Gray and White Awards 1939-2017

Named in honor of Mel Gray and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, the Gray and White Award goes to the top return man in the league each season. I do not separate punt return and kick return contributions, so I occasionally have to choose between the best kickoff returner and the best punt returner. Often, players will be so good at their jobs that they make the choice easy. Other times, there will be two players who are good at one or the other, but I will give the award to a third player who is almost as good at both. Touchdowns are important, but they aren’t the only measure of a returner. I value players who consistently give their offenses better field position more than I value guys who dance around looking for a big play and get lucky every now and then. Further, I think average return length matters, but context is crucial. We’ve all bemoaned the decision making of a player who fields a kickoff eight yards deep in the end zone and gets a lengthy return that still fails to provide more value than a touchback. I have to take those plays into account. Another thing that bothers me is guys calling for a fair catch to preserve their averages – at the expense of a few helpful yards. I account for those plays as well. Return stats aren’t readily available prior to 1943 and aren’t available at all before 1939. Therefore, the Gray and White Award only goes back to 1939, while the 1939-43 period is italicized in the accompanying table.

Gray and White Award Winners

The table below lists every Gray and White Award winner since 1939. Read it thus: In 1939, playing in the NFL, Dick Todd of Washington won his first Gary and White Award.

YearLeagueRTeam#
1939NFLDick ToddWashington1
1940NFLGeorge McAfeeChicago Bears1
1941NFLGeorge McAfeeChicago Bears2
1942NFLAndy FarkasWashington1
1943NFLFrankie SinkwichDetroit Lions1
1944NFLSteve Van BurenPhiladelphia Eagles1
1945NFLTed FritschGreen Bay Packers1
1946NFLAbe KarnofskyBoston Yanks1
1946AAFCChuck FenenbockLos Angeles Dons1
1947NFLEddie SaenzWashington1
1947AAFCChet MutrynBuffalo Bills1
1948NFLJerry DavisChicago Cardinals1
1948AAFCTom CaseyNew York Yankees1
1949NFLJack SalscheiderNew York Giants1
1949AAFCBuddy YoungNew York Yankees1
1950NFLBilly GrimesGreen Bay Packers1
1951NFLEmlen TunnellNew York Giants1
1952NFLJack ChristiansenDetroit Lions1
1953NFLJoe ArenasSan Francisco 49ers1
1954NFLVeryl SwitzerGreen Bay Packers1
1955NFLJoe ScuderoWashington1
1956NFLAl CarmichaelGreen Bay Packers1
1957NFLBert ZagersWashington1
1958NFLOllie MatsonChicago Cardinals1
1959NFLJohnny MorrisChicago Bears1
1960NFLLenny LylesSan Francisco 49ers1
1960AFLKen HallHouston Oilers1
1961NFLDick BassLos Angeles Rams1
1961AFLDick ChristyNew York Titans1
1962NFLAbe WoodsonSan Francisco 49ers1
1962AFLLarry GarronBoston Patriots1
1963NFLAbe WoodsonSan Francisco 49ers2
1963AFLBobby JancikHouston Oilers1
1964NFLMel RenfroDallas Cowboys1
1964AFLBo RobersonOakland Raiders1
1965NFLGale SayersChicago Bears1
1965AFLSpeedy DuncanSan Diego Chargers1
1966NFLGale SayersChicago Bears2
1966AFLSpeedy DuncanSan Diego Chargers2
1967NFLTravis WilliamsGreen Bay Packers1
1967AFLFloyd LittleDenver Broncos1
1968NFLChuck LatouretteSt. Louis Cardinals1
1968AFLGeorge AtkinsonOakland Raiders1
1969NFLAlvin HaymondLos Angeles Rams1
1969AFLCarl GarrettBoston Patriots1
1970NFLCecil TurnerChicago Bears1
1971NFLDave HamptonGreen Bay Packers1
1972NFLBruce LairdBaltimore Colts1
1973NFLRon SmithSan Diego Chargers1
1974NFLTerry MetcalfSt. Louis Cardinals1
1975NFLBilly JohnsonHouston Oilers1
1976NFLEddie BrownWashington1
1977NFLBilly JohnsonHouston Oilers2
1978NFLTony GreenWashington1
1979NFLTony NathanMiami Dolphins1
1980NFLJ.T. SmithKansas City Chiefs1
1981NFLMike NelmsWashington1
1982NFLRick UpchurchDenver Broncos1
1983NFLFulton WalkerMiami Dolphins1
1984NFLBobby HumphreyNew York Jets1
1985NFLRon BrownLos Angeles Rams1
1986NFLVai SikahemaSt. Louis Cardinals1
1987NFLVai SikahemaSt. Louis Cardinals2
1988NFLTim BrownLos Angeles Raiders1
1989NFLJames DixonDallas Cowboys1
1990NFLMel GrayDetroit Lions1
1991NFLMel GrayDetroit Lions2
1992NFLMel GrayDetroit Lions3
1993NFLTyrone HughesNew Orleans Saints1
1994NFLBrian MitchellWashington1
1995NFLTamarick VanoverKansas City Chiefs1
1996NFLDesmond HowardGreen Bay Packers1
1997NFLEric GulifordNew Orleans Saints1
1998NFLGlyn MilburnChicago Bears1
1999NFLTony HorneSt. Louis Rams1
2000NFLDerrick MasonTennessee Titans1
2001NFLRonney JenkinsSan Diego Chargers1
2002NFLMichael LewisNew Orleans Saints1
2003NFLDante HallKansas City Chiefs1
2004NFLEddie DrummondDetroit Lions1
2005NFLTerrence McGeeBuffalo Bills1
2006NFLDevin HesterChicago Bears1
2007NFLJosh CribbsCleveland Browns1
2008NFLAllen RossumSan Francisco 49ers1
2009NFLJosh CribbsCleveland Browns2
2010NFLDevin HesterChicago Bears2
2011NFLTed GinnSan Francisco 49ers1
2012NFLLeodis McKelvinBuffalo Bills1
2013NFLCordarrelle PattersonMinnesota Vikings1
2014NFLAdam JonesCincinnati Bengals1
2015NFLCordarrelle PattersonMinnesota Vikings2
2016NFLTyreek HillKansas City Chiefs1
2017NFLPharoh CooperLos Angeles Rams1

Although many returners had lengthy runs of quality play, it is incredibly difficult to replicate elite seasons. That’s why no one has more than three awards to his credit. Gray is the only player with three awards, which he earned consecutively from 1990 to 1992. When Chase Stuart used a value over average formula to determine the greatest returners of all time, Gray ranked first among kick returners and fifteenth among punt returners.

Cordarrelle Patterson hasn’t worked out on offense, but he is already one of the great kick returners in history. Playing in an era with lower averages, his career mark of 30.2 trails only Gale Sayers‘s 30.6. Sayers did it on 91 careers returns, while Patterson already has 153.

Speaking of Sayers, he was a dynamic threat on both offense and special teams and holds the career record for kick return average. In 1967, albeit on a limited number of returns, he averaged 26.7 yards per punt return and 37.7 yards per kick return.

White Shoes Billy Johnson was a threat to embarrass coverage teams on both punts and kickoffs early in his career before taking a larger role on offense later on. He and Rick Upchurch stole awards from each other. Upchurch led all players in punt return average thrice and in total punt return yards in another year.

Josh Cribbs and Devin Hester were the premier returners of their era, both offering different types of value for their teams. Hester often served as an important source of points for a team with a stout defense and anemic offense. He led the league in punt return yards and average twice and punt return touchdowns thrice. In addition, he led the league in kick return yards and touchdowns twice apiece. His presence on the field dictated the way teams approached punting, and he sometimes forced punters into making bad kicks to avoid him. Cribbs wasn’t quite as big a threat to score, but he consistently provided bad offenses with a much needed field position advantage. He wasn’t as flashy or popular, but his value was tremendous.

George McAfee was a great returner in an era when offenses were plodding and special teams returns were more important. Standout cornerback Speedy Duncan was an elite punt returner and a good kick returner who could also break open games with impressive interception returns (not counted for this, but it did provide value). Diminutive Vai Sikahema often provided a spark for the Cardinals with his electric punt returns. He was a decent kick returner too, but punts were where he really made his mark.