The last line of defense in the sport of football consists of the safeties, two swift and agile men who must be able to perform multiple tasks to be successful in the game. They must be able to adequately cover tight ends and wide receivers on both short and deep pass patterns. In addition, they also must be able to play close to the line of scrimmage, fill holes, shed blockers, and make tackles on running plays. A safety in the NFL must be an outstanding athlete, and if he is able to stay in the league, he must develop strategical intelligence. He must be able to figure out what an opposing offense is trying to do, and not be fooled by his foes.
The decade of the 1970s in the NFL provided the fans with superb safety tandems from many teams. This is not an attempt at rating them. The first safety tandem listed here is not necessarily better than the fifth duo. The most common statistic that accounts for the success of all defensive backs is interceptions. But for this purpose, while interceptions are particularly important, they are not the be-all, end-all of the safety tandems described here. They serve as just one part of the accomplishments of the safeties in this article.
It is important to note that this list of super safety tandems is written to consider most of the years of the decade. If one safety tandem was great for only one season, like Al Matthews and Jim Hill of the Green Bay Packers in 1972, I intentionally left them off this list. The names mentioned below were great for their teams in at least two seasons (and usually more) during the decade.
So in random order, here are the best safety tandems in pro football during the 1970s:
1—Jake Scott and Dick Anderson, Miami Dolphins. These two names in Miami’s No-Name Defense played outstandingly throughout the decade. Anderson was the primary hitter of the two, while Scott had the swiftness and the moves to also excel as a punt returner for the team. They combined for 83 interceptions during their careers. Scott had 49 interceptions, while Anderson pilfered 34 passes. Both players started in three straight Super Bowls for the Dolphins (VI, VII, and VIII).
2—Jerry Logan and Rick Volk, Baltimore Colts. In the early 1970s, Logan and Volk were prominent safeties in what many observers contended was the best zone defense in the NFL during that time. These two ballhawks combined for 72 interceptions. Logan had 34, and Volk had 38. Volk intercepted a key pass in Super Bowl V, helping the Colts defeat the Dallas Cowboys, 16-13.
3—Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters, Dallas Cowboys. Both of these safeties complemented each other very well. Harris was the strong hitter of the two, while Waters played a thinking man’s style of game. Both of their coverage abilities were exemplary. Harris contributed 29 interceptions in 10 years, while Waters, who played 11 seasons, grabbed 41. Both men own Super Bowl rings from Super Bowls VI and XII.
4—Gary Fencik and Doug Plank, Chicago Bears. Both of these guys were vicious hitters. Both men distributed plenty of concussions to wide receivers all throughout the league. Fencik intercepted 38 passes during his 12-year pro career, while Plank picked off a total of 15 passes throughout his eight-year career. Fencik would play for the Bears long enough to help the team win Super Bowl XX over the New England Patriots.
5—Dave Elmendorf and Bill Simpson, Los Angeles Rams. The Rams suffered from plenty of bad luck all throughout the decade, losing in the playoffs six straight years during the 1970s. But safeties Elmendorf and Simpson presented opposing quarterbacks with a bevy of problems whenever the ball went in the air. Elmendorf picked off a total of 27 passes during his nine-year pro career. Simpson pilfered 34 passes during the eight years of his time in the NFL
6—Glen Edwards and Mike Wagner, Pittsburgh Steelers. Edwards and Wagner provided the Steel Curtain defense with outstanding safety play during the 1970s. The Pittsburgh dynasty benefitted from Edwards’ 39 interceptions, and Wagner’s 36 steals. And these two safeties benefitted from playing for a defense that effectively shut down opposing running games so well, that quarterbacks going up against the Steelers simply had to throw the ball. Wagner was a member of four Pittsburgh World Championship teams (1974, 1975, 1978, and 1979). Edwards played in Super Bowls IX and X for the Steelers (1974 and 1975).
7—Jack Tatum and George Atkinson, Oakland Raiders. Ask practically anyone knowledgeable on the history of pro football, and they will tell you that Jack Tatum was the hardest-hitting safety in the history of the league. For his part, Atkinson developed into a physical safety, and he always possessed game-breaking speed. Tatum stole 37 passes during his 10-year pro career, and Atkinson intercepted 30 passes during his 11-year pro career. Tatum delivered possibly the hardest hit in Super Bowl history in Super Bowl XI, when he plastered Minnesota wide receiver Sammy White, thereby dislodging the helmet and the chinstrap of the rookie pass-catcher from his head. Both Tatum and Atkinson rejoiced in Oakland’s 32-14 victory over the Vikings that day.
8—Paul Krause and Jeff Wright, Minnesota Vikings. Krause retired from the game as the leading interceptor in league history, grabbing an outstanding 81 passes throughout his 16 years in the NFL. Despite retiring way back in 1979, Krause’s interception record is still tops in league history. Krause played a deep brand of safety, intercepting many long throwing attempts by opposing quarterbacks. Jeff Wright, on the other hand, played a more physical brand of safety. He accumulated 12 interceptions during his seven-year pro career.
It is important to note that this is not a complete listing of outstanding safety tandems in the NFL during the 1970s. There are undoubtedly several more not mentioned here. Moreover, some teams did not have a duo of superior safeties, but they did have at least one stand out safety on their rosters. In conclusion, with the current trend of throwing the football taking over offensive game plans, it is highly likely that safety tandems will be especially important to pro defenses for many years to come.
Former sportswriter Joe Zagorski is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association. His three pro football books include The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football’s Most Important Decade; The Year the Packers Came Back: Green Bay’s 1972 Resurgence; and America’s Trailblazing Middle Linebacker: The Story of NFL Hall of Famer Willie Lanier. He is currently writing his fourth book, a biography of former Philadelphia Eagles free safety Bill Bradley.