State Your Case: Few receivers did more with less than Chicago's Ken Kavanaugh

Clark Judge

Into the never-ending debate of quality vs. quantity enters this week’s Hall-of-Fame nominee, former Chicago Bears’ receiver Ken Kavanaugh.

You may have heard of him. You probably have not, and no problem. Ken Kavanaugh produced only 19 more receptions (162) in his eight years of NFL service than single-season record-holder Marvin Harrison did in one year with the Indianapolis Colts (143).

But that’s where quality meets quantity. Because it wasn’t the number of catches that we’re considering with Ken Kavanugh. It’s what he did with them.

And what he did was score.

Playing on a run-heavy Bears’ team in the 1940s, the 6-foot-3 Kavanaugh was Chicago's long-ball threat, a speed receiver who turned 31 percent of his receptions into touchdowns … and you can look it up. He had 162 career catches, scoring on 50 of them -- with two more TDs via fumble recoveries.

What’s more, he averaged a staggering 22.4 yards per reception.

Kavanaugh was the receiver who caught Sid Luckman’s only touchdown pass in the Bears’ 73-0 defeat of Washington in the 1940 NFL championship game. He scored again the following season, this time on a 42-yard return of a fumble recovery in Chicago’s 37-9 title victory.

But then it was off to World War II, where he served three years with the Army Air Forces as a bomber pilot, flying 30 missions from England and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.

When he returned home, he rejoined the Bears and scored again in their 1946 championship victory – his third straight title game with a TD. One year later, he produced his best season ever, pulling down a career-high 32 catches for 818 yards (a 25.6 yard per-catch average) and a league-best 13 touchdowns.

He also set a Bears’ record with a scoring catch in seven consecutive games.

Kavanaugh was named first-team All-Pro in 1946 and ’47, but his best game occurred in his final NFL season (1950) when he hauled in eight passes for 177 yards and a touchdown.

OK, so that doesn’t sound like much, but this does: He twice led the league in receiving TDs, was a three-time first-team All-Pro, was a three-time NFL champion and was named to the 1940s’ all-decade team. Plus, he remains the Bears’ all-time leader in receiving touchdowns with 50.

But that’s not all. He holds the Bears’ record for highest career-and-single-season yards-per-catch average, and his franchise mark of 13 touchdowns in 1947 hasn’t been bested by a Bears’ receiver since … though Dick Gordon tied it in 1970.

After retiring as a player, Kavanaugh turned to coaching -- working with receivers at Chicago, Boston College and Villanova before joining the New York Giants in 1955. He stayed there 15 years as an assistant, then spent the next 30 as a team scout – focusing on wide receivers and tight ends, like Mark Bavaro.

Granted, Kavanaugh's numbers shrink in comparison to today’s pass catchers. In fact, they shrink in comparison to all receivers who spent eight years in the league.

But this is about quantity vs. quality, remember? Kavanaugh knew how to score, and he knew how to score on a football team that knew how to win NFL championships.

Plus, what should've been three of the best years of his career were spent flying bombing missions in World War II.

While none of that gained the attention of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it did the Professional Football Researchers Association. In 2009, it named Kavanaugh to its Hall of Very Good, and for a valid reason: He was a very good wide receiver on a very good football team.

So now the question: Is Ken Kavanaugh Hall-of-Fame worthy? His low number of career receptions disqualify him from most conversations. But not from this one. Anyone who did as much with his catches as Ken Kavanaugh did with his at least deserves a look. And I’d like to see him get one.

Comments (6)
No. 1-4

Of course this man deserves to be in the HOF! Not only was he a scoring machine, but a hero too! Let me preference this by saying I'm a diehard Vikijngs fan! We live in an era of overinflated numbers! Every catch he made mattered, they weren't 1 yard passes that are essentially running plays!

brian wolf
brian wolf

Great Call Clark...

Kavanaugh, the original 51 number. If I am not mistaken, he has the highest ratio of TDs to receptions in NFL history. He deserves to be in the HOF. Had Kavanaugh played for the Bears in the 1942 game, they would have won three championships in a row. Instead, Sammy Baugh for the Redskins, plays the game of his life.

Clark Judge
Clark Judge


This is an interesting guy and another reason not to put too much stock in hifalutin numbers. He made the most of his catches and he was an important part of a championship team. Very interesting candidate who, sadly, won't get traction. So many of the guys from the 1940s were underappreciated because voters wrote off players during the war years. They were wrong.


I knew Ken Kavanaugh’s name, but not much about him. No question he had an intriguing and unusual career. Clark, you mentioned the remarkable catch-to-TD ratio and high yards per catch, which suggest he was better than he might first appear when looking at the numbers. His honors are pretty good for a WR of the time at 3/2/40s.

Remarkably, most of his career occurred after age 28, including all his best years. And as mentioned, he lost three prime years to WW2. There are examples of BBHoFers who did almost all their best work after the age of 30, notably Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, and Dazzy Vance, but it’s really rare for pro football players.

I can see a argument for him, though my preference would be to get Mac Speedie in first. Still, he’s got a decent case, and better than I realized. Thanks for calling attention to him.

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