No matter how prestigious the honor, it is human nature for some of us to identify the “worst” member in any group. It’s the “ugliest” contestant at a beauty pageant, the “poorest” person in a room full of millionaires, or the worst movie to ever win Best Picture (here’s looking at you, Gigi).
While everyone receives the same honor, deep down inside you have the feeling that “one of these things is not like the other.” There is at least one person here that does not belong with the rest.
It works that way for sports too, including the greatest individual honor a player can receive: enshrinement into the Hall of Fame.
We often look at the biggest snubs from Canton, but what about the least deserving player ever enshrined? With 273 members (40 of those are coaches and contributors), there are several good candidates.
One easy way to tell when a player might be on that bottom-tier of the least deserving is to simply read his bio page on the Hall of Fame website. If, instead of incredible career achievements, you see references to what he did in college, where he was drafted, opinionated material and single-game highlights, then there is a good chance this player is very fortunate to even be inducted.
For example, here is such a bio for a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame:
Heisman Trophy winner, All-America at Notre Dame. . .Bonus draft pick, 1957. . .Multi-talented clutch player, at best inside 20-yard line. . .NFL Player of Year, 1960, 1961. . .Led NFL scorers three years with record 176 points in 1960. . .Career stats: 3,711 yards rushing, 130 receptions, 760 points. . .Tallied record 19 points in 1961 NFL title game. . . Played in two Pro Bowls.
Why Hornung and Not Someone Else?
Before getting specifically into the case against Hornung, let’s quickly go through an elimination process of other candidates:
- No players from the pre-modern era (before 1950) considered, because it was practically a different sport in terms of competition and professionalism.
- Players selected as a Senior Candidate not considered (even if they will not admit it, voters feel pressure to select these players to appease the committee).
- Least deserving QB: Joe Namath at least played the toughest position and was good in the AFL portion of his career. He also mastered the “off-field playboy” role better than Hornung.
- Least deserving WR: During Lynn Swann’s career (1974-1982), he ranked third in touchdown catches (51) and was more productive in receptions and yards relative to his position than Hornung was in his career.
- Fully aware that Jan Stenerud is the only pure placekicker in Canton. He would look less awkward if voters followed through with more kickers.
Hornung was elected in his 12th year as a finalist, so this is hardly unfounded. The only players that waited longer were Carl Eller (13th year) and Lynn Swann (14th). Eller was a five-time first-team All Pro on one of the best defenses ever. He deserved to make it sooner.
Running back is a position that has presented some of the most egregious selections (and omissions). It is fitting that a running back would be the choice of the least deserving Hall of Famer, and no one fits the bill better than Hornung.
The Case Against Paul Hornung
To understand why Hornung is the most undeserving, you have to go back to the roots of his football career and the events that shaped the type of attention he received. That is why, like any good prosecutor would, I developed a point-by-point account to build the case against him.
1. Hornung began receiving undue praise in college because he played for Notre Dame
The “Golden Boy” built a name for himself thanks to playing for the media darling powerhouse that is Notre Dame. This is where he established himself as a “jack of all trades, master of none” player, which apparently people eat up.
America had just come out of an era of professional football where many players played on both sides of the ball. Sammy Baugh was able to dominate as a quarterback, punter and defensive back for the Washington Redskins. Yet, the Notre Dame media machine had us believe that Hornung’s versatility was something unique.
Look no further than his final season in 1956. After moving to quarterback, Hornung threw three touchdowns and 13 interceptions while also leading the Fighting Irish in rushing, scoring and various kicking categories.
It all led to a 2-8 season, which was Notre Dame’s first losing season in 23 years. Yet, Hornung won the 1956 Heisman Trophy, making him the only player to ever win it with a losing record.
What a farce. Tennessee’s Johnny Majors not only out-rushed Hornung by 129 yards, but he was a more effective passer, throwing five touchdowns and three interceptions. Tennessee was also a perfect 10-0.
Then there was the great Jim Brown at Syracuse. He rushed for 980 yards (6.2 YPC) and 13 touchdowns. Syracuse was 7-2, but Brown finished just fifth in the Heisman voting.
Of course, Hornung was Notre Dame’s Golden Boy, and no African-American would win the Heisman until 1961 (Ernie Davis). The voting criterion for the Heisman has never been well defined, but in any other year besides 1956, having a winning record was a prerequisite. Safe to say we will never again see a player on a team that won 20 percent of their games winning the Heisman.
Only Hornung. Only at Notre Dame.
2. Hornung hits NFL lottery; plays for the Notre Dame equivalent in Green Bay
How can it get any better than being a star at Notre Dame? Join a flagship franchise in the NFL and be there for their dynasty years.
The 1956 Heisman Trophy was not the only time Hornung was taken ahead of Jim Brown. In the 1957 NFL Draft, the Green Bay Packers used the first overall pick, won as a lottery bonus pick, to take Hornung. Jim Brown was chosen sixth by Cleveland.
Imagine if the Packers had taken Brown instead. While Brown was instantly winning rushing titles and rewriting the record books, the Packers with Hornung were going nowhere fast. They went 4-19-1 in 1957-58.
That’s when fate intervened, and Vince Lombardi saved the day for Green Bay. He began getting more out of previously underwhelming players like Bart Starr and Hornung, and the Packers immediately improved to 7-5.
With Hornung moved to halfback and Jim Taylor at fullback, Lombardi had his ideal backfield, and the Packers became the dynasty of the 1960s. They won five titles in a span of seven seasons.
But how much credit does Hornung deserve for that? Not as much as he receives.
3. Hornung was the second best running back…on his own team
When debating Hall of Fame credentials, most people will use criteria that includes whether or not the player was among the best in the league at his position. But what happens when a player was not even the best on his own team?
It does not take a genius of a head coach to know that you have to get the ball into the hands of your best players. Even Mike Tice figured that one out. That is why starting in 1960, Lombardi’s Packers leaned on Jim Taylor to be their leading rusher. The famous “Packers’ Sweep” featured more Taylor than Hornung, and for good reason.
Taylor was the best back on the Packers. From 1960 to 1964, Taylor amassed 6.069 rushing yards in 66 games. He averaged 4.94 yards per carry and 92.0 rushing yards per game. His numbers tailed off in 1965 when he turned 30, but at his peak, Taylor was the closest player to rival Jim Brown’s rushing dominance in the NFL.
I do not have game logs for prior to 1960 (Hornung led the Packers in rushing in 1958-59), but from 1960 to 1966, Hornug played 66 games. He was rarely the leading rusher (determined by rushing yards) for the Packers.
In 66 games, Hornung led the Packers in rushing just nine times (13.6 percent). In his five playoff games, he led the team twice to Taylor’s three games. Adding the playoffs, that’s just 11 games out of 71 (15.5 percent).
Hornung never rushed for more than 681 yards in any season. Taylor did that in seven seasons. From 1957-1966, running backs exceeded 681 yards in a season 98 times.
Despite playing in a league with 12 to 14 teams and in Lombardi’s run-heavy offense, Hornung never finished top 10 in yards from scrimmage in any season. He did not touch the ball often enough to accumulate such numbers.
Speaking of a “Taylor," putting Hornung in Canton is almost like putting in John Taylor from San Francisco. He was never the best wide receiver on his team (Jerry Rice), but he had some decent numbers, a couple of Pro Bowl selections, a huge clutch moment in a Super Bowl and a memorable performance.
Plus, he won multiple championships. In some ways, he is almost a better candidate than Hornung.
(Though we cannot even get Roger Craig in, let alone John Taylor…)
How often would a Hall of Fame running back play second fiddle for years on his team? It just does not happen.
Unless you are Hornung.
4. Hornung was simply a clone of Doak Walker
Sports Illustrated’s Dr. Z called Doak Walker the least deserving player in Canton. That is a great choice too, as Walker was in many ways the Hornung of the league in the early 1950s for the Detroit Lions. Hornung was drafted two years after Walker retired.
In fact, the comparison is downright eerie in a Nexus-6 type of way.
- Both players won the Heisman Trophy and were drafted in the top three picks in the NFL.
- Both players were primarily running backs, but also were famous for their versatility, including placekicking duties.
- Both won multiple scoring titles, and multiple NFL championships.
- Both were “golden boys”, reaching celebrity-like status in their careers.
- To top it off, both were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
Walker’s Hall of Fame bio even reads the same way as Hornung’s:
Three-time All-America, 1948 Heisman Trophy winner. . .Played major role in Lions' successes, early 1950s. . .Ran 67 yards for winning TD in 1952 title game. . . Extremely versatile - rushed, passed, caught passes, returned punts and kickoffs, punted, placekicked and played defense in emergencies. . . Scored 534 points, won two NFL scoring titles. . .All-NFL five years. . .Played in five Pro Bowls.
Pro-Football-Reference has an Approximate Value (AV) system to grade all players back to 1950. For Hall of Fame players who started their careers since 1950, guess which two have the lowest career AV?
You got it. Paul Hornung (62) and Doak Walker (64) are the lowest. Gale Sayers (68) would be third, but he essentially played five seasons plus four injury-plagued games. However, keep in mind AV does not work for special teams contributions (meaning Jan Stenerud is at 0), though it’s questionable how much value Hornung and Walker actually provided in that department.
Doak Walker connected on 56.3 percent of his field-goal attempts. That still beats the 47.1 percent (66 of 140) made by Hornung.
Due to the specialization in football, players like Hornung and Walker no longer exist. While Adrian Peterson probably could kick field goals and certainly extra points for the Vikings, there’s no need for him to do that in today’s game.
This extra responsibility added to each player’s scoring and allowed them to win five scoring titles (two for Walker; three for Hornung). In fact, Hornung even complained in 2006 about LaDainian Tomlinson (186 points) breaking his single-season record of 176 points set in 1960. That year Hornung made 15 field goals and kicked 41 extra points.
Maybe Tomlinson should have complained that he was not allowed to kick extra points and field goals for his team to boost his stats even more.
Why not choose Walker over Hornung as the least deserving? Well, Walker did receive more accolades in his brief career. He was a four-time first-team All Pro. He did only rush for 1,520 career yards but was an effective receiver with 2,539 receiving yards (16.7 yards per catch).
Walker averaged 60.6 yards from scrimmage per game in his career. Hornung averaged 49.9 yards from scrimmage per game in his career.
As is the case of Hornung versus any modern skill player in the Hall of Fame, the other player was relied on more in his offense. Hornung was just a fancy cog in the big Lombardi machine.
5. Why was Hornung even considered clutch?
As his bio gloats, Hornung was a “multi-talented clutch player, at best inside 20-yard line.” But what do we have to base this on? We do not have the advanced stats we have for today’s players, where we could see how successful Hornung was inside the red zone relative to his peers.
We do know it was Jim Taylor gaining most of the yards for the Packers, and it was even Taylor scoring more of the touchdowns. Hornung rushed for 50 touchdowns, an average of one every 17.9 carries. With the Packers, Taylor rushed for 81 touchdowns, an average of one every 22.4 carries.
In his career, Taylor scored 62 touchdowns from one-to-nine yards. Hornung had 42 touchdowns from that distance (includes two receiving scores). Taylor had 76 touchdowns inside the red zone, compared to Hornung’s 51.
What about fumbles? Taylor fumbled on 1.57 percent of his touches from scrimmage. Hornung was higher at 2.04 percent, so no advantage there either.
Was Hornung really the preferred option once the Packers got in the red zone? Does not look like it. Just sounds like an exaggeration to prop up a player.
What is clutch in this context? Simply winning championships is not clutch. Not when the Packers were so often the favorites, and the defense dominated the opponents.
Green Bay was not known for a lot of heart-stopping finishes during the Lombardi era (or apparently in any era outside of that one Don Majkowski season in 1989). Their most famous clutch win? It was Bart Starr sneaking in for the touchdown in the Ice Bowl. Hornung was enjoying his first year of retirement at that moment.
So when Vince Lombardi says that Hornung was “the best clutch player I’ve ever seen,” I would like to know what the hell he was talking about.
Here is what I do know about Green Bay’s clutch wins circa 1957-1966:
- Green Bay had 20 fourth quarter comebacks and 20 game-winning drives.
- Paul Hornung never scored a game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter in his career.
- Jim Taylor had seven game-winning touchdowns in the fourth quarter in his career.
- For two more scores, Taylor also had a game-tying touchdown run to force a 24-24 tie against the Rams in 1964, and a go-ahead touchdown against the 49ers in 1965.
- Hornung had two touchdown runs in this fourth quarter to tie the game at Baltimore in 1957, before the team later won on a Hail Mary.
- Hornung did boot a 26-yard game-winning field goal to beat Detroit in 1962.
Once again, Hornung defers to his own teammate Taylor, who was probably far more deserving of titles like “clutch” or “best in the red zone.”
So what was Lombardi thinking on that clutch comment? After all, look who seemed to be getting the ball more in the big moments.
6. Hornung had no business winning a MVP
Like his Heisman Trophy, Hornung’s MVP award in 1961 was a bit of a sham as well. He led the league in scoring again with 146 points, but he had just 742 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns. Hornung won the MVP, yet did not even get selected to the Pro Bowl. Figure that one out.
Who is the least deserving player in the Pro Football HOF?
Once again Hornung was not the best back on his own team, as Jim Taylor had an excellent season with 1,307 rushing yards and a league-leading 15 rushing touchdowns.
It was also more about Johnny Unitas having a down year in Baltimore, and while Jim Brown was again great, the Browns were only 8-6. The only teams that had a strong record were Green Bay (11-3), New York Giants (10-3-1), and the Philadelphia Eagles (10-4).
Y.A. Tittle had a good year for the Giants, but he did not start every game. However, the Newspaper Ent. Assoc. did award Tittle the MVP, while the AP and UPI went with Hornung.
By today’s standards, Sonny Jurgensen should have won the MVP in 1961 for leading the Eagles to a 10-4 record despite having one of the league’s lowest-ranked defenses and running games. Jurgensen set a NFL record with 3,723 passing yards and had a record-tying 32 touchdown passes. That is much more in line with the standard of being the “Most Valuable Player."
Not what Hornung did.
7. Hornung was one of the most replaceable Packers
The concept of Hornung being the most valuable player in the league—let alone on the Packers—is laughable.
His value was tested in historic fashion in 1963. Hornung and Detroit’s Alex Karras were the first players to ever be suspended for an entire season after betting on NFL games.
While both returned to action in 1964, some still believe Karras is not in the Hall of Fame because of this incident, though Hornung went unaffected. Voters are told to not let off-field issues impact the process, but those are just words. Still, it is an interesting subplot to Hornung’s enshrinement.
When a team loses a Hall of Fame player for an entire season, you would expect some sort of struggle to take place. That was not the case in Green Bay in 1963.
Without Hornung, the Packers finished 11-2-1. They scored the second most points in the league, while finishing second in rushing yards, yards per carry, and they led the league in touchdown runs.
Tom Moore, playing the Hornung role at halfback, rushed for 658 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 4.98 yards per carry. He had 895 yards from scrimmage, which basically meant he had a season that would be the second most prolific (offensively) in Hornung’s career.
Now the Packers failed to make the playoffs, though the league did not have a true playoff system at the time. Their only two losses of the season were to the Chicago Bears, who won the NFL Championship in 1963.
Hornung’s presence would not have done much to prevent Green Bay quarterbacks from throwing nine interceptions in the two games against Chicago. Bart Starr threw four interceptions in a Week 1 loss, and in the rematch, it was John Roach (two) and Zeke Bratkowski (three) combining for five interceptions.
When Hornung returned in 1964, the team actually regressed to a record of 8-5-1. Hornung made just 12 of his 38 field goal attempts (31.6 percent), making 1964 the last season he had placekicking duties. He was replaced by a pure kicker (Don Chandler) in 1965.
With his role reduced the next two seasons, Green Bay won two more championships. In 1966, Hornung sat on the bench, inactive, with a pinched nerve in his neck as his teammates won the first ever Super Bowl.
After being selected in an expansion draft by New Orleans in 1967, Hornung retired during training camp due to that pinched nerve. Jim Taylor spent his final season in the NFL on the Saints too.
Meanwhile, the Packers went on to repeat as Super Bowl champions without Hornung and Taylor in the backfield. Green Bay won without Hornung, and that includes championships. No player was bigger than the team in Lombardi’s system.
If someone was, it certainly was not Hornung.
Conclusion: Bronze never looked right for the Golden Boy
Some players have cheering sections with unique names attached to them. For example, Franco Harris had “Franco’s Italian Army” in Pittsburgh. For Paul Hornung, a good title for his cheering section would be: “Hornung’s Hollow Halo of Hyperbole.”
Not many players in NFL history, and certainly none in the Hall of Fame, have had more empty statements of glorification thrown at them than the Golden Boy. That’s the power of having the opportunity to play for Notre Dame and a NFL dynasty in Green Bay.
It used to be easy to build up a legend. Today, the microscopes are out and in deep focus. No one would be able to reach the heights Hornung reached—Heisman Trophy, NFL MVP, Pro Football Hall of Fame—without the big production to match.
If the Pro Football Hall of Fame wanted to kill two birds with one stone, they could replace the least deserving player in Hornung with a long-time snub: guard Jerry Kramer. That way the quota of Lombardi-era Packers remains unchanged, and everyone is happy.
Everyone except Hornung.
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