The MMQB presents NFL 95, a special project—unveiled every Wednesday from May through July—detailing 95 artifacts that tell the story of the NFL, as the league prepares to enter its 95th season. See the entire series here.
Best wide receiver in NFL history? It’s a no-brainer, right? Like the answer to the question, “Who’s the greatest basketball player ever?’’ Jerry Rice, like Michael Jordan, resides in a class of his own for most fans who've followed football over the past 50 years. But consider this: The wearer of one Superman cape on exhibit at the Hall of Fame didn’t play wide receiver the way we think of it, yet was every bit the difference-maker Rice was for the 49ers. Don Hutson lined up at “offensive end” for the Packers from 1935 to 1945, and when he retired he had three times as many receptions, yards and touchdowns as any other receiver who had played to that point.
This was an age in which a defender could hit a receiver regardless of where he was on the field, whether the ball was in the air or not; receivers were permanently defenseless. Additionally, offensive linemen could only block with closed fists or hands held near their chests, arms waving about like flightless birds. And they were turkeys in more ways than one; the statistically average New York Giants of 1935 managed 20 touchdowns in a 5-5-1 season—less than two per game. The Packers led the league that season with 1,449 passing yards with rookie Hutson—the reigning 100-yard dash champion in the Southeastern Conference—contributing a team-best 420 yards. In 1942, Hutson had 1,211 receiving yards by himself, just over half of Green Bay’s passing offense. That would be like Rice going for 2,400 yards in 1995 (his best season), and not the measly 1,848 he had in reality. Our point: The revolutionary Hutson should be in the conversation for the GOAT at wide receiver.
Photograph courtesy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.