Great receivers will beat the zone coverage that is prevalent today, but not deep and not often. One of the most pleasant memories I have of pro football is Elroy Hirsch going down the sideline, and 60 yards downfield taking a pass over his head from Waterfield or Van Brocklin, a couple of steps ahead of the defensive back, the ball dropping in on a dime, the back well beaten and Hirsch gone for the touchdown. At $18,000 a year.
Hirsch, Raymond Berry and Tom Fears were the best receivers, for different reasons. Hirsch had everything: extraordinary speed, the best moves I have seen, hands like a glue pot and eyes in the back of his head. Fears had everything Hirsch had except speed. Berry did not have much speed, but he had hands and head and desire, and he spent so much time working at his job that he overcame his handicap.
Incidentally, Fears made the best run I have ever seen. Two of the best, actually. He may have been the most reliable pressure player of all time. The first one was against the Bears in a divisional playoff. He caught a dink pass just over the line of scrimmage from Waterfield. The Bears had 14 shots at him on the tortuous shifting run he made for the touchdown.
The other great run was in the 1951 championship game against the Browns, when he caught a pass between Tom James and Cliff Lewis, the safetymen, and went 73 yards for a touchdown that won that game. Fears was not as fast as either James or Lewis—except on that play.
To go back to the quarterbacks, the five best were, in order, Van Brocklin, John Unitas, Bart Starr, Waterfield and Fran Tarkenton. Technically Otto Graham was as good as any of them, but he never directed a team. His coach, Paul Brown, called the signals.
The keys to judging quarterbacks are the teams they beat, when they beat them and how many games they won. Namath has most often beaten teams with less than a .500 average. Van Brocklin beat good teams when he had to beat them, as did Waterfield, Unitas, Starr and Tarkenton.
The best running back who ever lived was Jim Brown. He may have been something less than the best man who ever lived, but he could carry a football farther and better than anyone.
He played at 6'2" and 228 pounds, but he ran with the speed of O. J. Simpson and he never got hurt. He had an odd gliding stride, his feet never far off the ground and, after he retired, he told me that his stride accounted for his not being injured.
"I never took the impact of a tackle on one leg," he said. "When I got hit I could plant both feet so I didn't get any knee injuries. You read about high knee action for a running back, and that's a lot of bull. You lift your knees high, and there's only one knee takes the shot and something has to go.
Lenny Moore, who played for the Colts, was nearly as good as Brown, and he ran with his knees coming up to his belly button, and he didn't get hurt that much. Hugh McElhenny, the old 49er, combined the two styles. He was probably the most exciting runner to watch. His biggest asset was his ability to change direction without loss of speed. He had Brown's glide and Moore's ability to step over tacklers, and his own sixth sense which warned him of trouble. If by some magic I could see one run again I'd like to see McElhenny's dramatic run against Detroit in the 1957 playoff game between the 49ers and the Lions.