Thursday, 26 March 2020

DEL SHOFNER: THE FOOTBALL OF MY YOUTH & THE HALL OF FAME

When I was a kid my first favourite pro football player was Ray Berry, the end who was Johnny Unitas' favourite target on the Colts. In fact, that may have gone right back to the 1958 championship game, which I watched with the men at my uncle's house, while the kids played elsewhere. Perhaps I knew then I was fated to be an end. It lasted long enough so that, when I was elevated to the varsity in high school, I somehow managed to get Berry's number, 82, to wear.

But by that time, 1965, my favourite receiver was someone from the AFL, Lance Alworth.We didn't see many AFL games, especially not from San Diego, but it didn't take many views to make you a fan of Bambi. We did, however, get the Giants' games out of New York, and in that interregnum between Berry and Alworth, I became a huge fan of the Giants' Del Shofner, who died a couple of weeks ago. His death didn't receive as much attention, not even in New York, as I would have expected, but that reflects a strange phenomenon: Shofner, who was one of the two starting receivers on the NFL's official all-decade team for the Sixties, has been consistently passed over by Hall of Fame voters, just as he was by obituary writers almost everywhere except the New York Times. And this is something I find hard to understand, as I think he is the most compelling candidate at end from the pre-passing era.

Delbert Shofner was a quiet star, and perhaps that's part of why he didn't attract more attention. Listed at 6-3 185 he was what you would call lanky (his teammates called him 'Slim' or 'Blade'), and he was handsome in a very Texas way; he came from Center, Texas and you could have cast him as a bit player in Hud, or Junior Bonner, and he would have fit right in. He looked a bit like the country singer Jimmy Dean. In fact, as the NFL moved to the forefront of the TV sports world, the New York ad men who were fixated on players in New York (or do you think it a coincidence that stars Frank Gifford and Kyle Rote and kicker Pat Summerall were early entries into broadcasting, with the networks centered in New York?) chose Shofner to be one of the models for the Marlboro Man cigarette ads, although his teammate Charley Conerly got more of them in the end. But though high-profile helps your HoF chances, there's more to it than that.

Shofner played halfback at Baylor, like many other future NFL receivers. As the rules dictated in the Fifties, he played both ways. He also played basketball, baseball and ran track, where he was a conference champion sprinter. In the 1957 Sugar Bowl, Baylor, 8-2 and ranked 11th in the country, upset second-ranked and undefeated Tennessee 13-7, in the final New Year's Day game. Shofner's 54 yard run set up Baylor's first score; he was named the game's MVP of the biggest upset of the year.

The Rams drafted him with the 11th pick of the first round, and as a rookie he played cornerback, starting most of the season. In 1958, he was moved to flanker (listed as a halfback, but generally playing what we now call the Z spot), and in 12 games, with Billy Wade the primary quarterback in Sid Gillman's offense, he caught 51 passes for 1,097 yards, 21.5 per catch, and 8 TDs. This was a Big Thing; Don Hutson had registered the NFL's first 1,000 yard receiving season in 1942, and only 12 others had done it before Shofner. He was voted first team All-Pro and went to the Pro Bowl.

The Rams' big star in 1958 was halfback 'Jaguar' Jon Arnett, from USC,another of my early favourites, who ran for 683 yards and had 494 more receiving, as well as 554 more on kick returns. BTW Shofner also did the punting, averaging 41.2 yards. The Rams went 8-4, their best year under Gillman (who would go on to coach Alworth and the Chargers in the AFL), and you might argue that Shofner's success was as important to Sid's ideas as anything that went on with the Clark Shaugnessy Rams in the early Fifties. It may also have had something to do with Shofner's style. He rank with a jerky sort of sprinter's motion, a little like Crazy Legs Hirsch, which made it look like he was always going to go into a cut. He could catch over the middle, but once he'd got a step on a defender deep, he turned into an elegant catcher of the long ball, extending arms and making over the shoulder catches which, watching on tape now, remind me of Randy Moss.

In 1959 Shofner fell 64 yards short of recording a second 1,000 yard season, but he again was first-team All-Pro. In 1960 he was held back by leg injuries and ulcers. He played only a couple of games at receiver and corner, but continued as the punter. Something about the nature of the injuries put off the Rams, or maybe it was the switch to Bob Waterfield as head coach (with ex Rams' coach Hamp Pool and end Tom Fears as his offensive assistants) but they basically gave up on him. Interestingly, in 1960, Waterfield's former co-QB on the Rams, Norm Van Brocklin, led the Eagles to the NFL title.

That title's signature moment came against the New York Giants, in the game where Chuck Bednarik put Frank Gifford out of the game with a crunching tackle. You've seen the photo, I'm sure. Gifford was forced to miss the 1961, and the Giants, under new head coach Allie Sherman, were looking to upgrade their offense. They had already traded tackle Lou Cordileone to the 49ers for QB Y.A. Tittle, and Tittle recommended they pick up Shofner. They sent two draft picks to the Rams, and Shofner and Tittle clicked immediately.

In 1961, with the season expanded to 14 games, Shofner caught 68 passes for 1,125 yards and 11 TDs. In 1962, with Gifford back at flanker and Shofner as split end (the X position) he caught fewer passes (53) for more yards (1,133) and 12 scores. And in 1963 it was 64/1181/9. The Giants went to the championship game each year, losing to the Packers in 61 and 62 and the Bears in 63—all in games with less than ideal passing conditions. It's interesting to note here than Shofner became the first player to register 1,000 yard seasons three years in a row; but many of his obits said 1961's 1,125 made him the first tO ever have two 1,000 yard seasons. Which is odd, because I believe Fears did it in '49 and '50 with the Rams, and Harlon Hill in '54 and '55 with the Bears. Art Powell with Oakland and Alworth would do three in a row in the AFL (Alworth would crack the barrier seven times in the Sixties) but not until Charlie Joiner in the late 70s and James Lofton in the 80s would anyone else do three in a row in the NFL.

In 1964 it all fell apart for the Giants and Shofner. The team was aging; Tittle was 38, Gifford 34, Alex Webster 33; on defense Andy Robustelli was 39 and they'd traded away star MLB Sam Huff. Shofner's ulcers and leg problems returned. He played four more seasons, but managed only 21 starts and 54 catches. Homer Jones became the Giants' designated deep threat, but after Tittle's retirement, Gary Wood, Earl Morrall, Tom Kennedy and finally Fran Tarkenton couldn't make the most of what they had. Shofner retired after the 1967 season.

As I said, he was voted to the All-Decade team, but although the other first-team receiver, Charlie Taylor is in the Hall, he's barely had a look. I think a few things are to blame for that. He was always a quiet star, even in the high-profile atmosphere of New York. His three great years with the Giants resulted in no titles. And as time went on the AFL tended to provide the idea of glamour receivers from that decade, and the second-team all-decade choices from the NFL were Gary Collins and Boyd Dowler. Both were tall flankers, typical of the run-first decade, and I get the sense Shofner is lumped in with them (not that either was a slouch). But you have Alworth and another typical Texan Don Maynard (oddly, apart from being Joe Namath's favourite) in the Hall and I'd take Shofner over Maynard in a Texas minute.

But two factors apply. One was Shofner's best years straddling the decades, and coming with different teams. I believe Hall of Fame voters don't even remember his years in LA. The more crucial factor may be the shortness of Shofner's peak. One year as a DB, a full season lost to, and his last four year curtailed greatly by, injuries. That leaves him with only five quality years. But what quality! Four 1,000 yard seasons and one over 900, at a time when that was still rare. In his three great years with the Giants he had 32 TD catches to go with 1,100 plus yards per season. And most important, he was a Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro all five seasons. It is first team All-Pro that stands out. Yes there were fewer teams, yes some receivers were in the AFL, but compare with some of the guys we talk about all the time today, some who were never first-team All Pro.

In the last round of Hall of Fame voting, Issac Bruce was elected. Bruce had really two big years. Was never a first-team all-pro, was voted to four Pro Bowls (which nowadays means a lot less than it did). His running mate Torry Holt didn't get in: Holt has 1 All Pro and seven pro bowls, which indicates a longer run of effectiveness. In the veterans Hallaganza last season Mac Speedie was voted in (3 all pros in the AAFC and five pro bowls, two of those in the first three years the NFL had an all-star game). I like Speedie because he stood up to Paul Brown, went to Canada and had two fine years with Saskatchewan in the WIFU (think CFL). Harold Carmichael never was All-Pro, went to only four Pro Bowls. Drew Pearson (3/3) didn't get in.

I understand that Shofner's effective career was relatively short, but a 5/5 mark in All-Pro/Pro Bowl matches up pretty damn well with receivers who had longer careers, and as we've seen with guys like Terrell Davis, a short career with a very high peak no longer is a detriment like it had been. A good comparison might be Tony Boselli (3/5), Le Roy Butler (4/4), Reggie Wayne (1/6), or Bryant Young (1/4) from the latest Hall finalists. I don't have a vote, but I do have the advantage of having seen Shofner play when he did play, which I think helps me put him into context, but may also make me a little biased in his favour.

The estimable Pro Football reference site does a Hall of Fame Monitor. It's based on Bill James' work in his landmark book on baseball's Hall of Fame, originally titled The Politics Of Glory (now Whatever Happened to The Hall Of Fame). The Monitor does not measure performance per se, but rather how closely performance tallies with the things Hall voters have traditionally looked for, which means things like championships and leading the league in stat categories get extra importance. It's starting point is PFR's Approximate Value, which attempts to put a value on each player's every season.

Shofner's career AV is low at 49, less than half of Michael Irvin's 106. Yet Shofner ranks 20th in Hall of Fame monitor points with 92.25, just behind Berry (94.89), Irvin (93.31) and Andre Johnson (92.26). The good news is Shofner is ahead of Maynard, Art Monk, Andre Reed, Joiner, Fred Biletnikoff, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth (69.96), and way ahead of his contemporaries Bobby Mitchell, Bob Hayes and Tommy MacDonald, who are all in. 

The bad news is the cut off (the average of those in the hall) is 107. Charlie Taylor has 102.83, Paul Warfield 100.56, and Bruce 99.81. Holt, by the way, stands at 104.27 and Wayne at 107.21, the highest totals for non-active players not in the Hall. Now I think the average is weighted a little high by Jerry Rice's 311.81 (Moss is second at 149.69), maybe we ought to use the median? BTW, Alworth is seventh at 124.84.

To me twentieth on the list ought to be good enough for the Hall, considering all those members who rank below him. I'm not so much disappointed Shofner's not in as I am by the fact that he never seemed to even enter the discussion, which seems very much short-sighted and unfair. And now he is gone. He died the day before my birthday, though it didn't become public until the next week. And when it did it transported me back to those Giants' teams, to people traveling up to Connecticut on Sundays to beat the NFL's TV blackout, and the Tittle to Shofner magic that to me bridges the gap between those early Fifties Rams and the birth of the modern passing game. He was a joy to watch, and he was a great football player. RIP.

No comments :