Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Jahri Evans—'Well, SOMEBODY Had to Block for Him'

 By John Turney 
Jahri Evans
"Well, SOMEBODY had to block for him."
That statement frequently is part of Hall-of-Fame cases for offensive linemen, repeated to illustrate how a great offense or running back can't operate without great offensive-line play. In fact, it was employed nearly two decades ago when Cleveland Browns' guard Gene Hickerson was elected to Canton.

"Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly didn't get all those yards blocking for themselves," voters were told then ... which is another way of saying: "Surely, their linemen had something to do with it."

Voters agreed.

They elected the most decorated Browns' lineman of that era (he went to six Pro Bowls) to the Class of 2007, making Hickerson one of two senior inductees (Charlie Sanders was the other) after he'd disappeared from the Hall's radar in the early 1980s.

A three-time modern-era finalist, Hickerson no doubt was a beneficiary of the "someone had to block for him" remark. So was former Buffalo and Cleveland guard Joe DeLamielleure, a key figure in "The Electric Company" that opened holes for Bills' running back O.J. Simpson. Like Hickerson, he was named to six Pro Bowls. And, like Hickerson, he was a leader of an offensive line that blocked for record-setting backs.

So how is that relevant here?

Well, the same argument that helped push Hickerson and DeLamielluere into the Hall can be made for former New Orleans Saints' guard and Hall-of-Fame hopeful Jahri Evans. Like Hickerson and DeLamielleure, he was a consistent All-Pro and Pro Bowler with a litany of accolades. He was a six-time Pro Bowler, four-time first-team All-Pro, all-decade choice (DeLamielleure was; Hickerson wasn't) and part of an NFL champion (Hickerson was; DeLamielleure wasn't). 

But it's the success of the Saints' prolific offense that plays an enormous role in Evans' case, just as the accomplishments of Brown, Kelly and Simpson brought clarity to the Hall-of-Fame arguments for Hickerson and DeLamielleure.

Simply put, Jahri Evans was the best offensive lineman on the best offense of his era. The Saints' offense set records and was always at or near the top of leaderboards in scoring, yards and victories. Consider that from 2006-16, the years Evans was a starting guard for the Saints, they accomplished the following:

--- Threw the ball more than anyone They passed 7,057 times, or 277 more than the next-highest total. They also allowed the fewest sacks with 274. 

--- The Saints' sack percentage was 3.74. The next closest was 4.35 percent. So it wasn't close.

So the Saints threw the most and protected the quarterback the best. Something up front must have been working, and it did. Granted, Drew Brees got the ball out quickly, and that's part of the story. But ask him if he thinks his pass protection, especially in the middle, was important.

Because it was. 

Coach Sean Payton and Brees didn't run a "chuck-and-duck" offense where they tried to spread the field, sent out as many receivers as they could and got the QB hammered. No, theirs was a highly sophisticated offense that was the NFL's most productive of its era .... or any era, for that matter. During Brees' time in New Orleans, the Saints threw the most touchdown passes, ranked first in total yards, second in points and second in team passer rating.

Blocking mattered, and the Saints had several elite offensive lineman. But none was better than Jahri Evans, .

With his success, you'd think he was a sure thing coming out of college, but he was more in the "unlikely story" category. The 108th overall pick, Evans was chosen in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL draft and became an immediate starter at right guard.

As a rookie, he was the third highest-ranked guard by Pro Football Focus, allowing just one sack in nearly 1,100 snaps. By his fourth season, however, PFF had him ranked first at his position. Evans went on to miss only nine games in his 11-year career with New Orleans, starting all 193 contests he played in (203 including the playoffs).

Surprising? Definitely. Evans played collegiate football at tiny Bloomsburg (PA) College, a story not unlike that of another guard, Hall-of-Famer Larry Allen, who played at Sacramento State. Both were downgraded because they didn't play elite opponents, yet both excelled once they reached the pros. 

"I know there were going to be questions," Evans said, "but it came from not knowing as much ... or seeing the film and the stuff you see from D-1 guys."

Translation? "Give me a chance and I will show you what I can do with just a little experience."

The Saints did give him a chance, and he became a big-bodied right guard with long arms and strong legs who, like Larry Allen, could anchor against top NFL bull rushers.

"He will uncoil, show great power in his hips and plenty of lower body strength," said Pro Football Weekly, which ranked Evans as an elite guard. "Evans does everything the right way."

He could lead on screens, make blocks on the move, stone pass rushers who tried to run through him and move his feet to thwart those who tried to race around him. In short, he was a complete player.

"His transition into the league happened immediately," said former Saints' coach Sean Payton, now with Denver. "He is strong, smart, and very durable. He's powerful and good in pass protection."

The Saints knew what they had. So, after winning Super Bowl XLIV, they rewarded Evans with the most lucrative contract in NFL history for a guard, calling him an "impact player" after signing him to a seven-year, $56.7 million deal.

The contract was big but it wasn't incentive-laden. Instead, it was backloaded with money Evans would never see. At least, that's how it seemed. But he remained with the Saints for the entirety of the deal, collecting all the money over sevens seasons. Afterward, he signed on for a 12th year with Green Bay before retiring.

It's a great story, but it's not over. Not yet, it's not.

The next step for Evans is the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he was a finalist in for its Class of 2024 in his second year of eligibility. That makes him a leading contender to return to the Hall's list of 15 for the Class of 2025 and, eventually, put on a Gold Jacket.

“Jahri Evans," said Hall-of-Fame voter Jeff Duncan, "was the best player to play on arguably the best offense in NFL history."

But don't take it from Duncan. Listen to former Saints' quarterback Drew Brees, whom Evans protected for 11 seasons.

"The best offensive lineman I ever played with," he said. "There was no one tougher, smarter, as skilled or more reliable. When you needed a play, you were running behind Jahri Evans. He was a tone-setter, a great leader and fierce competitor. A Hall-of-Fame player and teammate."

Maybe that happens in 2025, maybe not. But it should happen soon, Because Jahri Evans was an elite player on an elite offense for a long time.

Is This Sterling Sharpe's year?

By John Turney 
A new world order reigns at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where so much has changed in the last two decades, and it's a world that could ... and should ... improve the chances for one deserving candidate.

Former Green Bay receiver Sterling Sharpe.

Ever since his career was cut short in 1994 by a neck injury, he's been bypassed by voters as a modern-era and seniors' candidate. He's never been a finalist in either category. But no longer. Because that was then and this is now, and now an obstacle holding him back has been minimized.

Call it longevity, sustained greatness or whatever works. It's simply not the issue for election that it was years ago.

Old-school voters once held on to a belief that a serious Hall-of-Fame candidate had to play at least a decade for consideration. Otherwise, you were dismissed. If you played in or before the 1950s, it wasn't an issue. But with anyone later, that "longevity box" had to be checked, with few exceptions.

I know, Bears' running back Gale Sayers made the Hall of Fame even though he played seven seasons ... and, in reality, only five full years. But in those five he was one of the best anyone had seen. So, yes, he was one of those exceptions.

But he was pretty much it.

Then there was something of a breakthrough in the 1990s when the "Gale Sayers exception" was used to boost former Dolphins' center Dwight Stephenson, even though he played just eight seasons. Like Sayers, he was felled by a severe knee injury. Like Sayers, he was an all-time great at his position. And, like Sayers, he was enshrined ... in 1998 after a bit of a delay.

But that was about it ... until 2017.

-- That's when former Seahawks' safety Ken Easley, who played in 89 games, was elected as the seniors' nominee. 

-- That same year, former Broncos' running back Terrell Davis, who played only seven years and excelled in four, was elected.

-- Then, in 2020, the Hall's Centennial Committee elected Bears' tackle Jimbo Covert even though he played eight seasons.

-- Two years later (2022), former Jaguars' tackle Tony Boselli (seven years) was enshrined, followed this year by 49ers' linebacker Patrick Willis (eight seasons). 

The inductions of those five in the past eight years sent a clear message to Sharpe, and it reads like this: Your seven-year career no longer can be a detriment. As proof, he's been a seniors' semifinalist the past two years, and once, according to a podcast, was one of the final six before that group was cut to three.

So now that longevity apparently has been removed as a hurdle, voters can focus on the positive aspects of Sharpe's career ... and there are plenty. First up is this: During Sharpe's years in the NFL, only Jerry Rice was a better wide receiver. From 1988-94, he was the only receiver with more receptions and more touchdown catches. Plus, only Rice and Henry Ellard had more receiving yards.

Three times Sharpe led the NFL in receptions, and twice he topped the league in TD catches. He also led the NFL in receiving yards once. In his final season, he caught 18 scoring passes -- which, at the time, tied for the second-most all-time and is still tied for third. 

Say what you want about Sharpe, but those are massive numbers for his era. Currently, he's 23rd all-time in receiving yards per game -- which, with today's expansion of the passing game, doesn't sound terrific. But keep this in mind: Rice is 16th, Terrell Owens is 22nd and Randy Moss is 29th. When Sharpe retired, only Rice and Lance Alworth averaged more receiving yards per game.

Not only that, but he earned a lot of his yards by turning upfield and fighting for them, as noted by former Pro Football Weekly analyst Joel Buchsbaum.

"Not a burner," he wrote of Sharpe in early 1993, "but he caught an NFL-record 108 passes in 1992 and led the league in yards after the catch."

When Sharpe broke his own record the following season, Buchsbaum wrote that he "caught 112 passes last year and gained a large chunk of his yards with powerful, aggressive tackle-breaking runs after the catch ... a big physical receiver who can run over or around people."

Imagine what Sharpe would have done had he played longer. If he was setting records in 1992 and 1993, what might he have done as Brett Favre was winning MVPs with receivers who took Sharpe's place post-injury?

More records? Another Super Bowl win?

Just as important as Sharpe's productivity was that his work did not go unnoticed by writers and peers. Three times he was a consensus All-Pro -- making first-team on the majority of the accepted All-Pro teams at the time. And in five of his sevens seasons, he got a free trip to Hawaii as a member of the NFC Pro Bowl team.

Three times consensus All-Pro? Is that a big deal? Actually, it is. Going back to Don Hutson, there are 34 modern wide receivers/ends in Canton, but only seven were consensus All-Pro more. Five had just as many, while the remainder -- 22 -- were consensus All-Pros fewer. That puts Sharpe in the upper echelon of all-time receivers.

He also won MVP votes in two seasons, and, yes, that's  a big deal, too, mostly because it's not common for a wide receiver to get that kind of notice.

But it wasn't just numbers that made him elite. Sterling Sharpe was someone opponents had to target in game plans; someone they had to try to contain and control ... but couldn't. In his first playoff game, for instance, he became the ninth player in league history to catch three TDs passes in a post-season game. 

Final score: Green Bay 28, Detroit 24.

That year he also caught game-winning passes against the Saints, Buccaneers and Lions, and he did it despite being held out of practice from early November through the rest of the season due to a painful turn-toe injury. Nevertheless, Sharpe soldiered on. In fact, he never missed an NFL game until he hurt his neck.

There's little question how good Sterling Sharpe was. He was great. From the time the Packers made him a first-round pick out of the University of South Carolina, he looked different and played differently from NFL receivers. He was strong but sublime. He was a precise route-runner but could make clutch catches on broken plays. If there was a question, it was only this: How long was he great?

When he first became eligible for the Hall in 2000, its board of selectors answered: Not long enough. But that attitude has changed, with voters today more receptive to candidates who, because of career-ending injuries, couldn't play 10 or 12 years. Now, they take a "how elite was he?" approach. 

And that bodes well for Sharpe.

"There are receivers going in the Hall of Fame that can’t compare to him," former Packers' GM Ron Wolf said on an "Eye Test for Two" podcast (Ron Wolf: Why Isn't Sterling Sharpe in Pro Football Hall? - Talk of Fame (talkoffametwo.com). "He was just a tremendous football player. I always thought (that) in order to get into the Hall of Fame you had to be elite. Sterling Sharpe is elite. The record proves he’s elite. It’s a shame he’s not (in)."

When Sharpe's younger brother, Shannon, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011 he, too, made a plea to voters to recognize the greatness of his sibling.

"(To) the 44 men and women that I thanked and congratulated earlier for bestowing this prestigious honor upon me," he said of the Hall's board, "all I do is ask. All I can do is ask, in the most humblest way I know how, that the next time you go into that room or you start making a list, look at Sterling Sharpe’s accomplishments for (a) seven-year period of the guys that’s in the Hall of Fame at the receiver position and the guys that have the potential to be in this building ... The next time you go in that room, think about Sterling Sharpe’s numbers for seven years."

Yes, Sharpe was dealt a hand that didn't include a longevity card. But Terrell Davis, Ken Easley and Tony Boselli (among others) didn't, either, and voters sorted that out by recognizing greatness. If that is now the standard, then Sterling Sharpe should be one of three candidates announced as finalists for the Hall's Class of 2025.

Steve Wisniewski—An Elite Guard Who's Been Virtually Ignored by HOF Voters

By John Turney  
You're a Raiders' lineman. You played the same number of NFL seasons as Howie Long, but you played more games because you were healthier. You missed just two games. You went to the same number of Pro Bowls as Long, were first-and-second-team AP All-Pro eight times where Howie was three and, like Long, you were all-decade.

So, like Long, you must be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, right? 

Wrong.

Not if you're former guard Steve Wisniewski you're not, and that's not the worst news. Not only are you not in the Pro Football Hall; you've never been a finalist and were a semifinalist only once (2014).

How is that possible? I have no idea.

Because the Raiders' comparisons don't stop with Howie Long. Look at Hall-of-Famers Art Shell and Gene Upshaw, both offensive linemen. They played 15 seasons to Wisniewski's 13. But "Wiz" was a starter from the cradle to the grave -- from his rookie season through the end of his career. Shell was not a starter until his third season and did not start in his final season of 1982. Upshaw did start as a rookie, but he was benched in his final season of 1981.

Wisniewski went to as many Pro Bowls as Shell and one more than Upshaw ... was an AP first- or second-team All-Pro eight times, the same as Upshaw and four more than Shell ... and was an all-decade choice, as were Shell and Upshaw.

So, let's try this again: Why can't Steve Wisniewski again make the Final 25 as a semifinalist, much less the Final 15?

Well, there's the Super Bowl. Shell and Upshaw won two Lombardi Trophies as starters, while Long won one. Wisniewski retired before the Raiders played in Super Bowl XXXVII, which they lost. That was the 2002 season when Rich Gannon was the NFL MVP. The Raiders' left side blocked for Ken Stabler in 1976 when he was voted that same award.

One problem with that explanation: Multiple Raiders who missed Super Bowls have been elected to Canton. Center Jim Otto, who passed away Sunday, was one. Tim Brown is another. So was George Blanda. So how much can that be held against Wisniewski? I admit that Wisniewski may not quite be in the class of the Raiders' greats I've mentioned,  but he should not be in no-man's land when it comes to consideration for a Gold Jacket.

The issue can't be that he lacks All-Pro merits because he has plenty. Maybe ... and I said maybe ... the reason is that he was considered a "dirty" player, and that's not me talking. It's others. He was fined, as well as admonished, by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue for his controversial play, while a poll conducted by Sports Illustrated on the league's dirtiest players put "Wiz" on top. Others over the years listed his name, too, so the reputation likely remains in the collective memories of voters who watched him play during the 1990s.

But that begs the question: If true, should it be a reason not to gain Hall-of-Fame traction? It's a reputation that characterized former safety Rodney Harrison, yet he was a Hall finalist this year. The same goes for Steelers' wide receiver Hines Ward, and he's been a Hall semifinalist ... eight times.

"The 'dirty thing' is a misconstrued perception of him," Winiewski's former coach, Jon Gruden, said. "You can't fault a guy for giving you all he has and trying to get involved with collisions. I don't see anything that's ruthless or dirty."

Neither did Wisniewski, who maintained he always played to the whistle.

"I was known for giving the extra effort," he said. "I was doing my best to bust you up. There were never any grudges. No one I hit needed to be carted off the field."

I guess what I'm saying is that if Harrison and Ward haven't been penalized by reputations as "dirty" players, why is it fair to penalize Wisniewski for the same label? Answer: It's not.

Wisniewski was an excellent guard who excelled at run blocking (he was called a "devastating run blocker" by one publication) and a solid pass protector -- especially in short sets when he met opposing tackles at the line of scrimmage rather than setting deeper.

"A blue-collar worker with very good tools and superior intensity," is how Pro Football Weekly's personnel guru Joel Buschbaum described him.

When the Indianapolis Star several years ago wrote about Colts' guard Quenton Nelson, Hall-of-Fame center Kevin Mawae -- then the Colts' offensive line coach -- was asked if Nelson reminded him of anyone. He said he did. He mentioned Will Shields, the Chiefs' Hall of Famer, and ... Steve Wisniewski.

That's respect. 

When Wisniewski was a restricted free agent in 1993, Hall-of-Fame voter Armando Salguero asked then-Dolphins' offensive line coach John Sandusky how the club should fill its hole at guard. Sandusky's answer was brief and to the point.

"Get Steve Wisniewski," he said. "Just get him."

Of course, the Raiders never were going to let him go. Not then and not a couple of years later when he was an unrestricted free agent. Wiz was a classic "Raider for life." 

After his All-American career at Penn State, he was chosen by Dallas with the first pick of the second round of the 1989 NFL draft. But he was traded that day to the Raiders so that the Cowboys' Jimmy Johnson could gain a couple of extra draft picks. In return, the Raiders acquired an outstanding athlete who could immediately step in and play guard.

Wisniewski was 6-feet-4 and 275 pounds then (he'd quickly gain 30 pounds to play around 305 most of his career) and tested well at the annual NFL scouting combine. He ran a 5.08 in the 40-yard dash and benched 225 pounds 33 times. Plus, he was already schooled in the rigors of the NFL, following older brother Leo, who had to retire after three solid seasons as a nose tackle for the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts in the early 1980s.

The younger brother would know the ropes, and it paid off. He was an instant success, making the NFL's 1989 All-Rookie team. Soon after, he was voted a perennial Pro Bowler and frequent All-Pro. In all, he played 206 regular-season games, starting every one of them -- including a 161 consecutive-game streak. 

Steve Wisniewski played hard, and he always played. Furthermore, he was regarded as one of the best at his position in the 1990s -- an unlikely landing spot for someone from Vermont who was an ordained minister and known as one of the nicest guys in the NFL -- so long as he was not on the football field.

Though he was a two-time All-American, he's been snubbed by the College Football Hall of Fame. But at least he's been on the ballot nearly every year for over a decade. The only Hall of Fame he's joined has been the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.

With his resume, Steve Wisniewski deserves better. At the very least, he deserves to have his case heard by the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame's board of selectors as a finalist. You've just heard why.

Riley "Rattlesnake" Matheson—A Virtual Unknown With a Fine NFL Career

By John Turney 
Riley Matheson (#11)
Ever heard of Riley "Rattlesnake" Matheson? You should. An offensive lineman for the Rams, Lions and 49ers, he was an All-Star at every stop of his football career.

He was all-conference in college and junior college, All-NFL, second-team All-AAFC and a CFL All-Star. He was also called the best guard in the NFL and one of the best defensive players some had ever seen.

One thing he's not, however, is a Hall of Famer.

He's never been granted serious consideration as a modern-era or senior candidate, and don't ask me why. Nor was he mentioned when Hall voters chose all-decade teams to celebrate the NFL's 50th anniversary. Matheson inexplicably was left off the squad, while Bill "Monk" Edwards was not. He was a Giants' guard who played four seasons. Matheson played 10.

Had Matheson been elected, maybe he'd have a higher profile with Hall voters. But let's be honest: He doesn't have much of a profile with anyone.

Even ardent followers of the Hall-of-Fame process don't talk about him when the discussion leads to senior candidates who fall through the cracks. You hear about guys like Al Wistert, Verne Lewellen, Lavvie Dilweg, Ox Emerson and Cecil Isbell when it comes to so-called "super seniors".

Those five guys fell through the cracks. And "Snake?" He fell down a hole.

The question is: why?

A native Texan who went to high school in Oklahoma, Matheson had a rancher's swagger and devil-may-care attitude that led him to show up at his first NFL training camp in a 10-gallon cowboy hat and old Levi's. The 6-3, 207-pounder (he'd eventually grow to 220 pounds) figured he had nothing to lose. He was there to make a stand and make the team.

In time, he did, playing eight years with the Cleveland/L.A. Rams (1939-42 and 1944-47)) and one each with Detroit (1943) and San Francisco (1948).

He not only was accomplished; he was so popular with teammates, writers and fans that a "Riley Matheson Day" day was held to honor him ... while he was still an active player. He was given a new station wagon paid for by fans, extra cash collected by the Rams' faithful and a gold watch from teammates.

So why has he been forgotten?

It's hard to say. Probably the simplest answer is that he had some of his best seasons during World War II when many players were in the military and the talent pool was smaller. Nevertheless, a few of his best seasons occurred after the war was over. 

Not only that, but there are Hall-of-Famers who didn't serve and had their best seasons in the 1940s. Among them: Don Hutson, Sammy Baugh. Sid Luckman, Bulldog Turner and Alex Wojciechowicz. They played during World War II, too, so that shouldn't be the reason the Hall's early boards of selectors snubbed Matheson.

Maybe it's because when Matheson was a modern-era candidate, voters thought Canton had more than enough Rams from his era. Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin, Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch and Tom Fears represented the Rams' offense, but they mostly came later and were part of the "point-a-minute" offenses that changed football. Andy Robustelli and Dick "Night Train" Lane were part of the defense, but, like the others, were inducted later and finished their careers with other teams.

Still, that's only six, which doesn't seem like an overrepresentation; certainly not enough to exclude someone who was a five-time first-team All-Pro like Matheson. 

So what's the problem?

The Cleveland Rams' teams that he played on early in his career weren't competitive, and that could be a factor. In fact, Matheson played on more teams with losing records than winners, and let's face it: Proven winners have an easier time reaching Canton than perennial losers. But it's not as if he never played on a winner. Because he did. 

So what's the issue? Whatever it is, it's time to reopen "Snake's" case because his career warrants a fresh look.

Matheson began his pro career with a compelling story that didn't begin with his first game with the Cleveland Rams; it began long before that, on his journey to the Rams' training camp in 1939. With no football team at his high school, Matheson first played the sport at Cameron Junior College (now Cameron University) in Oklahoma where he made the All-Conference team.
Riley Matheson (#11)
He tried to parlay that into playing for the University of Florida and traveled there with a teammate to try out. When that didn't work out, he returned to his native Texas and accepted a basketball scholarship at the State School of Mines and Metallurgy at El Paso, now called UTEP.

In his two years there, he played basketball and football, serving as a tackle and end. He was good enough to be named second-team All-Border Conference as a junior and first-team as a senior when he was chosen the Muckers' (now Miners') team MVP.

After graduating, he took a job laying a pipeline line in Arizona where he was bitten by a rattlesnake. Twice. Or four times, depending on which account you read. There's also a version that has two of the bites occurring when he hunted mountain lions and timber wolves to earn enough money to attend Cameron.

Because Matheson passed away in 1987, he's not here to clarify the details. But suffice it to say, he earned his nickname and it stuck.

He had applied to play pro football by sending in an application to the Cleveland Rams. Yes, a resume. Back then teams didn't scout much, especially at a Border Conference school. So NFL teams would send applications to schools that had promising players.

Matheson filled it out and along with recommendations from coaches, players and even a few writers, he got a camp invite from the Cleveland Rams by coach Dutch Clark.

The Rams didn't take a lot of walk-ons with Clark telling the media, "We are not taking many players outside the draft list," but Matheson made the cut, at first, anyway.

When asked what position he wanted to play Snake said tackle but was rebuffed and was told the club had plenty of those. End? Same answer.

He then just offered his service to play wherever and that he'd "Make a good hand."

Clark put him at defensive guard (now called a defensive tackle) and he actually played in the first couple of games but Snaked was reportedly "too eager" and fell for trap plays over and over. Back then they called them "mousetraps" and being suckered so much he earned the nickname "Limberger" and "Cheesehead".

As a result, the Rams farmed him down to their minor league team the Columbus Bullies where he played 20 games that season. Matheson later recounted that playing minor league football helped his development -- and boy did it.

In 1940 Clark gave the newly confident "Cheesehead" another chance and he returned to the Rams a much-improved player, sticking to the roster all season.

The next season he made his mark in the NFL being voted to the United Press All-Pro team. But that was just the beginning. The next year he made the Associated Press All-Pro team -- he was on a roll.

But the Rams weren't on a roll.

They had to disband in 1943 because of the depletion of players serving in the military there were not enough players to fill all the franchises. Teams combined and the Rams players were distributed around the NFL with Rattlesnake surfacing in Detroit.

He immediately was noticed by Detroit News columnist Dale Stafford, who wrote, "He's a lean wirey Texan with the build of an end. Possessed of tremendous strength and agility, Matheson is as fine a guard as these eyes have looked at in some time."

Fittingly the paper named him to their own All-Pro team and the New York Daily News named him second-team All-Pro. Not bad for a year in exile in the Motor City.

The Rams resumed play in 1944 and the rest of his time with the Rams -- through 1947 he was a consensus All-Pro pick -- AP, UP, Daily News, you name it. If there was an All-Pro team he was usually on it. The man was simply recognized as one of the best players in the NFL, year in and year out.

Matherson had such an impact that in 1945 he even got two votes in the Official MVP balloting. Two you say? Big deal. Well, Sammy Baugh only got nine and Snake was the only lineman to garner any votes at all.

He was a big factor in the Rams' NFL Championship in 1945 and recovered a key fumble. Plus, the glib cowboy even suggested a play to rookie QB Bob Waterfield. Waterfield sarcastically agreed, telling Snake, "Why don't you call the plays and I'll center the ball."

Point made, Bob.

The Rams won the game 15-14, checking the "ring" box on his Hall qualifications.

Perhaps another reason he's not been at the forefront of Hall discussions is that folk may not know exactly what he was on the field. 
Riley Matheson (#11) making a tackle on Chicago Cardinals' End Ed Rucinski
Yes, he was listed as a guard but he also played tackle on an unbalanced line in the Rams' single-wing wing offense. When they moved to the T-formation he slid inside to guard.

But on defense, he'd move around playing middle guard, move to defensive tackle, and drop back as a linebacker usually in the middle.

Later, when the Rams had moved to Los Angeles he played some center and would sometimes be outside linebacker in a 6-2 defense but it varied from game to game. Generally, though, he should be remembered that he was a nose guard when the Rams ran the 6-2 and he'd step back and play the middle linebacker when they deployed a 5-3 defense.

In all cases, he was called the defensive signals and was elite at diagnosing plays, and usually led the team in tackles. "Matheson has a sixth sense or something," said Jack Lavelle, a New York Giants scout, "He's fast and strong. Riley must make 90 percent of the Ram tackles, or so it seems."

"One of the best defensive guards to ever grace a National League roster", raved Los Angeles Daily News writer Ned Cronin. Los Angeles Daily Mirror columnist Maxwell Stiles was even more effusive calling Matheson, "One of the finest defensive linemen or linebackers I've ever seen."

After all those All-Pro seasons in 1948, they thought he was getting old and wanted to trade him and found an East Coast suitor. Matherson found out about it and said he wouldn't go but asked permission to seek a deal with the other West Coast team -- the San Francisco 49ers of the rival AAFC.

Ironically, a few years earlier Matheson received a lucrative offer from the Cleveland Browns to play and coach in the new league. He ultimately rejected it after cleverly using it as leverage to get a raise from the Rams.

One of his concerns was the threat of a five-year suspension that he would have received from the NFL for signing with the new league. He was wise enough to know the whole thing could be a flop and he'd be out of the NFL.

In 1948 he was approaching 34 years of age so that was not a concern. His career was winding down.

Quitely the Rams released him and he showed up as a 49ers. It's suspected it was a cash deal between the teams since they could not exchange players or draft picks but the secrecy of the move caused some rancor among the Los Angeles sports media.

How had they gotten rid of Rattlesnake Matheson, they asked?

At first, the 49ers told the press that Matherson would be a backup on both offense and defense but he quickly earned a starting spot as a linebacker and he became one of the AAFC's best defenders.

He was second-team on the official All-AAFC team on the second-best team in the league. Pretty good for a guy who was "getting old".

The Niners played in the same division as the Cleveland Browns and their 12-2 record didn't qualify them to make the playoffs with the Browns going undefeated in 1948.

After that quality season, the Matheson hung up his cleats. Until he didn't.

In the summer of 1949, he signed to play for the Calgary Stampeders in the Western Interprovincial Football Union (thankfully now called the Western Division of the CFL).

All he did there was become a starter and help the Stampeders attempt to defend the CFL title, losing in the Grey Cup Game. He was also a unanimous choice on the All-league team and called "the best guard in Canada" by one writer.

Snake played one more year north of the border and finally retired from professional football but he went out with a bang. He again was All-League in 1950 -- the only player to repeat from 1949 and in 1957 was named to the all-time Stampeder team.

He'd also be named to the all-time Rams team by Bob Waterfield and among others.

Outside Bob Waterfield and perhaps Jim Benton he was the Rams' best player in the 1940s. And that is a big perhaps with Benton. Matheson was probably better.

In all, he totaled 83 games in the NFL, 14 in the AAFC and 24 in the CFL over a total of 12 professional seasons.

In those seasons he got some sort of "all" in all but his first two with six of them being first-team All-NFL.

Six you say? Sounds like a lot.

It is.

It's the same number of selections as the Bears' Hall-of-Fame guard Danny Fortman, considered among the best guards of the two-way era. It's also more than George Musso, another Bears legendary guard who has a bust in Canton.

It's also more than Packers guard Mike Michalske who appears on many all-time teams and is immortalized in Canton.

It's also more than a lot of modern-era guards. Too many to name, really.

Not only that, it's also more than George Trafton, Frank Gatski and the aforementioned Alex Wojciechowicz -- all Hall-of-Fame centers who also played both ways, like Snake did.

By objective standards, Riley Matheson's career matches up with the Hall-of-Fame offensive interior players of his era and matches up well with a lot of recent guards and centers.

So there you have it -- Matheson's case: An All-Star in collegiate football, the NFL, the AAFC and the CFL.

An NFL champion.

A tough-as-nails player who was probably the league's best defensive player in 1945. He probably should have been on the 1940's All-Decade team and who probably should be in the Hall of Fame.

It's time for his case to be heard in toto by the Hall's seniors' committee and when they do, they cannot help but be impressed because the Rattlesnake checks all the boxes.

All of them.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

New York Giants Reveal 'Century Red' Alternate Uniforms

 By John Turney 
Today the New York Giants revealed their "Century Red' throwback/alternate uniforms and they are interesting as well as terrific. They are not 100 percent historically accurate but that can be forgiven.

They took the 1938 helmets with wings that are based on the contours of leather helmets of the time. It's the Michigan look, more or less.

They matched the 1925 socks with the 1933 Jersey and that pair works because they match very closely. 

Here are the shots released by the Giants—

Here are a couple of colorized shots of the 1933 jerseys—
Bo Molenda (23), Dale Barnett (18), Ken Strong (50) and Harry Newman (12)
 

Harry Newman

Mel Hein in the 1938 winged helmet
Mel Hein

A shot of the 1925 socks (colorized)—

From what we can tell the reaction is mixed. Some Tweets (now X) are mocking them and some seem to enjoy them. 

For those who like them, the complaint is the tan pants, preferring that they be white. 

To each is own, but it's a good effort, in our opinion. Well done.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

RIP Jimmy Johnson -- 49ers Legend

 By John Turney 

Not everyone knows how good former San Francisco 49ers' cornerback Jimmy Johnson was ... and that includes the NFL media. Yet he was one of the NFL's first shutdown corners, a Pro Football Hall of Famer so accomplished that he was once called "the greatest defensive back who ever lived."

Sadly, Johnson died Wednesday night after what his family said was a long illness. He was 86.

The brother of Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson, Jimmy Johnson was an all-decade choice (1970s) and the most decorated 49er ever before Hall-of-Famer Ronnie Lott. He also played in more games for San Francisco (213) than everyone but Hall-of-Famer Jerry Rice (238).

He played 16 years with San Francisco, more than any 49er outside of quarterback John Brodie, and was named first-team All-Pro by the AP, PFWA and NEA from 1970-72 and second-team in 1965 and 1966. However, when you include the NEA All-Pro teams -- those chosen by NFL players -- he was also first-team All-Pro in 1969 and second-team All-Pro in 1964, 1965, and 1968. 

It seems his peers respected Johnson more than the NFL media.

He was also a five-time Pro Bowler and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame's Class of 1994 along with Bud Grant, Tony Dorsett, Jackie Smith, Randy White and senior finalist Leroy Kelly. 

“Jimmy Johnson," said Hall-of-Fame president Jim Porter in a prepared statement, "was extraordinarily athletically talented. The 49ers enjoyed the luxury of using him on offense and defense early in his career to fill team needs. Once he settled in at left cornerback, he flourished.

"The notion that a 'lockdown' cornerback could cut the field in half was true for Jimmy. Only rarely would other teams' quarterbacks even look in his direction and, more often than not, regretted the decision if they challenged him."

A track star and two-way player at UCLA, Johnson was the 49ers' first-round draft pick (sixth overall) in 1961 and immediately became a starter at right cornerback. But, as he did in college, he played on both sides of the ball the next two seasons -- both as a defensive back and receiver -- before settling in at left corner where he didn't move until the age of 38 in 1976.

Johnson ended his NFL career with 47 interceptions, returning two for touchdowns, but that doesn't tell his story. An outstanding man-to-man defender, he was respected so much by opponents that they rarely tested him, keeping him from posting big interception numbers -- figures that define cornerbacks.

However, the 49ers' media guides of the early 1970s tell how invaluable he was to the team. That's because they included stats beyond interceptions -- with completions allowed, yards allowed and pass attempts in Johnson's area among them -- and they reveal what made Johnson so extraordinary.

In 1969, for instance, he allowed 25 completions on 74 pass attempts for 250 yards, with five interceptions. In 1970, the figures were similar -- 32 of 85 for 362 yards with two picks. Anecdotally, former Hall-of-Fame voter and legendary Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman reported that Johnson wasn't beaten for a touchdown in either year.

If that's true, then Johnson's individual defensive passer rating for those combined years would be ... 29.7. Twenty-nine point seven. Think about that. Anything under 60 would be considered excellent. Under 50 would be great. But under 30? That's another universe.

Maybe that's why Zimmerman picked Johnson for his personal All-Time NFL team and praised him as someone who, "without reservation, is the greatest defensive back who ever lived."

OK, so that's one man's opinion. Except Zimmerman wasn't alone. There's Dick Nolan, one of Johnson's coaches with San Francisco, and he joined the chorus, too.

"I coached three defensive backs I felt were great," he said. "Mel Renfro and Cornell Green with the Dallas Cowboys and Johnson. Jimmy is the best I've ever seen."

But Johnson was more than an extraordinarily talented athlete. He was tough, too, an individual could ... and would ... play through pain. In 1971, for example, he played almost half the season with a cast protecting a shattered wrist and never missed a game -- including the playoffs and Pro Bowl.

Yet he still was named All-Pro. 

"Even with one arm," said former 49ers' cornerback Bruce Taylor, one of Johnson's teammates, "Jimmy Johnson is better than 90 percent of the defensive backs in this league. He's knocking down passes with one hand. I can't get over it."

That offseason, Johnson was voted the PFWA's George Halas Most Courageous Player Award. He was also a recipient of the 49ers' most prestigious honor, the Len Eshmont Award, given annually to the player who best symbolizes courageous and inspirational play.

Johnson won it twice, in 1969 and again in 1975.

"I don't look at someone and think that he can't beat me," Johnson once said. "If you play long enough you're going to get beat. The question and the key to your effectiveness is how often."

In addition to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Johnson is a member of the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame and the San Francisco 49ers team Hall of Fame. His number 37 was retired by the 49ers in 1977.

"Jimmy embodied the essence of what it meant to be a 49er," the team said in a statement. "He was the ultimate gentleman and will be remembered for his humility, kindness and lovable demeanor." 

Maybe fans today don't remember Jimmy Johnson. At least, not this Jimmy Johnson. But they should. He wasn't just a great player; he was consistently great, with his last career interception a defining statement. It happened vs. Seattle when Johnson was 38 years and 179 days old -- making him the oldest player at any position at the time to produce an interception.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

State Your Case: Bob Kuechenberg

By John Turney
Art Credit:  Alain Moreau
As an eight-time finalist, former Miami guard Bob Kuechenberg has been on the cusp of crossing the threshold to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In fact, five times he survived the first cut to place in the top 10, including once (the first) when he was chosen as one of six for enshrinement.

But  he didn't receive 80 percent of the vote required for election and has fallen short every time since. I know, it happens. But not like this.

Since 1999 -- the year the Pro Football Hall of Fame began releasing voting results -- he's the only player to make the "yes/no" phase and never be elected at some point. All others in that situation eventually won their Gold Jackets in subsequent years. But not "Kooch." He's still waiting.

So what's the problem?

Maybe it's a Miami Dolphins' backlash -- the notion that there were enough members of the early 1970s' Dolphins' dynasty teams already in Canton. Perhaps it was more specific, like a Dolphins' interior line backlash. Three interior offensive linemen -- Jim Langer, Larry Little and Diwght Stephenson -- were inducted from 1987-98 before "Kooch" cracked the Final 15 in 2002.

So maybe voters were worn out.

Or maybe it's something less petty. It's possible some selectors just didn't think he had a Hall-worthy career and could have pointed to the fact that he was named an AP All-Pro once -- in 1978. If that's true, it's shortsighted. There's more to the story of a player's career than his AP All-Pro status, and I'll offer a couple of reasons:

-- First, at one time there were more than just the AP All-Pro teams listed in the NFL's Official Record Book. Another one, the NEA, named the Miami left guard All-Pro in 1975.

-- Second, the late Paul ("Dr. Z") Zimmerman, a longtime Hall-of-Fame voter, chose Kuechenberg to his personal All-Pro team every year from 1972-75. "Bob Kuechenberg," he wrote in December, 1975, "has been the best guard for four years now. Great in every phase of the game."

But there is more.

Kuechenberg was a six-time Pro Bowler, which was the same as Langer and one more than both Little and Stephenson -- the Dolphins' interior trio with busts in Canton. His Pro Bowl total is also the same as Hall-of-Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure and tackle Dan Dierdorf, also a Hall member.

That's the same Joe DeLamielleure who holds Keuchenberg in the highest regard saying, "When I broke in, Kuechenberg was the best in the business, and I modeled my play after him."

He wasn't alone. Add another Hall-of-Famer, former Patriots' guard John Hannah, to the list of Kuechenberg's admirers.

"When I came in the NFL," he said, "I patterned my play after Bob Kuechenberg because he was a great guard. He played on those championship teams and did everything well. His all-around game was what impressed me. He didn't have weaknesses in his game."

But those were players on Kuechenberg's side of the ball. It's what those who played opposite him said that matter more, and the line there is as long as it is impressive. For instance ... 

-- Look what Cowboys' all-time great defensive tackle Bob Lilly had to say: "I first played against Kuechenberg in Super Bowl VI, and I realized he was one of the best offensive linemen I had ever seen. Then we played Miami the next year, and he had improved even more. He should be in the Hall."

-- Then there's All-Pro defensive end Bubba Smith: "I played against him my entire career, and he was the best the Dolphins had. People hardly ever had a good game against him. He was the best trap-blocker in the league ... . Gene Upshaw and Larry Little were considered in the forefront because they pulled, but 'Kooch' was the greatest at doing what he did." 

-- That "greatest" skill? Trapping. All-Pro defensive tackle Mike Reid of the Cincinnati Bengals, once said that Kuechenberg hit him so hard on one trap block that he "couldn't fall down." That didn't surprise Paul Zimmerman, who called Kuechenberg "the best in the business" as a trapping guard. He loved trap blocking so much that he named his boat "34 trap" after the play that inflicted so much damage to defensive linemen in his 14-year NFL career.

But he excelled at more than just trap blocking, with former Miami offensive line coach Monte Clark calling Kuechenberg "the best short-yardage and goal-line blocker I ever saw. You would have to kill him to beat him."

"On third-and-one," added Miami's Hall-of-Fame running back, Larry Csonka, " 'Kooch' was either going to move somebody or hurt somebody."

OK, so was an outstanding blocker ... short-yardage, goal-line, trapping, you name it. That's been established. But his resume extends beyond that. For instance, he was tough and a winner. How tough? He bedeviled Minnesota's Alan Page in Super Bowl VIII with his arm in a cast that protected a broken arm.

But that's not all.

"One year," said former Miami coach Don Shula, "he even snapped for us with a broken back—while in a full body cast!".

He was a winner, too. Not only was he part of the 17-0 undefeated Dolphins' team in 1972 and the repeating championship team in 1973; over the course of his career, he was a winner 70.7 percent of the time.

I know, football's a team game, right? But the Dolphins' success was based largely on their offensive line. During the 1970s, no team ran for more yards for a higher yards-per-carry average than Miami. Plus, Kuechenberg and his offensive line teammates once blocked for two 1,000-yard rushers (Csonka and Mercury Morris) in the same season.

But that's not all. From 1970-83, the Dolphins' offensive line that Kuechenberg led allowed fewer sacks than any team. Bar none.

" 'Kooch's' skills were especially evident in big games we played," said Shula. " 'Kooch' had, by far, the best won-lost record of any Dolphin player, and that's the bottom line. No Dolphin ever did it better, or as long, as 'Kooch.' "

So what's the holdup to Canton?

It could be that Kuechenberg rubbed some people the wrong way; that he wore out his audience when talking about his blocking prowess. He desperately wanted his legacy cemented in Canton and wasn't shy about telling listeners -- including voters.

"I hate to lobby in this manner," he once told the South Florida Sun-Sentinal, "but what else do I have to do with my time? Who else is around to do it, too?"

He also was the first to uncork champagne when NFL teams on the verge of unbeaten seasons lost for the first time, thus preserving the 17-0 Dolphins' legacy. Plus, there were times after he retired when he was critical of the Dolphins, irritating those players he left behind.

Not exactly the way to win friends and influence people.

"It's another chapter in the grumpy Kuechenberg story," Hall-of-Famer Jason Taylor once commented. "It's Kuechenberg. He gets up every year and bitches about something. If it ain't one thing, it's another. He needs a hug and a hobby. It's ridiculous."

So maybe he had a chip on his shoulder. He should have. He worked his way from someone uncertain that he wanted to play NFL football to an individual whose football fire was relit by Shula when he was signed as free agent in 1970. Then he would go on to play 196 regular-season games and 19 playoff games and establish a legacy that was more than source of pride. 

It was ... and is ... Hall-of-Fame worthy. Yet he's not in Canton.

Look, he wasn't perfect. Maybe he was grumpy. Maybe he blew his own horn.  On the other hand, it was a pretty good horn to blow, as former Dolphins' owner Joe Robbie pointed out.

"If I ever get to build my own stadium down here," he said, "the first thing I am going to do is erect a statue of 'Kooch' in front of it. More than any player, he symbolizes what the Dolphins 'together we win' program is all about."

That never happened, but it should have. Robbie sold the team, Dan Marino arrived and, with the charismatic Hall-of-Fame quarterback becoming the face of the franchise, it was he, not an offensive lineman, who had a statue erected in front of the stadium. Nevertheless, Robbie's comment symbolizes how important Kuechenberg was to Miami's success. 

So does another accolade, this one by Shula. 

"Bob Kuechenberg contributed more to help my team win than any player I've ever coached," he said. "Wherever the team needed him— that's where he played. Whether guard, tackle, center or long snapping ... 'Kooch' dominated defensive linemen at both guard and tackle. Wherever we put him, any threat we faced from the opposition virtually disappeared. He certainly deserves to be in the Hall of Fame."

Hopefully, the Hall's seniors committee takes note and affords an offensive lineman who may have been the NFL's best trap blocker ever something he deserves -- one more shot at Canton.