Lionel Taylor, Denver
by Sam Monson
Great NFL WRs. Jerry Rice, Bob Hayes, Randy Moss, even going back as far as Don Hutson, they're all names people recognise as some of the best receivers to ever play the game. Stand up if you've heard of Lionel Taylor. Not too many have, yet this is a man who was as dominant in his time as any other WR in history.
Taylor attended New Mexico Highlands University, known no more then as it is now for football, and was a star in Basketball and Athletics, as well as earning All-Conference honours as a Wide Receiver in both 1956 and '57. He first signed with the Chicago Bears, and spent the first 8 games of the 1959 season with them. Chicago clearly never realised what they had in Taylor as he caught precisely zero passes as a Chicago Bear. For the 1960 season, the man who was rejected by the NFL's establishment moved to the Denver Broncos, of the new rival league, the American Football League.
As a Bronco Taylor's career really took off. In his first year in the AFL he caught 92 passes, for 1,235 yards and 12 TDs. Those are numbers that would be amongst the league leaders in todays pass happy NFL, but in the pro-football world of the 1960s they were on a different level. His first year catching passes in 1960 was his first of 3 consecutive AFL All-Star seasons, 4 in total. In 6 of his 7 seasons playing for the Denver Broncos, Lionel Taylor was either named as team MVP, or an AFL All-Star, or both. Compared to the rest of pro-football at the time, Taylor was on his own level. Between 1960 and 1965, only 10 players caught more than 300 passes. Only 2 caught more than 400. Art Powell recorded 405 receptions, 22 more than the next player, and 60 more than the great Raymond Berry, but Lionel Taylor eclipsed them all, catching a preposterous 508 passes, a full 103 more than Powell.
That might not sound like much today, but only 87 players in the NFL and AFL combined managed to catch 100 passes in total in the same period. Taylor caught 100 more than anybody else! His 508 receptions during that 6 season span, was a record that stood for 30 years until Sterling Sharpe notched 540 receptions between 1989 and 1994. Even though Taylor's record was broken by Sharpe, the fact that Taylor was playing in 14, not 16 game seasons in the 1960s, meant that he actually played in 14 fewer games over his 6 seasons, yet only recorded 32 fewer receptions. Taylor also set other long-standing records: In 1961 he became the first pro-football receiver ever to record 100 receptions. That stood as a Broncos team record until 2000, and it wasn't until Anquan Boldin hit 300 receptions in just 47 games in 2006 that his pace to 300 receptions was bettered. That's a record that stood for more than 40 years!
Taylor wasn't just a receiver with great hands, he was dedicated to being the best he could be. He kept a page on each defensive back he would face, listing their strengths and their weaknesses. Unlike some players, who would play to a guy's weaknesses, Taylor always tried to beat his man to his strength, feeling that if he could accomplish that, he would have the defensive back beaten all day. Unlike the receivers playing in today's NFL, Lionel Taylor played in an age where defences had as much of an edge as they ever had. Whereas today you find receivers who'll hear footsteps going across the middle, Taylor once said If you catch the ball, it only hurts half as much when you get hit.
Taylor finished his career as the AFL's all time leader in receptions, and is a member of the AFL Hall of Fame, as well as being an inaugural member of the Broncos Ring of Fame, but he has never been recognised by the 'Pro Football' Hall of Fame, like so many other AFL stars, because the perceived superiority that the NFL had still exists to this day. Whilst the selection committee for the Hall of Fame might still believe the NFL was a vastly superior league, Taylor contends that the reason the AFL was able to upset the NFL in 2 of the first 4 Superbowls was because of the quality of the skill position players. He once said A lot of people didn't realize that the AFL had a lot of great skill players that never got a shot in the NFL because there weren't enough teams. You're talking Len Dawson, Art Powell, Don Maynard, Abner Haynes; you could really name them at the skill positions.
You know one reason why I was not surprised the New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl? The AFL had better players at the skill positions.
Taylor was never truly recognised by the NFL for the things he accomplished on the field, nor was he ever truly recognised for his achievements as a coach after he hung up his boots. Taylor went on to coach in Pittsburgh under Chuck Noll, and eventually rose to the position of Offensive Coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams, but never got his shot as a Head Coach. Tony Dungy, after his Superbowl XLI win last year, hailed Lionel Taylor as one of the men in his position before he was, that was never given the shot to achieve what he achieved. In the end Taylor found his way over to England, as Head Coach of the World League's London Monarchs, where he was a popular figure amongst the fans, league and players. As an assistant coach he was involved in the development of Brad Johnson at QB for the Monarchs before taking over the top position 2 games into the 1996 season.
Lionel Taylor was a pioneer throughout his career in pro-football. He was a player that stood head and shoulders above some of the great receivers of the time, and posted records that stood for over 40 years. Lionel Taylor was snubbed by the NFL both at the beginning, and at the end of his career, but in the middle, he posted some of the most impressive numbers ever seen by a wide receiver. Not content with succeeding as a player, he then set about succeeding as a minority coach in the NFL, paving the way for Head Coaches such as Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith to square off in a Superbowl. Despite all his success, Lionel Taylor has never been recognised by the NFL in the way he deserves, and that is the case for too many players who pioneered the AFL, and helped to bring revolutionary change to the NFL itself. These players deserve recognition, and there's no better place to start than a true forgotten great like Lionel Taylor.
Learn More about past NFL greats in our History Archive
For more information on forgotten AFL Greats visit www.remembertheAFL.com