How researching the read option reminded me to appreciate Don Hutson

openingkicklogoSo I spent a fair amount of time this past week working on a graphic for the NFL preview section. The idea was to wonder aloud about how defenses might stop the read-option, then go back through the decades, looking at the different defenses the NFL has concocted to stop offensive innovations. (I mostly just concentrated on how formations have changed; I had to omit a ton of details for obvious reasons of space. There, that should pre-empt any complaining e-mails, right?)

Anyway, what’s kind of fun about the read-option is that it has this back-to-the-future aspect. For pretty much the whole history of the NFL, offenses have been moving steadily in the direction of passing, aided by continued quarterback-friendly rules changes, of course. It had gotten to the point where running the ball just seemed like something state-of-the-art offenses did when their quarterbacks’ arms got tired. (Which reminds me to ask, has Peyton Manning stopped throwing touchdowns yet?)

Then along comes this read-option, a gadget rushing scheme from the college ranks, of all places. So here’s to the hot new trend sweeping the NFL: running the ball!

That said, I do want to talk about passing. But not state-of-the-art passing. No, I want to go back to the early days of the NFL, because when I was researching the 1930s, one player stood out. A player almost Babe Ruth-like to the degree that his statistics dwarf those of his contemporaries.

I’m talking about Don Hutson. My sense is that, when names of the early NFL legends get bandied about, one hears Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, maybe Bronko Nagurski — and what a name that is. But Hutson deserves a special place in history, because what those other players did fit in with their time and place, they were just really good. Hutson seems like a talented modern-day player who got into Doc’s DeLorean and zipped back to the Great Depression. (Just realized I used the phrase “back-to-the-future” three paragraphs ago. Totally unintentional callback, I swear.) (Also just realized I’m using parenthetical thoughts way too much. My bad.)

Hutson played for Green Bay from 1935 to 1945, and you know a guy’s done well when many folks consider him the greatest Packer of all time. A couple of examples of how far ahead of his time he was: when Hutson caught a then-record 74 passes in 1942, the next guy on the list had 27; when Hutson retired with 488 receptions, the next guy had 190. Then there are the the NFL records Hutson still owns:
● Most seasons leading the league In scoring (five); Hutson did this in consecutive years.
● Most seasons leading the league in touchdowns (eight); next on the list are Jim Brown, Lance Alworth and Emmitt Smith — with three. Hutson’s eight seasons are broken into two sets of four consecutive years, which makes him that record-holder twice over.
● Most seasons leading the league in receiving (eight); most consecutive (five).
● Most seasons leading the league in receiving yards (8); most consecutive (4).
● Most seasons leading the league in receiving touchdowns (nine); most consecutive (five. And second place, with four.)

Again, this was accomplished during pro football’s Cro-Magnon era, when a clever play design might be running to the left instead of the right. Oh, and Hutson was playing safety on defense the whole time, notching 30 interceptions. Oh, and he was a place kicker, too; in 1945, he enjoyed a quarter in which he scored four touchdowns and kicked five extra points. That’s 29 points scored. By one guy. In one quarter.

By now, you can see why I feel that Hutson is pretty underrated when it comes to historical figures in football, and really all of U.S. sports. But of course, we don’t have to go back quite so far to find football players who haven’t received their due. Deacon Jones comes to mind, a dominating defensive end from the 1960s and early ’70s who is widely credited with coining the term “sack.” Except he’s not officially credited with any actual sacks, because the NFL didn’t start tallying them until 1982. Not fair!

So who comes to your mind? Which NFL players are being criminally underrated? Before we get overwhelmed by all the new story lines of the 2013 season, let’s take a moment to give some should-be legends their day in the sun.

Des Bieler is a page designer, artist and writer who will contribute his NFL insights to Opening Kick on Fridays and the print edition’s game-day page on Sundays. Follow him on Twitter at @DezBeeWP.

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● It’s from a few days ago, but worth checking out if you missed it: Aaron Gordon at theclassical.org reminds us that it was only a few short years ago when ESPN was loudly celebrating hits that would be cringe-inducing — not to mention fine- and suspension-inducing — today. “Jacked Up,” indeed.

● If you play fantasy football, Evan Silva’s Matchups column at rotoworld.com is a weekly must-read. Even if you don’t do the fantasy thing (and I tip my hat to you for deciding to retain your sanity), Silva’s authoritative analysis will leave you feeling a lot more knowledgable about the weekend’s games. On the other hand, Silva picked the Ravens to beat the Broncos, so what the heck does he know? Still plenty of red meat here for football junkies.

● Just as society at large is getting more tolerant of homosexuality, so are NFL players, if these 62 supportive comments collected by outsports.com (including a few words from RGIII) are any indication.

What’s ahead:

● The Redskins are off practice at 11:50 today, and we’ll be posting links to our NFL preview section. Jason Reid’s column about Mike Shanahan the personnel man is one of the highlights.

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