When I compiled a story last week on wide receivers deserving of Hall-of-Fame recognition, several readers insisted I include Billy Howton. Now, I remember watching Howton at the end of his career with Dallas, but, frankly, didn’t know much about him until I followed their suggestions and dug a little deeper.
And hallelujah. I’m glad I did.
All you need to know about Billy Howton is that when he retired from the NFL in 1963 he was the NFL’s all-time leading receiver in receptions and yards, eclipsing records held by … uh-huh, Hall-of-Famer Don Hutson.
So stop right there. That’s good enough for me.
Hutson was one of the two or three best receivers of all time, and if someone could eclipse his records he’s deserving of something more than a footnote in a record and fact book.
And Billy Howton is.
As a rookie second-round draft pick with Green Bay, Howton in 1952 produced a league-best 1,231 yards receiving – a staggering 102.6 average per game – and 234 more than runner-up Bud Grant. He also scored 13 touchdowns that season, a rookie mark that lasted until 1965 when it was broken by Gale Sayers and a rookie touchdown reception record that stood until 1998 when it was broken by Randy Moss.
But we’re just getting started, folks.
Howton wasn’t just good. He was a marvelous player on an underwhelming team, with the Packers losing twice as much as they won (26-56-2) in his seven years there.
No problem. That didn’t faze Howton. All he did was lead the team in receptions six straight times and in a 1956 game vs. the Los Angeles Rams pull down a franchise-record 257 yards in passes.
But that was Billy Howton. Eleven times in NFL history receivers produced 1,000 or more yards in a 12-game season (including Hutson in 11 and Wes Chandler in nine during the 1982 strike). Billy Howton did it twice.
He led the league in receiving yards twice. He led in touchdown receptions once. He was among the league’s top five receivers four times. He was among its top 10 eight. He was named to four Pro Bowls and twice chosen first-team All-Pro. He scored 43 touchdowns in 80 games with the Packers, which today would translate to 8.6 scores per season. He produced 5,581 yards, too, which would average … average … 1,116.2 yards in a 16-game season. And he set three franchise records that remain today.
What’s more, he’s the only Packer other than Hutson to produce two 200-plus yardage games.
In later years with Cleveland and Dallas, he would lead the Browns in receiving in his only year there (1960) and lead the expansion Cowboys in catches in two of his three seasons with them – including a career-high 56 in 1961.
When he retired, he not only led the league in catches and yards but finished with 61 touchdowns – only four shy of future Hall-of-Famers Michael Irvin, Bobby Mitchell and Charlie Joiner.
But Howton’s success wasn’t confined to the football field. As president of the NFL Players Association, he played a significant role in gaining a pension fund for players, a hot-button issue at the time. Some people believe it was Howton’s union activities that prompted Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi to trade him when Lombardi assumed control. Others think it had more to do with Lombardi wanting receivers who could block, which was not one of Howton’s strengths.
Whatever it was, it was a disservice to one of the finest wide receivers who wore a Packers’ uniform. In 1974 the Packers acknowledged Howton’s accomplishments by enshrining him in their Hall of Fame, but Canton has never called … and probably never will.
And that’s more than disservice, too. It’s an outrage.
There’s been a lot of indignation lately over the exclusion of Terrell Owens from Canton, but tell me: Where are the outcries over the exclusion of Billy Howton? He broke Don Hutson’s records. He was a league leader, both during single seasons and in career production. And he still holds franchise marks, even though he played over 50 years ago when it was a vertical passing game and defenders actually covered receivers.
Yet he can’t get a sniff from Canton? Something is very, very wrong. Billy Howton deserves more … a lot more … from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.