By John Turney
We read Joe Klecko's name quite often in online pieces about his worthiness for the Hall of Fame but rarely (if ever) read Mark Gastineau's name so we wanted to explore that a little bit.
As always we begin with a look at the stats and the honors—
Klecko gets credit for being a Pro Bowler at three positions, defensive end, defensive tackle, and nose tackle. He was not All-Pro at all three, though you see that printed out there. It's one of those "True Lies" we find from time to time.
The only way to make that statement true is to say All-Pro and Pro Bowler are the same. They are not. All-Pro chooses the best from both conferences while Pro Bowl selections are defacto All-Conference teams, not All-NFL teams. Nonetheless, even going to the Pro Bowl at all three is impressive. So there is no incentive to shade it, it's great as it is—Klecko is the only player to go to Pro Bowl at three positions. As far as we know that is true.
However, the two All-Pros, one and end and one at the nose are the only two times he was All-Pro. Gastineau was First-team All-Pro four times and a Second-team All-Pro one more time.
Klecko was the 1981 UPI AFC Defensive Player of the Year and Gastineau was the NEA NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1982 so that basically evens out. But then Gastineau won his own UPI AFC Defensive Player of the Year award in 1984 Both were major awards at the time and well respected. So, edge Gastineau.
The big knock on Gastineau was that he didn't play the run. And that's fair. Howie Long spoke about that a lot in the 1980s when he was trying to get "Gastineau money" from Al Davis. Long said the reason he didn't get the sacks Gastineau did was that he played all phases of the game and Gastineau didn't.
However, when Paul Zimmerman chose his 1983 Sports Illustrated All-Pro team he wrote, "The Jets' Mark Gastineau, the AFC's leading sacker, with 19, was a target for TV commentators this year. They were always telling you how he was overplaying the pass, at the expense of the run, but then their isolated camera would catch him stopping the ballcarrier for a yard loss. Maybe Gastineau's techniques aren't perfect yet, but nobody hustled as much as he did—for a full afternoon. No, I don't go for the sack dance either, but give the guy credit. He played great this year."
Interestingly the numbers bear Dr. Z out. In 1983 Gastineau had 11.5 run stuffs, more than Klecko had in a single season. In fact, in 1981 he had 8.5 run stuffs which tied Klecko's career high and that was when Kelcko was inside, as a nose tackle in 1985. (For what it's worth that run stuff figure for Gastineau was more than any season Howie Long had as well).
However, beginning at mid-season in 1984 Gastineau's rep caught up with him and he, according to Zim, gave up trying to play the run to focus on sacks.
In 1985 when the Jets moved to a 3-4 and Klecko played the tilted nose in Bud Carson's stunt 3-4, Gastineau moved to the right end in the base defense, which was a change but he'd often move to his familiar left end in passing situations. In the Carson scheme it allowed Klecko to penetrate, it was not a classic 1970s/80s 3-4 where the nose was only asked to take on blocks. Carson recognized using Klecko in a one-gap penetrating way it would be difficult to block.
Carson was right, the Jets defense improved greatly versus the run in 1985 over 1984. All the Jets were seemingly poor versus the run in 1984 just as they were in 1983, the 11½ run stuffs for Gastineau notwithstanding. The sacks ticked up a bit, too. Klecko was dominant and Gastineau was close to that.
Here are the Jets run defense stats and sacks from 1977-88
Turning to Proscout, Inc. (PSI), the reliable scouting firm Dr. Z cribbed from for years (Merlin Olsen, too. When you heard great nuggets on NBC they were from PSI) we see mixed results for both players.
As a rookie Gastineau was ranked 47th (orange), then in 1980, he moved up to being a "red" player. In 1981 he was the top defensive end (high blue) in the NFL according to PSI with his 20 sacks and 8.5 stuffs. In 1982 he was still blue (though a hair lower) and in 1983 and 1984 he was again very high blue. In 1985, still blue, but lower in the rankings. He dropped dramatically in 1986 and 1987 but was red in the for the time he played in 1988.
Klecko also had great seasons with high marks. From 1978-80 he was red, playing 3-4 end in 1978, 4-3 tackle in 1970 and 4-3 end in 1980. In 1981 he was high blue, ranking 4th in the NFL among defensive ends. 1982 was a washout due to a terrible knee injury. In 1983 and 1984 he came back as a defensive tackle and was a low blue in 1983 and orange in 1984. With the move to nose in 1985, he was back to his usual self as a high blue (4th best nose) and in 1986 he was ninth (low blue). The bottom fell out in 1987 and 1988 (with Colts) and he was orange on those years.
So, for those scoring at home, Gastineau was blue/single digits in rankings five times and Klecko achieved that status four times. And in terms of rest of the grades, Gastineau scores higher.
In the next thing we track, testimonials, both score well. In 1981 Gannet News Service's Joel Buchsbaum wrote, about Klecko, "Had over 20 sacks and excelled against the run while playing on a bad foot". For Gastineau, the line was, "Rivals Klecko as a pass rusher and much improved versus the run". Joel even added a couple of years later, "Gastineau is the premier pass rusher in the NFL. He has a rare combination of speed, strength, and power and has become a force against the run".
Don Henrich's Pro Preview which availed itself of lots of scouting material said about Klecko, "Explosive, strong, and competitive he never stops coming on the pass rush. His aggressiveness is sometimes turned against him on traps and draws." They called Gastineau the "best power rusher in the league" and said he was recognizing run plays better but could also be taken advantage of on draws and traps". Going into 1983 PP said, "The explosive strongman led the league in sacks with 19 and has improved his play against the run. He was especially adept at stringing out the sweep last year. His enthusiasm still leaves him vulnerable sometimes versus the trap."
For Klecko they said, "(C)oming back from knee surgery was moved from end to tackle when it became apparent he'd lost some speed and lateral movement. Still quick and strong and relentless he benefitted from the move (inside)."
In other testimonials Klecko's are stellar. Dwight Stephenson considered him one of the two best interior linemen he had ever faced. Anthony Muñoz said, "Joe is right there at the top of the defensive ends I had to block . . . he was the strongest guy I ever faced. He had perfect technique—hands in tight, great leverage. . . he was such an intense, smart player"
Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure added that "You can’t think of his ten-year period without him. I had to block Joe Greene and Merlin Olsen when I was playing and, believe me, Joe Klecko was equal to those two guys."
Keith Dorney the other was Greg Koch. Good players, but not household names. Ron Yary, who faced Gastineau in 1979 said that Gastineau was the "fastest defensive end he ever faced" but added as a rookie, he was not yet a very good player, he was just fast.
In terms of intangibles, Klecko was a truly esteemed teammate for the Jet players. Gastineau was not. Often he was a dog on his own hunt, seeking outside of football deals and fame. Gastineau and his sack dance were seen as hot dogging at that time, and opponents and teammates resented it. Seemingly Gastineau didn't care.
Recently Gastineau told ESPN, ""I got a lot of s-s-s-s-sacks—and I got a lot of punishment for it. I can't say I felt bad about getting sacks. It could've been a lot better if I didn't have all the negative publicity, but you know what? Looking back on it, my career, I had a lot of ups and downs. There's been a lot of negative publicity on me."
He's rightly called a leader and rather than walking away from the NFL in the middle of a season like Gastineau did. Klecko did it the right way, after the 1988 season. Klecko said at a news conference at the Colts' headquarters. "I really feel great about retiring. My time has passed. When I came in the league, and even four or five years ago, centers were 250 or 260 pounds. This year, I played against nine guys that were 290 pounds. It's time for us little guys to move aside."
Though both had brushes with the law (Klecko for perjury in an insurance fraud case) and Gastineau for assault and other issues and both admitted to the use of PEDs though Klecko said it wasn't for football but for the NFLPA for strong-man contests it seems Gastineau gets more negative press.
We don't have an issue with players using PEDs in that era, it was not against the rules and if all the records and Super Bowls that were affected by players using steroids and others drugs the era would be largely wiped out. So, color us skeptical on Klecko's qualification of the use of the juice. If he did it for football, fine. He's one of the hundreds. Or thousands. There may be teams that wouldn't have won Super Bowls without juice.
In the end, this analysis shows that of the two Klecko has much stronger testimonials. They are from opponents (which carry the most weight with us) and they are strong and definitive. Those, coupled with four blue seasons from PSI and being All-Pro at end and nose (and a Pro Bowler at tackle) really do make a strong Hall of Fame case.
But, Gastineau wins in the total honors (twice as many All-Pros and Defensive Player of the Year awards), more Pro Bowls and so on. His PSI grades are higher and more consistent and he had more 'high blue" and "blue" seasons
At his peak he was the best pass rusher in the NFL in an era that was exploding is passing after the 1978 rule changes and his speed and strength helped break blocks of tackles who could use their hands more than ever before.
Also, fans and the media who didn't know should now have learned Gastineau's poor run defense was likely exaggerated. We don't claim that it was Curtis McGriff or anything, but the Jets poor run defense in 1983 and 1984 cannot all be laid at Gastineau's feet. Klecko and Lyons were there, too. And according to stats and reports, Gastineau was actually good versus the run at least in 1981-1983 and other reports suggest he was okay at times after that.
Our own film study (and we've seen and studied a lot) was that he was always a penetrator and when he made those stuffs it was based on great athleticism and hustle. But tackles could influence him to go to the wrong side of them and their 5- and 6-yard gains too often. Call him a "10" versus the pass and a "6" versus the run.
So, while no one will likely mention Gastineau in terms of the upcoming Centennial Class he, too, deserves a look. There is not much space in their credentials, in some ways Gastineau is clearly ahead and in a couple of areas, we think Klecko is ahead.
This one is too close to call.