Henry Ellard was one of the most productive wide receivers in NFL history, yet he’s not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That doesn’t make him unique. There are others from over 20 years ago who fit the same description– with Billy Wilson, Billy Howton, Otis Taylor, Charley Hennigan, Lionel Taylor, Del Shofner, Gary Collins, Harold Jackson, Stanley Wilson, and Sterling Sharpe among those who come to mind from that era.
But Ellard has something they don’t: One more year of modern-era eligibility before he transitions into the senior class with a covey of Hall-of-Fame worthy pass catchers. In fact, Ellard is one of 28 semifinalists for the Hall’s Class of 2023, with the cut to 15 finalists announced in early January.
Here’s hoping Ellard is one of those 15.
First of all, he’s qualified. When he retired after the 1998 season, he ranked third in all-time in receiving yards, fifth in all-purpose yards, and sixth in receptions. For some reason, that never resonated with voters … until now.
Which leads us to the second point: While he’s never been a finalist in 20 years of eligibility, he’s never been a semifinalist, either… until now. For some inexplicable reason, voters warmed up to him in his last year as a modern-era candidate, pushing him to the semifinals for the first time. It’s a situation not unlike that of cornerback Albert Lewis, also in his last year of eligibility and is a semifinalist for only the second time.
That means Hall-of-Fame selectors have a choice this month: Give Ellard and Lewis one last chance to argue their cases as modern-era finalists or watch them disappear into the abyss of seniors, where 53 all-decade candidates have never been discussed as finalists.
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Not waiting on voters, we gave Ellard an opportunity to promote himself on the latest “Eye Test for Two” broadcast – asking him what he’d tell voters if he had the chance.
“That’s a tough one for me,” he said reluctantly, “because I’m not that kind of guy who brags about anything. I would just say my numbers were compiled with 13 different quarterbacks. Everything else speaks for itself.
“But I was fortunate … or however you want to say it … to catch from 13 different quarterbacks when I compiled my numbers. I don’t know who would be the next guy who could say that; who would come close to that.”
He’s right about that. In his 11 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, Ellard caught passes from everyone from Dieter Brock to Steve Dils to Jim Everett. Then, in five seasons with Washington it was quarterbacks like Heath Shuler, John Friesz and Gus Frerotte.
I think you get the idea. They weren’t Hall of Famers.
Yet Ellard thrived, producing the highest yards-per-catch average of anyone with over 765 career receptions. With his 814 catches, he averaged 16.93 yards per, and if that seems like a lot it’s because it is. Nobody with more catches – not Jerry Rice, not Randy Moss, not Marvin Harrison – averaged more. In fact, of the 50 leading receivers in NFL history, only one – Hall of Famer James Lofton – had a higher per-catch average (18.3) than Ellard.
“I take a lot of pride in that,” he said. “YACs as they call it. Yards After Catch. That was the thing I was always focusing on as I caught the ball. Catch the ball and try to get those extra yards; turn a 5-yard hitch into a 20 yard or 30-yard touchdown was the thing I was really focused on. And punt returns helped me with that situation.”
Ah, yes, punt returns. Before Ellard was an accomplished receiver is was an accomplished returner. In his first three pro seasons, he returned 83 punts for a 13.5 average and four TDs. Then he became more of a pass target than a return specialist, and the rest you know.
“In my first four years in the league we had Eric Dickerson in the backfield,” he said. “Guess where that ball was going? That’s when I became a punt returner to try get my hands on the ball to do what I can to help the team. If we had a 35 or 40 catch season we were doing well in that situation.”
Seven times Ellard had more than 1,000 receiving yards, including a league-high 1,414 in 1988. He led the NFL that season by averaging 88.4 yards a game. He led it again one year later with a staggering 98.7 average – and this at a time when big hitters like Ronnie Lott and Steve Atwater patrolled the middle of the field, daring receivers to cross at their own risk.
Ellard did, and put up numbers comparable to Hall-of-Fame receiver Andre Reed … with one difference: Reed went to four Super Bowls. Ellard went to none. Ellard was a first-team All-Pro twice. Reed was never a first-team All-Pro. Yet Reed was a nine-time semifinalist and eight-time finalist before his election in 2014. Ellard has had no such luck but expresses no anger or regret.
“My thing,” he said, “is just having an opportunity to play at the NFL level was a blessing in itself. (There was) his little kid from Fresno, California, who was one of the last guys to be picked in the neighborhood when they were picking teams. (Kids would say), ’You take him, I don’t want him. No, you take him.’
“To think that you get the opportunity to play not only one year in the NFL but 16 years in the NFL is a blessing in itself. So you never hear me complain about something like this because I was very blessed. I was very fortunate to get the opportunity to live out a dream and play in the NFL.”