James Lofton: the King of the Big Play

Don Hutson was great, but even the man who invented the wide receiver position couldn’t match one of James Lofton’s statistical feats.

We mentioned this week on Blue 58 that Lofton is one of just two players in Packers history to record a season of at least 50 catches while averaging more than 20 yards per reception.

Lofton did it twice, posting a 58 catch, 1300 yard season in 1983 and a 62 catch, 1361 yard season in 1984, averaging 22.4 and 22.0 yards per reception in those respective years.

That’s impressive, but it doesn’t even begin to explain how great Lofton was.

World Class Athlete, World Class Receiver

Before starring for the Packers, Raiders, and a handful of other NFL teams, Lofton was a great track and field athlete.

While at Stanford, Lofton was a tremendous all-around performer in track and field. He qualified for the 1978 national championships in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter races as well as the long jump, and went on to win the long jump that year.

Had he decided to stick with track, Lofton could have earned himself a gold medal one day. Even well after he left the world of track and field, Lofton showed he could still run like the win. In 1986, he competed against all-time track great Carl Lewis (and some other NFL players) in a half mile run.

Though Lewis was slightly past his sprinting prime and not running in his best event, Lofton still blows him off the track.

Lofton was 30 years old at the time of this race. Lewis? Just 25.

Lofton also claims a personal best of 20.5 seconds in the 200-meter dash, a time that would have looked reasonably respectable in the 2016 Olympics.

(Incidentally, Phillip Epps, one of Lofton’s teammates with the Packers, actually was a member of the USA track team. His personal best in the 200 was a blistering 20.1 seconds, which would have earned him a bronze medal at last summer’s Olympics by the slimmest of margins.)

Going Deep

Lofton’s athleticism showed up on the football field in a big way. In his 16 year NFL career, Lofton piled up 14,004 receiving yards, becoming the first pass catcher in league history to pass that threshold.

But Lofton’s most impressive achievements related directly to his ability to consistently get deep. In 11 of his 16 seasons, Lofton had at least one reception of 50 yards or more, including six seasons where he scored from at least 71 yards away.

His big play potential showed up in the averages we mentioned at the start of the piece, but that doesn’t show the whole story. Lofton managed to average at least 20 yards per reception in four different seasons where he had at least 35 receptions. He missed a fifth season by just three yards, averaging 19.9 yards per reception on 35 catches in 1982.

If Lofton had eked out just three more yards on those 35 catches, he’d have gotten to 20 yards per catch on rounding.

Lofton’s big play production is pretty much unheard of in the modern NFL. Players have averaged 20 yards per reception in recent history, but it’s far less common than it used to be. Using Lofton’s least productive 20 yard average season as a guide (1990, where he averaged 20.3 yards per reception on 35 catches), modern players still struggle to keep up.

According to Pro Football Reference, it’s only been done five times since 2000. DeSean Jackson gets the prize for having done it twice, but even his statistical body of work pales in comparison to Lofton, perhaps the greatest big play receiver in the history of the Packers.