Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Paul Warfield: The Perfect Receiver

Posted on December 10, 2018 by Dean Hybl

Warfield-DolphinsThe Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month was perfection personified as a wide receiver during his NFL career.

Known for his fluid movement, grace and jumping ability during his 13 year NFL career, Paul Warfield was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and key performer for the Miami Dolphins during their 17-0 campaign in 1972.

Because the role of the wide receiver has changed so much and today’s star receivers get the ball thrown to them so many more times than in the pre-1978 era, Warfield is often overlooked when discussing all-time greats.

But, think about this. Warfield averaged 20.1 yards per catch for his career (427 receptions, 8,565 yards) and 19.9% of his receptions went for touchdowns (85). By comparison, Julio Jones has averaged 15.5 yards per catch for his career and a touchdown in 6.9% of his receptions (46 TDs in 669 catches). Antonio Brown averages 13.4 ypc and a TD in 8.7% (70 of 804) of his receptions. Terrell Owens averaged 14.8 ypc and a TD in 14.2% of his receptions. Even Jerry Rice, considered the greatest receiver of all-time, averaged only 14.8 ypc and a TD in 12.7% of his catches.

After twice earning All-Big Ten honors as a halfback at Ohio State, Warfield was drafted in the first round of the 1964 draft by the Cleveland Browns and moved to wide receiver.

Making an immediate impact as a rookie, Warfield made his first Pro Bowl while catching 52 passes for 920 yards and nine touchdowns as the Browns won the NFL title.

After breaking his collar bone during the annual Chicago College All-Star Game during the 1965 exhibition season, Warfield was able to play in only one regular season game as well as the NFL Championship Game during his second season.

Returning to full duty in 1966, Warfield began an amazing streak of consecutive seasons averaging more than 20 yards per catch with 36 catches for 741 yards (20.6 ypc) and five touchdowns. He would go on to average more than 20 yards per catch for seven consecutive years.

After making consecutive Pro Bowls in 1968 and 1969, Warfield was surprisingly traded by the Browns to the Miami Dolphins for the third pick in the 1970 draft, which the Browns used on Purdue University quarterback Mike Phipps.

While the Browns would ultimately make only one playoff appearance over the next decade, Warfield proved to be the missing piece for a Miami team that was building a dynasty.

After posting a 15-39-2 record during their first four seasons as a franchise, with Warfield in the lineup and new coach Don Shula on the sidelines, the Dolphins improved to 10-4 in 1970 and reached the AFC Playoffs for the first time.

Warfield brought instant big-play capability to the offense and averaged a career-best 25.1 yards per catch with six touchdowns on 28 catches.

The next season, Warfield earned first-team All-Pro honors while catching 43 passes for 996 yards and 11 touchdowns. In the playoffs, Warfield caught 13 passes for 304 yards and a touchdown as the Dolphins reached the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.

While the Dolphins entered the 1972 season as a Super Bowl favorite, no one could have predicted their perfect season.

Despite losing starting quarterback Bob Griese to a broken leg during the fifth game of the season, the Dolphins rallied behind backup Earl Morrall to finish the regular season undefeated. Warfield was the primary deep threat for both quarterbacks as he caught 29 passes for 606 yards and three touchdowns.

Though the running game was the primary offensive emphasis during the playoffs, Warfield did catch seven passes for 149 yards as the Dolphins completed their perfect season with three playoff victories.

The 1973 season didn’t include another perfect record, but the Dolphins won their second straight Super Bowl. Warfield’s streak of consecutive seasons averaging 20 yards per catch came to an end, but he made the most of his 29 receptions as he had 11 touchdown grabs and averaged 17.7 yards per catch while earning first team All-Pro honors.

Injuries limited Warfield to only nine games in 1974, but he did earn his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl appearance while catching 27 passes for 536 yards and two scores.

A last minute touchdown pass from Ken Stabler to Clarence Davis lifted the Oakland Raiders past the Dolphins in the first round of the AFC Playoffs and ended the Dolphins dominance.

It also was the final game for Warfield in a Miami uniform.

Following the 1974 season, Warfield and running backs Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick left the Dolphins for the more lucrative contracts being offered in the new World Football League (WFL). The trio signed with the Toronto Northmen, but before the season even started the team moved to Memphis and became the Memphis Southmen.

The Southmen finished second in their division and Warfield caught 25 passes for 422 yards and three touchdowns. However, despite early interest and energy, the WFL was unable to compete with the NFL and folded following the 1975 season.

Warfield returned to the NFL and his original team the Cleveland Browns in 1976 and spent two seasons with the Browns before retiring at the age of 35.

At the time of his retirement, Warfield ranked among the NFL top 20 all-time in most receiving categories. However, the year after his retirement the NFL instituted new rules reducing allowable contact by defensive backs and over the last 40 years the role of the wide receiver has dramatically changed. He is no longer in the top 200 in career receptions and is 78th in career receiving yards.

Since the 2000 season, the NFL leader in yards per reception has reached 20 yards per catch, a mark Warfield eclipsed for seven straight years. His career average of 20.1 yards per catch is tied for the fourth highest average in NFL history.

At the time of his retirement Warfield ranked tied for third in NFL history with 85 touchdowns receptions and now is tied for 14th. However, Don Hutson at 20.1% is the only player in the group who scored touchdowns with a higher percentage of career receptions.

Given those numbers, it was not a surprise that Warfield was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1983.

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