Updated: May 5, 2020
The NFL of the 21st century is undeniably a passing league, with offenses lighting up scoreboards for the past two decades. No one has benefited more from this trend than the wide receiver.
Rule changes beginning in the late 1970s made it more difficult for defensive backs to cover receivers. Changes favoring the offense have continued into the present day, not only benefiting receivers but also making quarterbacks virtually untouchable.
Of the top 20 seasons for average team passing yards per game, 15 have occurred since 2000. Incredibly, the top 10 and 12 of the top 13 have occurred since 2007.
Receiving statistics tell a similar story. Of the top 20 career reception leaders, not a single one played before 1980, and 15 of the top 20 played the majority of their careers after 2000.
As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, the NFL passing game shows no signs of slowing down. But it hasn’t always been this way. Prior to 1935, the forward pass was little more than an afterthought for most NFL coaches.
In 1935, a lean, graceful end out of the University of Alabama would change coaches’ minds and playbooks forever. That end was Don Hutson, signed for a salary of $175 per game by Curly Lambeau’s Green Bay Packers. For the next 11 years, Hutson dominated the NFL like no receiver in league history. That would include a man who would later immortalize the number 80 for the San Francisco 49ers, Jerry Rice.
Between the years 1935 and 1945, the NFL had no answer for the Packers sensation. Hutson led the league in receptions eight times, receiving yards seven times, and touchdown receptions nine times. By way of comparison, the top five career leaders in receptions (Rice, Larry Fitzgerald, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten and Marvin Harrison) led the league in receiving only seven times between them.
To give you a further idea of Hutson’s domination, prior to 1935 the NFL single season record for receptions was 22, the high for receiving yards was 350, and the mark for touchdown receptions was five. Over the course of his career, Hutson would shatter those marks by setting NFL single season records with 74 receptions, 1,211 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Despite the disparity in these numbers, it is almost universally acknowledged that Rice is the most dominant receiver in NFL history. This is why the definition of dominance needs to be reexamined.
Most would agree that today’s athletes possess superior physical attributes, but it is fruitless to compare such measurables as 40-yard dash times, body fat percentages and weight room reps when modern day players enjoy such overwhelming advantages in nutrition and conditioning.
The second method of comparison that is most often used is the raw statistic. Statistics are certainly an important tool in analyzing athletes, but they must be used with caution when comparing players across decades. The number of games played per season has gone from 11 in the 1930s to 16 starting in 1978. In addition, there are the rule changes we spoke of earlier, which have revolutionized the NFL passing game and have made statistical comparison across decades largely irrelevant.
That leaves only one standard of comparison: dominance among one’s peers. This is where Hutson proves himself to be the greatest receiver in NFL history.
By the time he retired at the end of the 1945 season, Hutson was the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions (455), receiving yards (7,991) and touchdown catches (99). The second place player in each category, Jim Benton, had 190 receptions, 3,309 yards and 33 touchdowns. Now that is the very definition of dominance.
While his prowess as a receiver is evident, it should be noted that Hutson also played defense and special teams. As a defensive back, Hutson intercepted 30 passes between 1940 and 1945, leading the league in 1940. As a kicker, he led the league in field goals once and extra points three times.
Overall, Hutson led the NFL in scoring five straight seasons from 1941 to 1945, the only player ever to accomplish that feat. His 823 career points made him the NFL’s all-time leading scorer at the time of his retirement.
As the passing game continues to evolve and flourish in 2020, the NFL’s 101st season, it is unlikely there will ever be anyone to match Don Hutson’s dominance.