Getting across how freakish Don Hutson was in his day is difficult to a typical modern football fan. They’ve been told since Day 1 that Jerry Rice is unquestionably the best receiver of all time, and so their brain cells turn off and they don’t question the notion. And yes, in at least one respect, Jerry was the best of all time, in the sense that no one had as long a productive career. The idea that someone could play at such a high level for 18 of his 20 years at a position that demands athletic excellence is the foundation of the respect that the man has gathered.
However, in any discussion of the best of the best at WR, Don Hutson (see also here and here) has to be in the mix. Back when wide receivers were lucky to get 1 pass a game, he was catching 3 and 4. Back when scoring was difficult, he led the league in scoring 8 times. His YPC is decent but hardly extraordinary. What Don Hutson was — is a ball catching freak, and a scoring freak.
It’s not entirely noticeable in the stats of the day, compared to modern football, because modern football is a more pass oriented game. It has specialists, guys who play one way, instead of two ways, and in particular, someone who specializes in just throwing the ball. It has a more aerodynamic football (see here and here) than the one those guys used to toss (check out Bill Belichick talking about Sammy Baugh, roughly a contemporary of Hutson’s, in NFL Network’s top 100). Passing was just primitive: the league completion percentage was 33.9% the year Don Hutson entered the league. When he left, it had risen to about 45.6%.
Because passing was primitive, the strategies of the day were not to pass until you reached the 40 yard line. Inside the 20, teams would run perhaps one play and then punt.
But in those days, and by the standards of the times, Green Bay was a passing offense. They featured Johnny McNally, a gifted tailback and receiver who scored 11 touchdowns through the air in 1931. Those two did team up effectively in 1935, when the two were clearly the star receivers for the club. But McNally moved on after 1936 and Don stayed put.
1942 is an exceptional year, and the year in which Don put up his best numbers. To note, Green Bay passed 330 times that year, when most clubs were throwing about 220 times. To place Green Bay’s relative passing frequency and success into a modern context, transferring its ratiometric advantages into the year 1995 would create a fictional team that passed 51 times a game and completed 69.8% of its passes. Don would be almost half that passing offense (43% of the catches, 50% of the yards), and he would score almost every fourth time he touched the ball. The resulting numbers would be freakish.
1995 is a good point in comparison. That’s one of Jerry Rice’s best years. The run to pass ratio that year is about 0.79. Green Bay of 1942 — a pretty wide open passing offense – was 1.29. How could we go about embedding the stats of Don Hutson into the year 1995 in such a way that it makes sense? That will be done in a following post.