Jimmy Orr caught passes for a living but, sadly, his career is known more for the one football that was not thrown his way.
It occurred on the final play of the first half of Super Bowl III. Trailing 7-0 and at the New York Jets 42, the Baltimore Colts ran a flea-flicker. Quarterback Earl Morrall handed the ball to halfback Tom Matte, who then lateraled back to Morrall. Orr sped past New York defenders reading run to the end zone, where he stood alone, frantically waving his arms for Morrall to see him.
But Morrall didn’t. Instead of throwing the ball to Orr for a potential game-tying touchdown, Morrall threw it underneath to fullback Jerry Hill. But it was intercepted by Jets safety Jim Hudson – and the AFL champions would go on to pull off a stunning 16-7 upset of the NFL champions.
And Orr’s career was lost in the pages of history.
Orr played in an era when quality of the catch mattered more than the quantity of catches. He never caught 100 passes in a season. Only two receivers did in the 1960s. He never had a 1,000-yard season. Only 36 wide receivers managed those in the 1960s. Fifteen wideouts managed them in 2017 alone.
It was a different era then. Back in 1962, in Orr’s finest season, NFL teams were running the ball more than they were throwing it. They were passing an average of 27 times per game in 1962. In today’s NFL, offenses are throwing the ball 35 times per game.
More passes translate into more catches, more yards, more touchdowns and inflated receiving statistics. There have already been 34 individual 100-catch seasons since 2010 – and there are still two seasons left before we close the book on the 2010 decade.
Which brings us back to the quality of a catch. Specifically, the quality of Jimmy Orr’s catches. Orr scored 66 touchdowns with his 400 career receptions. That’s a touchdown every 6.1 catches. Jerry Rice, who is widely regarded as the greatest receiver ever, averaged a touchdown every 7.8 catches.
Three times in his career Orr led the NFL with his average per catch – 27.6 yards in 1958, 25.6 yards in 1968 and 21.7 yards in 1964. The NFL leader in 2017 was Detroit’s Marvin Jones at 18.1 yards per catch. Orr’s career average of 19.8 yards per catch is eighth best in NFL history. His 27.6 yards per catch in 1958 remains the second-best single season in NFL history and his 25.6-yard average in 1968 ranks 12th.
Orr caught 33 passes for 910 yards and seven touchdowns to capture NFL Rookie of the Year honors with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1958. He was traded to the Colts in 1961, which gave him the chance to play with Hall-of-Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas. Orr caught a career-high 55 passes in 1962 for 974 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 45 passes in 1965 for 847 yards and 10 touchdowns on the way to his lone Pro Bowl.
Does Orr belong in the Hall of Fame? Not if you judge receivers on their quantity. But if you judge receivers on the quality of their catches, Orr’s career deserves discussion. If Morrall had spotted him in the end zone in Super Bowl III, Orr’s career may have already had that discussion.