the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). To make the game safer, they outlawed the mob plays that had characterized the early years of the sport, and added more stability by mandating that 7 offensive players line up on the line of scrimmage before each play, a rule still in place today. They also legalized the forward pass for the first time, albeit in a limited form. By the late 1910’s, a small but thriving professional game had developed. Two rival leagues, or pro Football “circuits” based in Ohio and New York, had sprung up. In order to avoid a bidding war over college athletes, leaders from each group decided to form an overarching league that could arbitrate disputes and oversee rules changes.
The Passing Game Through WWII (1920-1945)
Thus, the American Pro Football Association was founded in 1920, and football player and Olympic medalist Jim Thorpe was elected its first president. Thorpe, Red Grange and Bronko Ngurski were some of the first high-profile college players to join professional clubs, and brought a measure of legitimacy to the sport on the professional level. At first the league was loosely defined, and resembled a college football conference—teams made their own schedules, and even games they played against non-league teams counted in the official standings. Over time, controversies over the league title led to the creation of a beginning and end to the league season, a set number of games, and a championship game, first played in 1932. Finally, an annual selection meeting (later dubbed the “draft”) at which teams could claim exclusive rights to college athletes was organized in 1936 to prevent bidding wars between teams and keep down the cost of doing business.
Throughout the 1930’s, rules changes revolutionized the passing game. The most significant of these came in 1933: among other rules changes, all plays were required to begin between the hash marks and forward passes were legalized form anywhere behind the line of scrimmage (before then they were only legal from 5 yards behind the line). Other rules changes included moving the goalposts forward to the goal line. But despite the growth of the league, it was still in constant flux. Over the first 16 years, 51 teams had folded; 1936 was the first season that saw no franchise moves.
By the mid-1930’s, the apparent stability of the league was accompanied by a change in offensive strategy: a shift towards the passing game as a major source of offensive production. Throughout the 1920’s and into the 1930’s the forward pass was seen as a gimmick or desperation play, rather than a potent offensive weapon. As late as 1932, less than 25% of plays were pass attempts, and passing accounted for only 1/3 of the yards gained in a given game. This soon changed however, spurred on by the league’s great innovators. For comparison, 54.5% of plays were passes in 2013, accounting for more than 2/3 of the yards.
Among the leaders in the passing game in the 1930’s and early 40’s were the Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins, and Chicago Bears. In Green Bay, Wisconsin, the league’s smallest city, head coach Curly Lambeau’s imaginative aerial attack, using players such as Hall of Fame Receiver Don Hutson, earned him 6 championships in 15 years. In the nation’s capital, “Slingin’ Sammy” Baugh led the league in passing 6 times and won 2 championships. One of the most versatile players of all time, Baugh once led the NFL in passing, punting, and interceptions as a defensive back all in the same season. In Chicago, George “Papa Bear” Halas, the Bears’ founder and coach, won 6 championships with his innovative T-Formation offense. This gave his quarterback more passing options than the predominant Single Wing formation. He won several with quarterback Sid Luckman, whose combination of mobility and accuracy made him the perfect player for Halas’s system. But as World War II wore on, a dearth of available players and fans with enough free time to follow professional sports threatened the solvency of the league.
Outside Innovations: Rival Leagues (1946-1969)
Over the 25 years after World War II, the NFL faced challenges from rival leagues, most notably the AAFC in the 1940’s and the AFL in the 1960’s. The war years were difficult for all Americans, and professional sports teams struggled to even find enough players to field teams. Several former superstars were even called out of retirement to play for a season or two, often with predictably mediocre results. Some franchises even temporarily merged, like the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia “Steagles” in 1943, while others folded altogether. As the war came to an end, however, signs of an economic boom were on the horizon, and thousands of former soldiers would fill out the ranks of all professional sports teams by the end of the decade.
The All-America Football Conference (1946-1949)
It was during this time that Chicago sportswriter Arch Ward decided to found the All-America Football Conference. Although he had to delay the inaugural season of the league until after the war, the AAFC was different from previous challenges to the NFL’s dominance because Ward could ensure plenty of media coverage from the start. The AAFC also benefited from having one of the great innovators in football history: Paul Brown, head coach of the new Cleveland Browns. The new league adopted rules such as free substitution, which allowed players to specialize in either offense or defense instead of having to play all 60 minutes, which increased the overall level of play and helped make up for the gap in talent with the NFL. The NFL maintained its limited substitution rules for the rest of the decade, which stipulated that a player may not return to the game once he had left.
The AAFC challenged the NFL geographically as well. Until 1946, the NFL had limited itself to a small area around Ohio. In 1945 it did not have a franchise west of Wisconsin or south of Washington, DC. They did this to limit transportation costs, which was especially critical during the Great Depression and the War years. The AAFC raced out west, founding the Los Angeles Dons and the San Francisco 49ers. In response, the NFL allowed the reigning champion Cleveland Rams to move to Los Angeles themselves. In a day when most professional football teams posted annual net losses, the AAFC was well-funded and potentially more exciting. By 1949, however, interest in the league had begun to fade. Paul Brown, possibly the league’s greatest asset, was so dominant that many teams were non-competitive and struggled to gain a following. The Cleveland Browns won the league title in each of the AAFC’s four seasons. This, coupled with and inability to lure college star players away from the NFL, led to the league ceasing to exist with the NFL in 1949. 3 AAFC teams joined the NFL. Although the Baltimore Colts, unrelated to a later team bearing the same name, survived only one season, the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns still exist today.
The NFL had won the war with the AAFC, and had strengthened its position in the process. It adopted the AAFC’s free substitution rules, which has led the position specialization that helps make the game exciting even today. It also gained a nationwide foothold, tapping into two California markets with massively popular teams. Coupled with the very first television deals that arrived with the early 1950’s, the popularity and profitability of the league soared. No game signified the NFL’s arrival on the national entertainment scene more than the 1958 NFL Championship. Dubbed “The Greatest Game Ever Played” in NFL lore, it was the first nationally televised game. It featured rising star quarterback Johnny Unitas lead the upstart Baltimore Colts to a dramatic 23-17 overtime victory over the favored New York Giants. The future of the league seemed secure, but another challenger loomed on the horizon, and the battles of the 1960’s with a new rival league would make the “war” with the AAFC look like a mere skirmish.
The American Football League (1960-1969)
The AFL played its first season in 1960, when a unique combination of factors allowed it to essentially become the equal of the NFL. First, there was an unusually high level of talented players who could not find a place on an NFL roster. This was due in part to the explosion in popularity the NFL experienced 1950’s, but due more to how the league handled its success. After absorbing the defunct AAFC for the 1950 season, the established owners in the league refused every offer of expansion, no matter how wealthy the prospective owner or how wide the potential fan base. The result was a large pool of NFL talent and a large pool of wealthy potential owners. The obvious result was the brainstorm of Lamar Hunt, the son of a highly successful Texas oilman, and he brought 8 miffed prospective owners together in 1959, organizing what would become the most successful challenge ever to the NFL’s dominance over the world of professional football. With pockets as deep as the available talent pool, the new league had no trouble organizing a full schedule, and crowning their own “World Champion.”
While the bottlenecking effect of the league’s refusal to expand created the available money and talent, the key to the new league’s success was the emergence of television as a medium for sports experience. Lamar Hunt was an imaginative businessman, and made the AFL the first league that evenly divided television revenues between its teams. The NFL followed suit, but even with a significantly larger TV deal, the AFL’s teams individually made more money because the league had fewer teams. This situation made the battle over the best college prospects in the leagues’ competing drafts a fair fight, a frightening prospect for the established NFL.
The upstart AFL also used the NFL’s tradition and reputation against the older league. Without any unspoken rules about gameplay to hold them back, coaches in the AFL felt freer to experiment with new formations, and the league worked with team officials to encourage a more wide open passing game. While the rulebook was technically the same, the style of play clearly was not. In 1968, for example, the Jets’ Joe Namath became the first quarterback ever to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season.
By 1965, it was clear to the NFL’s owners that they had greatly underestimated the AFL. Following three years of ridiculously grandiose player contracts to lure rookies away from each other, representatives from each side, knowing that the leagues would put each other out of business at the rate they were going, decided to work out a merger deal. The NFL was finally forced to expand, and absorbed all 8 teams from the AFL. The leagues agreed to hold a joint championship game, the first Super Bowl, following the 1966 season before completely merging in 1970. The NFL-AFL war, as it was known, turned out to be very good for the sport. For the first time, football was in the sports pages year-round, and the league more than doubled in size between franchises founded during the 1960’s in response to the AFL and the teams gained in the merger itself. The league also gained innovative coaches and talented players who would make exciting additions to offense and defensive schemes. Finally, the AFL’s increased focus on offense proved the entertainment value that it could provide.
The Rules Changes of 1978
The NFL truly entered its modern form from a rules perspective in 1978. This season saw the several rules changes aimed at helping offensive production, which had slumped in recent years. Having seen the excitement that explosive offense can provide, the NFL’s competition committee felt that increasing offense would increase overall fan interest in the game. The rules changes directly helped 2 positions: wide receivers and offensive linemen. New pass interference rules barred intentional contact by a defender with a receiver more than 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. This meant that defensive backs were no longer allowed to take down opposing receivers before they even had a chance to catch a pass. In order to help offensive linemen give their quarterbacks extra pass protection, the league narrowed the scope of the offensive holding penalty. By allowing lineman to block more effectively, quarterbacks were less likely to get hurt and more likely to complete passes. Most importantly, the rules emphasized speed and athleticism over brute strength, increasing its appeal to the masses. While there have been other, more specific passing game innovations not mentioned here, they often revolve around individual players and teams, and are best told in the stories of the Hall of Fame Receivers themselves.
Hall of Fame Receivers
Don Hutson (1935-1945)
Don Hutson was the first great player remembered solely as a receiver, and is credited with developing a wide variety of modern pass patterns. Hutson’s first NFL reception was an 83-yard touchdown from Packers’ quarterback Arnie Herber, and the Herber-Hutson duo is ranked by NFL Films as the 7th Greatest Passing Combination of all time. Hutson led the NFL in receptions 8 times, was named MVP in 1941 and 1942, retired with 99 career touchdowns, a record that stood for more than four decades, and made 488 career receptions, over 200 more than any previous player. Because he played before the league adopted free substitution rules, he was a 60-minute player, and played safety and placekicker. He once scored 29 points by himself in a single quarter, with 4 touchdowns, and 5 extra points. Over his career, Hutson averaged almost 69 receiving yards per game at a time when the NFL average for an entire team was 80-130 yards per game. In 1942, he totaled just over 1,000 receiving yards; the rest of the league combined for about 12,500.
A 3-time NFL Champion, Hutson was one of the first to demonstrate the potential offensive power of the passing game. He revolutionized defense, and commonly attracted double-coverage because he could beat almost any defender one-on-one. Hutson was the most dominant receiver the NFL has ever seen, and could certainly be a standout receiver in today’s game. Hutson undoubtedly changed the game, and single-handedly legitimized the passing game. By 1939, only his 5th season in the league, the average NFL team gained more than 50% of its yards from scrimmage through the air, a 15% increase from the time Hutson first entered the league. In 2010, NFL Films ranked him the 9th greatest player of all time.
Dante Lavelli (1946-1956)
Dante Lavelli joined the Cleveland Browns of the AAFC in 1946, and quickly became the favorite target of star quarterback Otto Graham. He helped the Browns to championships in each of his first 5 seasons: 4 in the AAFC and 1 in the NFL in 1950. In the 1950 Championship game, Lavelli set a then-postseason record with 11 receptions with 2 touchdowns as the Browns defeated the Los Angeles Rams 30-28. He was named to 3 of the first 5 pro bowls, which was first played in 1951.
Lavelli was known as “gluefingers” for his uncanny ability to make contested catches, but was not highly touted coming out of college. Injuries and time spent in the Army during World War II limited his college career to just 3 games. Paul Brown, who had coached at Lavelli at Ohio State during the early years of the war, made him one of the many under-the-radar players that he recruited to play in Cleveland. Lavelli is best remembered for his clutch play, racking up 24 catches in championship games over the course of his career.
Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch (1946-1957)
Elroy Hirsch spent his first 3 seasons toiling away in obscurity for the dreadful Chicago Rockets of the AAFC. He jumped to the NFL before the 1949 season, and signed with the Los Angeles Rams. After a year on the bench, he was converted to a receiver in 1950 and was an important contributor on the Rams’ 1951 championship team. He was a feared big-play receiver, and paired with quarterback Bob Waterfield for 17 touchdown receptions and an unprecedented 124.6 yards per game in 1951. Hirsch retired with 1,495 yards receiving, which was an NFL record at that time.
A converted halfback, Hirsch earned the nickname “crazylegs” for his bizarre running style. As he ran downfield, his legs would appear to flail out in all directions. After leaving Chicago, Hirsch played in every game in 7 of his last 9 seasons, giving him great longevity to go with his Hall of Fame receiving statistics, and was ranked by NFL Films as the 87th greatest player of all time.
Pete Pihos (1947-1955)
Pete Pihos made his mark with the Philadelphia Eagles as one of the most versatile players of his era. When the NFL adopted free substitution, known as the “platoon system” for the groups of players that now ran on and off the field after a change of possession, in 1950, Pihos was assigned to offense. After flirting with my Hall of Fame statistical threshold for his first 5 seasons, a manpower shortage led to his being switched to defensive end in 1952. In his only season primarily playing defense, he earned all-NFL honors. He was then switched back to offense and proceeded to lead the league in receiving in each of his last 3 seasons. As for longevity, Pihos missed only one game over his impressive 9-season career.
Pihos helped the Eagles to 3 straight division crowns from 1947-49 and back-to-back NFL titles in 1948-49, including a 31-yard touchdown reception in the 1949 championship, and was named all-NFL 6 times. Like many players of his era, a 2-year stint in the military delayed his entry into the NFL. He was drafted in 1945, but did not suit up for the Eagles until 1947. As a pass receiver, Pihos was a polished rout runner. Without great speed, he earned a reputation for his willingness to fight for contested catches, as well as for his bruising running once he had the ball.
Tom Fears (1948-1956)
Originally drafted as a defensive back from UCLA, Fears was switched to receiver as a rookie, and made an instant impact. Despite a reputation as a big play receiver, Fears led the league in receptions in each of his first 3 seasons. In 1950, he set an NFL record with 84 receptions in one season, and another record with 18 receptions in a single game. In the 1950 season finale, Fears led the Rams to victory over the Chicago Bears with 3 touchdown receptions of over 25 yards to help clinch the Western Division title. In the 1951 NFL Championship, Fears made the game-winning play, taking quarterback Nrom Van Brocklin’s 13 yard pass 60 yards for the game-winning touchdown to earn revenge over the Cleveland Browns, who had beaten the Rams in the title game the year before.
For Fears, it was not how fast he ran, but how he ran his pass patterns that made him special. He was an extremely precise runner, and was adept at catching the ball in a crowd. He was especially dangerous on hook routs, where he would set up the defender with a deep fake, then make a sudden cut back towards the line of scrimmage and come wide open. Of course, his propensity for scoring long touchdowns suggests he still had a measure of speed to complement his finesse.
Raymond Berry (1955-1967)
Raymond Berry is best remembered as the go-to receiver for the most iconic Baltimore football star of all time: quarterback Johnny Unitas. NFL Films ranked them the 5th greatest passing combination of all time. When he came into the league in 1955, Berry was an inauspicious 20th round draft pick by Baltimore. Needless to say, he outperformed his draft status, gaining nearly 10,000 yards over the course of his career. His championship-record 12 catches for 178 yards in the 1958 NFL title game helped the Colts to an overtime win, the first of back-to-back championships. Berry was sure-handed in crunch time, making 33 yards in the overtime of the 1958 championship. Ranked by NFL Films as having the 2nd greatest “hands,” colloquial for catching ability, of all time, he fumbled only one time over his entire career. In addition to this accolade, NFL Films ranked him the 36th greatest player of all time.
Berry was a relentless worker, and claimed to have developed 88 distinct moves to beat a defender. He was the first player to plan his practices, and ran his routs to perfection. He and Unitas would stay on the field for hours after practice until he had run the day’s 50 out patterns, 80 curl routs, and so on. This work paid off, as Unitas and Berry developed a sense of timing unique from all other players. It was said that if they were blindfolded, they would still complete better than 50% of their passes. Their sense of timing made the pair lethal in the two-minute drill, and receivers still try to replicate it with their own quarterbacks to this day.
Don Maynard (1958-1973)
Don Maynard bounced around early in his career, playing for a different team in a different league in each of his first 3 seasons. In 1960 he landed in New York with the AFL’s Titans (later renamed the Jets), and Maynard became a star. A perennial deep threat, Maynard relied on his athleticism and instincts to make up for his unpolished rout running. By the time he retired, Maynard had compiled more yards than any other receiver in the history of pro football. Although he never led his league in receiving, Maynard became only the 5th player ever to compile 50 catches for 1,000 yards in 5 different seasons.
While he enjoyed Hall of Fame-caliber production in his first 5 seasons with the Jets, the team lacked the quarterback talent to be a title contender. That all changed when the Jets signed Alabama quarterback Joe Namath to a then record $400,000 contract in the AFL’s ongoing battle with the NFL over top rookies. With Namath’s leadership passing talent, the Jets became a perennial contender. In 1968, Maynard enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career, while helping his quarterback become the first player to ever throw for 4,000 yards in a single season. In the postseason that year he was an integral part of the Jets’ AFL championship over the Raiders. He then helped engineer one of the greatest upsets in football history, crushing the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. The win was a great victory for the Jets, but it was even more important for the AFL at large. Even after agreeing to merge with the NFL in 1966, the AFL teams were still considered vastly inferior to the best NFL teams. This had been validated when the Green Bay Packers crushed their AFL opponent in each of the first two Super Bowls. By beating the Colts, even heavier favorites than the Packers had been in their Super Bowls, Maynard and the Jets showed the world that the AFL was on par with the other league.
Lance Alworth (1962-1972)
Lance Alworth was the first AFL player inducted into the Hall of Fame. Early in his career, he was given the nickname “Bambi” for the combination of his lightning speed and sensational leaping ability coupled with his boyish looks and brown eyes. When he was drafted in 1962, Al Davis, then a Chargers’ assistant, fought off the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers for the rights to sign Alworth. He was worth the trouble, averaging more than 50 catches and 1,000 a season over 9 years with the Chargers with the team. He flourished early under head coach Sid Gilman, who paired him with quarterback John Hadl to form a duo dubbed the 9th greatest passing combination of all time by NFL Films. Alworth once played in 96 consecutive regular season games, and in each one he ran Sid Gilman’s offense to perfection. The Chargers had an offense that was the pride of the AFL, which was challenging the NFL’s dominance with a more exciting aerial display. Alworth helped the Chargers to their blowout win in the 1963 AFL Championship. He also aided the development of a loyal and excitable fan base in San Diego and across the country, as the AFL increased the scope of its war with the older league. He retired with over 10,000 receiving yards, and NFL Films ranked Alworth the 38th greatest player of all time.
Charley Taylor (1964-1977)
A highly touted running back in college, Charley Taylor was the number 1 overall pick of the Washington Redskins in the 1964 draft. Despite playing at running back in his first two seasons, he was still a prolific pass catcher, making 53 receptions, and was named rookie of the year. Midway through the 1966 season, Taylor was switched to receiver, and led the league in receptions in his first 2 seasons on the job. Taylor scored 90 total touchdowns over the course of his career. He tied an NFL record by making 50 receptions in 7 different seasons, and amassed 10,803 all-purpose yards. In 1972, Taylor helped the Redskins win the NFC Championship and a berth in Super Bowl VII. After sitting out the 1976 season with an injury, Taylor made one last comeback in 1977 before retiring. He made 8 pro bowls and was named all-pro 6 times over the course of his career. He played in at least 10 games in all but 1 of his 13 NFL seasons.
Paul Warfield (1964-1977)
Paul Warfield is a case of a talented wide receiver who posted Hall of Fame statistics in spite of his offensive system. During his career with the Browns and Dolphins, Warfield won 3 NFL Championships. Warfield played on ball-control teams whose offensive philosophy focused on ball control and the running game. In Cleveland, he played with Hall of Famer Jim Brown, and in Miami he played alongside Hall of Famer Larry Csonka. Warfield only posted more than 50 catches in a season one time, but generated yardage totals that rival the best receivers from his era. He was ranked by NFL Films as the 71st greatest player of all time.
Warfield was a key member of the 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins. Despite playing on a team that ran the ball almost 2.5 times as often as it passed, Warfield’s yards/game stat exceeded my Hall of Fame threshold in 1972. That is even more impressive, considering that the Dolphins lost their Hall of Fame quarterback, Bob Griese, in week 5. In his place, Warfield spent his season catching passes from 38 year old backup Earl Morrall, who led them to the Super Bowl before being replaced by a then-healthy Griese. Paul Warfield impressed many with his great speed and leaping ability, and was often used as a decoy to attract extra defenders away from stopping his offense’s running game. Warfield returned to Cleveland for his final 2 seasons before retiring in 1977. His 20.1 yards per catch mark is still the best in the history of the game.
Fred Biletnikoff (1965-1978)
One of only three Hall of Fame receivers to be named a Super Bowl MVP, Fred Biletnikoff retired with 1,167 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in the postseason alone, an NFL record at the time. Biletnikoff barely saw the field in his first 2 seasons, but he grabbed his opportunities when they came. In his first game as a starter, he grabbed 7 passes for 118 yards. He was a tough and reliable target for the Oakland Raiders, and missed only 8 games over the course of his entire career. After many years of frustration, including 7 AFC Championship losses in 9 seasons, the Raiders finally captured Super Bowl XI. Biletnikoff made 4 catches for 79 yards to set up 3 Raiders scores, and earned MVP honors. Biletnikoff is remembered as one of the NFL’s great clutch performers.
NFL Films ranked Biletnikoff 5th on their list of receivers with the greatest hands, while he and Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler were named the 8th greatest passing combination of all time. Biletnikoff is the most controversial receiver in the Hall of Fame because he used an adhesive substance known as “stick-em” on his hands to help him catch the ball. Stick-em was banned in 1980, but Biletnikoff used it throughout his career. His detractors claim that stick-em gave Biletnikoff an unfair competitive advantage over his opposition, but teammates who watched him during practice (he only used it during games) contend that he didn’t really need it. Proponents of the receiver point out that the gloves worn by NFL receivers help players catch the ball as well as, if not more than, stick-em ever did. What is not debated is that Biletnikoff was an agile rout-runner who often made much more athletic defensive backs look foolish when he ran wide open on a double move.
Charlie Joiner (1969-1986)
Charlie Joiner is most famous for his years with the San Diego Chargers. After 8 seasons with the Oilers and Bengals, Joiner was traded to the Chargers, where he became a legal pass target for Dan Fouts. Joiner was an integral part of Head Coach Don Coryell’s imaginative passing offense. Known as “Air Coryell,” it was the most prolific passing attack the league had ever seen, and is still being imitated today. For the Chargers, Air Coryell led them to back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship in the early 1980’s.
He possessed incredible speed and was a master of timing patterns with Fouts. Drafted as a defensive back, Joiner could read defenses as well as any quarterback, which was one of his greatest assets as a part of Coryell’s offense. When Joiner retired, he had played for 18 seasons, longer than any other wide receiver up to that point, and currently second only to Jerry Rice. In his last 13 seasons, a 193 game stretch, Joiner missed only 1 game due to injury. He retired with 750 catches, the most ever by a wider receiver up to that point.
Lynn Swann (1974-1982)
The name “Swann” seemed to fit the Pittsburgh Steeler’s receiver. Known for his speed, leaping ability, and graceful catches, NFL Films ranked him 9th on the list of players with the greatest hands. Swann was famous as a clutch, big game player. As a rookie, he caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the 1974 AFC Championship, en route to a Pittsburgh victory in Super Bowl IX, their first of 4 in the next 6 years. The following year, even after being injured during the AFC Championship game, Swann came off the canvas to record a Super Bowl record 161 receiving yards and a touchdown in his MVP effort. He played in 4 Super Bowls with the Steelers, totaling 364 receiving yards from quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Swann played only 9 seasons, easily the shortest career of any Hall of Fame receiver in the Super Bowl era. But his memorable catches, clutch performances, and 4 Super Bowl rings made him a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame as a member of the most dominant dynasty the NFL has ever seen.
John Stallworth (1974-1987)
Stallworth, more than any other Hall of Fame Receiver, battled many nagging injuries throughout his career. But, like his peers, he kept coming back. The 1984 comeback player of the year missed 44 games due to injury over 14-year career, but still managed to produce at the highest level. Like his Steeler teammate, Lynn Swann, Stallworth was a big-game receiver, and still holds the Super Bowl Record for yards per catch. He did not just limit his greatness to Super Bowls; Stallworth caught a pass in 17 consecutive postseason games.
A 4th-round draft pick with great speed and leaping ability, Stallworth’s college game tape was so impressive that the Steelers team scouts tried to hide it from other teams in the league. On the receiving end of many a Terry Bradshaw deep ball, Swann and Stallworth formed a devastating receiving duo. Perhaps most impressively, each managed to post Hall of Fame statistics while playing on the same team. Stallworth retired in 1984 with the Steelers’ team records in catches, yards, and touchdowns.
Steve Largent (1976-1987)
The NFL came to Seattle in 1976 in the form of the expansion Seahawks. As is the case with most expansion teams, theirs was a group of cast-offs, and the early teams were not very good. A lone bright spot was the passing combination of Jim Zorn to Steve Largent, which NFL Films ranked the 10th greatest of all time. Largent was a small player, not very fast or physically imposing. Yet everyone who played against him marveled at how wide open he would get, despite his clear athletic disadvantage against opposing defensive backs. Largent combined precise rout-running and intuition with a catching ability that earned him 3rd place on NFL Film’s list of the players with the greatest hands of all time.
Remarkably, Largent produced right away and for a long time. He wound up above my receiving yardage threshold in each of his first 12 seasons, and only missed 4 games over his first 13. “Mr. Seahawk” retired after breaking Don Hutson’s NFL record for touchdown catches, with 100. He added 3 more NFL records with 819 catches for 13,089 yards, as well as 177 consecutive games with a catch. The passing combination of Zorn to Largent helped the Seahawks post a winning record in only their 4th year in the league, and Largent helped lead them to the AFC Championship in 1983. An excellent role model, Largent was named the NFL’s Man of the Year in 1988, and is still beloved in the Pacific Northwest.
James Lofton (1978-1993)
The first player to catch a touchdown pass in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, James Lofton was an outside speed receiver who terrorized defensive backs for 16 seasons. He recorded at least 50 catches in 9 different seasons, and gained at least 1,000 yards in 5. He surpassed Largent’s career receiving record, becoming the first player to break 14,000 yards. At the time of his retirement, his 43 games with at least 100 receiving yards ranked 3rd all-time.
Lofton spent his first 9 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, where the college track star quickly made a name for himself as a powerful deep threat. He was selected to 7 pro bowls during his time in Green Bay alone. After a brief stint with the Los Angeles Raiders, Lofton joined the Bills in 1989, and became an integral part, along with receiver Andre Reed, running back Thurman Thomas, and quarterback Jim Kelly, of their fast-paced “K-gun” offense. In the early 1990’s, Lofton helped the team capture 3 of their unprecedented 4 straight AFC Championships. In 13 playoff games, Largent caught 8 touchdowns, and notched 7 receptions game in Super Bowl XXVI.
Art Monk (1980-1995)
Art Monk was a big, powerful receiver who got off the line of scrimmage quickly and was always willing to catch passes over the middle. He was a master at several important parts of today’s game, such as taking short passes for big gains. The Washington Redskins were a dominant force in the NFC in the 1980’s. From 1982-1991 the team won 4 NFC Championships and 3 Lombardi Trophies. During his 14 seasons with the team, the Redskins had Monk himself had his greatest run of success in the mid-1980’s, when he went for over 1,000 yards in 3 consecutive seasons. In 1984, he was named league MVP, the 2nd Washington player in 3 seasons to earn the honor. Known for his dependability, Monk set what was then an NFL record with 183 consecutive games with a reception, and retired with a record 940 receptions. What made his run of success even more impressive was, despite the constant changes at quarterback, Monk still found a way to produce, and the Redskins always found a way to win. Monk’s Redskins went to NFC Championship games with 4 different quarterbacks, and won Super Bowls with 3 different quarterbacks.
Andre Reed (1985-2000)
Playing with the Bills for most of his career, Andre Reed was known as a great yards-after-catch receiver. He played with fellow Hall of Famers James Lofton, Thurman Thomas, and Jim Kelly, who set the NFL on fire in the early 1990’s with their no-huddle offense. Kelly to Reed was ranked the 6th greatest passing combination of all time. In fact, the duo set an NFL record with 663 completions. Reed helped the Bills reach 4 consecutive Super Bowls, despite losing all of them. This achievement is widely regarded as the greatest run of resiliency in NFL history. In the 1992 playoffs, the Bills hosted the Houston Oilers. Playing without an injured Jim Kelly, the Bills found themselves in a 31-3 hole early in the 3rd quarter. However, Andre Reed caught 3 straight touchdowns, and the Bills came back to beat Houston 41-38 in overtime. Known simply as “The Comeback,” it is the largest comeback in NFL playoff history, and rated by NFL Films as the greatest comeback of all time.
Reed was a consistent producer, generating an impressive run of 9 consecutive 50-catch seasons. He also played in 7 consecutive Pro Bowls during the stretch. Reed retired 3rd all-time with 951 career receptions for more than 13,000 yards. He also added 1,229 yards in the postseason, including 5 100-yard games. He is also an example of a case where an incredibly prolific offense produced 3 great statistical players, but not a single player that was significantly further ahead of his peers.
Jerry Rice (1985-2004)
Jerry Rice is widely considered the greatest player of all time. He is ranked first overall by NFL Films on a list of the best players ever. He holds every major pass receiving record in NFL history by wide margins, and played for 20 seasons, the longest career of any receiver. He gained 22,895 yards on 1,549 career recpetions, as well as 14 1,000-yard season, all records that no other player is close to reaching. During his time with the 49ers and Raiders, Rice played in 8 conference championships and won 3 Super Bowls, including an MVP in his first, Super Bowl XXIII. He was named first team all-pro in 11 straight seasons, posted 11 1,000-yard seasons, and has 4 distinct 100-catch seasons. During his time with the 49ers, he was the weapon of choice for 2 Hall of Fame Quarterbacks. He appears twice on NFL Films’ list of the greatest passing combinations: 3rd overall with Joe Montana and 2nd overall with Steve Young.
Rice possessed phenomenal speed, precise routs, and the 7th greatest hands of all time, according to NFL Films. But his greatest asset was his endurance. He often made memorable plays during drives in the last 2 minutes of a game, when everyone else on the field was tired. Once in 1987, the 49ers offense came onto the field with one shot to close a 6-point gap with 2 seconds left in the game. Joe Montana floated a perfect pass into the endzone, and Rice made a leaping grab, one of his NFL-record 22 touchdowns in that season. He was unmatched in Super Bowl performances, with 589 yards and 8 touchdowns over 4 appearances, with 3 different quarterbacks. Rice is the best player in NFL history, and no one on the horizon appears close to taking that title.
Cris Carter (1987-2002)
NFL Films ranks Cris Carter first on their list of the players with the greatest hands of all time. He could catch a ball with one hand better than most players could with 2. His precision pass patterns complemented his leaping ability, and his boundary skills were second-to-none. No set of Cris Carter highlights is complete without his signature sideline catches that feature him diving out of bounds while catching the ball and keeping the tips of his toes in-bounds.
He began his career in Philadelphia, where he showed flashes of brilliance that were overshadowed by off-the-field issues. After the 1989 season, despite catching 11 touchdowns, head coach Buddy Ryan cut Carter, telling him that he felt he could no longer rely on Carter, and that he needed to get his life straightened out. He did exactly that after joining the Vikings in 1990. He recorded 8 straight 1,000-yard seasons in the 90’s and recorded back-to-back 122-catch seasons. In 1998, the Vikings had the best offense the NFL had ever seen, shattering league records for points and total yards, going 15-1 en route to an NFC Championship appearance. NFL Films also ranked Carter as the 2nd best player who never reached a Super Bowl. Despite not having the same quarterback for more than 3 full seasons, Carter retired as the game’s 2nd-most prolific receiver, with 13,899 yards.
Michael Irvin (1988-1999)
The Cowboys’ offense in the 1990’s featured “the triplets:” running back Emmitt Smith, quarterback Troy Aikman, and wide receiver Michael Irvin, all 3 of whom are in the Hall of Fame. Together they captured 2 championships in 4 seasons in the early 1990’s. The passing combination of Aikman to Irvin was one of the best in NFL history, good for 6th all time according to NFL Films. While the Cowboys led a ground-based attack with Smith and Aikman never threw more than 20 touchdowns in a season, Michael Irvin still compiled Hall of Fame statistics in a 12-year career cut short by a knee injury in 1999.
Michael Irvin’s flashy style incurred the wrath of some, but he backed up his smack. Before a matchup with the Cardinals in 1992, Hall of Fame cornerback Aneas Williams taunted Irvin before the game, trying to intimidate him. Irvin responded with an 87-yard touchdown reception on the second play of the game. Known as “The Playmaker,” Irvin played the game more physically than any receiver before him. He was so strong that the league had to amend its offensive pass interference rules in order to stop him from abusing defensive backs. He owns a record for the most 100-yard games in a season, with 11, and between 1991 and 1998 recorded 1,000-yard seasons in all but one year. He is ranked as the 92nd greatest player of all time and retired with nearly 12,000 receiving yards.
America’s Game: The Super Bowl Champions, NFL Films
America’s Game: The Missing Rings, NFL Films
NFL Top 10, NFL Films
NFL Top 100 Greatest Players, NFL Films
NFL Films: Greatest Games, NFL Films
The Complete History of the Oakland Raiders, NFL Films
America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, Michael MacCambridge