The Top 10 in 2014 vs. the Top 10 in 1964

It’s always educational to go back in time and see where the NFL was, say, 50 years ago and how it compares to today. So I decided to find out who the career leaders were in various offensive categories at the start of the 1964 season, just for kicks. What did it take to make the all-time Top 10 back then? Which players had fallen through the cracks of history? I learned plenty, I must say. Why don’t we begin with the running backs (since they were so much bigger a deal in the ’60s)?

Most rushing yards at the start of the 1964 season At the start of 2014
9,322  Jim Brown 18,355  Emmitt Smith
8,378  Joe Perry 16,726  Walter Payton
5,860  Steve Van Buren 15,269  Barry Sanders
5,599  Jim Taylor 14,101  Curtis Martin
5,534  Rick Casares 13,684  LaDainian Tomlinson
5,518  John Henry Johnson 13,662  Jerome Bettis
5,233  Hugh McElhenny 13,259  Eric Dickerson
4,565  Ollie Matson 12,739  Tony Dorsett
4,428  Alex Webster 12,312  Jim Brown
4,315  J.D. Smith 12,279  Marshall Faulk

Think about it: To be one of the Top 10 rushers in NFL history half a century ago, all you needed was 4,315 yards. Adrian Peterson surpassed that by the end of his third season (4,484). Eric Dickerson nearly got there in his second (3,913). By current standards, it’s not that much yardage. (Consider: Among active backs, the Colts’ Ahmad Bradshaw is closest to Smith’s total with 4,418. That ranks him 160th all time.)

But it was a significant amount of yardage in 1964, the league’s 45th year. Careers were shorter. Seasons were shorter. Only the rare player (e.g. Brown) put up numbers that had much longevity.

Note, too: Three backs on the ’64 list — the Bears’ Casares, the Giants’ Webster and the 49ers’ Smith — aren’t in the Hall of Fame and never will be. Yet there’s a good chance every back on the ’14 list will make it. The only ones who haven’t been voted in, after all, are Bettis and Tomlinson. But LT is a lock once he’s eligible, and Bettis has been a finalist the last four years and figures to get his ticket punched eventually.

And understandably so, I suppose. The threshold for breaking into the Top 10 — in all offensive departments — is so much higher these days. You not only have to play longer, you usually have to be fairly productive in your 30s, which for a running back is far from guaranteed. Payton, hard as it is to believe, rushed for more yards after his 30th birthday (6,522) than Van Buren did in his entire career (5,860). And Steve was the all-time leader for nearly a decade.

Finally, three of the Top 7 rushers 50 years ago — Perry (2nd), Johnson (6th) and McElhenny (7th) –actually played together for three seasons in San Francisco (1954-56), though they often weren’t healthy at the same time. “The Million-Dollar Backfield,” they were called (the fourth Hall of Fame member being quarterback Y.A. Tittle). John Henry, ever the joker, liked to tell people: “I’m still lookin’ for the million.”

On to the receivers:

Most receiving yards at the start of the 1964 season At the start of 2014
8,459  Billy Howton 22,895  Jerry Rice
7,991  Don Hutson 15,934  Terrell Owens
6,920  Raymond Berry 15,292  Randy Moss
6,299  Crazylegs Hirsch 15,208  Isaac Bruce
5,902  Billy Wilson 15,127  Tony Gonzalez
5,619  Pete Pihos 14,934  Tim Brown
5,594  Del Shofner 14,580  Marvin Harrison
5,508  Ray Renfro 14,004  James Lofton
5,499  Tommy McDonald 13,899  Cris Carter
5,476  Max McGee 13,777  Henry Ellard

That’s right, McGee, Paul Hornung’s old drinking buddy on the Packers, was No. 10 in receiving yards as the ’64 season got underway. I wasn’t prepared for that (though I knew he was a pretty good wideout). Here is he is (fuzzily) scoring the first points in Super Bowl history by making a one-handed touchdown catch:

Amazingly, Howton, who tops the list — and was McGee’s teammate in Green Bay for a while — isn’t in the Hall. I’ve always thought he belongs, even though he played on a series of losing clubs. But that’s a subject for another post.

Also excluded from Canton, besides McGee, are the 49ers’ Wilson, the Giants’ Shofner and the Browns’ Renfro. In other words, half of the Top 10 in receiving yards half a century ago haven’t been enshrined. Does that seem like a lot to you?

I doubt people will be saying that about the current Top 10 50 years from now. Rice and Lofton already have their gold jackets, and most of the others have strong arguments.

Speaking of Rice, that 22,895 figure never ceases to astound, does it? It’s almost as many as the Top 3 receivers combined on the ’64 list (23,370).

Something else that shouldn’t be overlooked: a tight end (Tony Gonzalez) has infiltrated the Top 10 (at No. 5) — and he won’t be the last. The position has become too important to the passing game.

Lastly — because I wanted to keep you in suspense — the quarterbacks:

Most passing yards at the start of the 1964 season At the start of 2014
28,339  Y.A. Tittle 71,838  Brett Favre
26,768  Bobby Layne 64,964  Peyton Manning
23,611  Norm Van Brocklin 61,361  Dan Marino
21,886  Sammy Baugh 51,475  John Elway
21,491  Johnny Unitas 51,081  Drew Brees
19,488  Charlie Conerly 49,325  Warren Moon
17,654  Tobin Rote 49,149  Tom Brady
17,492  George Blanda 47,003  Fran Tarkenton
16,303  Billy Wade 46,233  Vinny Testaverde
14,686  Sid Luckman 44,611  Drew Bledsoe

Both groups are well represented in the Hall. Seven from ’64 are in, including the Top 5, and the Top 8 from ’14 are destined to join them. And get this: The three ’64 guys who haven’t been ushered into Canton — Conerly (’56 Giants), Rote (’57 Lions, plus the ’63 Chargers in the AFL) and Wade (’63 Bears) — all quarterbacked teams to titles. Quite an accomplished bunch.

For those wondering where Otto Graham is, he did indeed rack up 23,584 passing yards, but 10,085 of them came in the rival All-America Conference. That left him 12th, for the NFL’s purposes, going into the ’64 season (with 13,499). It’s a bit unfair — and also affects some of his teammates (running back Marion Motley, receivers Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie) — but what are ya gonna do?

At any rate, it takes a lot of yards to crack any of these Top 10s nowadays. You’d better pack a lunch — and maybe dinner and a midnight snack, too.