Football 101: No. 47, Paul Warfield
We continue with our weekly roundups of the next players in the Football 101—my personal countdown of the greatest players in pro football history. Thanks for reading, and for those who aren’t subscribers, I hope you’ll consider joining!
One of the funny and wonderful things about sports is that all of us, no matter who we are, begin watching with the show already in progress. There’s a whole history of sports that happened before we were born, before we became aware, and we just sort of catch up best that we can.
That is to say we aren’t born knowing who Henry Aaron is, who Joe Montana is, even who Michael Jordan is. We learn. Maybe a parent points one out with an unusual reverence in their voice. “Son,” Bob Costas remembers his dad saying the first time they went to the Polo Grounds together. “See him. No, the one in the middle. That’s Willie Mays.”
Maybe we see a photograph that grabs our attention. Who’s the boxer standing triumphantly over that crumpled figured on the mat? Who’s that hockey player flying like Superman in front of the net? Who’s that tennis player being carried like Cleopatra to play in a match against a man?
Maybe we catch a highlight of a blurry, black and white Babe Ruth running pigeon toed around the bases. Maybe we read a story about Joe Namath toddling around the New York scene. Maybe we overhear a conversation about how these kids could never stand up against Wilt Chamberlain.
Somehow, gradually, step-by-step, we begin to piece together a larger picture of the world.
In 1976, when I was 9 years old, the Cleveland Browns re-signed Paul Warfield. He was 34 years old by then, and I had absolutely no idea who he was. I was at that embryonic stage of sports fanhood when I knew only the basic rules, when I knew only the names of a handful of players, when I was still trying to catch up on the basics. But I could sense, in the hushed tones of the adults who talked about it — our neighbors, the school bus driver, the teachers at school — that this was someone different, that Paul Warfield was something special.
Looking back, it can be hard to find that specialness in the statistics — in one of his All-Pro seasons, he caught just 29 passes, which is basically two games for Cooper Kupp — but it’s important to remember that wide receivers like Warfield filled a different role in the 1960s and 1970s. He was a nuclear bomb, one used more as a deterrent than as a weapon.
That All-Pro year he caught just 29 passes — that was 1973 for the Super Bowl champion Dolphins — Warfield scored 11 touchdowns. That was an extreme version of Paul Warfield’s entire career; 20 percent of his catches were for touchdowns. One out of every five. Crazy.
But that’s all he could be in his time. Warfield played for two of the most conservative offenses in NFL history — the Jim Brown Browns and the Don Shula Dolphins — and he played in a time when defensive backs could essentially tackle, assault, pummel and maul receivers to their hearts’ content. We can only imagine what kind of crazy numbers Warfield would put up in today’s wide-open game.
In his own time, he served as a constant warning to defenses: Pay attention or I will score a touchdown on the very next play.