January 26, 2012
The Miami Dolphins had been a losing team in its first four years, but took major steps to reverse that in the offseason following the ’69 season. The biggest step was replacing the team’s original head coach, George Wilson, with Don Shula, pried away from the Colts and made general manager as well as head coach. Prior to that, on January 26, 1970, the team made a significant addition to the roster by trading its first pick in the upcoming NFL draft to the Cleveland Browns for WR Paul Warfield.
The 27-year-old Warfield, who expressed surprise at the trade, was considered one of the premier wide receivers in the game. A halfback in college at Ohio State, with its ground-oriented attack under Head Coach Woody Hayes, Warfield was taken by the Browns in the first round of the 1964 draft and quickly converted to split end. It was a fortuitous move – as a rookie, he caught 52 passes for 920 yards (17.7 avg.) and nine touchdowns. He was selected to the Pro Bowl, and his addition to an offense that already included QB Frank Ryan, FB Jim Brown, and flanker Gary Collins undoubtedly played a role in winning the NFL title in ’64.
Warfield missed virtually all of the 1965 season due to a broken collarbone, however, but returned in ’66 to average 20.6 yards per catch on his 36 receptions – indeed, he never averaged under twenty yards in any of his remaining four years in Cleveland. In 1968 and ’69 he again was chosen to the Pro Bowl and in ’68 had his best year with 50 catches for 1067 yards (21.3 avg.) and 12 TDs. Overall with the Browns, he caught a total of 215 passes for 4346 yards (20.2 avg. gain) and 44 touchdowns.
In the restructured NFL, newly-merged with the American Football League, the Browns were concerned about developing a young quarterback behind the capable-but-fragile Bill Nelsen. In dealing for Miami’s spot in the first round of the draft, which was third overall, they were looking to take advantage of a highly-regarded field of quarterbacks and chose Mike Phipps from Purdue.
Said Browns owner Art Modell, “Paul has played so well for us and is such a high type person that I hated like the devil to consider any trade involving him. However, it was the overwhelming consensus of all our combined thinking that we had a pressing need for backup protection behind quarterback Bill Nelsen.”
In an effort to replace Warfield, Cleveland traded DT Jim Kanicki (who missed virtually the entire ’69 season with a broken leg), promising young RB Ron Johnson, and LB Wayne Meylan to the New York Giants to obtain WR Homer Jones. Jones had put together some outstanding seasons for the Giants in which he was a potent deep threat, but was not of the same caliber as Warfield, who ran more disciplined patterns and played with greater skill. He was coming off a bit of a lesser year in ’69, having been shifted from split end to tight end by Giants Head Coach Alex Webster with poor results.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins had a promising young quarterback in Bob Griese but a lack of speed at wide receiver. Their most productive receiver in 1969 had been TE Larry Seiple, also the team’s punter, who caught 41 passes for 577 yards and five TDs. Flanker Karl Noonan, who had a good year in ’68, slumped badly as he pulled in just 29 throws for 307 yards (10.6 avg.) and three scores, and split end Jack Clancy hadn’t come close to duplicating his 67-catch season of 1967 as he pulled in 21 passes for 289 yards (13.8 avg.) and one TD (he was traded to Green Bay). Slow-but-sure-handed WR Howard Twilley had yet to emerge, with 10 catches for 158 yards and a touchdown. The addition of Warfield upgraded the receiving corps dramatically.
The team responded well to Shula’s coaching, going a surprising 10-4 in 1970 and qualifying for the postseason as a wild card team (a new feature in the NFL). While the ground game was predominant in the ball-control offense, and Griese was still a work in progress, Warfield’s presence was significant. He missed three full games due to a rib injury and caught only 28 passes, but they were good for 703 yards, which was an average of 25.1 yards-per-reception, and six touchdowns. Moreover, he attracted double-coverage from opposing defenses and Twilley improved as a possession receiver on the other side, pulling in 22 throws for 281 yards and five TDs. The catches may not have been many, but Warfield was again selected to the Pro Bowl as one of the best wide receivers in the league.
The improvement in ’70 marked the beginning of an outstanding run for Miami. The Dolphins won the next three AFC titles and the Super Bowls following the 1972 and ’73 seasons, posting a perfect record in ’72. Warfield continued to be the deep-threat receiver that kept defenses honest against the run-oriented team and was a Pro Bowl selectee after each of those seasons. He had his best statistical year with the Dolphins in ’71, catching 43 passes for 996 yards (23.2 avg.) and a league-leading 11 TDs and was also a consensus first-team All-Pro. In ’72 and ’73, Warfield caught just 29 passes apiece, but in the latter year an amazing 11 of them were for touchdowns and he was once more a first-team All-Pro.
Miami again made it to the postseason in 1974 but came up short in losing a thrilling AFC Divisional playoff game to the Raiders. Warfield was limited to nine games as a result of injury but still went to the Pro Bowl for the seventh straight year with 27 receptions for 536 yards (19.9 avg.). However, going into the season it was already known that it would be his last with the Dolphins. In a blockbuster move, the Toronto Northmen of the newly-created World Football League signed Warfield, along with FB Larry Csonka and HB Jim Kiick, to big contracts that would take effect in 1975 (the team would become the Memphis Southmen – or, more popularly, Grizzlies - before it ever took the field). Warfield left Miami, having made 156 catches for 3355 yards (21.5 avg.) and 33 touchdowns – he added 34 receptions for 717 yards (21.1 avg.) and four TDs in 11 postseason games.
In the abbreviated 1975 WFL season, Warfield caught 25 passes for 422 yards (16.9 avg.) and three scores in the eleven contests before the league folded. He returned to the NFL in 1976, but with his original team, the Browns. After two years back in Cleveland, he retired with career totals of 427 receptions for 8565 yards (20.1 avg.) and 85 TDs – his ratio of one touchdown for every five catches is still one of the best in league history.
Playing at the time he did, and largely with teams that ran the ball far more often than they threw it, Warfield’s numbers don’t look spectacular when compared to top modern wide receivers. Zone defenses had made NFL offenses ground-oriented, and the rules changes that did so much to open up the passing game for the most part didn’t come into effect until after his retirement. But the honors he received and the regard in which he was held during his career speak to his effectiveness – he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983, his first year eligible. Fast, with outstanding moves, graceful leaping ability, and dependable hands, he was a receiver that defenses had to account for and thus made him a key player on any offense he was with.
As a postscript to the trade that sent Warfield to the Dolphins, Homer Jones lasted one year with the Browns, failed to maintain a spot in the starting lineup, and caught just 10 passes – he was used more as a kickoff returner, averaging 25.5 yards on his 29 returns with one that was brought back 94 yards for a touchdown. Mike Phipps never lived up to his first-round promise in seven seasons with Cleveland. Jim Kanicki played two years for the Giants while Wayne Meylan didn’t play for them at all. However, Ron Johnson proved to be a very good runner and receiver out of the backfield, when healthy, achieving the first two thousand-yard rushing seasons in franchise history.