Russ Francis was once called “the world’s greatest tight end” by the voice that made Monday Night Football must-watch television. But was Howard Cosell right about Russ Francis?
Certainly by today’s standards, Francis’ numbers might argue otherwise. In a 13-year NFL career he caught 393 passes for 5,262 yards and 40 touchdowns. Those numbers were superior production in his day, but pale in comparison to those of Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten or Antonio Gates of today’s game.
But if one looks deeper into Francis’ career between 1975 and 1988 those numbers tell a different story.
Russ Francis had more catches for more yardage than Hall-of-Fame tight ends Dave Casper, John Mackey and Charlie Sanders and more touchdown receptions than both Mackey and Sanders. Of his Hall-of-Fame worthy peers — which would be tight ends who played when they were blocking as much, or more, as running pass routes — only Mike Ditka was statistically superior (427 receptions, 5,812 yards, 43 touchdowns).
Maybe, then, Russ Francis wasn’t “the world’s greatest tight end,” as Cosell proclaimed on Sept. 26, 1976, after a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers when Francis collected 139 receiving yards, including a 38-yard touchdown catch from Patriots’ quarterback Steve Grogan on a 4th-and-2 play. But he surely was among the greatest of his era.
How else should a man be judged?
Factor in another statistic — rushing yards — and Francis’ production during his first six years with the New England Patriots from 1975-1980, and those numbers are even more impressive. After he first arrived in New England as a rookie, the Patriots were one of the league’s most prolific running teams, finishing second in 1976 and setting an all-time NFL single-season record of 3,165 rushing yards in 1978 that stll stands. This was not a team flinging the football around the field.
Yet despite the Patriots’ penchant for running the ball, Francis averaged 15.3 yards per catch during his seven years in New England (1975-1980, 1987-1988), including 18.2 yards per reception in his rookie season when he caught 35 passes for 636 yards and began to redefine the position itself.
But Francis was also a powerful blocker, as was required not only to succeed in New England but also to play in the Bill Walsh-offense of the 49ers. He arrived there in 1982 after a contract dispute with the Patriots.
A free spirit throughout his career, Francis declined to play his senior season at Oregon because it didn’t interest him, choosing to wrestle instead. Yet he still became the Patriots’ No. 1 pick in 1975 and the 16th selection overall.
Not surprisingly, Francis came to pro football via a circuitous route. Born in Hawaii, he moved to Oregon at the urging of his mother to live on a ranch as a replacement for an older brother. While there he started throwing the javelin and set a national high-school record of 259 feet, nine inches that stood for 17 years.
That feat and others landed him a track scholarship to Oregon and, while there, he began playing football. Having decided to skip his senior season after starting at tight end as a junior, Francis always claimed that when his older brother told him he’d been drafted in 1975, he thought he meant he’d been drafted by the Army.
A sky diver, surfer, private pilot and adventurer, Francis never fit the mold of NFL lifer, despite his long career. He always was his own man in a league that tended even then to find such a free thinker troubling. So it was no real surprise when he announced his retirement after the 1980 season when the Patriots refused to pay him a bonus for making the Pro Bowl, claiming that a motorcycle accident that prevented him from actually appearing in the game voided their obligation.
Angry over the slight and upset after his roommate, Darryl Stingley, was left paralyzed by a hit from the Raiders’ Jack Tatum, Francis went to work as a broadcaster for ABC at the urging of Cosell.
That cost him the 1981 season in the prime of his career. Had he played that year, Francis’ career numbers very likely would have also eclipsed those of Ditka. During that lost year, Francis worked on Monday Night Football and at the Sumer Olympics. He also ended up interviewing then 49ers’ head coach Bill Walsh at the Pro Bowl for ABC. It was there that Walsh urged him to come out of retirement.
“Bill said, ‘This is the only time in your life that you’ll be able to do this,’ ” Francis once recalled. ” ‘Your time is very narrow and all of the guys on this team are the best at what they do. That means you get better every day instead of every week. If you want to find out how good you can be then you need to come play with us.’ ”
Before the 1982 season, Walsh acquired Francis’ rights via a trade for a second-round pick that would be transformed into Hall-of-Fame linebacker Andre Tippett. Considering that Francis helped the 49ers win Super Bowl XIX with five catches for 60 yards vs. the Miami Dolphins, it was a trade that helped both teams.
Already a three-time All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection, Francis was a six-year starter in San Francisco before he returned to New England to finish the final two years of his career. Was it one that was Hall-of-Fame worthy? Well, if you were statistically superior to three of your Hall-of-Fame peers and nearly the equal of another in Ditka, whom many consider one of the two or three greatest tight ends of all-time, your case would seem to be a strong one that has yet to be argued in front of the Hall’s selection committee.
Does Russ Francis care about that? Probably not. Now living in Cody, Wyo., and working as a radio host, Francis remains the freest of spirits, as open to new experiences today as he was when running free amidst NFL defenses that could barely contain him. He’s still flying, sky diving and looking for his latest adventure. If that ever leads him to an induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio, don’t be surprised if he parachutes onto the podium.