Lofton evoked memories of Hutson with his dominance

He stacks up against the all-time greats, past and present

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Former Packers WR James Lofton

Team historian Cliff Christl has been writing the official biographies of the members of the Packers Hall of Fame. Those bios will be posted periodically on packers.com.

James Lofton

  • Inducted: 1999
  • Wide Receiver: 1978-86
  • Height: 6-3; Weight: 192
  • College: Stanford, 1975-77

Honors:

  • Inducted Pro Football Hall of Fame: 2003
  • NFL All-Decade Team: 1980s
  • Associated Press All-Pro Team (chosen since 1940): 1981, '83
  • Other years selected to an all-pro first team: 1980, '84
  • Pro Bowl Selection (played since 1950): 1978, '80, '81, '82, '83, '84, '85
  • Press-Gazette All-Century Team: 1999

Essentially, there are two subjective measuring sticks for greatness in pro football. One is to examine a player's record in the context of his era, including observations made at the time by coaches, teammates and opponents, and attempt to gauge his impact on the game. The other is to have contemporary experts in those positions look back at old video, offer their conclusions and ponder their answer to the question Pro Football Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf inevitably asks when two or more players are the subject of such a discussion: Who would you draft first?

When comparing only the resumes of James Lofton and Don Hutson, the only two Packers pass receivers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the latter would clearly come out ahead. But one has to wonder if Lofton wouldn't be the overriding choice if today's experts were able to evaluate on film every offensive play of both his and Hutson's pro careers and then pick the one they'd draft higher.

Hutson's records and statistics were off the charts. He didn't simply break records when he played with the Packers from 1935-45, he obliterated them. He was a two-time league MVP and nine-time all-pro. Not only was he the best receiver of his day, he was in a class by himself: A one-of-a-kind player when ends played both ways and teams usually filled those slots with better blockers and others who excelled on defense and covering punts.

When the NFL actually gathered a group of such experts in 2018 to select the 100 greatest players in advance of its 100th anniversary, Hutson was one of 10 selected at wide receiver. Seven years earlier, when the NFL Network formed a similar panel to rank the 100 best players of all-time, Hutson finished ninth and was the only one in the top 10 who had finished his pro career before the 1970s.

Lofton made neither list at a position that has had more Pro Football Hall of Famers than any other since two-platoon football was permanently instituted in 1950. But with limited game film available from Hutson's time, he was chosen largely on his staggering statistics and rave reviews by teammates and opponents alike, but also partly on popular mythology.

Years after Hutson left the University of Alabama, he was credited with running a 9.5 100-yard dash there, and he himself claimed he could consistently run a 9.7; yet he didn't place in his heat to even qualify for the finals as a junior and finished fourth as a senior in the Southeastern Conference track meet. What's more, he never won the 100 in a dual meet. Hutson also has been given credit for being the game's first wide receiver, which perhaps is true in some literal sense. Normally, offensive ends in Curly Lambeau's Notre Dame Box lined up tight to the tackles and shifted one yard out just before the snap. However, there's video evidence and diagrams of Packers plays showing Hutson splitting at least three yards from a tackle and occasionally even much further out. Then again, as early as 1933, Lambeau revamped his Box following rule changes that favored the passing game and positioned end Lavvie Dilweg and halfback Johnny Blood at what was called a flanker position. Bottom line: There were teammates and others who didn't buy that Hutson split out wide enough often enough to be considered a wide receiver in the context of today's term. "He never was split from a damn tackle," former quarterback Bob Snyder, who faced Hutson 12 times as a player with the Cleveland Rams and Chicago Bears and twice as an assistant coach with the Rams, said in 1997 in reference to his six years with the Bears from 1937-41 and again in '43. "(Hutson) was a tight end."

While Hutson's place in history might be well deserved regardless, with Lofton there's no questioning his speed, his position, his raw skills and what he contributed to the Packers over nine seasons.

More than 40 years after he competed in track and field in college, Lofton still owned the 200-meter and long jump records at Stanford University and one of the eight fastest 100-meter times in school history with a 10.54 clocking. His immense talent on the football field was substantiated when Lofton was selected with the sixth overall choice in the 1978 draft and pegged for greatness soon after he showed up for his first training camp. "He's about everything our scouting department said he was," Packers passing game coach Lew Carpenter said in August 1978. "He's going to be a super football player. He's got size, great jumping ability and outstanding speed. And he's got toughness; he's not afraid to catch the ball over the middle." Playing in an era when most of the game's elite receivers put up prodigious numbers, Lofton met, if not surpassed, those expectations by breaking Hutson's team records for career receptions and yards, while averaging 18.2 yards per catch compared to Hutson's 16.4.

When Lofton was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1999, he humbly stated that "without a doubt Don Hutson is the greatest receiver to have ever played here."

But four years later, when Lofton was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there were those who spoke of him and Hutson in the same breath. "That's an amazing statistic for somebody with that many catches," former Buffalo coach Marv Levy said of Lofton's per catch average. "He made some electrifying game-breaking plays for us. I'm old enough to say he reminds me of Don Hutson."

In 16 NFL seasons, including four with the Bills, Lofton averaged 18.3 yards per catch, better than Jerry Rice (14.8), Randy Moss (15.6) and Larry Fitzgerald (12.2), all of whom were named among the top 10 receivers on the 100th anniversary list.

"Every time I see Rice play and reflect on Lofton, I think about the similarities," Bart Starr, coach of the Packers during Lofton's first six seasons, said in 2003. Wolf, who was working for the Los Angeles Raiders when Lofton played there, said, "Dynamite player. Goodness gracious! Prototypical wide receiver. Could do everything. People don't realize what a good blocker he was."

Perhaps nobody appreciated Lofton more than Bob Schnelker, his offensive coordinator in Green Bay for four seasons, and Lynn Dickey, his quarterback for most of his time with the Packers. "The guy I loved coaching – I never coached anybody better – was James Lofton. He was the best," said Schnelker, who spent 27 years as an assistant coach in the NFL. With Dickey throwing to him, Lofton averaged a league-high 22.4 yards a catch in 1983 and a league-high 22 in 1984. "We did a lot of the seven-step drops, the deep stuff," said Dickey. "That was one of the reasons he averaged like 22 yards a catch a couple seasons. But even the short, abrupt routes that were 10 yards, he'd catch the ball and if you missed (the tackle) the odds of catching him were poor."

Dickey also long remembered two other things about Lofton. One was his intelligence. "I've never seen a guy that smart to come right in and grasp the whole offense the first or second day of training camp," Dickey said in 2018. The other was Lofton's durability. In nine years with the Packers, he played in 137 regular-season games, never missing one because of injury. "That's an amazing statistic," said Dickey. "Just incredible, he got through all those years without breaking anything."

On April 13, 1987, the Packers traded Lofton to the Raiders for third- and fourth-round draft choices. That was less than four months after he was arrested on a second-degree sexual assault charge and suspended for his final game with the Packers; and less than six weeks before Lofton was acquitted of the charge. With the Packers, he finished with 530 catches, 9,656 yards and 50 touchdowns, including one on an 83-yard reverse. Lofton played two years with the Raiders, four with the Bills and finished his career in 1993, when he played for both the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia.

Born July 5, 1956. Given name James David Lofton.

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