Don Hutson: The NFL’s Most Influential Player of All-Time

The NFL has been influenced by an incredible list of athletes throughout the years. The definition of influence is: the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself.

From Jim Thorpe to Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas to Lawrence Taylor, Dick Butkus to Rob Gronkowski, Mel Blount to Dan Marino, or Sammy Baugh to Jerry Rice, certain players have dominated their competition and simply changed the way the game is played.

Maybe they forced a rule to change because of the way they played; maybe they played their position with such brilliance the game would never be the same. Or maybe they influenced the future of their position by showing what it could, or has, become.

The list of transformative greats goes on… Ronnie Lott, Reggie White, Walter Payton, Anthony Munoz, Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Barry Sanders, Deacon Jones, Joe Greene, Brett Favre, Bronco Nagurski, etc. These greats, among others that could have just as easily been named, changed the way people (players, coaches and fans) experienced professional football.

However none of these greats truly influenced the game quite like the unparalleled Don Hutson.

It’s not debatable.

The end that spent his college days as a member of the Alabama Crimson tide would break into the NFL in 1935 and the game would truly never be the same. Not just his position or his franchise, but the league as a whole.

Don Hutson – Public Domain Image

Hutson reshaped what the wide receiver position could be, playing in an era when receivers were referred to as “ends.” From being a position of little relevance, ends running deep routes downfield soon became the new normal in the NFL.

His dominance over the defenses of his era, as well as his peers at end, is unprecedented. In reality, he had no peers.

It is not in question that the city of Green Bay is referred to as Titletown partly because of Hutson’s talents. He helped lead the Packers to three World Championships in his 11 year career, but his contributions to the game of football stretch far beyond championships.

His 105 total career touchdowns are still the most in Packers history. But it’s even more incredible to think about that no other player that played in the 1930s is even in the NFL’s top 250 on the all-time touchdown list.

No player that spent any time in the 1930s even amassed 50 career touchdowns. Read that again.

In fact, only five players that spent time in the NFL in the 1940s scored over 60 career touchdowns. The closest to Hutson in total touchdowns is the San Francisco 49ers’ Joe Perry, with 84 career touchdowns. He played from 1948-1963. Remember, Hutson’s career ended in 1945. Although it should be mentioned that “just” 61 of his touchdowns came in the NFL, while 23 came in the lesser-competition of the AAFC.

Hutson was so far and above his peers it’s almost unimaginable.

To this day he’s ranked 20th all-time in touchdowns in NFL history. Still. For reference, the aforementioned Perry is ranked 51st on the all-time list.

Nine times he led the league in receiving touchdowns, seven times he led the league in receiving yards and eight times he led the league in receptions (including his final season).

For comparison, Jerry Rice led the NFL in receiving yards and touchdowns six times and receptions twice. Yes, those are amazing numbers, but they still pale in comparison to Hutson’s — especially because Hutson only played 11 seasons and retired in the middle of his prime.

“Rice played in an era with tougher competition” is a popular snapback, but Hutson had the burden of transforming the NFL into a league that passed the ball with regularity during his playing days. Rice and other great wide receivers owe their success to Hutson’s transformative success. Quarterbacks that have gained fame through throwing passes deep downfield also owe Hutson quite a bit of thanks.

In fact, many of the routes that Rice used to amass his ridiculous stats were invented and popularized by Hutson himself.

Hutson finished his career with 105 total touchdowns in 116 games, a ratio of 0.905 touchdowns per game. Rice finished his career with 207 touchdowns in 303 games, good for a ratio of 0.68 touchdowns per game (which is also astonishing).

Despite playing in the 1930s and 40s Hutson finished his career with a 16.4 yards per reception mark. For reference, Rice finished his career at a 14.8 yards per reception clip.

One amazing stat is that Hutson was named First Team All-Pro in eight consecutive seasons (in his final eight seasons). That’s good for 72% of his seasons in the NFL. Rice was named First Team All-Pro ten times in an eleven-season stretch, good for 63% of his seasons.

Comparing each of their “best” seasons is a humbling experience. In 1942, in just 11 games, Hutson caught 74 passes for 17 touchdowns and 1211 yards. Rice’s best season was in 1987 when he caught 86 passes good for 22 touchdowns and 1078 yards, in 12 games.

Hutson’s ’42 season, averaged over a 16 game season is 108 receptions, 25 touchdown receptions and 1761 receiving yards.

Rice’s ’87 season, averaged over a 16 game season, is good for 115 receptions, 29 touchdown receptions and 1437 receiving yards.

I think it’s safe to say no wide receiver will ever be so dominant as these two players ever again.

However it’s important to remember that Rice came into a relatively pass-happy NFL, whereas Hutson started it all with his newly-invented pass routes, offensive concepts and blazing speed. Think about the state of the NFL now; quarterbacks throw for 4500 yards in a season with ease. In Hutson’s day, if a quarterback threw for 2000 yards it was an astonishing feat.

Without Hutson starting the passing revolution over eighty years ago, who knows what kind of NFL we would be watching today.

Remember, the definition of influence is: the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself.

There is no player that more adequately fits that definition when it comes to the development pro football than Don Hutson.

Interestingly, Hutson intercepted 30 passes on defense and even threw a touchdown pass. Obviously Rice never had an impact on the 49ers’ defense. It seems as though the player that many thought was too skinny to survive in the NFL could do it all on the football field. But instead of doing what others have done, he decided to do what no one had ever done before.

It’s utterly impossible to quantify Hutson’s impact on the Packers and the league as a whole. Other players have influenced the game of football, no doubt, but not have done it as dramatically as Hutson did from 1935-45. His play influenced, and continues to influence, every team that lines up on Saturdays or Sundays.

Ultimately, Hutson was a prophet and a pioneer that forcibly showed the entire world what the game of football was bound to become.

And today, the game we watch is reminiscent of the game he played before the days of television.

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