This era of Patriots dominance has had its share of star receivers, like Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Deion Branch, and Troy Brown to name a few. But the most valuable receiver in Patriots history came decades earlier. In the second edition of Historic Heroes, we recount the career of Stanley Morgan.
Morgan showed potential early on in his career when he played high school football at Easley High School in South Carolina. He was a crucial piece to his team as a senior, where they won the state championship. Many college teams took notice, with Morgan eventually choosing to continue his career at the University of Tennessee.
Morgan became an extremely versatile and reliable player, playing as a receiver, running back, and returner while playing in every single game. Right from the start he became one of the most valuable players on the team. As a freshman in 1973, he was used primarily as a wide receiver, catching 22 passes for 522 yards and 4 touchdowns as the team’s number one receiver.
Following that impressive rookie season, Stanley became even more valuable as he took over as starting running back following the graduation of Haskel Stanback, as well as becoming the punt returner. In this breakthrough sophomore season, he had 128 rushes for 723 yards and 11 touchdowns, 10 catches for 234 and 2 touchdowns, and 29 punt returns including one touchdown, becoming the SEC’s top scorer. This also brought the added bonus of making the All-SEC team as both a wide receiver and a running back.
In his junior year Morgan was used as a running back, where he had 133 carries for 809 yards and 8 touchdowns, and a kick returner. But in his senior year, he returned to playing three positions. Stanley finished second on the team in both rushing (388 yards and 9 touchdowns) and receiving (14 catches for 317 yards). This once again earned him All-SEC honors as a running back and receiver, finishing his collegiate career strongly.
Historic Career with the Patriots
Morgan’s success in college propelled him to the first round of the draft, where the Patriots took him 25th overall. This was the Patriot’s second choice in the draft, picking future star corner Raymond Clayborn nine picks earlier. Stanley was the first receiver taken in the 1977 draft, and he would be considered a top-three player from that class, along with the likes of Tony Dorsett and Bob Baumhower.
Despite being used primarily as a running back after his freshman year, the Patriots recognized that Morgan had the pieces to return back to wide receiver. The Patriots were in desperate need of a receiver, after not having a true star receiver for the last four seasons. Morgan immediately became a factor in his rookie season, catching 21 for 443 yards and three touchdowns as their number two receiver.
Morgan followed that up with an incredible year, becoming the Patriots top receiver for the first of a Patriots record nine times. He increased his receptions from 21 to 34, yards from 443 to 820, and touchdowns from three to five. League-wide, he was second in yards per reception, and a top punt returner.
But Stanley’s development didn’t stop there, as in his third year he increased all of his career totals. He has his first of three 1,000 yard seasons, along with his permanent career-high of 12 touchdown receptions, which also led the league. He was top of the league in yards per reception, and even scored a punt return touchdown. All this accumulated into his first of four Pro Bowl selections.
This type of play would stay relatively the same over the next six years, as Morgan would remain a top 10 or 20 receiver in the league while staying as the Patriot’s most reliable receiver.
Arguably his greatest season came in 1986, when a 31-year-old Morgan had quite a renaissance. While his consistent play over the years was incredible, to have a career-high 1,491 receiving yards in your 10th season is nearly unheard of. This was good for the second-highest in the league, only behind the greatest receiver of all time, Jerry Rice. This performance, of course, earned him a Pro Bowl as he compiled ten touchdowns along the way. To put this season into context, it is considered by many to be a top 50 season for a receiver all time!
Unfortunately, when you have a season that is nearly impossible to match, it only goes down from there. That’s not to say Stanley became terrible, as he still was the Patriot’s best receiver for another couple of years. But he would never be as great or impactful again.
After a “bad” year in 1989, at the age of 34, Morgan was traded to Indianapolis following his worst year since his rookie season. He still collected nearly 500 receiving yards and three touchdowns, but it was clear his career was nearing a conclusion. In his first and final year with the Colts, Morgan only had 364 yards and five touchdowns while primarily coming off the bench. He retired after the season concluded.
As we said before, Morgan finished with four Pro Bowls and the reputation as one of the most consistent and reliable receivers in both Patriots and football history. Morgan is near the top of every receiving record for the Patriots. He is fourth in receptions, second in touchdowns (behind Gronk), and first in both yards and yards per reception (among receivers with over 200 receptions). Of course, being the greatest Patriots wide receiver of all time earned him a spot in the Patriots Hall of Fame, when he was inducted in 2007.
Morgan’s career had an impact outside the organization too. He holds an NFL career record in yards per reception among players with 500 receptions. His career is ingrained in football history, with Stanley easily being a top 50 receiver of all time. While some may not have heard of his incredible career, Morgan lead the way for the receivers we have today.