December 7, 2009

1952: Billy Howton Becomes First Rookie 1000-Yard Receiver with 200-Yard Game

When end Billy Howton was chosen by the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the 1952 draft, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to play pro football. At 6’2” and 190 pounds, he thought he might be too thin, and had already accepted a high school coaching job. But Packers QB Tobin Rote, like Howton a Texan who had played collegiately at Rice, convinced him to give it a try. Rote proved, certainly in this instance, that he was a good judge of talent.

Howton not only made the team but had a significant impact in his rookie season. He scored on a 39-yard TD pass from Rote in the season-opening game against the Bears, and accumulated six touchdowns in his first five contests. Sure-handed and fast, he proved to be an outstanding deep threat and drew comparisons to legendary Green Bay end Don Hutson.

On December 7, 1952 in a game against the Los Angeles Rams at the Memorial Coliseum, Howton caught six passes for an even 200 yards. While his longest reception of the day was 76 yards, he didn’t score at all. But he did pass the thousand-yard mark in pass receiving yardage, something that happened rarely in those days and that no rookie had done before in the NFL.

Unfortunately, while the Packers showed improvement on both sides of the ball in ’52, they were no match for the better teams in the league; in this game, the Rams defeated them, 45-27. Both Rote and rookie Babe Parilli saw action at quarterback and, largely thanks to Howton’s heroics, accumulated 287 passing yards. However, they also combined to throw five interceptions, and adding two fumbles, the Packers turned the ball over seven times. The Rams also held Green Bay to 83 rushing yards on 36 attempts.

While the Packers were at one point 6-3 during the season, losses in the last three games on the road against the Lions, Rams, and 49ers gave them a 6-6 record for the season; they finished in fourth place in the National Conference. Still, it was progress, as the team hadn’t had a record anywhere near .500 since 1947. Meanwhile, the win for the Rams was their seventh of an eventual eight straight to close out the regular season, tying them with the Lions for first place in the National Conference with a 9-3 record. They lost the ensuing playoff to Detroit.

Billy Howton caught 53 passes for 1231 yards (an outstanding 23.2-yard average) and 13 touchdowns. He was the only thousand-yard receiver in the league (runner-up Bud Grant of the Eagles had 997). The touchdown receptions ranked second and the yards-per-catch average placed third. His yardage total remained the record for a rookie until Houston’s Bill Groman totaled 1473 yards in the AFL in 1960, and ranked second for another 38 years. The 13 TD catches were the rookie record until broken by Minnesota’s Randy Moss in 1998 (John Jefferson of San Diego tied the mark in 1979).

Quarterbacks Rote and Parilli certainly benefited from Howton’s presence – they ranked second and third in yards per attempt, respectively. Rote led the NFL with an 8.3 TD percentage.

Howton had one other thousand-yard season (1188 in 1956) on his way to retiring after the 1963 season as the career leader in both yards (8459) and receptions (503). However, Raymond Berry passed his career pass receptions mark the following year, and his yardage total in 1966. With the opening up of the passing game since the late 70s, his lifetime totals have been left in the dust and he has largely been forgotten (it didn’t help that he played with the Packers in their long down period pre-Vince Lombardi, and, after a year in Cleveland, with the Cowboys before they began to win). But his rookie season was one of the best ever for a pro receiver.