Friday, May 14, 2021

Rod Shoate—A Patriot Big-Play 'Backer

 By John Turney 

We've been posting about some of our favorite players of the past, not necessarily the best players, the All-Pros or Pro Bowlers. Some, like today's feature Rod Shoate, never got a sniff of any post-season honors. 

Even so, in the Patriots 3-4 defense from 1977-81, he was a pretty effective player.

Shoate was a tremendous college player at the University of Oklahoma—he was a two-time All-American (and was Second-team his sophomore season) and totaled with 420 career tackles and was voted to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Though very undersized (6-1, 214) for a linebacker he had tremendous speed (4.5 forty, perhaps even a 4.4) and excellent, even unusual natural strength and those attributes gave him his shot in the NFL—he could run. He was selected by New England in the second round of the 1975 NFL Draft. He played the first four games of 1975 until a broken leg felled him. 

Then in 1976 hurt his knee in the Patriots' final preseason game which kept him out for the entire NFL season. 

Finally, in 1977 he was healthy and was a role player, a key one, for the Patriots as a nickel linebacker. His quickness allowed him to get pressure on the quarterback and also to be effective in coverage. The following year be began his four-year run as the Patriots right outside linebacker.

Paul Zimmerman once wrote that the things linebackers were called upon to do, in totality, were simply not possible. They had to hold the point of attack, be able to cover a running back, and blitz effectively. Essentially, he argued, they were part defensive lineman and part defensive back. And there really is no such thing. The backs they were asked to cover were simply better athletes, the linemen that had to beat were bigger and stronger. But, Zimmerman wrote, that coaches would just draw up coverage and hope for the best.

Shoate was small, and he did get hurt some due to his size, but his strength helped him a lot, but for his era, he was able to cover and blitz with the best of the linebackers in the NFL. His 22.5 sacks from 1977-81 were among the best of any outside 'backers for those years. (Remember this was pre-L.T. and the conversion of outside linebackers into "rushbackers".)

One quick comparison, Hall of Famer Robert Brazile had 23½ in that same 1977-81 span. Obviously, we are not suggesting that Shoate was the equal of Brazile overall, just point out that Shoate was effective in getting to the quarterback. Five of six sacks may not seem like a lot to younger fans, but for that day it was excellent given Shoate (or Brazile or any outside linebacker) was not rushing the passer opportunity. Coaches mixed it up and plenty of times Shoate (and the others) were in coverage on third downs/likely passing downs. 

We would suggest that averaging nearly 80 tackles, 5 sacks, 3 passes defensed and a pick and forced fumble per season for an extended period was very good and would be seen as excellent play. 

Like some of the linebackers we've mentioned (Michael Jackson, Hollywood Henderson, etc) Shoate would be effective today as a "money-backer" type player kind of a hybrid safety/linebacker. 

Shoate was noted by teammates as a student of the game, a film-watcher, and also as a hitter. That is evident when you watch Patriots games from the late-1970s. "I'll tell you something—he'd knock the hell out of you," His college defensive coordinator Larry Lacewell said. "He was mean. I mean, he liked to tear their heads off. Rod was a quiet guy, but his play spoke volumes."

His superior speed and strength would be fun to watch run sideline to sideline and also going full steam to the quarterback.
After the 1981 season, Shoate was traded to the Bears, where he seemed like he may be a great fit in a 4-3 defense coached by Buddy Ryan but he was cut before the season and didn't catch on with anyone else.

In 1983 he signed with the USFL and played for the Generals in 1983 and for Memphis in 1984. It was there people close to Shoate began to see problems in Shoate's personal life.

Those problems turned out to be drug and alcohol addiction which led to homelessness for long stretches of time after his football career. 

Wrote the Oklahoman, "Rod Shoate fell victim to fame and its darker trappings: the loss of fame, drug addiction, divorce, and loneliness. He died of AIDS - Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome - in an apartment in a tiny Oklahoma town at 8 a.m. Oct. 4., 1999. He was 46."

The NFL has known many such tragedies. We don't know if CTE or other brain issues contributed to the addiction and abuse of drugs. Certainly, a hard-hitter like Shoate would be someone vulnerable to such things but 22 years ago those issues were just not yet in the conscienceness of football, high school, college, or professional. 

So, the NFL history tapestry is full of headlining-type players, All-Pros, and Hall of Famers, but it also has players who were very good and performed well sans honors and Shoate is part of that.

A good part of that. Just ask any current NFL defensive coordinator if he'd like a 6-1, 214-pound player who can run a 4.4 and has rare natural strength and hits like a truck. We'd guess they'd all say there is a place for that guy in his nickel defense. 


  1. Looked good in films. I saw a 77 game against the Eagles where he was very active. Speed really stood out.

  2. I tried to pattern my high school play after Rod the Rocket back in '73, though I was half his size and a step slower. That was good enough. Lord have mercy on his soul.