State Your Case: Henry Ellard

Henry Ellard may be the most productive receiver nobody remembers.


(Henry Ellard photo courtesy of L.A. Rams)

By Ron Borges

Talk of Fame Network

Henry Ellard always wondered what might have happened if he’d played on pass-happy teams like the Miami Dolphins or San Diego Chargers. My guess is he’d be in the Hall of Fame.

Maybe he should be anyway.

Ellard played nine of his 11 years with the Los Angeles Rams in an offense that believed in running the ball, running the ball and then running the ball some more. Coach John Robinson came to the Rams from USC, where he’d made the running game the signature of Trojans’ football, and he believed it would be just as effective in the NFL. With Eric Dickerson in the backfield it was ... and that kept Ellard’s receiving skills well-hidden for too long.

But not forever.

It took six years for Robinson and the Rams to decide air mail could be at least as effective as the pony express. Once they did, Henry Ellard took flight.

In the first five years of his career, Ellard was more dangerous as a punt returner than a wide receiver, never catching more than 54 passes until 1988. But with Dickerson gone to Indianapolis in 1987, the Rams finally discovered what Ellard could do.

It was plenty.

Ellard led the NFL that season with 1,414 yards on 86 receptions. A year later, he averaged 98.7 receiving yards per game on his way to the second of four straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons with the Rams.

Ellard had world-class speed, Olympian leaping ability and, for a decade, he used both to make life miserable for defensive backs assigned to cover him. After moving on to the Washington Redskins in 1994, Ellard put up the first of three 1,000-yard receiving seasons there, averaging 18.9 yards per catch, good for 1,397 yards.

His final 1,000-yard season would come in 1996, one year before his retirement, when, at the age of 35, he averaged nearly 20 yards per reception (19.5 to be precise) and posted his seventh 1,000-yard season since John Robinson finally unchained him from a life of punt returns and downfield blocks.

Despite playing more than a third of his career on run-oriented teams and without a top-quality quarterback, when Henry Ellard retired after 16 seasons in 1997 he ranked third all-time in receiving yards with 13,777 and fourth in receptions with 814. He had dominated his decade, even if for nearly half of it the Rams refused to throw him the ball.

Ellard was the rarest of wide receivers, one who got better with age. In his first five seasons in the NFL, he averaged only 38 catches and 589 yards receiving per season while serving as a Pro Bowl punt returner when not downfield blocking for Dickerson.

The next nine seasons he topped 1,000 yards seven times, averaging 65 catches and 1,136 yards per season. When his chance came, he produced.

One can debate whether Henry Ellard belongs in the Hall of Fame or the Hall of Very Good, but one thing is certain: That debate should be held in Canton.