Former Falcons and Oilers wide receiver/returner Billy “White Shoes” Johnson is the lone member on the NFL’s 75th anniversary team who has not been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Johnson, who broke the NFL record for punt return yards in 1985, believes that returners have not been given their due, much like punters and kickers.
“These guys are a part of the team,” Johnson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently. “You are not going to tell me that the returner, whether he takes it all the way back or not, isn’t important.
“(The returner) gets constant good yardage, field position, and sometimes they are not going to punt to you. When I was really rolling, they’d just punt it away. They’d take 30, 35 yards and let their defense work.
“The punters weren’t as good as they are now. I remember some games, they would kick it short and high enough. You don’t fair catch that much, but they would just try to keep the ball away (from the returner).”
In 2014, punter Ray Guy became the first punter inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Three years later, Morten Andersen became only the second exclusive place-kicker to be enshrined.
Pure returners have not gone in solely on their return ability.
Johnson played for Houston from 1974-80. He played 1981 with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League before playing for the Falcons from 1982-87 and with Washington in 1988.
The returners have been undervalued.
“To me, that’s part of the offense, it’s also part of the defense,” Johnson said. “You return a good punt, change the field position, you help the defense. You also help the offense because you are improving their starting position.
“You don’t get that many opportunities.”
Johnson broke Emlen Tunnell’s punt-return yardage record in 1985. Brian Mitchell, David Meggett, Devin Hester, Darrien Gordon, Eric Metcalf and Tim Brown since passed Johnson, who ranks seventh on the all-time list.
“You look at Emlen, he was a wonderful returner, kicks, punts and everything else,” Johnson said. “But he also was an outstanding Hall of Fame defensive back.”
Johnson didn’t play in the passing game-era. So, his receiving numbers are not as gaudy. He did have two seasons of 60-plus catches.
“The young reporters, they don’t go back and look at the transition of the game (from running to passing),” Johnson said. “Go back and look at Emlen and how he did it. You have to look at Gale Sayers, who did it over the years consistently. Every now then you’ll get someone like Travis Williams, who came onto the scene and fizzled out after two years.
“I look at return guys for the longevity that they had, a guy like a Brian Mitchell, Mel Gray. I’ll tell you who was pretty good, Greg ‘Do It’ Pruitt and Joe Washington.”
Devin Hester may get some consideration.
“Hester couldn’t catch, but they tried to use him as a receiver,” Johnson said.
But returners, who didn’t play another main position, have been blocked.
“I don’t know why they don’t want to open it up to returners,” Johnson said. “It’s like Rick Upchurch said one time, returners change the game. If you go to the Hall of Fame, what are you supposed to do? You are to entertain the crowd. Change the complexion of the game. If you did that. He went down the list.
“But there’s another guy, Rick Upchurch. He could play receiver. He started at receiver. When you look at guys who did it, they weren’t just one-dimensional. Most of us played other positions.”
With the league adjusting kickoff rules, the returner may become extinct.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take, but I do think if they go back in history and look at every returner in the game,” Johnson said. “Except for maybe a few, they were valuable assets either offensively or defensively.”
Johnson was not a fan of Guy.
“The only guy who made me mad was Ray Guy,” Johnson said. “He would out-kick his coverage. One time that ball went about 80 yards into the end zone. (Oilers coach) Bum (Phillips) said that ball had to have some helium in it.
“I just knew I was going to get a return, I went back inside the 5 knowing that I was going to catch that ball, but the ball kept traveling into the end zone.”
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