Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Team of Oxen, Equally Yoked

By John Turney
Some time ago the Pro Football Researchers Association released profiles of a handful of players they thought were Hall of Fame-worthy.

Two of them were linemen—Grover "Ox" Emerson and Al "Big Ox" Wistert. Both Emerson and Wistert were All-Decade selections (both First-team), both were on NFL Championship teams, both were six-time First-team All-Pros, both were on teams that set statistical marks, some of which still stand to this day in team or NFL annals and yet neither were in the Hall of Fame which was the purpose of those dossiers—to inform Hall of Fame voters of a pair of NFL greats who fell through the nomination cracks.

Not only were the "Ox-men" on the First-team Hall of Fame All-Decade Teams for their respective decades, but they were also consensus choices for the "Combined" All-1930s and 1940s teams.

The "Ox" who played with the Lions, Emerson, in a recent profile by Chris Willis a producer at NFL Films and author of many books from the relevant eras, had many excellent "testimonials" or "What they said" quotes about him.

Here are a few:
“I regard Emerson one of the greatest linemen I have ever seen perform on a football field. Having him out of our first five games hurt us more than anyone will ever know.”—Potsy Clark, former Spartans-Lions head coach, in 1935.

(Ox) Emerson, the Detroit guard, according to Link Lyman of our Bears, is the fastest, ‘slicing’ forward and the hardest to block, he has ever met in football. And Link is almost a football line all by himself.”—Red Grange, former Bears Hall of Fame back, wrote in 1934.

“Emerson’s low charging made him one of the toughest guards to drive out of play, while he was fast enough to pull out and block on the Lions’ intricate reverse plays.”—wrote the UPI on Emerson when naming him to 1936 NFL All-Pro team.

Willis also mentioned that as he was a major part of the 1935 NFL Champion Lions, and that the "1936 the Lions set an NFL record for rushing yards in a season with 2,885 yards (in 12 games), a record that stood until 1972 when the Miami Dolphins broke it (in a 14-game season)"

Here are the team records as found in the Lions media guide. Three of the top five seasons for attempts are still listed. With a team that featured Barry Sanders on it, two of the top three rushing seasons are still part of the Emerson/Dutch Clark-era. Pretty impressive.
Emerson, as a two-way player (as almost all were in that era) was also part of the Lions 1934 Defense that posted seven shutouts and allowed just 59 points on the season.

Clearly, the defensive charts are more misleading due to era, season length and so on. But the 1950s and 1960s Lions teams were known for defense...and the 1930s defense still was dominant. A deep look would be required to get more meaning, but it is fair to say it was a great defense and Ox Emerson was a part of that.

As far as NFL records, the Lions from that era are still in the NFL Record and Fact Book's pages.

They still hold the record for most yards rushing in a game and are second in consecutive seasons leading the NFL in rushing yards behind a pair of Bears teams—one was recent, even.

And there are still third in fewest points allowed.


Wistert's "testimonials" include George Allen in his book Pro Football’s 100 Greatest Players and also selected him as one of the ten best defensive linemen of all time. Allen wrote, “He was as fine a blocker as you could want. He didn’t have the size to overpower people on the pass block, but he was a master of every kind of block.”

In 2016 the Talk of Fame Network had this quote as well, "Al was the greatest offensive tackle I’ve seen or played with," said former teammate Bosh Pritchard. He also said, "He was our best offensive tackle," referring to the great Eagles teams of the late 1940s.

Steve Van Buren set the NFL's career rushing mark in 1949 (which he held for six seasons) Wistert was the most decorated blocker the Eagles had. And during the "Wistert era" the Eagles were at the top or near the top in rushing offense, and scoring offense and were at or near the top of total defense and scoring defense as well, topping it off with two NFL Championships.

Wistert was a "quick type" tackle in our view He would cut block a lot—but that was common for the era. He was a good athlete for a tackle, not a big, slow "power type" as was often seen in that era. 

As a defender, Allen added, "He always played in perfect position and was seldom off his feet. He was a superb pursuit man and seemed somehow to get in on every play. He was a sure tackler. He was maybe best against the run, but he was among the good early pass rushers."

As a pass rusher, he used his hands pretty well, which was unusual for that era when players would often lead with their shoulders. He was no Gino Marchetti (who advanced the use of hands in pass rushing in the 1950s), mind you, but he was very good at getting pressure. He was also excellent in pursuit in run defense.

In the mid-1940s sometimes he played what looks to be a standup defensive tackle/linebacker position - a hybrid position. From it, he'd take a motioning T-running back out of the backfield in man-to-man coverage. It was a wrinkle in how the Eagles coaches would coverages in the mid-1940s. That is a tough assignment for a defensive tackle.

In that same era he could be seen playing stand-up defensive end as well, which looking at it today would be considered an outside linebacker/edge position and he got good pressure when going after the passer from that spot.

He really does not get enough credit for how good a defender he was. He did a lot of things, played the run from a down position, rushed from an up or down position and covered from an inside stand-up position. 

Van Buren's accolades still dot the Eagles' recent Media Guides

And to this day the 1944 Eagles are second in fewest rushing yards allowed in a season. (Again, we get it's a different era, but the point is to highlight what the offenses and defenses of the "Ox" men did and that they hold up, not to prove said offenses and defenses played under the same rules and circumstances, we know they didn't).
Here are the teams that allowed the fewest rushing yards from 1937-52. Four Eagles teams, in which Wistert was a starter (five if you count the Steagles of 1943 where he was a rookie).
And there are more things we could clip and post to further buttress the accomplishments of Emerson and Wistert.

But the bottom line is this:
We feel confident there are plenty of players in recent eras and from eras gone by that don't check as many boxes as these two do.

Two oxen make a team and for them to work well they have to be yoked together, equally, or there will be an imbalance and the team will not be efficient. These two are so even it is impossible to separate them. Maybe it's time, with the expanded Centennial Class of 2020, to use two of those "Centennial" slots on these oxen. It would be fitting, fair, and just.


  1. eloquently argued John.....hope the NFL recognizes the pre-WWII guys in their centennial HoF group

  2. so what happened at the end of the year for the 34 Lions? PFR shows 7 (!) straight shutouts to open season (surely a record...isn't it?...which if so, will never be broken), 10-0 going into a Nov. 25 game at home against the Packers.....lose 3-0 on a 4th qtr FG, then lose the last 2 against Chicago both 3 point losses....maybe along with the 67 Baltimore Colts, the best team that 'never was'.....?

    1. It's a great question. I think if you got a copy of CHris Willis' book on Dutch Clark you'd get some answers. The 1969 Rams were 11-0 after 11 weeks then lost 4 straight including playoffs.

      They maybe are similar...

  3. the Dutch Clark book is one I've yet to get....thanks for the suggestion, John.

    1. It's could ask Chris but he will be producing Hard Knocks over the next month and will have little time, so the book may provide answers.

  4. I'm still upset about that loss in the Coliseum against the 10-1-2 Rams in '67, not that anyone else still cares....the only team in NFL history to have one single loss in the whole season and the rules let green bay in and keep Baltimore out 11-0-2 > 11-1-2 and "see you later".....

  5. Another example of Don Shula not being able to win the big game with the Colts. After Weeb Ewbank got revenge against Shula and Rosenbloom in SB III, Carrol had enough...I really believe Shula thought he would never leave the Colts.

    What's also bad, and I cry foul to this day, is how a Rams team from 1967, that beat GB at the end of the year and had a better record, would have to go to Milwaukee of all places, to play the Pack in the playoffs ? A rotating schedule was for Championship games, not divisionals, I thought...

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