With Davante Adams again on pace for another record-setting season, many names have been thrown around as the best wide receivers in Green Bay Packers history. One name, though, that isn’t mentioned – and rightfully should be – is Billy Howton.
Who are the greatest wide receivers in Green Bay Packers history? Ask that question to any fan and you’re sure to get the likes of Don Hutson, Donald Driver, Sterling Sharpe, Jordy Nelson, and a host of others.
There’s one name that needs to be added to that discussion, though: Billy Howton.
Despite playing in a run-first era and on some of the worst Packers teams in history, Howton’s name is still littered throughout the franchise’s record books. Most receiving yards in a game. Most single-season touchdowns as a rookie. Most single-season receiving yards as a rookie. Most 1,000-yard receiving seasons in a career. Most yards per reception in a career. Most total yards from scrimmage in a game. All team records Howton still holds or held at the time of his retirement.
And that’s not even mentioning the fact Howton – following his final career stops in Cleveland and Dallas – broke Hutson’s NFL records for most career receptions and receiving yards by the time he retired from football following the 1963 season.
Drafted out of Rice in the 1952 class that also included standouts like Babe Parilli, Bobby Dillon, Dave Hanner, and Deral Teteak, Howton made an immediate mark, breaking Hutson’s single-season receiving yardage record with 1,231 yards. Additionally, he became the first rookie to ever top 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Howton also scored 13 touchdowns in his inaugural NFL campaign, which stood as a rookie receiving record until it was broken by Randy Moss in 1998.
Though injuries forced him to miss four games in ’53, Howton still led the team in receptions – a streak that would run for six seasons. Consistency in ’54 and ’55 gave way to another explosive season, as he again led the NFL with 1,118 yards and 12 touchdowns, earning Associated Press All-Pro honors in the process. Though his numbers were down again in 1957 with teams keying on him, he still picked up All-Pro recognition after finishing near the top of the league in receptions (38), receiving yards (727) and touchdowns (5).
Perhaps his finest moment came on Oct. 21, 1956, when Howton caught seven passes for a franchise-record 257 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-17 rout of the Los Angeles Rams at Milwaukee County Stadium. Not only does that record still stand, but it surpassed his 200-yard showing against the same Rams team four years prior, making him one of just two Packers (the other being Hutson) with multiple 200-yard receiving games.
Meanwhile, Howton was equally effective in off-the-field matters, helping form the National Football League Players Association. By the time the NFLPA was recognized in 1956, he was elected as the union’s first president.
By the end of the disastrous 1958 season, Howton was second in franchise history in career receptions (303), receiving yards (5,581), 100-yard receiving games (17), yards per reception (18.4), and touchdowns (43). Yet, he was one of several players let go during Vince Lombardi’s roster overhaul during the 1959 offseason, as he was sent to the Browns in exchange for back Lew Carpenter and Bill Quinlan.
Howton would spend one season in Cleveland – and leading the team in receiving yards – before joining the expansion Dallas Cowboys in 1960. He would have four productive seasons in Dallas before stepping away. Once his time with the Cowboys ended, Howton topped the NFL career charts with 503 receptions and 8,459 yards.
“I’ll tell you a guy who is overlooked (as a Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate) is Billy Howton,” said Raymond Berry, the Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver and long-time coach who broke both of Howton’s career NFL records. “(Howton) was extremely professional in his pass routes. He knew what he was doing to maneuver and fake to get open. He would be effective going inside, going outside, effective going deep. He was an extremely dangerous receiver and had great technique.”
Howton was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1974 – just the fourth class of inductees in the organization’s history. Unfortunately, he has barely gotten a sniff as a finalist for Canton despite his career accomplishments.
Nonetheless, even if modern receivers put up gaudier numbers, Howton deserves to be recognized among the best pass catchers in Packers history.