As promised in PFR's second ever podcast, I'm going to take a look today at four of the most athletic and versatile players in NFL history. Only four men have over 300 rushes, 300 receptions and a career average north of 13 yards per reception. That's because modern skill position players either catch long passes and don't run frequently (wide receivers) or run frequently and catch short passes (running backs). But before the NFL became so specialized, there was Frank Gifford, Lenny Moore, Bobby Mitchell and Charley Taylor -- truly unique players that deserve their own special spot in NFL history. They are four of only a handful of players to earn Pro Bowl nominations at both RB and WR and are the last four players to have one season in their careers when they ranked in the top ten in rushing yards and one season where they ranked in the top ten in receiving yards.
Joe Morrison for the Giants played a little bit of WR but he was mostly a RB. Abner Haynes was an incredibly explosive and versatile player for the Kansas City franchise in the AFL while Hugh McElhenny was terrific for the 49ers in the '50s. But both of them were just RBs, too. How hard is it to excel at both? Elroy Hirsch had maybe the greatest season any wide receiver ever had, but that was only after he switched positions following an unsuccessful stint as a running back.
Ronnie Harmon and Eric Metcalf are the best examples from the '80s and '90s, but both were jacks of rushing and receiving and masters of neither. Tiki Barber, Charlie Garner, Thurman Thomas and Roger Craig were great receiving backs but they weren't flankers. Herschel Walker might have been the closest replica to a Gifford or Moore, and he would have thrived in the '60s. Marshall Faulk, Brian Westbrook and Reggie Bush all could have been WRs in the NFL, but were most dangerous in the roles they were given. Those three players were incredible agile and certainly fast, but they weren't designed to be deep play threats. Gifford, Moore, Mitchell and Taylor were the offense for their teams; they provided the big plays on the ground and the big plays through the air.
So what makes Gifford, Moore, Taylor and Mitchell -- all Hall of Famers -- so unique?
Before Frank Gifford was a broadcaster, he was a huge football star. At USC he was an elite tailback, but he began his career with the Giants as a defensive back (and made two Pro Bowls). Ultimately, he would do just about everything for New York. He passed, he ran, he caught, he returned punts and kicks, he played defense and when needed, he kicked. As told by Sean Lahman in the terrific book The Pro Football Historical Abstract, things changed for him starting in 1954.
Jim Lee Howell took over as head coach of the New York Giants and Vince Lombardi became the team's offensive coordinator. Gifford continued to play defense, but Lombardi loved Gifford's versatility and made him the cornerstone of his soon-to-be-famous ground attack.
Starting in 1956, he led New York in rushing four straight seasons and was the team's leading receiver in three of those years. He won the league MVP in 1956 while leading the league in yards from scrimmage and helping New York capture the NFL Championship. He didn't become a big play receiver until the end of his career, but in 1959 he rushed for 540 yards on 106 carries and averaged 18.2 yards per reception on 42 catches. In 1960 he suffered a brutal injury at the hands of Chuck Bednarik, but returned in '62 strictly as a WR. Despite being 32 years old and coming off what should have been a career ending injury, Gifford posted an impressive 39-796-20.4-7 stat line while helping the Giants reach the NFL championship game.
Lenny Moore went head to head with Gifford most of his career, and helped the Colts defeat the Giants in the '58 and '59 Championship games. It's silly to ignore that when Moore played the NFL was far from a fully integrated league. Baltimore was better than most cities, and in 1954 it become one of the first to desegregate its public schools. The year before Moore arrived, the Colts had just three black players. It's hard to overstate how fast Moore was, and thanks to a few other HOFers on the team, he did to the rest of the NFL what Reggie Bush did to the Pac-10. HOF Tackle Jim Parker didn't join the Colts until 1957, and that's when Moore's career really began to take flight. His 1958 season can only be described in one word: absurd. He averaged 7.3 yards per carry on 82 carries and 18.8 yards per reception on 50 catches. He wasn't so bad in '57 or '59 either, with a combined 190 carries for 910 yards and 87 receptions for 1533 yards. For those three seasons -- and remember they only played 12 games back then -- he averaged 91 carries for 503 yards (5.54 YPC) and 46 catches for 824 yards (18.0 YPR). He led the NFL in yards per carry four times and averaged over 17 yards per reception five times in his career.
More than any other player in NFL history, Moore blurred the lines between RB and WR. He was a RB in college and was often listed as a RB for the Colts, but he was mostly used as a pass catcher. In '58, he was third on the team in carries but led the team in receiving yards. Usually, he was the second option to run the ball behind Alan Ameche and the second option to catch the ball behind Raymond Berry. Despite playing on a team with a HOFer at QB, LT and WR, it's hard to overstate how valuable Moore was to the Colts. By the end of his career he was strictly a RB, and won the league MVP in 1964. Perhaps most interesting is how Moore has set the standard for Colts running backs. Coincidence or not, since Moore, no team has favored pass catching RBs like the Colts, regardless of what city they're in. Marshall Faulk and Lydell Mitchell were Moore clones; Edgerrin James and Eric Dickerson were elite runners and pass catchers. Those four backs combined for 12 Pro Bowls for the Colts. Moore himself made seven, and ranked in the top three in the NFL (usually with Jim Brown and either Gifford or Jim Taylor) in yards from scrimmage in five straight seasons.. Moore was the original inspiration for this post, as he'll never come up on a list of all time great rushers or all time great receivers. But he was an all time great player.
These multi-threat talents regularly led their teams to success; the 1958 playoffs highlight this well. First, Gifford and his Giants took on Mitchell and the Browns to decide the NFL East Champion. The winner got to face Lenny Moore and the Colts for the NFL Championship.
Bobby Mitchell was drafted by the Browns in 1958 and played RB for four years in Cleveland. He made one Pro Bowl but was never going to reach his potential playing behind Jim Brown. Washington may have been hoping to get Mitchell ever since he rushed for 232 yards and 3 TDs on 14 carries in a game against the Skins in '59. Two years later, he scored a TD three different ways in another win over Washington. After four brilliant years together, Cleveland decided to end the Brown/Mitchell era. According to the HOF:
Still, Paul Brown was committed to the idea of another big back to pair with Jim Brown and he longed for a chance to acquire Ernie Davis, who like Jim Brown was a collegiate superstar from Syracuse. Davis was a cinch to be the first pick in the 1962 draft but that first choice was owned by the Redskins, who had a miserable 1-12-1 record in 1961. The Redskins had another distinction that of being the only NFL team without a African American player on its roster. Even though the color barrier had been permanently broken in pro football in 1946 and, one by one, all other clubs had added black players to their teams, Washington owner George Preston Marshall resolutely held out.
But things were changing in Washington. The Redskins had just moved from ancient Griffith Stadium to the new and government-owned D.C. Stadium. Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall quickly took the position that the Redskins must conform to the law that prohibits discrimination in federal facilities. Marshall 's option was to conform or move.
Left with no other choice, Marshall traded first-round draft picks with Cleveland and also received Bobby Mitchell in the deal.
Mitchell was converted to play the position he always desired and was a star WR in Washington from the moment he first stepped onto the field. In his first game with the Redskins he caught 6 passes for 135 yards and 2 scores and had a 92 yard KO return. Surely more rewarding was what happened the next week at Cleveland. As told by The Redskins Encyclopedia:
He didn't touch the ball for the first three quarters. But with Cleveland ahead, 16-10, and less than a minute to play, [Quarterback Norm] Snead hit him over the middle around midfeld. Mitchell cut toward the sidelines, faked two defenders out of their shoes with a breaktaking stop-and-go move, and raced into the end zone. The Redskins won, 17-16.
"I'm running right at Paul Brown," Mitchell told NFL Films of the play. "It couldn't have been a better situation in life. I get to the sideline and, to this day when I see that film I say, 'God did that [fake] because I couldn't have done that. It is the most amazing move I've ever seen anyone do."
When it was over, Mitchell's 1962 season ranked as the 11th best season in WR history and his 1963 season doesn't rate far behind. For his career, looking at just his seasons at WR, Mitchell ranked as the 24th best WR of all time in my WR study. He was productive as a RB in Cleveland but won't show up on any all time RB lists. Who knows what we'd think of Mitchell if he spent his whole career at wide receiver or if he was drafted to play running back by any other team but Cleveland.
One other note about Mitchell -- he played a little bit of RB in Washington in 1967 because the team was very light at the position. That was because the year before, Charley Taylor was moved from RB to WR, creating that void.
Charley Taylor was the third pick in the '64 draft after he had a magnificent career as a running back (and defensive back) at Arizona State. He adjusted to the pros quickly, winning Rookie of the Year honors at running back. He was immediately the best pass catching RB in the league -- and maybe ever -- and only Jim Brown had more yards from scrimmage in 1964. The next year Taylor struggled as a runner but was once again second to Mitchell on the team in receiving yards. He made his second straight Pro Bowl. Halfway through 1966, Taylor was moved to WR and wound up leading the NFL with 72 receptions. For the next decade, Taylor was one of the best receivers in the league. When he retired, he was the all time leader in receptions.
Taylor said Graham was impressed that his star running back could find openings downfield as a receiver and gain lots of yardage after catching the ball. The coach also wanted a backfield featuring 225-pounders Joe Don Looney and Steve Thurlow, Taylor noted.
Taylor, who rushed for nearly 1,500 yards in his career, said he initially felt a "fear" of playing on the outside. Working one-on-one with [Bobby] Mitchell and watching game films on Colts great Lenny Moore, two players who made the same transition before him, eased the switch, he acknowledged.
You might have thought Mitchell would be against this switch, as Taylor was being groomed to replace Mitchell. But that wasn't the case, according to Robert Janis:
At first Taylor was very much against the move. “But I had Bobby Mitchell there to help me out,” he said. “Soon we were having a lot of fun.” It wasn’t long before the Redskins had the most potent passing game in the league. Taylor led the league in receptions that year with 76 and in 1967 with 70.
Charley Taylor made his QB a fan, too. " 'Charley was an athlete. I never played with anybody quite like him,' said Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, who now broadcasts the Redskins' games. 'Charley could do what he wanted. He was a playmaker. I just wanted to get the ball in his hands.' "
If I had to categorize them, I'd remember Gifford as the great all around player who excelled at several positions, Moore as the ultimate dual threat, Mitchell as a good runner and then a great receiver and Taylor as a terrific receiver. Taylor stands out from the rest of the group as he didn't play RB for very long, but I have no doubt he would have been very good. Taylor was 6'3, 210, which probably sounds too lean to play running back now. But in 1970, the average RB was 6'1, 210 while the average WR was 6'1, 192. For example, O.J.Simpson was 6'2, 210.
Here are the career stats for the four players:
Year G Rsh Yds TD YPC Rec Yds Y/R TD Gifford 136 840 3609 34 4.3 367 5434 14.8 43 Moore 143 1069 5174 63 4.8 363 6039 16.6 48 Mitchell 148 513 2735 18 5.3 521 7954 15.3 65 Taylor 165 442 1488 11 3.4 649 9110 14.0 79
One final note on Taylor's career, whose versatility extended beyond the football field:
"I was supposed to look at a defensive back and a running back who could be switched to receiver," said Taylor, then a Washington scout and now  the Redskins' receivers coach. "I was looking at the DB when I heard these hoofbeats behind me. It was a running back returning punts. Then I was introduced to him. It was Art Monk. I watched him all that day and then I talked to him for a while and watched some game films. I came back and said we had to take this guy. There was no doubt we had a steal."
The Redskins took Monk on the first round of the 1980 draft, and Taylor's judgment has proved to be very accurate.
Thirteen games into his 10th Redskins season, Monk has 642 catches, leaving him seven short of third place on the NFL's all-time list. The man currently holding that spot is Taylor.
"I would much rather have Art pass me up than anybody else," said Taylor, who made the Pro Bowl eight times in his 13 Redskins seasons and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984. "He's such a professional. It's been a pleasure to work with him the past nine years. Sure, Art had to make the same adjustment that I did from college running back to NFL receiver, but I don't take any credit because people say Art plays like me and I've been his coach."
Monk, however, gives Taylor plenty of credit.
"If it wasn't for Charley, I wouldn't be where I am right now," Monk said. "Charley knows a lot of the little ins and outs of the trade. He's very helpful in giving me tips on how to do certain things to make myself a better player. It will be a great compliment if I can pass him. Just to be in his company is an honor."
This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 25th, 2009 at 8:02 am and is filed under History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.