Larry Rankin is a sports analyst with an especially strong penchant for statistical breakdowns.
Have you ever wondered which NFL receiver finished a single season with 1,000 yards or more on the fewest receptions? Probably not, but if you’re a sports fan (now that the concept has been brought to your attention) you probably want to know anyway, and you want to know now! So with little ado, I present all of the NFL receivers to finish with 1,000+ yards and 50 or fewer catches.
1. Elbert Dubenion
2. Roger Carr
3. Flipper Anderson
7. Harlon Hill
11. Cliff Branch
13. Warren Wells
18. Wesley Walker
19. Homer Jones
23. Bill Gorman
The Stat Whisperer
By now you’re probably saying to yourself, "I’m so glad that I know this thing I didn’t even know I wanted to know earlier." It's likely that you are not even reading the remainder of this article because for the statistics junkie, the numbers are all that's needed. On the off chance that you are still reading this, I ask you a question: Why did you need to know this thing?
I offer the following hypothesis to the query: for most of us sports fans, our love of sports eventually breeds an obsession with statistics. When we see a stat, it is not uncommon that we wonder, "Well that’s a solid season, but who’s the best, who’s the worst, etc." Over our lifetimes, we develop the ability to read the statistics like another might read a book. For example, we see a running back’s career stats. We see that he played 8 seasons and averaged 5 yards a carry. He has a relatively low number of carries for his era. For the untrained eye, this doesn’t mean much. For the stat-centric sports fanatic, it is like forensics to a detective.
We scratch our chin and think to ourselves, "This running back was probably fast and/or quick. This explains the high average per carry. He was probably small and/or slight. He may have had durability/injury problems or perhaps he was called upon to perform a number of other duties, such as punt and kick returner. This explains the low number of carries." And more likely than not, this sports profiler would be correct. Unlike balancing our checkbooks, examining these sorts of numbers is fun, even relaxing. It keeps our minds active.
Overall NFL Trends
So what do the receiver stats in the table say to us? The answer is many things. Let’s start with the overall NFL trends that we can see reflected in the information. First, you’ll probably notice how seldom a 50 catch or fewer 1,000 yards receiving season occurs in the modern era. One player, DeSean Jackson, has accomplished the feat in the ongoing 2010-2019 decade, no player did so in the 2000-2009 decade, and only one player, Michael Haynes, broke the barrier in the 90s.
But as we move farther back, 20+ yards a catch becomes a fairly regular phenomenon, happening 4 times in the 80s, a whopping 8 times in the 90s, and peaking out at an astounding 9 times in the 60s. Then we see such numbers decrease in the 50s and 40s.
So how do these statistics reflect on the overall climate of the NFL? Well, in the 40s and 50s, the NFL was still a grind-it-out kind of a league. This was somewhat necessitated by the rules, with penalties like pass interference rarely being called. The main mentality was that when the ball went up in the air, something bad, like an interception, was very likely, so why not just keep the ball on the ground and control the clock. But perhaps the biggest factor keeping players during the 40s and 50s from going over the 1,000-yard mark on 50 or fewer catches was simply the number of regular-season games played: 12.
In the 60s we had the addition of 2 games, bringing us to 14, and then in 1978, we had the addition of 2 more games, bringing us to our modern total of 16. Compounded with other factors, this gave us a perfect storm for the 20+ yards a catch receiver.
While teams predominantly still didn’t pass a lot, especially by today’s standards, the passing game was burgeoning as a viable way to move the ball down the field. For instance, we may run the ball 70+% of the time, but on the occasion we choose to run a play-action pass, we very likely would find a wide-open receiver sprinting down the field. This explains why both the average per catch is so high in this era and the TD per reception ratio.
In the 80s, the number of 1000-yard receivers with 50 or fewer catches dropped, in part because we now had 16 games. As a result, players that were making 40-50 catches a season before were making 55-65 catches. But the larger factor was probable that teams really began passing the ball as a primary form of offense, perhaps because pass defending rules were gradually becoming so pro-offense.
As a result of passing often, averages per reception go down. If you throw the ball 30-40 times a game, you can’t run many homerun routes and expect to have success. Instead, you run a number of short outs, screens, and short crossing patterns. Average yards per reception goes down and receptions go up. In addition, player rosters became very limited in comparison to NFL squads of old. The players on the roster today are on the field more often, making more catches. As a result, it makes it very unlikely that any player would go over 1,000 yards on 50 catches or fewer.
Does this mean the 20+ yard reception player will go the way of the dodo? Well, no. There will always be DeSean Jacksons to buck the odds, and like in all things, everything that is old eventually becomes new again, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a new era of low reception, high yardage receivers.
Anatomy of a High Flyer
We’ve discussed what sort of environment makes the high-flying receiver possible, but we haven’t yet explored what sort of receiver is able to get 1,000 yards on relatively few receptions. Circumstances would dictate that such a player would be fast, which the research I’ve done indicates.
Also, height is beneficial. A receiver who is tall and streaking down the field gives the quarterback a larger margin of error. Again, the data plays out with few anomalies. Most of the receivers are 6 feet or taller, with none under 5’ 10’’. In reference to the heights of the players and their perspective era, DeSean Jackson, at 5’10”, is probably the biggest anomaly.
These players tend to be light by NFL standards. Many are less than 180 lbs. This is probably due to two factors: light players can often run faster and heavier players would likely be more physical and perhaps serve their teams better as possession receivers rather than home run threats. The obvious exception to the rule on this list is Cloyce Box. At 220 lbs and playing in the 1950s, he was heavier than a good number of the players in the league.
Most of the players on this list achieved 50 or fewer catches for over 1,000 yards early in their careers, and if they were among the few able to repeat the feat, did so in seasons of close succession. This is probably due to the fleeting nature of physical speed. One who is elite in speed usually has a short window. In addition, the receivers who didn’t transform into possession receivers later in their careers tended to fizzle out and leave the league. The most glaring exceptions to this tendency are Wesley Walker, who had two seasons with fewer than 50 receptions and over 1,000 yards that occurred 8 seasons apart, and Harold Jackson, who didn’t accomplish the feat until his 12th season in the league.
In soul first of our highflyer list is Elbert Dubenion, who in 1964 finished the season with only 42 catches for over 1100 yards for the then AFL Buffalo Bills. Averaging 27.1 yards per catch, he would have needed only 37 receptions to break the 1000-yard threshold. At 5’11’’ and 187 lbs, Dubenion is a bit shorter and stockier than many on our list.
Often called “Duby” or “Golden Wheels” by fans and teammates, Dubenion had several good seasons in his 9 years with the Bills. For the era, he amassed stellar career totals: 294 catches for 5294 yards at 18 yards a catch for 35 touchdowns, but his 1964 season (Dubenion’s 5th in the league), with 42 receptions for 1,139, was by far his most outstanding. His career-high 10 touchdown catches that year gave him an amazing 1 touchdown to 4.2 receptions ratio
With exception of the 1964 season, Dubenion never averaged over 20 yards a catch again. After the 1964 campaign, he became more of a possession receiver, averaging between 14-15 yards a catch.
Homer Jones: There are four players to have accomplished the feat of fewer than 50 catches for 1,000+ yards in a season on multiple occasions, only one of whom did so 3 times: Homer Jones. It is no wonder, then, that Jones ranks 1st in yards per catch among all receivers who have caught more than 200 balls in their career.
Jones spent 6 of his 7 years in the league with the New York Giants. His totals of 224 catches for 4,986 yards at 22.3 yards a catch and 36 touchdowns tell the story of a Hall of Fame caliber receiver whose career was cut short by injury. At 6’2” and 215 lbs, Jones was a large, athletic target who weighed in better than many of the athletes of his time. His three seasons of less than 50 catches for 1,000 yards occurred back to back to back in his 3rd, 4th, and 5th seasons (1966: 48 REC, 1044 YDS, 21.8 YPC, 8TDs; 1967: 49 REC, 1209 YDS, 24.7 YPC, 13 TDs; 1968: 45 REC, 1057 YDS, 23.5 YPC, 7 TDs).
Jones’ best season by far came in 1967 when he went over the 1200-yard mark and averaged a touchdown for every 3.8 catches.
Harlon Hill: At 6’3” and 199 lbs, Hill was a dominant receiver in the early 50s. Hill spent the majority of his career with the Chicago Bears, and he made an impression early, winning rookie of the year in 1954. Sadly, despite the promise of Hill’s first 3 seasons, he would spend most of his career injured, severely hindering his effectiveness.
Despite only playing 12 game seasons in a predominantly grind-it-out league, Hill was able to achieve 1,000 yards on fewer than 50 catches twice in his rookie and third-year campaigns (1954: 45 REC, 1124 YDS, 25.0 YPC, 12 TDs; 1956: 47 REC, 1128 YDS, 24.0 YPC, 11 TDs).
Stanley Morgan: Morgan was a dominant receiver for many years, most with the New England Patriots, and arguably should be in the Hall of Fame, especially considering he played in an era (late 70s to 1990) in which 10,000 yards in a career meant more. At 5’11” and 181 lbs, Morgan was light and fast, and though he averaged well over 20 yards a catch early in his career, in his 14 years in the league he would evolve into more of a possession receiver later on.
Morgan’s best season in the NFL came in 1986 when he had 84 catches for 1491 yards, a 17.8 yard per catch average, and 10 touchdowns, but in reference to our topic, he would have less than 50 catches for over 1,000 yards twice (1979: 44 REC, 1002 YDS, 22.8 YPC, 12 TDs; 1981: 44 REC, 1029 YDS, 6 TDs). He would just miss out on accomplishing the feat a third time in 1980 with 45 catches for 991 yards. In addition, Morgan’s 1 TD per 3.7 receptions in 1979 is certainly of note. In all, Morgan finished his career with 552 catches for 10,716 yards and 19.2 yards per catch with 72 touchdowns.
Wesley Walker: Walker spent his entire 13-year career with the New York Jets from 1977-1989. At 6’0” and 179 lbs, Walker was lithe and remarkably fast and his statistics bear a result that is certainly unusual. Whereas most everyone on our list accomplished the feat of 50 or fewer catches for over 1000 yards early in their career, Walker accomplished the feat in his 2nd season in the NFL and then again 8 years later(1978: 48 REC, 1169 YDS, 24.4 YPC, 8 TDs; 1986: 49 REC, 1016 YDS, 20.7 YPC, 12 TDs).
Walker’s stats tell the story of a player who was capable of being what his team needed. At times he was more of a possession receiver and at others, he was more of a homerun threat. He managed to compile a significant career over his 13 seasons with 438 receptions for 8306 yards, a 19.0-yard catch average, and 71 touchdowns, despite being legally blind in one eye.
Stanley Morgan and Harold Jackson are the only two players to accomplish the feat of 1000+ yards on fewer than 50 catches in the same year (1979) on the same team (Stanley Morgan: 44 REC, 1002 YDS, 22.8 YPC, 12 TDs; Harold Jackson: 45 REC, 1013 YDS, 22.5 YPC, 7 TDS). Both players careers encompassed roughly the same era, 70-80s, and both players ended their careers with over 10,000 yards. Neither is in the Hall of Fame.
Bill Gorman of the Houston Oilers averaged 1 touchdown per 2.9 catches in 1961 (50 REC, 1175 YDS, 23.5 YPC, 17 TDs)
DeSean Jackson became the 1st player in over 2 decades to record less than 50 catches for over 1,000 yards in 2010 (47 REC, 1,056 YDS, 22.5 YPC, 6 TDs).
Lance Alworth had perhaps the most significant 20+ yards per catch season ever. In 1965 for the San Diego Chargers over the course of only 14 games, Alworth caught 69 passes for 1602 yards, a 23.2-yard average, and 14 touchdowns. He doesn’t appear on this list because he doesn’t meet the criteria of 50 or fewer catches.
(Research gathered from pro-footbal-reference.com)
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 04, 2015:
Not surprisingly, I see no Seahawk on this list. We aren't known as a dazzling passing team, but I have the feeling that's going to change in another year after Lynch retires. Anyway, great article for any football fan.
Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on March 20, 2015:
Pstraubie: thanks so much for dropping by.
I realize obscure football statistics aren't for everybody, but I appreciate that you can appreciate the amount of research that goes into compiling this information.
Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on March 20, 2015:
Wow, Larry. You really have researched well. I am not a huge fan of football. But I do watch many of the stories on 30/30 on Netflix about those who play sports because the backstory on these players just draws me in and hooks me.
Clearly reading your articles will help fill in the HUGE gaps in my knowledge.
Angels are winging their way to you this morning.
And because others may have missed this info I am sharing and voting up+++