Through the 13 championship seasons or even in the leaner years, whether by pure speed or by bold moves in the open field, the Packers have typically had a resident playmaker on the roster, if not more.
This isn’t a search for the best all-around wide receiver; that’s an investigation for another day. Some of the names would be similar – Sterling Sharpe could handle any assignment, he caught the ball in droves and was often sent on shorter routes because the club never had a thousand-yard rusher to move the chains. He still found a way to turn slants into big plays.
Antonio Freeman was workmanlike and his name is all over the club’s record book.
Defense and the running game may win championships. Time of possession can ultimately tell the tale of winners and losers on Sundays. But nothing has the impact of a quick strike, and what follows is one man’s opinion of the wide receivers that rank as the most dangerous playmakers in club history.
10. Max McGee (1954, 57-67) – He is the third wide receiver from the same core group to make this list, but that’s just one of the ways you win five NFL championships in seven seasons, including the first two Super Bowls.
After Boyd Dowler was injured on the first series, the 34-year-old McGee famously came off the bench in Super Bowl I with a borrowed helmet and a hangover to shred the Kansas City Chiefs for 138 yards. The first throw in his direction resulted in a 37-yard, one-handed grab for a touchdown – also the first TD in Super Bowl history.
Drafted in the fifth round in 1954, McGee made big plays throughout his career and ranks third in team history behind Carroll Dale and Billy Howton with an average of 18.39 yards per reception. He led the NFL in 1959 with an average of 23.2, finished third with an average of 20.7 in 1960 and was fourth in the league with an average of 19.1 in 1964.
McGee had a reception of at least 80 yards in three of his first four seasons – in 1957 his long was 49 – and was part of a completion of at least 50 yards in eight of his first nine seasons, and it was a crowded wide receiver corps.
9. Boyd Dowler (1959-69) – Dowler was another part of QB Bart Starr’s receiver corps that could keep defensive backs on their heels. At 6-5, 225 pounds, Dowler was a huge target, yet, still among the team’s fastest players. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1960s.
His 91-yard TD in 1960 at Los Angeles is the fifth-longest in club history, and was the longest in the NFL that season. It was one of three touchdowns in his career of over 70 yards.
Dowler had 19 games with over 100 receiving yards, including 178 at Detroit in 1963 before piling up 188 at San Francisco two weeks later. Even late in his career he had the top gear to get past defenders, roasting Chicago in the 1968 finale for 182 yards and a pair of TDs.
In 1969, Dowler closed out his career with the Packers in fine form, hauling in six passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns in his 150th game.
8. Sterling Sharpe (1988-94): Sharpe put up prolific totals as the club’s go-to receiver throughout a career that was shortened by a neck injury. He led the NFL in receptions in 1989 with 90 catches, broke the NFL record with 108 grabs in 1992 and in 1993 set the record again with 112, becoming the first player in league history to reach triple digits in successive seasons.
While the five-time Pro-Bowl pick often ran right through defensive backs and could absorb contact from linebackers on inside routes, he could also stretch the field. Sharpe’s 79-yard TD in 1989 was the sixth-longest in the NFL that season, one of three TDs in his career of over 70 yards. In 1992, he averaged 91.3 yards per game to lead the league, posting an NFL-high 1,461 yards.
In his first career playoff game following the 1993 season, he had three touchdowns on just five catches for 101 yards at Detroit, the final being a 40-yard touchdown grab with under a minute remaining to clinch the 28-24 victory. In his only other postseason appearance the following week, a defeat at Dallas, Sharpe had six grabs for 148 yards, with a long of 48 and a 29-yard TD.
7. Robert Brooks (1992-98) – The former third-round pick shares an NFL record that can only be tied – the longest TD reception in league history at 99 yards. In 1995, Brooks equaled a league mark on Monday Night Football in the second quarter at the Chicago Bears, catching a pass near the 30 and streaking to the end zone.
That season Brooks posted club records with 1,497 yards and nine 100-yard games. He added a 138-yard day at Dallas in the playoffs, including hauling in a 59-yard pass. In his career, he had 37 grabs of 25 yards or more – including a 77-yard TD at Detroit in 1995 – and he was also a game-breaker as a returner. In Green Bay he had kickoff returns for touchdowns of 95 and 96 yards and a punt return for a TD of 85 yards.
Brooks’ career was undone by injuries. He suffered a torn ACL vs. San Francisco – while blocking – in 1996 in the seventh game. He found his form again in 1997, ranking fifth in the league with an average of 16.8 yards per catch, recording 1,010 yards in 15 contests. He was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.
But injuries again took their toll in 1998, which proved to be his last with the Packers after 96 games.
6. Carroll Dale (1965-72) – Though he would line up at tight end periodically, Dale was the Packers’ classic in-house deep threat during his stint with the Packers, and he remains the club’s all-time leader in average yards per reception at 19.7. From 1966-71, Dale ranked outside the NFL’s top eight in yards per catch only in 1970, the year he had a career-high 49 catches.
Dale had 205 yards on just six receptions with a pair of TDs vs. Detroit in 1968, and also had games in his career with 195 and 186 yards. He had 13 contests with over 100 yards and in six of those games it took four catches or fewer to reach the milestone.
In his eight seasons in Green Bay, Dale had a reception of 75 yards or more in all but three years. His career-long 89-yard touchdown in 1970 vs. Atlanta was the longest in the NFL that season.
5. Donald Driver (1999- ) – With 698 catches – and counting – Driver is the club’s all-time leading receiver and has been as willing to go over the middle for a key first down as he has to streak down the sidelines. While dependability has been one of his virtues, Driver has made as many big plays as any player in franchise history.
In 2002, his first year as a starter, he had a pair of TDs over 80 yards. In his career, Driver has 84 catches of 25 yards or more, 14 of 50-plus yards and five have been touchdowns of over 70 yards. His 90-yard TD in the 2007 NFC Championship Game – outracing three New York Giants on frozen turf – is the longest in club postseason history.
Age hasn’t caught up with the spry veteran. Since reaching his 10th NFL season in 2008, Driver has 13 grabs of 40 yards or more, including a rambling 61-yard TD through several defenders vs. San Francisco last season that QB Aaron Rodgers declared “one of the best plays I’ve ever been a part of.” It was the third straight year he had a TD of at least 60 yards.
4. Billy Howton (1952-58) – Howton is saddled with the misfortune of playing on the eve of the Vince Lombardi years – the legendary head coach immediately traded the wide receiver to Cleveland when he arrived in 1959 because of his poor blocking. The Texas native never played on a winning team in Green Bay, but Howton was among the best in club history at stretching the field.
He still holds several club marks. In 1952, Howton had 1,231 receiving yards and 13 TDs in 12 games – both rookie records. At Milwaukee County Stadium vs. the Los Angeles Rams in 1956, he piled up 257 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just seven receptions. His average of 18.42 yards on 303 catches ranks second in club history.
The four-time Pro Bowl pick had 17 games with over 100 yards, including two with 200 or more, and had a pair of 90-yard TDs. Howton ranked first in the NFL in receiving yards twice during his time in Green Bay, and finished just outside the NFL’s top six in yardage in 1953 and 1958. After a year with the Browns and two with the expansion Dallas Cowboys, he retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in catches and yardage.
3. Greg Jennings (2006- ) – While Jennings has emerged as one of the NFL’s most complete wide receivers, his calling card remains his ability to strike from anywhere, and though he’s only played five seasons, the history of memorable moments he has put together in just 75 career games is remarkable. Of his 40 career TDs, 16 have been at least 40 yards in length, and he holds the team record with four TD grabs of at least 80 yards in length.
Jennings leads the NFL with 17 catches of 50 or more yards since 2006. His 86-yard touchdown vs. Miami in 2010 was the longest of his career and his fifth of at least 75 yards. Jennings has 56 catches of 25 yards or more, best in the league since his arrival. He has 322 career receptions for a 16.2 avg. in his career, and no NFL player within 100 grabs has averaged more per catch over the last five years.
Jennings made his first Pro Bowl in 2010, catching fire over the last 11 games and averaging 98.4 yards and scoring nine TDs.
2. James Lofton (1978-86) – Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003, Lofton is the club’s all-time leader in receiving yardage with 9,656. He was drafted sixth overall out of Stanford and in his second career game caught three passes – touchdowns of 42, 47 and 18 yards – vs. New Orleans.
From 1980-1985, Lofton was the NFL’s most dangerous outside threat. During that stretch, he had 7,030 yards – 724 yards more than Steve Largent at second – ranked third with an average of 19.2 yards per catch and scored 35 TDs. In 1983 he led the NFL with an average of 22.4 yards on 58 grabs and in 1984 led the league again with an average of 22.0 yards on 62 receptions.
In 1982, Lofton scored on an 80-yard pass and added an 83-yard TD run off a reverse. Before being traded to the Oakland Raiders in 1987, Lofton had posted a team record 32 games with over 100 yards receiving and caught 49 touchdowns.
1. Don Hutson (1935-45) – In an era of pro football that was defined by plodding offenses that didn’t trust the forward pass, Hutson was the game’s first deep threat. It didn’t take him long to showcase the impact a speedy receiver could have on a game – his first career reception resulted in an 83-yard touchdown on the opening play of a 7-0 victory over the Chicago Bears.
Hutson was one of the game’s true innovators, credited with inventing pass patterns. He led the NFL in TDs each season from 1935-38, scored six in 1939 – that year averaging a career-high 24.9 yards per catch – then led the NFL in touchdowns again every year from 1940-44.
Hutson had four 200-yard receiving games, which still ranks second in league record books. Over an 11-game schedule in 1942, he scored 17 TDs, hauling in 74 passes for 1,211 yards. When he retired in 1945 – after averaging 17.7 yards per reception, the third-best of his career – Hutson held 18 NFL records, including 99 receiving TDs, a record that would stand until 1989.
Ricky Zeller is a contributing writer for packers.com. He has covered the NFL for several publications.