Commentary

Long before Rice, Hutson defined WR

In an era when the passing game was not a major part of offenses, Don Hutson revolutionized the position, setting records and standards for future greats, writes Mike Sando.

Originally Published: March 26, 2008
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com

Don HutsonPro Football Hall Of Fame/NFL/Getty ImagesPackers great Don Hutson held 18 NFL records when he retired in 1945.
If Jerry Rice redefined the receiver position in the NFL, someone had to have defined it.

Don Hutson was up to the task.

The man credited with inventing pass routes caught 99 touchdown passes in 116 games for the Green Bay Packers from 1935 to 1945. The record stood until Steve Largent caught his 100th and final touchdown pass 44 years later.

Hutson, who died in 1997 at age 84, held 18 NFL records when he retired. He ranked third on ESPN.com's list of all-time great receivers, behind Rice and New England's Randy Moss.

"Different era, different time, but the numbers he put up in a time when they didn't throw as many passes were unbelievable," said Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, one of seven panelists who helped with the ESPN.com list. "He was better than everybody he was playing against, clearly."

Hall of Fame receiver Raymond Berry said he grew up idolizing Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch. Hutson was already a legend, but Berry hadn't seen the first great NFL receiver play until his own career was finished. He always wondered exactly what he had missed.

Berry, who retired in 1967, was coaching with the Cleveland Browns a decade later when he called in a request to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Berry wanted to see films of Hutson playing, and he was in luck. The Packers had sent all their films to the Hall of Fame for the period in question.

"I went down there and I watched the films they had, and the film was excellent quality," Berry said. "It was on the old reels where they had all 1,600 feet of it on one reel.

"They had the projectors down there and it was color film, so I got to watch Don Hutson play. I had never seen him."

The experience affirmed everything Berry had heard about Hutson, who was born in Arkansas and helped Alabama win the Rose Bowl in 1935. Hutson also kicked extra points for the Packers.

"He just had great speed and great hands," Berry said. "He was about 6-1 or 6-2 and looked like he weighed about 180, about Don Maynard's size, really.

"Lean and swift, and boy, he could catch the heck out of it. And they threw an awful lot of deep balls to him."

Hutson caught 74 passes for 1,211 yards and 17 touchdowns while playing 11 games in 1942. For his career, Hutson averaged .85 touchdowns per game. Rice averaged .65 touchdowns per game.

Hutson led the NFL in rececptions five consecutive seasons and eight seasons overall. He finished with the most receiving yards seven times, including four in row. He led the league in touchdown receptions nine times, including five in a row. No player has matched those records.

"When Don Hutson played, his numbers and career consistency are practically unsurpassed, but he was also playing defense in those days," Berry said. Hutson, who doubled as a defensive back, finished his career with 488 receptions for 7,991 yards.

"You can't compare Hutson's numbers to, say, Marvin Harrison's numbers," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said, "but they were both good players in their time and that really is what matters most."

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.