Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan and Don Hutson.
The four major Amercian sports’ most dominant players of all-time. This should be non-negotionable, despite the fact that almost everyone would emphatically not slot Hutson in with that group.
However, each of these four men really were, statistically, the most dominant players in their sport’s respective history. Their unprecedented individual accomplishments distinguish each of them. Together they comprise the Mount Rushmore of American Professional Sports (in individual dominance and overall impact).
This cannot be debated.
Like the other three, Hutson’s impact on football goes far beyond the numbers. That’s what makes him the NFL’s sole face to be chiseled onto this make-believe mountain. Football wasn’t the same after Hutson, the same can be said of the other three men and their respective sports.
Babe Ruth led MLB in home runs 12 times and won seven rings. He hit 714 home runs and won 94 games as a pitcher. No other player can come close to that in MLB history.
Wayne Gretzky led the NHL in scoring 11 times, won nine MVPs and four rings. No other player will ever come close to his dominance over his peers.
Michael Jordan led the NBA in points per game 10 times, won five MVPs and six rings. He was the best to ever play the game of basketball. Period.
Don Hutson led the NFL in receiving touchdowns nine times, total touchdowns seven times, won two MVPs and three rings.
In all, Don Hutson led the NFL in a major offensive statistical category 33 times, which is seven more times than the next closest NFL player all-time (Jim Brown).
However Jerry Rice is still widely considered the undisputed greatest player in NFL history. Others may say Tom Brady or the afforementioned Brown.
The truth, it seems, has been stolen by loud voices who are unknowingly victim to the moment.
In 2010, the NFL Network released their “Top 100 players of all-time” list. Rice was ranked first and Jim Brown was second. The fans also had Rice ranked first. He was the unanimous top selection.
Don Hutson was found at No. 9 on the experts’ list. He didn’t even make the fans’ vote of the top 100.
This goes to show how ridiculously underrated he is in the general consciousness of NFL fans. It’s a grave mistake.
Why is Babe Ruth still so highly regarded by historians and casual fans? He’s considered, by baseball fans even today, as the best baseball player of all-time (or at least the first true sports GOAT). And his last season as a pro, at age 40, was 1935. That, coincidentally, was Hutson’s first year in the NFL as a 22 year old kid. Yes, Hutson played until 1945 yet he’s apparently considered “too ancient” of a talent to be considered the best ever — unlike the much older Ruth.
The NFL hasn’t done a great job of preserving its history, unlike MLB, which fiercely defends and respects its long-dead heroes. In one-hundred and fifty years Rice will be just a distant memory? Or will the NFL then finally, arbitrarily decide to respect its bygone greats?
Are baseball fans really that much smarter than NFL fans? No, I don’t think so. I just think it’s a matter of there being not even relevant information out there from the game’s early years for football fans to formulate proper opinions.
People don’t fault Babe Ruth for the competition he played against.
Ruth was an elite star as a pitcher and hitter, that is part of his lore, his legend. Don Hutson was, literally, the exact same on the football field. He was an elite star at a wide receiver on offense and a star safety on defense. And Hutson had the burden of having to reinvent the game of football and become a star receiver when there had never been one before.
But still, most people consider Jerry Rice the greatest player in NFL history.
We are here to, at least, open that conversation back up.
Now some people may go with one of a few legendary quarterbacks or even a transcendent defender, but I’d say the legitimate conversation is between Jerry Rice, Jim Brown and Don Hutson.
Many people outside of Wisconsin, even hardcore NFL fans, haven’t heard of Hutson. Some people only know his name and that he was an old-time Green Bay Packer. In fact, he was the best Packer there has ever been.
But this needs to be talked about. Facts matter. Numbers matter. Context matters.
What is funny is when I was doing research for this piece I, half-jokingly, typed “best wide receivers in NFL history” into Google just to see what would pop-up. Hutson was the fourth receiver listed on the screen, but it had his first name messed up. Instead of saying Don or Donald, it said “Desmond” Hutson. It was perfect.
Even Google had his name messed up; the smartest AI algorithm in world history filed him incorrectly. That is the lack of respect this world has for the “Babe Ruth of football.”
Hutson doesn’t get the same (deserved) preferential treatment that Ruth gets when people talk about the older eras and the competition some of the all-time greats played against. Instead, Hutson’s accomplishments are disregarded or ignored because he played before television and people just don’t know any better.
So lets turn to the numbers to tell the real story.
The Most Statistically Dominant Players in NFL History:
Five WRs categories we included: Rec, Rec Yards, Rec TDs, Yards/Rec, Total TDs
Five RBs categories we included: Rush Att, Rush Yards, Rush TDs, Yards/Rush, Total TDs
Five QBs categories we included: Comp %, Pass Yards, Pass TDs, Int %, Rating
This dates back to 1932 as that is the year the NFL began official statistical recording. These players are listed in order by the times they’ve led the NFL in a major statistical category all-time:
1. Don Hutson, WR: 33 times leading NFL.
2. Jim Brown, RB: 26 times leading NFL.
3. Sammy Baugh, QB: 22 times leading NFL.
4. Drew Brees, QB: 18 times leading NFL.
5. Steve Young, QB: 17 times leading NFL.
6. Jerry Rice, WR: 16 times leading NFL.
7. Steve Van Buren, RB: 15 times leading NFL.
8. Emmitt Smith, RB: 14 times leading NFL.
8. Johnny Unitas, QB: 14 times leading NFL.
8. Tom Brady, QB: 14 times leading NFL.
11. Arnie Herber, QB: 13 times leading NFL.
12. Peyton Manning, QB: 12 times leading NFL.
12. Ken Anderson, QB: 12 times leading NFL.
14. OJ Simpson, RB: 11 times leading NFL.
14. Sid Luckman, QB: 11 times leading NFL.
14. Leroy Kelly, RB: 11 times leading NFL.
14. Bart Starr, QB: 11 times leading NFL.
18. Joe Montana, QB: 10 times leading NFL.
18. Sonny Jurgensen, QB: 10 times leading NFL.
20. Raymond Berry, WR: 9 times leading NFL.
20. Dan Marino, QB: 9 times leading NFL.
20. Kurt Warner, QB: 9 times leading NFL.
20. Otto Graham, QB: 9 times leading NFL.
20. John Brodie, QB: 9 times leading NFL.
25. Barry Sanders, RB: 8 times leading NFL.
25. Walter Payton, RB: 8 times leading NFL.
25. Earl Campbell, RB: 8 times leading NFL.
25. Eric Dickerson, RB: 8 times leading NFL.
25. Bill Paschal, RB: 8 times leading NFL.
25. Y.A. Tittle, QB: 8 times leading NFL.
31. Brett Favre, QB: 7 times leading NFL.
31. Dan Fouts, QB: 7 times leading NFL.
31. Ed Danowski, QB: 7 times leading NFL.
31. Adrian Peterson, RB: 7 times leading NFL.
31. Jim Taylor, RB: 7 times leading NFL.
31. Lenny Moore, RB: 7 times leading NFL.
37. Randy Moss, WR: 6 times leading NFL.
37. Sterling Sharpe, WR: 6 times leading NFL.
37. Elroy Hirsch, WR: 6 times leading NFL.
37. Tom Fears, WR: 6 times leading NFL.
37. Pete Pihos, WR: 6 times leading NFL.
37. Harlon Hill, WR: 6 times leading NFL.
37. Warren Wells, WR: 6 times leading NFL.
37. Marshall Faulk, RB: 6 times leading NFL.
37. L. Tomlinson, RB: 6 times leading NFL.
37. Shaun Alexander, RB: 6 times leading NFL.
37. Joe Perry, RB: 6 times leading NFL.
37. Rick Casares, RB: 6 times leading NFL.
37. Cliff Battles, RB: 6 times leading NFL.
37. Arian Foster, RB: 6 times leading NFL.
37. Aaron Rodgers, QB: 6 times leading NFL.
Look at the 51 iconic names on the above list. It’s without a doubt the collection of the best offensive players in NFL history. It’s an elite list to be on; to lead the league at least six times in these stats is obviously quite difficult.
So if the list is truly a collection of the all-time greats and it was created by a simple, concrete and unbiased criteria, then why do people not respect the man in the No. 1 slot?
Have I said this whole thing is mind-numbing yet?
As you can see, (with your own eyes) no player has ever been as statistically dominant as Don Hutson all-time. Jim Brown is second and Jerry Rice is actually ranked sixth. That would shock many NFL fans.
These aren’t stats we’ve twisted and we didn’t pull some obscure accolades to prove our point. Instead, the simple data showed us that there is a massive point yet to be proved to NFL fans the world over.
We just feel like sports fans deserve to know the truth here.
Many players would have been included the above list, or listed higher, if they had spent their entire careers in the NFL.
It should be mentioned that QB Len Dawson led the AFL in a major statistical category 18 times (and the NFL once) and WR Lance Alworth led the AFL 13 total times. Plus, QB Otto Graham (including his AAFC and NFL stats) led his league in a major statistical category 21 times. Joe Perry would have 10 times leading his league if his AAFC stats were included. Mac Speedie led the NFL once in a major statistical category, but would have six such times if his AAFC stats were included). Cookie Gilchrist led the AFL in a major category nine times, Jim Nance led the AFL six times. Tobin Rote also led his league six times including AFL stats.
Graham and Perry still made the NFL list, even with many of their stats coming from the AAFC.
Defensive players are much harder to quantify in terms of statistical dominance because of the variance of defensive stats and poor record keeping prior to the 1980s. That is why we didn’t include any of the defensive greats over the years (and there are many).
“But Rice played in a harder NFL, with more teams!”
Yes, there were less teams in the NFL when Hutson played than when Rice played (around three times less in fact). However looking at Hutson when he led the entire NFL in receptions, receiving touchdowns, receiving yards and yards per reception and then looking at when Rice finished at least the top three in the league in those categories (which makes it a more fair comparison, I suppose) they’re tied:
Rice: 26 times finishing in the top three of the NFL in those statistical categories.
Hutson: 26 times finishing first in the NFL in those statistical categories.
If we included total touchdowns (like we did in the above ranking) Hutson would be up 33 times leading the league and Rice would join him there at 33 times finishing in the top three in those categories.
How fascinating is it that with that filter put on that these two guys are tied at dominating the league all-time statistically. Even granting Rice that allowance, he doesn’t overtake Hutson in statistical dominance. Plus, the way that Hutson dominated the league was on a whole other level than what Rice accomplished.
For example, in 1942, Hutson (in his eighth season) more than doubled the next closest receiver to him in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Rice never did that, obviously.
If you look at Rice’s eighth season he would have needed to amass at least 216 receptions, 2,923 receiving yards and 27 touchdowns to dominate the league the same way that Hutson did.
Narrator: “He didn’t.”
Of course, the counter-point to this would be the league was on a “whole other level” by the time Rice got into the league. But by that logic, shouldn’t a player leading the NFL in receiving categories in today’s NFL be much more impressive than when Rice did in the 1980s?
But that’s a whole other rabbit hole that we will dive deeper into later…
Speaking of that 1942 season, if that was over a 16 game season like when Rice played, his stat line would have been: 108 receptions, 25 touchdown receptions and 1761 receiving yards.
Players from World War II era days aren’t supposed to have stats that look so astonishingly modern in the passing game.
On Monday Night Football on October 7th, 2019 announcer Joe Tessitore announced Jerry Rice as “the greatest wide receiver in NFL history.” A moment later he referred to Jim Brown just as “one of the GOATS” (greatest of all-time).
Why does Jerry Rice get the undisputed “greatest” label in-front of his name?
You could, with confidence, say that Jerry Rice is the greatest wide receiver of the “Super Bowl Era” but to give him the clear-cut “greatest” distinction all-time seems unfair.
Yes, we know that Hutson was an “end” in his day, but we can use common sense when looking at history. He was a wide receiver, dammit. He was the first true wide receiver!
Lets take another look at the most statistically dominant players of all-time when taking the quarterbacks out of the equation. Here’s the top skill position players in NFL history in terms of dominating peers.
1. Don Hutson, WR: 33 times leading NFL.
2. Jim Brown, RB: 26 times leading NFL.
3. Jerry Rice, WR: 16 times leading NFL.
4. Steve Van Buren, RB: 15 times leading NFL.
5. Emmitt Smith, RB: 14 times leading NFL.
6. OJ Simpson, RB: 11 times leading NFL.
6. Leroy Kelly, RB: 11 times leading NFL.
8. Raymond Berry, WR: 9 times leading NFL.
9. Barry Sanders, RB: 8 times leading NFL.
10. Walter Payton, RB: 8 times leading NFL.
10. Earl Campbell, RB: 8 times leading NFL.
10. Eric Dickerson, RB: 8 times leading NFL.
10. Bill Paschal, RB: 8 times leading NFL.
14. Adrian Peterson, RB: 7 times leading NFL.
14. Jim Taylor, RB: 7 times leading NFL.
14. Lenny Moore, RB: 7 times leading NFL.
Just three wide receivers were able to crack through the best ball carriers throughout NFL history to be in the top 15 all-time in statistical dominance. With only two hitting the double-digits in leading the league in a major category.
What’s interesting, upon further inspection, is that Hutson has Rice more than doubled in total times leading the league. The other thing that jumps out is that 13 of the top 16 statistical-leading skill players of all-time are running backs (or running fullbacks). Obviously that position has dominated the league, in terms of individual stars. Even so, Hutson comes in at number one.
It just shows how special of a talent he really was.
So Lets Dive Deeper Into Some More Numbers:
First, it should be established that both receivers had two notable quarterbacks each throwing the ball to them in the prime of their careers. Rice had Joe Montana and Steve Young and Hutson had Arnie Herber and Cecil Isbell. Isbell is the only one of the four not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Career Receiving Yards Per Game:
Rice: 75.6 Yards/Game
Hutson: 68.9 Yards/Game
Career Receptions Per Game:
Rice: 5.1 Rec/Game
Hutson: 4.2 Rec/Game
Rice has the edge in these categories, technically, but just look at how thoroughly modern Hutson’s per-game stats look. He’s only seven yards and one reception behind Rice. This is despite the incredible differences in their eras. Rice played in an NFL that was throwing the ball more and more, unlike Hutson.
For fun, here’s a couple other all-time greats to compare Rice and Hutson with. Larry Fitzgerald (68.9 Yards/Game, 5.54 Rec/Game), Randy Moss (70.1 Yards/Game, 4.5 Rec/Game), Terrell Owens (72.7 Yards/Game, 4.9 Rec/Game) and Marvin Harrison (76.7 Yards/Game, 5.8 Rec/Game).
Notice how all of these guys have played in the last 20 years. That makes Rice doing it in the 1980s and 90s special. And makes Hutson doing it in the 1930s and 40s something different altogether.
For Packers fans, here’s Sterling Sharpe’s numbers: 72.6 Yards/Game, 5.3 Rec/Game.
So, Larry Fitzgerald, for all of his deserved fanfare, is averaging exactly as many receiving yards per game as Hutson did 75 years ago. Even with how much the game has changed!
Seriously. Think about that for a moment.
How can a guy that played all of those decades ago, whose career started during The Great Depression, still be statistically bumping shoulders with these all-time great wide receivers? It’s because he’s the Babe Ruth of football.
OK, moving on to look at Rice and Hutson’s primary quarterbacks.
Their Top Two QBs Passing Yards Per Game:
Joe Montana: 247 Yards/Game
Steve Young: 237 Yards/Game
Arnie Herber and Cecil Isbell: 123 Yards/Game*
*Hutson’s top two quarterbacks combined to throw for 10,600 yards in 86 Games where Herber, Cecil or Herber and Cecil played quarterback during Hutson’s career. That’s roughly 123 Yards/Game. Because of poor record keeping, having multiple quarterbacks start games and other factors, I had to combine their statistics to create a cohesive number for their time as his quarterbacks from 1935-1942.
Meaning, 52% of their passing yards were accumulated by Hutson.
Rice accounted for 34% of Montana’s passing yards and 36% of Young’s overall passing yards.
Hutson takes this one.
Their Top Two QBs Completions Per Game:
Joe Montana: 21.2 Comp/Game
Steve Young: 19.47 Comp/Game
Arnie Herber and Cecil Isbell: 8-12 Comp/Game*
*Best Estimates would say these guys, when they were the primary starter, completed 8 to 12 passes per game, between them (even if both played in the same game). Again, I had to combine their statistics to come to a reasonable conclusion. That means Hutson accounted for roughly (and this is a very conservative estimate) 42% of their total completions.
That easily tops Rice’s 28% of Montana’s total completions and his mark of 32% of Young’s total completions.
Hutson again tops Rice, when percentages are brought into play.
And it really is important to understand the Rice vs. Hutson debate through the lens of proper context. Everyone knows that Rice’s quarterbacks threw way more than Hutson’s. The NFL was different in the 1980s and 90s than it was in the 1930s and 40s — just as it’ll be different in another forty years from now.
That isn’t Hutson’s fault. Just as it isn’t Rice’s fault he got to catch more passes in his career.
What makes the case for Hutson so compelling is looking at how many completions and passing yards Rice’s quarterbacks threw for per game, then looking at how few Hutson’s quarterbacks threw for. Then looking at their career totals for average receptions and receiving yards per game.
Remember, these two receivers were just seven receiving yards and one reception away from each other on a per game basis!
Despite the fact that Montana and Young threw for 242 yards and 20 completions per game and Hutson’s quarterbacks threw for just 123 yards and 11 completions per game.
How can that be?
Look at it this way:
Montana and Young: Combined to throw for 46,182 yards while Rice was their top receiver. He amassed 17,612 receiving yards in those seasons. That’s 38% of their total passing yards while he was their teammate.
That is a pretty remarkable total.
Herber and Isbell: Combined for 7,162 passing yards while Hutson was their top receiving threat. He posted 4,121 yards in those seasons. Good for 57% of their combined passing yards while he was on their team. Interesting, Hutson averaged 57% of completions from both quarterbacks. His production didn’t rise or fall depending on his quarterback, it was very consistent.
As brilliant as Rice was, Hutson was a much bigger part of his team’s passing offense than Rice was of his. That is not debatable, it’s right there in the percentages. And if you’re in the “you can make the numbers say anything!” crowd… well, you can’t make them lie.
Yes, Rice had more total statistics — no one is debating that.
However even after both of Hutson’s notable quarterbacks had moved on, he still led the entire NFL in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns.
Just imagine the attention Hutson must have received from opposing defenses accounting for that high of a percentage of the passing yards every game. Just as Rice was considered a priority for the defense to stop, Hutson would have been the same way. But defenses just simply couldn’t stop him, almost ever. Nearly six out of every 10 completions in Green Bay went to Hutson, whereas “just” four out of every 10 completions went to Rice.
Both are incredible talents, no doubt, but they simply didn’t dominate their own offense with the same vigor. As transcendent as Rice was, Hutson was more impactful on a per pass basis.
Hutson averaged a touchdown reception every five catches, Rice caught one touchdown every 13 receptions.
Lets Look at The Accomplishments of Their Peers:
It’s true that defenses were better when Jerry Rice played. But Don Hutson had to play defense himself, so he couldn’t even solely focus on being a wide receiver like Rice and others.
When Rice retired in 2004 he had 207 touchdowns. Cris Carter, who retired in 2002, finished his career with 131 total touchdowns. That seems like a huge lead over his closest peer right?
Well… here’s a couple points to consider.
From 1992-1994, a three year stretch of Rice’s prime, he was statistically out-performed by Sterling Sharpe in receptions and receiving touchdowns. There was absolutely no time in Hutson’s career where any player came close to consistently outperforming him in any category.
Jim Benton was the only receiver, or “end” of Hutson’s era that was even remotely comparable in terms of production. He retired with 48 career touchdowns. Which could also be referred to as 58 less than Hutson.
If Rice was to achieve the career totals over Carter that Hutson ended up achieving over Benton, percentage wise, he’d have needed to score over 290 touchdowns in his career. Or 83 more than he ended his career with.
And this is a fantastic comparable.
Both Carter and Benton were the second highest scoring receivers of their era. And both were two time First-Team All Pro players (each specifically awarded that at the age 29) and each led the NFL in one of the three major receiving categories exactly four times each.
Both men stood 6’3”, playing at right around 200 pounds and each changed teams twice in their career. It’s uncanny.
These two men are appropriate equals in production and playing style that help us weigh the relative success of the all-time great receivers that understandably overshadowed them.
Just to give a little more context to Hutson’s era:
Bill Hewet was an end on the 1930s All-Decade Team. He scored 26 touchdowns in his career. Wayne Millnar scored 13. Gaynell Tinsley just 8.
Famed runner Bronco Nagurski put up 25 touchdowns in his career. All players mentioned were in that 1930s All-Decade Team.
Remember, Hutson was on that 1930s All-Decade team and he scored 105 touchdowns in his career. He dwarfed his competition in the vain of Ruth or Gretzky.
Hutson’s peers in the 1940s didn’t compare much more favorably.
Previously mentioned Benton, who retired in 1947, made the 1940s All-Decade Team. As did Jack Ferrante, scorer of 31 touchdowns and Ken Kavanaugh, a revelation of a player that amassed 52 career touchdowns.
Other ends on that “team” were the 62 touchdown man Dante Lavelli and the man that bested him by one career touchdown, Pete Pihos. Also named to the squad were Mac Speedie (34 touchdowns) and Ed Sprinkle (10 touchdowns).
Elite runners on the 1940s All-Decade team included Steve Van Buren, who scored 77 career touchdowns and Tony Canadeo (31 touchdowns). Hall of Fame halfback Van Buren would be as close as any player got to Hutson, in terms of touchdowns scored, and he played until 1951 — that much closer to the NFL’s modern era.
So lets say this again:
Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan and Don Hutson.
It’s just a shame that Hutson is the only one of the four whose name isn’t on the tip of all North American sports fans tongues when discussing the best to ever play. All four epitomized the word domination. Stats, impact, individual and team success — they checked every box.
The other three American major sports leagues have a name synonymous with their sport, the NFL doesn’t exactly have that. Rice is close to that, and is that to many, but should he be?
To drive the point home even further, stats that weren’t included in the “five major categories” listed above are receiving yards per game and total yards from scrimmage. Hutson led receiving yards per game eight times and total yards from scrimmage three times. Get this, Hutson was credited with just one fumble in his entire career. Twice he caught the longest pass of the season.
Rice led the NFL in receiving yards per game six times and never led the NFL in total yards from scrimmage. Just once he caught the longest pass in an NFL season.
In his career, he fumbled the ball 27 times, 30 times if you include the postseason. However if you were to ask Packers fans, he fumbled 31 times in the postseason and Terrell Owens should have never been able to catch that ball.
For what it’s worth, Rice was never named the league’s MVP — Hutson twice captured the honor in 1941 and ’42. It wasn’t the AP MVP Award though, instead its predecessor, the Joe. F. Carr Trophy (the consensus league MVP trophy at the time).
Jerry Rice is the all-time touchdown king, sure, we’d concede that obviously. He earned that, no doubt. But he played 187 more NFL games than Hutson! That’s over 11 more seasons than Hutson… Plus, Rice had 15 years of Hall of Fame quarterbacks throwing to him. Hutson had just six such years of that luxury.
If I’m being honest, I think most people consider Rice the undisputed “GOAT” because of his postseason success, with Joe Montana throwing him the ball. He was an absolute stud in the postseason, including the 1988 Super Bowl MVP; no one can take that away from him. His postseason success, including 22 touchdowns, really is the stuff of legend.
Our theory is that many football fans, writers and historians got to literally watch Rice dominate. Therefore he’s their all-time best; it’s human nature to trust what you saw more than what you didn’t.
But that doesn’t make it right.
Some people assume Hutson must not have been that dynamic of an athlete playing in those days. But if you were to ask those he played against, they’d say he was faster than them. He was stronger. His hands were the best they’d ever seen. His brain rethought the game of football, for the betterment of everyone, players and fans.
There are grainy highlights, if you look hard enough for them, that show Hutson outrunning opponents, making one-handed catches, breaking tackles, racing toward the pylon (flag at that time) and aggressively high-pointing the ball like a modern receiver with regularity.
Hutson was more dominant of an athlete against his competition than Rice was against his. This is evidenced by the truth that Don Hutson had a much higher career touchdowns per game rate than Rice.
Look at the facts:
NFL Touchdowns Per Game All-Time:
Jim Brown: 1.067 TDs/Game
Don Hutson: 0.905 TDs/Game
Gale Sayers: 0.823 TDs/Game
Emmitt Smith: 0.774 TDs/Game
Jerry Rice: 0.686 TDs/Game
Now people will say, “But Hutson retired at the age of 32 and Rice kept playing, so of course his average would go down.”
To that I show you this fact, because context matters:
Rice’s first 116 games: 0.879 TDs/Game
(102 TDs in his first 116 career games)
Reminder that Hutson had 105 touchdowns in his first, and only for that matter, 116 NFL games. That’s good for 0.905 TDs/Game. So if you compare them down to the game, Hutson still comes away with a higher raw total and average.
Who would have guessed that?
But ultimately this isn’t even really a debate between Hutson and Rice, it’s more so a debate between Don Hutson and Jim Brown in our opinion. Because Brown is the only player with a higher touchdowns per game rate all-time.
Brown is the only player in NFL history to dominate his competition with the same treacherousness of Hutson. His stat-sheet speaks for itself. On top of Brown’s rushing ability, he caught 20 touchdowns and even threw three. He’s the most dominant running back in NFL history, no doubt.
Both Hutson and Brown were named First-Team All Pro an incredible eight times. Rice was named First-Team All Pro tens times in his career, but he played more than twice as many career games as each of those two greats.
However Hutson’s career mark of 16.4 yards per reception is higher than Rice’s 14.8 yards per reception, despite playing forty years before him.
In case you were wondering, each of the receivers led the NFL in yards per touch three times.
Playing On Both Sides of the Ball:
Ultimately, it’s Don Hutson’s 30 official career interceptions that put him over the top as the undisputed most statistically dominant player in NFL history. There’s nothing like that in Jim Brown’s professional career to compare to playing on the other side of the ball (because he simply never played defense). The same can be said of Jerry Rice, at no fault of his own.
Hutson and Brown played in slightly different eras, yes, as their NFL careers were separated by 12 seasons. But you just can’t take those defensive accomplishments away from Hutson.
And get this: At the time of his retirement, Hutson’s 30 official interceptions were the second most in NFL history.
Talk about statistically dominant.
In the very first year that interceptions were officially counted for defenders, he led the league. This is where Hutson, technically, gets his 34th time leading the NFL in a major statistical category.
What’s fascinating is that it is possible that Hutson was actually the NFL’s true all-time leader in interceptions at the time of his retirement. The NFL didn’t start counting interceptions as an official stat for defenders until 1940. That means Hutson’s fist six seasons weren’t included, despite him playing both ways in those years (playing multiple positions on defense for the first few years of his professional career).
He averaged five interceptions per season when they were counted, which technically puts him on pace for 50 career interceptions. But of course we can’t know for sure.
Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, a fellow two-way star and the player that had one more (official) interception than Hutson at the time of Hutson’s retirement, only missed out on three seasons because of this lack of record keeping. Baugh’s career began in 1937.
I’d take the bet that says Hutson recorded more interceptions in his first six seasons than Baugh did in his first three seasons. But again, we can never really know.
And again, Hutson and Brown only missed playing against each other by 12 years. That’s less time passed than what passed between Dan Marino and Russell Wilson playing in the NFL.
That’s not that much time, people.
Statistically, the best quarterback of Hutson’s era was Sammy Baugh, by a wide margin. Despite this, Hugh Taylor, Baugh’s top undisputed receiving target caught “just” 58 touchdowns in his career. His 58 touchdowns were just a touch below Hutson’s 105 total scores.
And many people want to act like Hutson played a thousand years ago, but he had teammates that played in the NFL at the same time with men like Frank Gifford. A guy who played, and dominated, throughout the 1950s and well into the 1960s.
History isn’t as far back as most would like to think. It’s connected and shouldn’t be disregarded.
Don’t be a victim to the moment:
In 2080 will people not respect Jerry Rice’s accomplishments? Will his dominance all of a sudden not matter? Much like most people in 2019 seem to discredit Hutson’s accomplishments?
I’d venture to say that people who believe Rice’s accomplishments do matter, would say they should still matter in 2080, too. And that’s the point here! Hutson’s accomplishments do matter now, just as Rice’s dominance over his peers should still matter in 2080. And they should still matter later.
NFL history is fluid, its varied, but we can’t prioritize some eras over others because then, over time, the essence of its history will fade away. The older eras will always be forgotten if you let them.
Major League Baseball understands this. They respect their history, despite how the game changes. The Babe Ruth of 1930 is still Babe Ruth today in the minds of fans.
The National Hockey League today looks nothing like it did in the high-flying 1980s. The goalies that Gretzky faced aren’t half of the athletes that are in net today and they wore basically half the pads. However people don’t discredit Gretzky’s insane numbers. They still understand that he dominated the guys that he lined up against better than anyone.
Michael Jordan’s raw numbers may continue to be surpassed as the years pass, but people surely won’t forget about his legacy, his per-game dominance. That is the type of respect that Don Hutson deserves. His per-game dominance, per-year dominance has yet to be surpassed.
Not even by Jerry Rice, who surely is one of the all-time greatest players in NFL history.
This entire piece isn’t meant to be a shot at Rice either. He was one of my favorite players in all of sports growing up. He was a transcendent talent. But, facts matter. Numbers matter.
And you know what, maybe Sammy Baugh needs some more all-time respect. Look at his No. 3 ranking on the statistical dominance list above and his 31 official career interceptions as a defender. He, like Hutson and Ruth, were two-way superstars. They’re two of the most important figures in NFL history, despite their lack of respect. They both helped modernize the game of football.
Still, Hutson was more transcendent than Baugh.
I mean, Hutson kicked extra points throughout his career (going 172 for 183) and made seven field goals. Once leading the NFL in made field goals and three times leading the NFL in made extra points. He even scored via a safety.
Hutson threw one touchdown, ran for three, and ran one interception back for a score. The record books indicate he scored two other touchdowns as well, likely as blocked kicks ran back for scores.
This, on top of his 99 receiving touchdowns, a record that stood for four decades, despite the game becoming more aerial by the year.
When he retired, he had more than double the career receptions of the next closest receiver all-time. And he retired at the age of 32 following a season in which he led he NFL in receptions. Hutson could have kept adding to his numbers for years.
Most. Dominant. Statistical. Player. In. Football. History.
Hutson was the first receiver in NFL history to lead the league in receiving yards in back-to-back years (1938-39). He also did so before any quarterback ever led in passing yards or running back ever led in rushing yards in back-to-back seasons.
He was the original, statistical, superstar.
Hutson was the first receiver (and only, to this day) to lead the NFL in receiving yards four years in a row, something he did 1941-44. In fact, only one other receiver has ever led the league in receiving yards three years in a row — Jerry Rice from 1993-95.
No player has ever led the league in rushing four years in a row. The only other players to lead the NFL in rushing yards three years in a row are Jim Brown (1957-59), Earl Campbell (1978-1979) and Emmitt Smith (1991-1993).
The only quarterbacks to lead the NFL in passing yards three years in a row all-time are Dan Fouts (1979-1982), Dan Marino (1984-1986) and Drew Brees (2014-2016). Fouts joining Hutson as the only player to lead his position in yardage four years in a row.
Why is Hutson the least known name of those eight Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees by the average NFL fan? Seriously, why?
And if you don’t think leading the league in major statistical categories is important, observe the fact that every player that’s led the league in three straight years is in The Hall.
The Sporting News, in 1999, ranked Jim Brown the best NFL player of all-time. They had Jerry Rice second and Don Hutson sixth. But again, NFL fans just don’t have an intuitive understanding of Hutson’s place in history. We aim to change that.
But we know it won’t be an easy sell. We know this piece has to be read with an open mind, with an understanding that nuance and context matters.
In October of 2019, USAToday.com released their all-time top 100 players in NFL history list. They used 19 NFL reporters to assemble their list.
Their top choice for best player in NFL history? Jerry Rice.
Tom Brady was second, Lawrence Taylor was third and Jim Brown came in fourth. That’s not a bad start for a top five, except for one notable omission.
Where did they rank Don Hutson?
He was 25th on the list. He was one spot behind Randy Moss (24th) who was the second-highest ranked wide receiver on the list. Now how come Jim Brown’s dominance over his peers is so unanimously respected? Why is Jerry Rice first on nearly every list?
Is it simply reputation now and a fear of going against what was once widely accepted? Are people, experts and fans afraid of being ridiculed for putting anyone ahead of Rice, Brady or Brown?
It’s like they say, the camel is a horse designed by a committee.
Most people don’t use hard numbers to come to conclusions, they go with their gut feelings or worse, with the herd.
Remember, Hutson led the NFL in major offensive statistical area 33 times. Go back to the above all-time list; Brown (26 times), Rice (16 times), Brady (14 times), Randy Moss (6 times). What is the disconnect here other than not respecting the era Hutson played in?
That has to be it, right?
If that’s your argument, go for it! Just say it. But don’t say you respect the whole of NFL football if that’s your argument. Shoot, the NFL had existed for 25 years by the time Hutson had retired!
That’s 25% of league history as of 2019, folks. People are celebrating #NFL100 this year, the NFL’s centennial season. Why then ignore the first 25 years? Why not just celebrate the #NFL75 as in the 75 years, or even less, that the average person actually cares about? Journalists and respected outlets are supposed to be better than that.
The NFL’s history is more than just the Super Bowl Era. Okay, rant over.
Now we understand that saying Hutson is the “best” player ever in NFL history is a bit more of a subjective claim. Most dominant player ever? Duh, we’ve gone over that. Most influential player? Oh yeah, we’d argue that for sure.
Best? I guess that’s up to every individual… but the purpose of this article is to, at least, make sure his damn name is included in the conversation.
Listen, Hutson led the league in either receptions or touchdown receptions in every season he played in the NFL. That’s 11 consecutive seasons.
Given those same parameters, the longest streak Rice put together was three years. In fact, despite Rice’s 21 year career, he led the league in at least one major statistical category in nine different seasons — less than Hutson despite double the career length.
Simply Look at Their Respective Impacts on the NFL:
Serious question: Was the game of football forever, radically changed as a result of Jerry Rice’s career? Did the game change by the time of his retirement?
We know the answer to those questions regarding Don Hutson.
Football was forever changed because of his downfield philosophy and success; many of the routes still ran in the NFL today were invented by him (including routes ran by Rice).
How can you value that type of impact? You just have to acknowledge it and respect it. That is what makes Hutson the “Babe Ruth of Football” over Rice, or anyone else.
How’s this for impact? Green Bay, Wisconsin likely wouldn’t be known as Titletown, USA without Hutson’s contributions.
Hutson was a member of the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963; he was simply iconic. If you asked someone that watched the first fifty years of football who was the best player ever, odds are they’d say Hutson.
But listen, we certainly aren’t saying that Hutson is a “better athlete” than Rice. No way. In the same way we wouldn’t say that Babe Ruth was a better athlete than Mike Trout. Because that’s not true. We are just saying their level of dominance, relative to peers, is greater.
Even so, football wasn’t drastically different after Rice.
Because of that logic, if you asked us, we do have Don Hutson, at least, one slot above Jerry Rice in the all-time ranking of NFL players. Does that place him No. 1? Well, I suppose that’s up to everyone’s interpretation.
There will always be debates as to who is the best and that’s what makes sports great. It’s just, the debates are much better when the facts, and all of the facts, are accurately presented.
So debate on, sports fans.
Gretzky or Mario Lemieux? What about Bobby Orr? Ruth or Barry Bonds? How about Willie Mays? Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain? Have you seen Lebron James? Hutson and Rice or Jim Brown? Tom Brady? Hell, Sammy Baugh? The arguments will rage on forever.
However, Hutson is–definitively–the most statistically dominant player in NFL history. There is no debate there.
So far, that is.
And if Hutson was better statistically and helped reinvent the game of football — shoot, lets face it, he gets our vote for No. 1 NFL player of all-time if one has to be chosen. We aren’t alone in this opinion either. Peter King, renowned NFL columnist and personality, shares this opinon.
So we’ll say it one more time to our fellow intellectually-nuanced sports fans (and you certainly are if you read this entire nearly 7,000 word, numerically-driven piece).
With one man per league represented, your all-time North American major sports’ Mount Rushmore:
Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan and Don Hutson.
With all due respect to all involved, stop with the statistical analysis. Most of the NFL petsonnel were away fighting WWII when Hutson had his best years. Please.
Wow, that was one of the longest articles i ever didn’t read. My eyes glazed over about a quarter of the way through, after they beat the dead horse again and again and again with the same lame argument about number of categories leading the league equating to statistical dominance, and I had to stop. Apparently though, Hutson led the league in a lot of passing categories in an era when most teams didn’t pass much. Hutson caught a greater % of passes from his quarterbacks than Rice did in an era when the teams usually passed to only one or two ends and didn’t pass at all to running backs or tight ends or three receiver sets. It may well be that Hutson was the greatest player ever in any sport, but this article was tediously lame. Try concision, it works.
I hear you, I really do. But to be fair to the truth… Hutson did lead the NFL in TD receptions in six separate seasons before the United States started fighting in WWII. Only 1/3 of his career occurred during the years the United States, and subsequently some football players, were legitimately engaged in the war. It’s arguable that at least three of his five most dominant seasons came before the war, too. But I get where you’re coming from. Thanks for reading!