Is Quality Forgotten in the Rush to Enshrine Quantity in Canton?
Receivers forgotten from the 1960s ... and they shouldn't be
There are 12 wide receivers in the NFL’s 1,000-catch club. That would appear to be a magic number for Canton.
Six of the 12 have already been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A seventh, Larry Fitzgerald, looms as a first-ballot choice when he becomes eligible for the Hall in 2026. His 1,432 career catches rank second all-time to Jerry Rice and he already has been named to the NFL’s 100th anniversary team.
That leaves five wideouts in the 1,000-catch club in the queue seemingly waiting their turn for gold jackets: Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, Anquan Boldin and Hines Ward. Boldin ranks ninth all-time in receptions, Wayne 10th, Johnson 11th, Smith 12th and Ward 14th. Smith ranks eighth all-time in yardage, Wayne 10th, Johnson 11th and Boldin 14th and Ward 22nd. Johnson went to seven Pro Bowls, Wayne six, Smith five, Ward four and Boldin three.
So history is on the side of Boldin, Johnson, Smith, Ward and Wayne in their Hall-of-Fame quests.
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 a 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, Smith, Ward or Wayne.
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, Smith, Ward and Wayne 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 26 such receivers in the 17-game season of 2021.
“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, Smith, Ward and Wayne. 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 and Wayne 13.4, Boldin 12.8 and Ward 12.1. 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 Smith in collecting 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, Johnson, Ward and Wayne all left the field after third down.
The Hall of Fame loves champions – 69.1 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.
Hines Ward won two Super Bowl rings and was the MVP in one of those games. Boldin won a ring with the Baltimore Ravens as did Wayne with the Indianapolis Colts. But Johnson and Smith are ring-less.
Do Boldin, Johnson, Smith, Ward and Wayne 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.