Saturday, March 21, 2020

Del Shofner: The Lean, Quiet, and Very Athletic Texan

By TJ Troup
When writing my stories for the Journal many times have used statistics to tell or enhance a player's story, and no doubt the receiving statistics of Del Shofner sure can tell his story. Though a few stats might sneak into this saga; much more interesting is attempting to define him as a player, and a man. Center Texas is near the Louisiana border, and after an outstanding high school athletic career, Del was off to Waco and a basketball scholarship at Baylor.

Took him a while to help the Bears football team, yet his college career ended on a very high note with the upset victory over ranked Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl (his 54-yard run was a key to the victory).

The Rams received a draft choice from the New York Giants in the Andy Robustelli trade, and with the 11th choice in the draft Shofner headed further west. Sid Gillman's Rams had won the division title in 1955 but faltered badly in 1956.
Shofner in coverage
One of the areas that needed help immediately was the corner position in the secondary. Shofner started almost every week at either right or left corner (Jesse Whittenton was the other starter). Evaluating a players' performance has always been a joy for me; and of course, having coached either defensive backs or receivers for most of my career—feel very comfortable talking about Shofner.

Del kicks off in Chicago early in the year and Vic Zucco returns the ball 73 yards before he is overhauled by Shofner. He sprints between two teammates and causes Zucco to fumble.

Shofner is adequate on pass defense and is a willing tackler. Many times observed him hustling and outrunning other defenders to make tackles on either runner's or receivers during the Rams 6-6 season.

Rookie Jim Brown sets a new league record for yards gained rushing in a game against Los Angeles and more than once in the game Shofner makes the open field tackle or the Cleveland rookie might have gained 300.

The talent in the '57 draft is legendary, and some of those other rookies will be mentioned in this story. Before going any further let's take a moment to visualize Shofner at 6'3'' and possibly 185 lbs. taking on 6'2'' chiseled 228 pound Jim Brown. Del does not back down.

Late in his rookie season, he intercepts twice against the Colts and their second-year quarterback Johnny Unitas. Ram history is filled with talented record-setting receivers, and at the end of 1957 both Elroy Hirsch and Bob Boyd retire.
Shofner is moved to left split end and though Norm Van Brocklin is traded to Philadelphia; Del will have a strong-armed very motivated passer throwing to him in Billy Wade. Anyone can go to Pro Football Reference and look up the game logs of Shofner in 1958.

Bill Wade was one long pass completion away from breaking Sammy Baugh's record for yards gained passing in a season, and though other players contributed—Del Shofner was the weapon in the Ram's air attack. He earns All-Pro honors and a pro bowl berth. We can look back when the Rams played the Bears in '58 and see the torch is about to be passed from the greatest long-striding deep threat of the mid-'50s in Harlon Hill to the new kid on the block, long-striding swift Del Shofner.

Los Angeles surprised the pundits in 1958 and some believed they would actually be contenders in 1959. Though a 2-2 record might not be what Coach Gillman had in mind to begin the year; the two road wins over Halas Bears & Lombardi Packers have the Rams still believing they are contenders. Tailspin is the only word that fits for the rest of the Ram season; eight straight losses and a last-place finish.

Shofner has an exceptional season and just misses gaining 1,000 yards receiving for the second year in a row. He is All-Pro again. Sid Gillman is fired, and his replacement is legendary Ram quarterback Bob Waterfield, and the new receivers coach is all-time Ram great Tom Fears. This is the type of situation that should, I repeat should have brought even more success to the Los Angeles passing game.

Though Del starts at left split end for most of the year; he does not have near the catches, or big gains that he has had in the past. Rookie Carroll Dale is getting more and more playing time in place of Shofner, and the Ram secondary has become porous with the exception of Eddie Meador.

On November 13th in Detroit Shofner starts at split end and early in the game catches two short passes, but rookie Don Ellersick is just not getting the job done at right safety, and in the second quarter Shofner replaces him and returns an errant Lion pass 19 yards to help keep the Rams in the game.

Los Angeles, from the beginning of the losing streak in 1959 until the win over Detroit in the Coliseum, had a record of 0-14-1. No player likes losing, and with all the talent in Los Angeles the Rams should be winning. The reasons why Shofner did not "put up" receiving numbers in '60 like he did in 1958 & '59 remain a mystery.
Page 347 of the Rams 2008 media guide does not even list a starter at left end (but two flankers?)—the lost season of Del Shofner 1960.

The New York Giants did not come even close to expectations in 1960. Wellington Mara trades for an aging quarterback in Y.A. Tittle (he does not fit in Red Hickey's spread offense). Tittle knows the Giants need an infusion of talent and speed at left split end, and recommends to the Giant's front office that Shofner might be available.
He is and the Rams receive a draft choice for the lithe long-striding glue fingered receiver. Shofner and Tittle are reborn, and though we do not see immediate results; as the '61 season progresses the Giants are once again contenders. Two other rookies from that '57 draft class also have their teams fighting for the Eastern Conference Crown in Cleveland's Jim Brown, and Philadelphia's Sonny Jurgensen. New York does not lose a game to either the Browns or Eagles, and the division title is theirs.

Watching film of Del during this season is much like watching film of him in '58 & '59 in Los Angeles. The same precise routes, and the continued outstanding performances. The Giants are beaten by the Packers in the regular season, and again in the title game clash. Del catches a few passes on the cold winter's day in Green Bay, but does not score (no one does for New York).

During the 1962 season the Giants become an offensive juggernaut. Frank Gifford returns, and replaces the retired Kyle Rote at flanker. Shofner again is First-team All-Pro and easily repeat as division champions. All players want to be viewed as tough, and resilient, and though he looks fragile—Del Shofner is one tough Texas boy.

During a midseason victory over the Steelers Shofner is slammed to the turf by Tarasovic and Keys, and his shoulder is dislocated. The next week against the Lions in a key game Del is used as a decoy for only a few plays in the hard-fought Giant victory over a quality opponent. The league manual lists him as not playing in this game (not the first error the league has made).

He is resilient and returns to play outstanding productive football, including a game for the ages against the Redskins as he gains 269 yards on a day Tittle ties the touchdown record. The frigid windy day at Yankee Stadium against the vaunted Lombardi Express is captured on film by Ed and his son Steve Sabol.
Shofner makes a key reception on a crossing route for 21 yards to put the Giants in striking position, but the Packer pass rush forces a Tittle turnover. Though twelve-year-old boys usually do not think of themselves as experts on the NFL—the '63 season is one that was relished, relived, and viewed many times by me. November 17th and the Bears have beaten the mighty Packers to give themselves a leg up on Green Bay in trying to win the west.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference has a division race that involves four teams. New York is 8-2 with the Cardinals and Browns right behind at 7-3. New York defeated San Francisco on the 17th, and the play by play study and film study show Shofner at his best. He has already contributed as the Giants have the lead, yet later in the game he shows how unstoppable he is.

New York has a 1st and 40 situation as Tittle throws to Del every down which includes his season-long 70-yard touchdown as the Giants build an insurmountable lead. Cleveland beats Dallas and St. Louis upsets the Giants in Yankee stadium on the 24th.

The Cardinals head coach Wally Lemm was a superb teacher of pass defense, and in this game watching the film you see Larry Wilson helping right corner Jimmy Hill cover Shofner. Wilson intercepts twice to help the Cardinals win, yet at one point in the game, Hill is in man to man coverage against Del with no help from Larry Wilson. Shofner beats Hill on a slant and gains 40 yards to put the ball inside the five-yard line.

New York does not score, as St. Louis claims the upset victory and a share of first place. The 8-3 log jam at the top (Pittsburgh has an outside shot at 6-3-2) gives the fan a race to remember the last three weeks. Shofner continued to shine each week, and scored a key touchdown against the Steelers to win the division crown again for the third time.

This is the time to state one of my stat "nuggets". Shofner scored 33 touchdowns during this three-year time frame of division titles, and all 33 touchdowns were scored in victory! No receiver historically can match this. Before discussing the title game showdown in Chicago it is time to delve deep into what I saw Del accomplish as a receiver.

Where to start? How about with his routes? You can see Shofner run quick out patterns, deep out patterns, short turn-ins (curls), stop routes (hitch), and of course the deep post, and post corner routes. When a receiver gains as many yards as he does there is a belief he must run streak or "fly" patterns. Though Del does this on occasion—his best route by far is the SLANT. Having coached receivers at both the high school and college level will go to my grave knowing that this route is by far the most important for any receiver to have success. Del Shofner ran the slant to perfection.

Quickness, long strides, adjusting on the run to the flight of the ball. Once he has latched on to the pigskin he is off, and I mean OFF TO THE RACES. This man caught short throws and turned them into long gainers and touchdowns. Steve Sabol's outstanding film "The 100 Greatest Touchdowns" has a clip of Shofner on a slant against the Colts where he does not score, but gain over 90 yards. Steve thought enough of Del to include a non-touchdown.

Next up—the opposing corner. Some of the right corners he faced were just not quality caliber defenders (Washington Redskin corners in the front, or maybe should be back of the line), yet there are a few that had the speed, athleticism, and attitude to attempt to defend him.

You see Terry Barr of the Lions, Jim Hill of the Cardinals, Irv Cross of the Eagles all reacting the same way when Shofner catches the ball on them. The body language, the kicking of the grass in disgust—'how come I cannot stop this guy'?

Del Shofner was almost always aligned as split end left, yet sometimes the tight end would be to his side, and as such he was the flanker. All receivers in the decades of the '50s & '60s were aligned in tight, and Del is no exception. Though he never blocked anyone into the ground, he was adequate as a blocking left tight end. He would run routes from this alignment, and he would also be flexed near the tackle.

Since blocking was mentioned, he was a valued teammate in that you see him hustling with his exceptional speed to help shield or block a defender downfield when another player had the ball. Y.A. Tittle sets a new standard for touchdown passes in a season, not once, but TWICE in '62 & '63. Again, a passing attack is not based upon one man getting open and scoring, but having multiple weapons.

The Giants had multiple weapons, yet Shofner "forced" opposing coaches to adjust coverage to roll weak, or having a linebacker walked off in front of Shofner. Safeties shaded to his side of the field, and boy oh boy did the bald eagle exploit opposing secondaries, and the result you ask, I repeat; THREE CONSECUTIVE DIVISION TITLES.

The Giants defense in 1963 is just not as strong as the previous two years, yet these veteran defenders can still stymy an offense. Y.A. Tittle is Ahab chasing his white whale, but Wrigley Field is not the "sea" for the Giants to harpoon a championship. Two Chicago fumbles and New York has a chance to build an insurmountable lead against a Bear team that just does not score much. Shofner is open on a deep post and though the pass is high in the frosty is catchable, but alas Del has the ball bounce off his extended fingers.

Dave Whitsell at right corner struggled valiantly in '62 in the December loss to the Giants, and having survived this play he is going to raise his game a notch to keep Shofner out of the end zone. Defensive coordinator George Allen will mix coverages, and keep right safety Roosevelt Taylor nearby to help Davey. Whitsell is one smart corner and jumps a Shofner special—the slant for a key interception in the second half.

The last play of the game you see Tittle lofting the ball deep against the Bears nickel coverage. Safety Richie Petitbon in a cover-2 look fields the overthrown pass to ensure a Bear victory. When in doubt in the Giant offense, even in frigid Wrigley Field—you go deep to Del.

The New York Giants story of 1964 is one of the saddest chapters in team history. Shofner plays just the first half of the season and he is just not the same receiver. Age, and strange ineffective trades by coach Allie Sherman have sent New York to the basement of the Eastern Division. Shofner does little in 1965 with the exception of two strong performances late in the year against Pittsburgh and Chicago.

Historians can make a case that the 1966 New York Giants are one of the handful of truly awful teams in league history, and Shofner plays very little. Opening day 1967 and in the victory over the Cardinals late in the game new Giant quarterback Fran Tarkenton finds Shofner wide open of a fade route in the 4th quarter over Pat Fischer for the last touchdown of his career.

Sport Magazine did an article on Del Shofner entitled the "ICEMAN". The writer of the story talked about what he had done in his career and attempted to explain his personality. Del Shofner was a quiet man who many times lacked confidence in himself, and when he did not perform to his expectations, he felt he let his teammates down. We will never know if the ball he did not catch in the end zone in Chicago haunted him? His bleeding ulcer and injuries are an obvious factor in why his career went from First-team All-Pro five times in six years, to part-time ordinary receiver. Every year there are strong candidates at the receiver position nominated for the Hall of Fame, but Del Shofner is never going to be one of them. Del Shofner passed on earlier this week.

RIP Del, you sure knew how to play wide receiver.


  1. You just wonder what injuries slowed his career from 64-67 ?

    With his speed, like Don Maynard, he probably had muscle pulls but receivers got hammered back then.

    Another forgotten fifties receiver like Hugh Taylor, Billy Wilson, Harlon Hill, Elbie Nickel, Billy Howton and Ray Renfro ...

  2. RIP number 85...the greatest receiver in Big Blue history.One of my childhood heroes,along with Roger Maris and Jerry West.Thanks for the memories,Del.You were the best.