State Your Case: Forgotten Jim Benton was 2nd only to Don Hutson in 1940s

Jim Benton set receiving records that stood for 40 years but he's never stood before HOF voters. It's a mystery why not.

No one but the Pilgrims had a better Thanksgiving than Jim Benton, and very few receivers in the 1940s put up better numbers. In fact, at the time of his retirement only one ever had.

An NFL all-decade selection for het19 40s, Jim Benton was one of the first true T-formation receivers to begin changing the plowhorse game of pro football into the aerial circus it would later become. On Nov. 22, 1945 at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium, as turkeys were being carved up around America, he was carving up the Detroit Lions secondary, setting a receiving record that would stand for 40 years.

That afternoon Benton made 10 receptions for 303 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown catch from future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield in the Cleveland Rams’ 28-21 victory over the Lions. It was the first 300-yard receiving game in NFL history, and that number is all the more remarkable when you consider that Waterfield threw for 329 yards, meaning Benton was on the receiving end of all but 26 of them.

That record would stand until Stephone Paige broke it in 1985 with 309 receiving yards for the Kansas City Chiefs against the San Diego Chargers. It was Jim Benton’s greatest game to be sure, but it is not the only reason he should be considered for Hall-of-Fame induction.

Drafted by the Rams in 1938, Benton was an immediate hit. He led the NFL in yards per catch his rookie season with a phenomenal 19.9 yards per reception while finishing third in receiving yards and leading the NFL with seven touchdown receptions.

He would continue to pile up numbers for the Rams until 1943 when, with World War II having caused a player shortage, the Rams were forced to temporarily disband and Benton landed with the Chicago Bears after failing his physical for military duty.

Although he was not the favorite receiver of Bears’ quarterback Sid Luckman, Benton still managed to average 18.1 yards per catch and corralled a 26-yard touchdown pass from Luckman in Chicago’s 41-21 win over the Washington Redskins in the NFL championship game.

With the Rams back in business in 1944, Benton returned to Cleveland and tripled his receptions from a year earlier and doubled his touchdown production. But it was in 1945 that Benton really took the NFL by storm.

With the arrival of Waterfield from UCLA that summer, Benton led the league with 1,087 receiving yards, averaging 118.6 yards per game, with over 100 yards receiving in six of the nine games he played. He also racked up a career-high eight touchdown catches and had a 37-yard touchdown reception that gave the Rams a lead they never relinquished in a 15-14 victory over the Washington Redskins in the NFL championship game.

That day Benton caught nine passes for 125 yards, breaking the back of the Redskins’ defense in the process.

The following year he would lead the NFL with 63 receptions and 981 receiving yards and again be named All-Pro. He would also have another remarkable receiving day for that era, with 12 receptions for 202 yards and two touchdown catches in a 31-21 win over the New York Giants.

''Bob can put them anywhere with handles on them,'' Benton once said of life catching passes from Waterfield. ''Whatever I did to get open at the last second, when I do, there comes the ball right when I need it.''

Benton played one more season with Waterfield before retiring after the 1947 season at the age of 31. At the time of his retirement he was second only to Hall-of-Famer Don Hutson in receiving in pro football history, finishing with 288 catches for 4,801 yards and 45 touchdowns. He averaged 16.7 yards per reception in his nine-year career, won two NFL championships, was named All-Pro four times and was chosen to the 1940s' all-decade team.

How a receiver so productive disappeared from pro football history may seem difficult to fathom today, but there was a belief firmly held among some Hall-of-Fame voters of that time … and in later years … that because of World War II the 1940s left the NFL with a depleted league and thus inflated statistics.

Perhaps so, but at the time of his retirement Jim Benton was the only receiver other than Hutson to lead the NFL in receiving multiple times. If Don Hutson was the best, which was clearly the case, Jim Benton was next in line.

A line that, sadly, never reached to Canton.

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