Let’s say you’re an NFL wide receiver, and you decide to retire. And when you do you lead the league in career catches and yards receiving, breaking records set by a Hall-of-Famer considered one of the greatest pass catchers of all time.
So what’s next?
Easy. Canton, that’s what. Probably on the first ballot, too. It happened with Jerry Rice, and it happened with Steve Largent. So why hasn’t it happened with Billy Howton?
When the former Green Bay star exited the NFL in 1963 he was its career leader in catches and yards receiving, eclipsing records set years earlier by Hall-of-Famer Don Hutson. I suspect you’ve heard of him. But I also suspect you may not have heard of Billy Howton and how unfortunate.
Because you should. And now you will.
From beginning to end in his 12-year NFL career he made an impact. As a rookie second-round draft pick in 1952, he produced 1,231 yards in receptions, averaged 102.3 yards a game and scored 13 times. His 13 TDs were a rookie record that stood until Gale Sayers – another Hall of Famer – broke it in 1965 and a rookie receiving record until Randy Moss – another Hall of Famer – broke it in 1998.
He caught a franchise-record 257 yards in passes in a 1956 game vs. the Rams, and to put that in context consider this: The Rams led the league that season in yards passing, averaging 202 yards per game – or 55 fewer than Howton had in one afternoon.
That was one of two games where Howton broke 200 yards, the only Packer other than Hutson (he had four) with more than one. In seven years at Green Bay, he led the team in catches six consecutive years, the league in receiving twice and the league in touchdown catches once. Plus, he did all that with a Green Bay team that was as inept as he was magnificent, with the Packers losing over twice as many games as they won (26-56-2) during Howton’s tenure.
In his one season in Cleveland, he led the Browns in catches. In four years with Dallas, he led the Cowboys twice, including a career-best 56 receptions in 1961. He averaged 18.4 yards a catch with Green Bay and finished with 43 career TDs in 80 games there, an average of 8.6 per year in a 16-game season. He also produced 5,581 yards with the Packers, an average of 1,116.2 over 16 games.
I think you get the picture. Billy Howton was special. So why doesn’t anyone outside of Green Bay remember him? The Packers put him in their Hall of Fame in 1974, and you’d think Canton wouldn’t be far behind. But it was.
And it still is.
Howton hasn’t been a semifinalist or finalist for the Hall in his 52 years of eligibility, including this year’s Centennial Class. He should have been a contender for one of the 10 spots reserved for senior inductees, but he wasn’t. In fact, he didn’t even make the first cut to 20.
In short, Billy Howton has been forgotten, and, sorry, after first writing about him three years ago I still don’t get it. So I turned to NFL historians for explanations, and here’s what they said:
-- He wasn’t a dominant player, overshadowed by receivers like Del Shofner, Pete Pihos and Harlon Hill. They point to the dearth of All-Pro designations as evidence. Nevertheless, all believe he deserves Hall-of-Fame consideration, with one giving him a pass to Canton.
-- His teams’ lack of success. He played for only one winner – Cleveland in 1959 when the Browns were 7-5. One problem with that argument: Safety Bobby Dillon was part of those 1950s' Packers ... and he was just elected to the Centennial Class.
-- He didn’t hold career records for long. They were broken by Hall-of-Famer Raymond Berry, who retired after the 1967 season.
-- NFLPA activism. As president of the union, he played a significant role in gaining a pension fund for players – a hot-button issue at the time.
-- He wasn’t part of the Lombardi Packers. More to the point, Lombardi didn’t value him because he liked receivers who could block – an area where Howton fell short. Lombardi traded Howton to Cleveland shortly after taking over the Packers n 1959.
-- He wasn’t chosen to the 1950s’ all-decade team, though ProFootballReference.com has him listed as a second-team pick.
OK, I understand all that. But I also understand we live in an era where numbers matter, and when a guy retires as the all-time leader in catches and yards receiving, breaks Don Hutson’s records, sets a rookie record that stands for over four decades and averages over 18 yards a reception for the first seven years of his career doesn’t he deserve at least a look by the Hall?
I don’t care that he didn’t win a championship. Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Tim Brown and Largent didn’t, either. I don’t care that he wasn’t all-decade. Isaac Bruce is the latest wide receiver to reach Canton, and he missed the cut, too. So Howton led the league in receptions just once. Tell me how many times that happened with Moss, Owens and Largent.
One less, that’s how many.
All I’m saying is that Billy Howton deserves more than he’s gotten from Hall-of-Fame voters. And what he deserves is an audience so that his candidacy … or what’s left of it … can be debated.
There’s a litany of Hall-of-Fame candidates who whine about not being first-ballot choices, but Howton – with credentials from a non-passing era that dwarf many modern-day receivers – hasn’t been a 52nd-ballot choice. Yet nobody’s complaining.
Why? Because he’s on nobody’s radar. Not now. Not ever. And that’s hard to fathom.