The Lore of the Best NFL Receivers – Then and Now

Jerry Rice is generally considered to be the greatest receiver in the history of the NFL. Sure. He has all those great numbers that back it up, and he played for what seems like six or seven decades, with great teams and with fabulous quarterbacks throwing to him, and all the hype makes it seem like a clear, unquestioned case for his his being number one. But he isn’t. I’ve been watching football for well over 50 years, and there has never been a

receiver to equal the all time best ever, former San Diego Charger’s flanker, Lance Alworth.

What he did on the football field was never seen before or since (until now?), with one miraculous catch after another. And he needed to make spectacular catches, because he NEVER had a star quarterback throwing to him and almost no ball ever coming his way was ever
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accurately thrown or an “easy” catch.

As to the NFL’s all time best pair of receivers, through the late 1960s, Alworth and Gary Garrison formed the greatest duo ever. This is not a popular or widely recognized pair, with the likes of the Steelers’ John Stallworth and Lynn Swann – the most over-rated player in the annuals of NFL lore – generally the first that comes to mind for most supposed experts, along with pairs like Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, Rice and Terrell Owens, Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison, and Chris Carter and Randy Moss. But I’m not talking raw numbers or championships won, I’m talking ability to get open, catch the ball, and pick up additional yardage, especially when it’s John Hadl or Tobin Rote or Marty Domres or Don Breaux or Steve Tensi or Kay Stephenson throwing to you and not Joe Montana or Steve young or Terry Bradshaw or Peyton Manning or Dan Marino.

For most of Alworth’s career (and Garrison’s), Hadl was his QB, and Hadl’s own numbers more than demonstrate his inaccuracy, especially in key spots. For his career, Hadl completed only 50.4% of his pass attempts, but most revealing about him, and the problems facing Alworth, and Garrison, in getting the ball, was the fact that Hadl threw more interceptions, 268, than touchdown passes, 244 (compare Montana, 273 TDs to 139 interceptions, plus a completion percentage of 63.2%). In Alworth’s final two seasons, Domres started several games for the injured Hadl, and over that period completed 45% of his passes, while throwing two TDs and 14 interceptions (Domres went on to do a bit better as the starter for the then Baltimore Colts for two-plus seasons).

BannerFans.comThis is not to say that Alworth did not have great numbers, but it was a different game then, without the rules’ changes that now protect both the quarterback and the wide receiver that have ballooned passing numbers in the past two decades, and also in Alworth’s years, the NFL played a 14 game season.

Alworth played for the Chargers for nine seasons, 1962-1970, but he only got into four games as a rookie, and missed much of his final season in San Diego due to injuries. But, in those seven full seasons, in 14 game seasons, his numbers were mind-boggling for that era. He gained over a thousand yards receiving in each of those seasons, with a high of 1,602 in 1965, and over the six years of 1963 through 1968, he caught 384 passes while averaging 20.2 yards per reception.

In the four seasons that he and Garrison played together – still 14 game pre-rule change seasons – they averaged a combined 2007 total yards receiving per year and 18.3 yards per catch. Their best season together was 1968, with 2415 yards and a 20.1 average per catch. All that with Hadl and Domres doing the passing.

So, why am I writing about this now? Because, what I am seeing this season in Pittsburgh is the re-writing not just my opinion, but NFL record books. Despite Ben Roethlisberger’s two serious injures and having to deal with the horrid passing of the miserable dog killer michael vick and the inconsistent throws of Landry Jones, the Steeler’s Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant have been pure gold, making miraculous catches, spectacular runs, and putting up absurd numbers, all perhaps never before seen in the NFL.

Bryant has only played in five games, but in that time has caught 22 passes for 440 yards, a 20 yard average, and five touchdowns, while Brown over all ten games has caught 79 passes for 1141 yards, including last week’s outrageous 17 catches for 284 yards, followed up today with 10 more receptions for 139 yards.
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That’s 423 receiving yards over TWO games!

But, like with Alworth and Garrison, it’s NOT the numbers, its their spectacular catches, great runs, and overall amazing play that is so compelling. Brown has been doing this for six seasons now, and is coming off a 2014 season in which he caught 129 passes for 1698 yards, while Bryant has less than a single full season of games over his two NFL years but has averaged 22 yards per reception for his career so far.

A couple of years ago, I said a lot of the same things about the player I thought had become the NFL’s best receiver, the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz, but injuries have derailed his performance since, with him now having now played in only six games over the past two seasons, including none so far this season. Hopefully Bryant and Brown will have long, healthy careers, and if so, there will be no question among fans and those supposed experts, as to the NFL’s best all-tim receiving duo. But for that to happen, they also need a great quarterback throwing to them.

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