There are three wide receivers in their first year of Hall-of-Fame eligibility that expect to be among the 15 finalists for the Class of 2022. And that’s understandable – Anquan Boldin, Andre Johnson and Steve Smith all have “the numbers.”
All caught 1,000 passes in their careers, and all surpassed 13,000 yards. Statistically, all three rank among the 15 most prolific pass catchers of all time. Boldin ranks ninth all-time in receptions, Johnson 11th and Smith 12th. Smith ranks eighth all-time in yardage, Johnson 11th and Boldin 14th. Johnson went to seven Pro Bowls, Smith five and Boldin three.
There are 14 wideouts in the Top 15 in receiving yardage and eight of them already have busts in the Hall of Fame. Another, Larry Fitzgerald, is still active and still building his resume. But as a member of the NFL’s 100th anniversary team, his bust in Canton is a foregone conclusion.
So history is on the side of Boldin, Johnson and Smith in their Hall- of-Fame quest.
But history also was supposed to be on the side of three wide receivers from the 1960s – Gary Collins, Boyd Dowler and Del Shofner. They also had “the numbers” on their side for their era. But not one of them has a bust in Canton. In fact, none has even been a Hall-of-Fame finalist for that discussion.
That’s puzzling because all three were selected to the NFL’s all-decade team for the 1960s. Dowler was even chosen for the NFL’s 50th anniversary team. Boldin never made an all-decade team, much less any anniversary team. Neither did Johnson nor Smith.
Now remember, the 1960s and 2000s were different eras of football. Teams played fewer games in the 1960s, and there were far fewer footballs in the air. The NFL was a running league in the 1960s, a passing league in the 2000s.
So Collins, Dowler and Shofner didn’t get the chances to touch the football that Boldin, Johnson and Smith were afforded in their era. Seventy receptions would have led the league in the 1960s. You need to be in the 120s to be in the running for a receiving crown in today’s NFL. Shofner was the only receiver in the NFL with 1,000 yards in catches in a 12-game season in 1958. There were 18 such receivers in a 16-game season in 2020.
“Quantity” of catch is king for receivers now. But “quality” of catch was king for receivers in the 1960s -- what did you do with the football after you caught it?
Dowler caught 474 career passes, Shofner 349, Collins 330 and none amassed more than 7,300 career yards with those receptions. So there is no comparison quantity-wise with Boldin, Johnson and Smith. But there also is no comparison in the quality of catch -- and those numbers all slant in favor of the pass catchers from the 1960s.
Shofner averaged 18.5 yards per catch, Collins 16.0 yards and Dowler 15.3. Smith averaged 14.3 yards per catch, Johnson 13.4 and Boldin 12.8. Collins caught 70 career touchdown passes. So did Johnson. But it took Collins 66 fewer games for his 70 than it took Johnson. Collins scored a touchdown every 4.7 catches, Johnson every 15.1 catches. Shofner scored a TD every 6.8 catches, Boldin every 13.1 catches.
Shofner went to five Pro Bowls. So did Smith. But Shofner collected his Pro Bowls in five fewer seasons (11) than it took Smith to collect his (16). Collins, Dowler and Shofner also spent at least three seasons of their careers as their team’s punter, and Collins even led the league with a 46.7-yard average in 1965. Boldin and Johnson both left the field after third down.
The Hall of Fame loves champions – 66.3 percent of all those in Canton won rings. Collins, Dowler and Shofner were all instrumental on championship-caliber teams. Dowler helped the Green Bay Packers win five titles, Collins helped the Cleveland Browns win one and Shofner played in three consecutive NFL championship games with the New York Giants. Boldin won a ring with the Baltimore Ravens, but Johnson and Smith are ring-less.
Do Boldin, Johnson and Smith deserve discussion for the Hall of Fame? Without question, yes. But so did Collins, Dowler and Shofner … and they never got it. Players should neither be rewarded nor punished for playing in the eras that they did.