Thursday, October 31, 2019

Analyzing Rich McKay's Letter of Support for Tommy Nobis

By John Turney
Figure 1.  Click to Enlarge

In September Rich McKay ( president, CEO, and former general manager of the Atlanta Falcons) wrote a letter to the Hall of Famer Voters advocating for he lection of Tommy Nobis to be included in the Hall of Fame.

Here it is with our comments highlighted;

Dear Pro Football Hall of Fame voters and football fans everywhere,

I’m writing you today because it is time to do the right thing.
Right thing? Matter of opinion, no?

It is time to rightfully acknowledge, appreciate, and celebrate one of the greatest to ever play the game: the late Tommy Nobis. We can – we should – do that by immortalizing Nobis with a bronze bust at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

And here is why I feel so strongly about it.

For the past 30-plus years, Nobis was affectionately known as “Mr. Falcon” because he was the first player ever selected by the Atlanta Falcons when they made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 1966 NFL Draft and, as importantly, because of everything he brought to the organization on and off the field.
All very nice, but shouldn't be a factor for Hall of Fame.

From the minute Nobis stepped onto the field at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, he was a difference-maker. Teams may not have feared the Falcons, but they surely feared playing against Tommy.

After stockpiling a mind-boggling 294 combined tackles during his first season – a mark that still stands as the Falcons’ all-time single-season record and is unofficially the most tackles ever credited to one player in NFL history – Nobis was voted Rookie of the Year and selected to the first of five Pro Bowls in his career.
False. Nobis shouldn't be blamed for it but that is a bogus number, it is a coaching stat not for the play by plays. He had plenty of tackles, just not that many. It's a myth.

That’s right, Tommy was selected to the Pro Bowl five of his 11-year career while playing on a non-competitive team.

He went on to lead the Falcons in tackles in nine of his 11 seasons and was named All-Pro twice (first team in 1967 and second team in 1968). Nobis was later named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1960s. That team, for whatever it’s worth, was selected by Pro Football Hall of Fame voters at the end of the decade.
True. Technically, he was Second-team All-Decade. However, playing 3-1/3 seasons in the 1960s is a bit light. Also, the HOF committee selected three middle linebackers for the team of the 1960s so for all intents and purposes it shorted am outside linebacker or two.

Here are the more accepted tackles as taken from the play-by-plays:
Figure 2

The Falcons came into the league as an expansion team when Nobis began his career and they achieved at a level that the NFL expansion rules were designed to – they were not competitive for many, many years.

How bad were they? In the 11 seasons Nobis played in Atlanta, the Falcons had just two winning seasons – in 1971 and 1973.

They never made the playoffs.

They played in a baseball stadium.
True, relevance

They were almost never on national TV.

In short, not a whole lot of people saw Nobis and the often overlooked and easily forgettable Falcons play. He was hardly a household name.
He was well known to football fans. From the time he was drafted through the early 1970s he got a lot of publicity.

I grew up in Los Angeles and barely noticed that the Falcons were in the same division as the Rams back then – and I certainly couldn’t tell you much about Nobis’s career as a Falcon, not until I came to Atlanta and felt his impact on the franchise.

It certainly didn’t help that Nobis played during a time when another linebacker and future Hall of Famer named Dick Butkus was starring in Chicago for the Bears.
True. But same is true for Lee Roy Jordan and half of Bergey's career

My NFL life began in 1976 when my Dad, John McKay, came to Tampa to coach the expansion Buccaneers. From that experience, I know how hard it was to succeed with the then NFL expansion rules that the Falcons and Tommy had faced in 1966.

"I'd rather play against Dick Butkus than Nobis."
– Larry Csonka, former Miami Dolphin and Hall of Famer
True. A very good testimonial.

Nobis didn’t always play in obscurity; he was the top selection in ’66 – one pick ahead of Michigan guard and future Hall of Famer Tom Mack – for a reason.
True. College info, relevance?

A two-way star playing both linebacker and guard at Texas, Nobis is the only college player ever to win both the Outland Trophy (top interior lineman) and Maxwell Trophy (best all-around player) in 1965. Despite finishing seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting that same year, he still managed to garner more votes than Bob Griese and Steve Spurrier.
True. College info, relevance?

At a time when college football was more popular than pro football, Nobis was the premiere player on one of the best teams in the land.
True. College info, relevance?

How good were those Nobis-led Longhorns? They won the 1963 national championship over Roger Staubach and Navy. And in 1964, then they toppled Joe Namath and Alabama in the Orange Bowl. Those were two pretty good quarterbacks.
True. College info, relevance?

And during a time when the internet, cell phones and social media didn’t even exist, Sports Illustrated declared Nobis “The Best Defender in College Football” on its cover on Oct. 18, 1965. LIFE magazine also featured Nobis on its Dec. 10, 1965, cover story about the NFL and the former AFL competing for college stars calling him the “nation’s best defensive college player.”
True. College info, relevance?

"I just remember how dominating a football player he was. I remember his speed. For a big guy, I was startled that a guy could make that many plays on the sideline from a middle linebacker position."
– Dan Dierdorf, former St. Louis Cardinal and Hall of Famer
True. A very good testimonial.

He was a pretty big deal. And when he got to Atlanta, he more than lived up to all of the lofty expectations.

I know, I know – the Pro Football Hall of Fame is about his pro career. The same was true with my Dad’s first pick in Tampa Bay, Lee Roy Selmon in 1976. Lee Roy only played nine years (1976-1984) in the league, but his impact on and off the field in Tampa was enormous. For that, Lee Roy was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995.

So, let’s make sure we fully appreciate what Tommy accomplished in those 11 years. The thing is, unless you played with Nobis or against him, you couldn’t truly appreciate his greatness.

I haven’t even mentioned the incredible contributions Nobis had off the field with his foundation – The Tommy Nobis Center – that was founded in 1977 to support the community of people with disabilities in the Atlanta area. It started with just three employees and has now helped more than 25,000 people across 24 states. More than 40 years later, the Tommy Nobis Center continues to provide education, training to support those with barriers to find real jobs.

Nobis was an amazing football player and even better human being.
True. Relevance?

Nobis, whose No. 60 was never worn by another Falcons player and eventually retired by the team, was an inaugural member of the 2004 Falcons Ring of Honor. Not surprisingly, he's also a member of many more honorary teams and hall of fames:

College Football Hall of Fame
Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame
Georgia Sports Hall of Fame
San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame
State of Texas Hall of Fame
Sports Illustrated’s College Football All-Century Team
True. Relevance?

Tommy Nobis earned the moniker Mr. Falcon. He played every game with everything he had at the highest level.
True. Relevance?

It’s time to do the right thing.

It’s time to put Tommy Nobis into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Rich McKay
President and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons

Okay, so it's a fine letter, with lots of excellent College Hall of Fame credentials. Some of the statistical claims are off, but they are simply taken from old media guides which often have false information in them. So, there is no blame, but it's important to get the best information into the discussion and we've done that.

Looking at the top chart (Figure 1, at top of page) you can see the vital statistics for Nobis compared to other middle linebackers who are in the Hall of Fame and some who are outside looking in.
Nobis averaged about 1 sack a year, 1 interception a year and 1 fumble recovery a year. And adjusting for injuries he averaged a fine 120 tackles a year.
Bill Bergey was not "Mr. Eagle" or anything like that, but he was a three-time All-Pro (two consensus) and went to five Pro Bowls. He averaged about 1½ sacks, 2 interceptions and close to 2 fumble recoveries. We don't have all his Eagle tackles but his tackle average is in the same range as Nobis'. So, in total, he had 66 "big plays" compared to 33 for Nobis.
Lee Roy Jordan was a two-time All-Pro (one consensus) and also averaged about 120 tackles a season or thereabouts. He averaged 1½ sacks, 2+ interceptions and 1 fumble recovery. He had a total of 70 "big plays". He also was the 1973 NFC Defensive Player of the Year as well and has a ring.

Then there is Mike Curtis. He was the 1970 NFC Defensive Player of the Year he averaged 1 sacks, just under 2 interceptions a year and just under one fumble recovery—for 53 or so "big plays". He has a ring as well and was All-Pro once (it was consensus) and went to four Pro Bowls. Curtis also played outside linebacker for his first few seasons before moving to the middle and played another year of OLB for Washington.
Then there is inside linebacker Randy Gradishar. He was a five-time All-pro (three consensus) and went to seven Pro Bowls. He was the NFL defensive player of the year and received votes for that award in three other seasons. He averaged 2 sacks and 2 picks a season and just over 1 pick a season. His 5.7 "big players" per season is more than the inside linebacker HOF hopefuls and more than most in the Hall of Fame.

He too, had a "coaches stat" issue when he was up for the Hall of Fame. Some writers, including Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman, thought Gradishar's tackles were inflated by the Denver coaches. Well, "inflated" is not what was going on, they just had criteria for scoring tackles and "assists" were part of the criteria, same as with Nobis. We've gone through the play-by-plays and Gradishars tackles are excellent (as are Nobis' and the others). He averaged 148 tackles a year using common sources. For comparison, Harry Carson averaged 142 and Jack Lambert averaged 156.

So, to be clear, we have no issue with Tommy Nobis getting into the Hall of Fame, we think his All-Pros (one, none consensus) is light, and his "big plays" are light (33 or 3 per year) but if the experts on the 2020 Hall of Fame Blue Ribbon Committee want to say his film is HOF-quality, who are we to argue. But we've seen film of all of them and Gradishar stands out in terms of run-stuffing and coverage (Proscout, Inc. says he's one of two best-ever at 'neutralize/operating in space) but the others are of course, excellent.

What we would not like to see is Nobis (or any player) getting in based on hype or after-the-fact analysis (revisionist history). If the committee were to consult Proscout, Inc., they'd find out that their views and experience say that Nobis was likely the best of the mid-1960-75 era, outside of Butkus. But McKay didn't do that. That is the strongest talking point, we think.

Our memory is that when Nobis was healthy he was well known, a hard hitter, someone who ran well for his size. We are not sure that stands about above some of the others we mentioned. We can show he didn't make as many plays as his peers, for whatever reason.

We also know that from 1966-76 No team allowed more rushing yards and the yards per carry allowed was bottom 1/3 as well. The Falcons had Nobis, Claude Humphrey, Mike Tilleman, John Zook, Greg Brezina, and some other good players. Frankly, not one of them can be blamed, but as a unit, something was sure wrong. For what it's worth the Falcons were not great in pass defense either.

Nonetheless, Nobis should be evaluated on his contributions, but team success does matter to some degree. Not necessarily the wins and losses, some guys do get caught on a bad team for a long time, but the performance of the unit (in this case the defense) does matter some. Not a lot, but it ought to be looked at. We have. And it lacked to be kind.

We are hoping to see a Final 20 list from the Blue Ribbon Committee soon and we will see who made the first cut. It will be interesting.


  1. i support gradishar for the hall first and foremost. I also support Lee Roy Jordan and I know landry said he was a system player but the film I have seen on him is impressive.

    1. PSI says Jordan would have to be a WILL today.

  2. interesting comment from psi.

    For Jordan I saw 8 of his almost full games on youtube and gave him 29 slashes for good run stops near the line and 2 checks for good pass coverage plays. He also had a pick and a forced fumble. That is some very good production.

    He brought people down in a very assured and solid way which i liked. I have a hard time seeing nobis being better than jordan but I might be wrong.

    For Gradishar i saw 20 complete games and have him for 58 good run stops or good coverage plays, sacks, or forced incompletes. A 2.9 grade which is less than Jordan's 4.0 grade but usually the fewer games seen allows you to inflate a bit.

    Gradishars work in coverage was amazing and is why I rank him over Jordan. He had 14 coverage checkmarks in 20 games (including 2 picks). awesome.

  3. Great analysis. As someone not well versed in this era, especially appreciated reading about Nobis in the context of his peers. The only thing I'd change is calling out the parts of the letter that reference charity work or other halls of fame - comes across as overly harsh. Good for McKay for writing a letter for a candidate he believes in - didn't come across to me as revisionist history or hype.

  4. Hall of the Very my man Big Daddy Lipscomb who I wish were in the Hall

  5. It's a definite logjam at Linebacker, not only with Jordan, Bergey, Nobis, Curtis and Gradishar, but also outside backers like Howley, Robertson, Martin, and others...Howley and Gradishar might be the most deserving.