Sunday, April 30, 2023

Transitioning into Respectability

 By Joe Zagorski 
Elvin Bethea, Steve Kiner and Curley Culp
Pro football is filled with numerous stories of teams that have gone from a losing record in one season, then earning a winning record in the next season. Some of those teams have accomplished this feat in a highly publicized way. The 1975 Baltimore Colts certainly come to mind. They won two games in 1974.  Then in the following season, they won 10 games and the championship of the American Football Conference’s Eastern Division.

But for some teams, even though a winning record might escape them, a record of solid improvement is often enough to earn a good dose of respectability throughout the NFL. In 1972 and again in 1973, the Houston Oilers were regarded by everyone as the worst team in pro football. They could only manage to win one game in each of those seasons. 

Team owner Bud Adams finally had enough of that. He asked veteran coach Sid Gillman to move down from the team’s front office and take over the club on the sidelines in the sixth week of the 1973 season, replacing fired head coach Bill Peterson. Then in 1974, with Gillman remaining as the Houston head coach, the seeds for an increasing number of victories began to sprout and flourish. The Oilers won six of their final eight games to post a 7-7 record in 1974.
Sid Gillman
How did Gillman bring about more victories that year?  He still worked as the team’s general manager while calling plays on the sidelines. It was likely his decisions on front-office matters which aided in the production of the increased win totals. Like all coaches and front office people in 1974, Gillman had to contend with the specter of the World Football League showing up on the scene in 1974, as well as with troublesome players strike during the preseason.  

The foundation to produce progress certainly did not look good for the Oilers to begin the year. Moreover, it took time for Gillman to make enough good decisions to observe a positive impact. Houston began the 1974 season with a 1-5 record, and their future once again looked as bleak as it did back in 1972 and 1973.

But Gillman had faith in his players, and he had faith in his system and in his roster evaluations. He traded a very good defensive lineman in John Matuszak for a great defensive lineman in Curley Culp.  Matuszak went to Kansas City, where he did not accomplish all that much. 

As soon as Culp came to Houston, however, the Oilers defense immediately saw a marked improvement. Culp was listed as a defensive tackle, but he spent most of his time as a nose guard in the team’s new 3-4 defensive alignment. He quickly became a force for the opposing offenses to reckon with, as he disrupted numerous plays and game plans all throughout the remainder of the 1974 season.

Houston looked like a whole new team in the seventh week, as they destroyed a formidable Bengals team in Cincinnati, 34-21. The defense caused six timely turnovers in the win, while Gillman’s offense did not commit one.  A winning attitude pervaded the team’s mindset with the victory over the Bengals, and some more big triumphs were awaiting the Houston squad. 

The Oilers defense benefitted greatly with Culp’s addition. They began halting opposing running backs by surrendering less ground yardage during the second half of the 1974 season. In weeks eight through 14, Houston permitted just 973 total rushing yards, compared to the 1,077 total rushing yards that they gave up during the first seven weeks of the season. Boosting that statistic was the number of opposing first downs permitted. The Oilers allowed 150 first downs during the first half of the year. In the second half of the year, the opposing chains advanced downfield only 118 times.  

But it was in the category of passing yardage allowed where the addition of Curley Culp to the defensive lineup really paid handsome dividends for Houston. From weeks one through seven, the Oilers surrendered 1,496 overall passing yards. From weeks eight through 14, that number shrunk to 879 overall passing yards. 

That number included a season-low of just nine net passing yards given up to the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Yes, those Steelers, the same team that was destined to win the Super Bowl a couple of months later. Houston’s defense was thus limiting the amount of time that passers had to sit in their pockets and locate their receivers.  Indeed, Culp was finding his way into the opposing offensive backfield with a force that was just not visible by anyone on the team’s defensive line in the first half of 1974.  

Gillman’s offense began improving as well during the second part of the year. In contrast to the defense, no new players found their way into the starting lineup on offense from weeks eight through 14. Rather, it was just that the team’s defense was giving their counterparts on offense more chances with the ball. That extra time owning the pigskin equated to more yards, more first downs, more scoring opportunities, and ultimately, more victories. 

The Oilers scored only 113 points throughout the first half of the season. In the second half, however, they put 123 points on the scoreboard. Houston as a result managed to pull out some contests that they would have easily lost in the previous two years.  

“We’ve always had some talent,” said Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini as the 1974 season wore on, “but this year we seem to have more of a purpose. Don’t ask me to explain it.  All I know is that I’m enjoying this game again.”

Pastorini’s enjoyment came during a four-game winning streak, which was just what Gillman and his players needed during the second half of the 1974 season. The Oilers managed to sweep the division-rival Bengals. They also claimed victories over the New York Jets and the AFC’s wild-card team, the Buffalo Bills. Houston took a 5-5 record into the Battle of Texas when they faced the Dallas Cowboys inside the Astrodome on November 24.  Unfortunately for the Oilers, Dallas’ Doomsday Defense proved to be too much for the Houston offense, and the Cowboys prevailed, 10-0. In past seasons, the local fans would have seen and would have expected to see the Oilers fold up their tents after taking such a loss. But this 1974 version of the Houston team was not willing to give up that easily.  They still had three games left on their schedule, and if they were able to win two of those contests, they would claim a break-even record for the year, and their best record since 1968.  

Such a task would not be easy, but it would be possible. First up would be a trip to Three Rivers Stadium to take on the Steelers on December 1.  he Oilers would shut out their division rivals in the second half and post a 13-10 victory.  It was undoubtedly the most impressive triumph of the 1974 season for Houston. Then came a trip to Mile High Stadium to face the Denver Broncos.  This could have been labeled as the most depressing loss of the year, as the Oilers fell, 37-14. It was a flop.  Denver had six wins going into that game, just like Houston. But the Broncos proved to be much stronger, as the final score indicates.

There was now one game remaining on the Oilers’ 1974 schedule. It would be at home against another division foe, the Cleveland Browns, a team that was having its worst season ever up to that time.  Cleveland had won only four games in this forlorn season, and as luck would have it, their win total would not change as the final gun sounded and Sid Gillman was being carried off the field following Houston’s 28-24 victory over the Browns.  

“I’ve been in this business for a long time,” proclaimed Sid Gillman following his team’s win over Cleveland, “but this is the most satisfying season I’ve ever been through.” Dan Pastorini added that “…the Houston Oilers are a respectable team now. I think everybody in the league will attest to that.”

The Oilers indeed had devoted enough of themselves in all their efforts to produce a 7-7 record in 1974. It was a mark that practically no prognosticator would have predicted when the season began. Their players who were unable to make big plays and produce constructive efforts in 1972 and 1973 did so in abundance in 1974. It was a year where a perennial loser made a transition into much-deserved respectability.

Boss, David.  Prolog, The Official National Football League Annual for 1975.  NFL Properties,
Robinson, Barry.  “Oilers stop Browns, finish with 7-7 mark.”  San Antonio Express, December
16, 1974, 40.

Joe Zagorski is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Pro Football Researchers Association. His upcoming book on the 1973 Buffalo Bills entitled The 2,003-Yard Odyssey: The Juice, The Electric Company, and an Epic Run For a Record, will be released by Austin-Macauley publishers later in 2023.  He is currently working on a biography of former Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame offensive guard Larry Little.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Tom Fears and His 18-catch Game

 By John Turney 
Tom Fears
From December 3, 1950, through December 17, 2000, Tom Fears held the NFL record for most catches in an NFL game with 18. In 2000 the 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens caught 20 passes to best Fears' record. Owens had his record surpassed as well—Brandon Marshall of the Broncos caught 21 in a game against the Colts in 2009.

In the 1950 Rams' finale against the Packers, it is an interesting footnote that five of Fears' 18 catches were shovel passes— essentially legal laterals behind the line of scrimmage. 

His catch total broke the then-NFL record of 14 which was held by four players—Ralph Heywood of the New York Bulldogs, Jim Keane of the Bears, Don Hutson of the Packers and Don Looney of the Eagles and 

The shovel passes played a big part in the record-setting day as they led up to and tied the record.

Here are catches eleven, twelve, thirteen and fourteen, the last being the tying reception—

After these four there were two catches beyond the line of scrimmage, the record breaker and one that extended the mark to sixteen.

Then another shovel pass for a touchdown and on the final drive a short pass to set the record.

Additionally, the first shovel pass was catch number 77 on the season, tying his own NFL record of 77 receptions in the season. He extended his single-season record to 84 receptions by the end of the game.

The game was a blowout with the Rams ahead 37-7 when the shovel passes began so were the Rams padding Fears' stats, employed to set records?

Almost certainly. 

It would be naive to think otherwise. Stat padding happens today, it happened then. 

Nonetheless, it was quite the day for Fears and one worth remembering.

Charley Robinson—The First African-American to Start a Game/Season at Middle Linebacker?

 By John Turney 

Charley Robinson, known as "Redd" but also had the nickname of "Bull", played football at Morgan State. There he was All-CIAA and All-American in 1949 and 1950. He also boxed, winning the conference heavyweight title. 

“Redd” was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1951 and was called a "cat-like" 225-pound guard. But he played defensive with the Packers - though just two games.

One of those was against the Bears. In a defensive scoring system implemented by the Packers' coaches that was based on tackles, assisted tackles and so forth, Robinson scored twelve "points". Walt Michaels led the team that day with 29 points.

He didn't finish the season with the Pack but was signed by the Eagles in April 1952.  He was the first African-American player ever signed by the Eagles. However, he was cut just prior to the season.

The following May Robinson was signed by the Colts but likethe previous season was among the final cuts before the regular season.

In 1954 Robinson made the Colts roster and started he first game. He was the starting middle guard. The Colts played mostly a 5-2 defense but would play some 4-3 as well with the middle guard standing up.

On the first play of the first game of the 1954 season, Robinson stood up at middle linebacker. The Colts were playing the Rams, a pass-heavy team and in those days the 4-3 was used more against the pass than the run. 

For most of the game he played with his hand in the dirt, nose up on the guard.

For unknown reasons, possibly ineffectiveness, at midseason Robinson was cut and Joe Campanella took over as the middle guard/middle linebacker.

Like Robinson, he would play both at middle guard and standing up as a middle linebacker, but more as the former than the latter. The Colts simply played more 5-2 than 4-3.

Bill Willis was the middle guard for the Cleveland Browns dynasty teams and it is possible that he stood up to start a game, though it is not documented in any way. It is a fact that the Browns were the last NFL team to switch to a 4-3 defense full-time, doing so in the late-1950s so it is possible Willis didn't stand up, even on occasion.

So, was Charley Robinson the first African-American to start a game and season as a middle linebacker? 


We cannot say for sure but if he wasn't he was certainly among the first even though it was not a full-time proposition - it was a hybrid middle guard/linebacker spot.

It was not until the late-1960s that Black players started full seasons as middle 'backers, one of the examples of racism in pro football, was the idea that Black athletes couldn't play certain positions like quarterback and middle linebacker was one of those positions.

It took success by guys like Garland Boyette, Willie Lanier and Jamie Rivers to prove that nonsense wrong. 

Regardless, it film shows that Robinson is someone worth remembering - that even someone with a short NFL career can have a notable achievement.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Dave Wilcox—The Intimidator, R.I.P.

By John Turney

Today, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the passing of Dave Wilcox, a Class of 2000 inductee. He was 80.

"What I do best is not let people block me. I hate to get blocked." That is what Dave Wilcox said when asked what his strength as a football player was.

He was "quick-on-the-trigger" at diagnosing plays said Weeb Ewbank. 

His nickname was "The Intimidator" and it was a well-earned nickname. 

Wilcox would push guys back using strength generated from unusually large triceps that gave him unreal power. He'd top that off with forearms and elbows he'd use to thump and control tight ends.

Said to have the "right blend of size, speed, and savvy", he was  6-3, 239-pounds and was timed in 4.62 seconds in the forty-dash by Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' superscout. 

His 49ers linebacker coach Mike Giddings once said, "You can't run at him. You can't pass on him. So just stay away from him."

Giddings added, “Many strongside linebackers get hooked to the inside on running plays. "Wilkie" never got hooked. It was a point of honor with him. And he could rush the passer when needed."

During Wilcox's Hall of Fame enshrinement highlight film then-49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo commented, "Guys always fall back when he hits them. Giddings replied, "They never went forward, always backward. That's what he did."

The testimonials from his coaches go on and on.

“He may have been the best man at his position that I have ever seen,” said assistant coach Paul Wiggin. His final head coach Dick Nolan once called him. “(T)he best open-field tackler I have ever seen.

Not just his coaches sang his praises, opponents did, too.

”Former Viking quarterback Joe Kapp once commented, "I'd have to say he played the position as well as anyone has ever played it. Once the ball was snapped he brought an intensity whether it was blitzing, covering a guy or making a tackle."

Roman Gabriel, the quarterback on the rival Los Angeles Rams who had to face Wilcox twice a year, added his opinion that Wilcox "played linebacker from the outside the way Dick Butkus played it in the middle."

Longtime Sports Illustrated writer Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman chose Wilcox for his all-time team and also his personal 1960s All-Decade team. 

Dr. Z was a champion for Wilcox's inclusion into the Hall of Fame a task he was able to complete when the big linebacker was voted in as part of the Class of 2000. “He was a great, great player at his position and in his time,” Zimmerman said. “He never got his due.”

Wilcox was a Pro Bowler in 1966, then from 1968 through 1974.

He was a consensus All-Pro from 1971-73 but when it came to the NEA All-Pro team, the one the players voted for he was a first-team pick in 1967, 1970-73 and second-team in 1968 and 1969.

NFL players knew how good he was. 

He had a goal to play a perfect season. But, a realist, admitted it would "never happen".

But his 1973 season was not far off.

In 1973 he was voted the NFLPA NFC Linebacker of the Year. That year he was credited with 104 tackles, 13 for losses, four forced fumbles, and ten passes defensed. He had similar numbers in 1972.

In his eleven-year career, he played 153 games, missing only one, starting 144.

He intercepted fourteen passes, fell on twelve loose balls, and though sacks were not official until 1982, unofficially he had 36-1/2, with a career-high of 9-1/2 in 1967.

He was a third-round pick out of Oregon in 1964 where he was an honorable-mention All-American. He played for two years in Eugene after two years of junior college ball in Boise, Idaho. There he was a JC All-American. The Houston Oilers took him in the sixth round of the AFL draft that year as well.

He was the leader of the 49ers' defense that helped them win the NFC West from 1970-72 and that beat the Vikings in Minnesota in 1970 and Washington in 1971. 

But those teams ran into a Dallas Cowboys buzzsaw all three years preventing Wilcox from playing in a Super Bowl, which was another of Wilcox's goals. Near the end of the 49ers' playoff run, Wilcox told the press, "The only thing I want to do now is get to the Super Bowl."

He didn't get there but he was not far off.

In 1967 he was voted the recipient of the Len Eshmont Award, the 49ers' top seasonal honor that was emblematic of inspirational and courageous play.

Had another goal - to be the best outside linebacker to ever play the game. Again, the realist said it would "never happen."

Wilcox is probably one of the least-known Hall-of-Fame linebackers but don't let the lack of publicity fool you. 

Was he the absolute best? Maybe not, but he was not far off.

Friday, April 14, 2023

R.I.P. Mark Arneson—Solid as They Come

By John Turney 
News came today former St. Louis Cardinals middle linebacker Mark Arneson has passed away. He was 73.

Arneson was a Tucson, Arizona, native who was a fine high school athlete in three sports. He was All-City twice in football and a good wrestler as well. 

He chose to stay home and play collegiate football at the University of Arizona and there he had a terrific stay.

There he was All-WAC as a junior (making 155 tackles, nine for losses, seven pass breakups and a fumble recovery) and senior and left with the Wildcat record for tackles with 357 and still ranks tenth. 

Prior to his senior year was on Playboy's preseason All-American team  After the season he made The Sporting News and Time All-America teams and was an honorable mention on both the AP and UPI teams.

He played in the Senior Bowl, the East-West Shrine Game and the College All-Star game, the latter being a face-off with the Super Bowl Champion Dallas Cowboys.

Though undersized (215 pounds at the time) his 4.6 speed caught the eye of the St. Louis Cardinals who selected him in the second round of the 1972 NFL Draft.

After an injury to starter Jamie Rivers, Arneson started the final ten games of 1972 and was named the club's rookie of the year and Football Digest named him to their All-Rookie.

He backed up Rivers again in 1973 but the now 225-pounder regained his starting job for the final four games after Rivers went down again. 

From then on he was a starter.

In 1974 as the Cardinals began to make their move in the NFC East division, winning it that year and the next with 10-4 and 11-3 records respectively. Winning a division that included Dallas and Washington was no small task.

Arneson, thrilled with being on a winner for the first time since high school, was a key cog in the Cards' defense, more known for offense, that was eighth in the NFL in scoring defense in 1974 and eleventh in 1975. 

Though they lost in the 1974 Divisional Playoff game, Arneson stood out. He was the Cardinals' Defensive Player of the Game.

Big Red, as the Cardinals were known, missed the playoffs in 1976, despite a 10-4 record. Arneson, though not pleased with a position change to outside linebacker had a good year totaling 85 tackles, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and three sacks and an interception and three passes defensed. 

The following season was solid as well - 94 tackles, two picks, a sack, three recoveries and two pass deflections and a forced fumble.

Another change came the following year as the scheme in St. Louis changed to a 3-4 defense and Arneson was used as a blitzer more often and averaged 4½ sacks a year in his final three seasons. 

In that same span, he made 160 tackles, six fumble recoveries (one a scoop and score) and deflected four passes. 

He finished his career with 18 fumbles recovered and 17.5 sacks, the recoveries setting a team record at the time. It is also a number that ranked ninth all-time among linebackers at the time of his retirement (as per Some of the names ahead of him are Butkus, Nitschke, Bill George, Jack Ham, Bill Bergey - not bad company to be in.

Arneson was one the classic NFL good guys, tough guys. Always friendly with the media and playing with injuries, a cast on his hand, a 104-degree temperature, you name it. He had a streak of His streak of 104 consecutive NFL games despite that.

Mark received the Cards' Paul Christman Memorial Award for athletic and community achievement in 1980, reflecting more of his "good guy" qualities. 

He was named to the Arizona Republic's list of the top 100 Cardinals of all time, ranking 72nd, and was inducted into the University of Arizona Hall of Fame and the Pima County (Arizona) Hall of Fame

In June of 2022, Sports Illustrated named him one of the Cardinals franchise's top ten linebackers, ranking him eighth.

After his career, he stayed in the Midwest and got into the construction business and was involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in St. Louis, serving in high offices and on the board of directors. He'd been active in FCA since his days as an Arizona Wildcat.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Draft Classes With the Most Sacks

By John Turney  

This year's class of rookies is reportedly replete with pass rushers, especially edge rushers, with the evidence everywhere in random headlines:

"The 2023 edge defender class is a deep, deep group with potential impact players stretching into Day 2."

"2023 NFL Draft: Breaking down a deep class of EDGE rushers"

"The 2023 Edge Rusher class is extremely deep and is the best overall group in this draft."

Those headlines make for great conversation, but it will be years before we know if they're accurate ... and if the edge rushers they're promoting did what they were drafted to do.

Which is: Pressure the quarterback. Sack him. Knock him down, deflect passes, make him uncomfortable. Basically, affect him negatively in any way you can.

Some draft classes were better than most at reaching the quarterback, and we rank the top 10 here. So how did we get there? By using Pro Football Reference's (PFR) search engine, crunching the numbers and adding in Pro Bowls and various postseason honors, as well as Hall-of-Fame elections.

Under consideration are groups of defensive linemen and linebackers (defensive backs were omitted) who totaled the most in their collective careers since the common NFL-AFL draft of 1967. Undrafted free agents, however, were excluded.

So Hall-of-Famer John Randle, for example, wasn't included in the 1990 draft class. He was among the best UDFA signings ever but a miss by all 28 of the NFL scouting departments. So no partial credit. The same goes for Cameron Wake in 2005. Everyone whiffed on him.

This is a roll call for drafted players only.

10. Class of 1992—1,086-1/2  sacks combined by drafted defensive linemen and linebackers

This is one folks would not expect to see. It didn't have a single draftee reach 100 sacks, with Robert Porcher the leader with 95-1/2. However, 12 members of this class each had 40 or more sacks, so it was more deep than top-heavy in terms of talent.

The 34 drafted linemen made a total of 10 Pro Bowls.

9. Class of 1971—1,093 sacks.

A couple of classes have more sacks, but they didn't have as many from defensive linemen. It wasn't until a few years later that teams began using outside linebackers as rushers in 3-4 schemes.

This class was loaded with talent, though some were underachievers, and it impressed at the Senior Bowl and College All-Star game where it pushed the world-champion Baltimore Colts with a stellar pass rush.

Jack Youngblood, Lyle Alzado and Tony "Mac the Sack" McGee each surpassed 100 sacks ... unofficially. Though sacks didn't become official stats until 1982, PFR has a database going back to 1960.

Of the 39 front-seven players who were drafted and recorded sacks, the average was 28 for their careers. Fourteen defensive linemen had 20 or more.

8. Class of 1985—1,113-1/2 sacks

Bruce Smith, the all-time leader sacker, came from this class. So did Kevin Greene and Chris Doleman. That's three players with over 150 sacks each, and all are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

They also accounted for 24 of the 30 Pro Bowls of this class.

Simon Fletcher was no slouch, either with 97½ sacks. He's on the short list for the best-ever player never to go to a Pro Bowl

7. Class of 1986—1,122½ sacks

 Leslie O'Neal, Clyde Simmons, Pat Swilling and Charles Haley each had 100 or more sacks, but only Haley is in the Hall of Fame. This class made 35 Pro Bowls among the linemen and rush linebackers, 20 when excluding off-the-ball linebackers.

6. Class of 2010—1,159½ sacks

This class featured a lot of interior rushers. Ndamukong Suh, Geno Atkins, Gerald McCoy and Linval Joseph accounted for 21 of the 32 Pro Bowl slots that defensive linemen garnered. The top two edge rushers were Carlos Dunlap and Jason Pierre-Paul, with 100 and 94-1/2 sacks, respectively.

Ten players had 40 or more sacks apiece, and 15 had at least 25.

5. Class of 1975—1,189-1/2 sacks

The San Diego Chargers had four of the top 33 draft picks and took Gary Johnson at nine, Louis Kelcher at 30 and Fred Dean at 33. Talk about a good haul. Those three totaled 208½ sacks, five All-Pro selections and 11 Pro Bowls.

Dean and George Martin (a Giants' 11th-rounder who had 96½ sacks) spent parts of their careers as nickel edge rushers and were among the best ever in that role.

Robert Brazile was the first outside linebacker to blitz frequently in a 3-4 defense, and he had 48 sacks. That's not a lot by today's standards, but he would have doubled that figure had he played his entire career doing what edge rushers did in the 1980s.

Twelve of the top 20 would play either defensive tackle or a 3-4 end in their careers, including Hall-of-Famer Randy White. Like 2010, it was more of a defensive interior type of draft class.

4. Class of 1981—1,190 sacks

Rushbackers (the term Lawrence Taylor called his position) dominated the top of this draft class. L.T. led with way with 142 sacks (PFR), while fellow Hall-of-Famer Rickey Jackson trailed by just six with 136. Both totals include their 1981 rookie seasons, the year before the NFL made individual sacks an official category.

Dexter Manley had 103-1/2 sacks, and Howie Long (a third front-seven Hall of Famer) had 91-1/2. Those two combined with Taylor and Jackson for 25 Pro Bowls combined.

Nine players had 40 or more sacks each.

3. Class of 1984—1,204½ sacks

Reggie White leads the list with 198 sacks, the second most in official NFL history. He, William Fuller and Lee Williams were part of the NFL's 1984 supplemental draft of USFL players and are three of the top rushers in that class.

While White accounted for almost half of the 27 Pro Bowls in the class, there were a couple of solid inside rushers, as well - Jumpy Geathers and Keith Millard. Geathers was power. Millard was quickness.

2. Class of 1983—1,228½ sacks

Some good names in this class, Hall-of-Famer Richard Dent, Greg Townsend and Jim Jeffcoat. Each had more than 100 sacks. Then came Leonard Marshall, Charles Mann, Karl Mecklenburg and Mike Cofer -- each with 62-1/2 or more.

Of that group, only Jeffcoat was a first-round pick.

1. Class of 2011—1,281½ sacks and still counting.

This class is full of dominant players.

Ten players with 50 or more sacks, five with over 100, two likely Hall of Famers (J.J. Watt and Von Miller) and two more (Cameron Jordan and Cam Heyward) who are possible. Then there's Aldon Smith. Had he stayed on the football field, he'd be well over 100 sacks by now.

The linemen and outside linebackers totaled 46 Pro Bowls and 16 AP All-Pros, the most of any draft class.

That's it. The top ten.

NOTE: One draft class to keep an eye on is 2017. So far, its front seven players have amassed 737 sacks and 16 Pro Bowls -- and they're just seven seasons into their careers. If they continue that pace, the class makes this list.

Running Back Factory—The Top Single Seasons by Broncos Runners

 By John Turney  

Terrell Davis

In the 1990s and 2000s the Broncos has a line of running backs that piled up the yards. Line coach Joe Gibbs' perfected the zone blocking scheme, the one-cut hit-the-gap style that running backs thrived on.

Sometimes they were called "system backs". When they lost someone, another was right there to pick up the slack. Whatever you call them they had some outstanding seasons in the Hile High City.

But are those Broncos backs to have great seasons? No, there were others. 

Plenty of them.

By taking the top season of each player and ranking them it is evident that there were strong runners in the early 1970s as well. 

The criteria are more than just rushing yards, it takes into account circumstances, use in the passing game, postseason honors and even some eye test.

This is one take on ranking the top season by Broncos running backs - remember only one per customer.

The list: 

15. C.J. Anderson, 2014—Anderson gained 1,000 yards in 2017 but his career year was 2014. He went to the Pro Bowl and had a higher yards per carry average (4.7 to 4.1) and was more active in the passing game of the Broncos. 

So 2014 is the pick.

14. Willis McGahee, 2011. Coming over from the Bills, McGahee went to the Pro Bowl and was a yard under a 1,200-yard rushing season, and had seven 100-yard rushing games -  all at 30 years of age. 

His yards rushing per game is thirteenth in team history and was eleventh in the NFL that year.

13. Phillip Lindsay, 2018. All-Rookie, A Pro Bowler and All-AFC, Lindsay had a 5.4 yards per carry average - second in the NFL, was an AFC Player of the Week once and was ninth in the NFL in rushing with 1,037 yards. He also didn't fumble.

The 5-8, 190-pound "Tasmanian Devil" went undrafted and his rushing total is still the third-most by an undrafted rookie and his nine rushing scores are tied for the most ever by a rookie UDFA.

12. Reuben Droughns, 2004—The 5-11, 220-pounder ran for 1,240 yards (ninth in the NFL) and six touchdowns and was decent in the passing game.

After barely playing in the first month (ten carriers) in games five through eleven he rushed for 916 yards - 130.9 a game - with a high of 193 versus the Panthers -and averaged 27 carries a game.

In his final twelve, he averaged 100.8 yards a game. 

11. Knowshon Moreno, 2013—In his career year Moreno ran for 1,038 yards but caught 60 passes. No other 1,000-yard runner in team history had as many as 50. receptions.

There are a few scat-back types with more receptions but they were more or less receiving specialists making Moreno's 2013 as among the best three-down seasons by a Broncos back. 

He totaled 1,586 yards from scrimmage and scored 13 touchdowns and fumbled just once.

10. Gaston Green, 1991—Considered a bust in Los Angeles where he was a first-round pick and part of the bounty of the famed Eric Dickerson trade. Rams coach John Robinson didn't like his running style, was against the Rams drafting him and rarely used him. 

He got a new lease on life in Denver. 

The 4.3 speedster gained 1,037 yards (despite missing three games) and went to the Pro Bowl.

In Week Five he was the AFC Player of the Week running for 158 yards against the Vikings in a Broncos victory. The previous week he ran for 127 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Chargers.

Yes, a one-year wonder, but one of the ten best in Broncos annals.

Gaston Green

9. Sammy Winder, 1984. A grinder, pardon the rhyme. He was never going to light a defense up, his career-long was a 52-yard run. His career yards per rush average was 3.6 and his highest was 3.9 - he never met the league-wide average in any single season.

He's the epitome of the back that as the saying goes - if you need four yards he will get you four. If you need ten yards he will get you four. 

Don Meredith reportedly said that about Walt Garrison and it was widely coopted after that but it fit Winder, though he was not a power back, only 203 pounds, he kept chains moving. 

Why is he so high on this list, ahead of others with more yards and better yards per rush?

Because he was a grinder, the running game on a 13-3 team gaining 1,153 yards, a vital cog in the 1984 Broncos offense. 

8. Bobby Humphrey, 1990—A first-round pick in the 1989 supplemental draft he was a stud as a rookie and a Pro Bowler in his second season—the pick for his career year.

His 1,202 yards were fifth in the NFL and his yards from scrimmage were seventh.

The next year he held out, then was traded had some off-field issues and was gone from the NFL but for a couple of years he was excellent and 1990 was the top year.

7. Olandis Gary, 1999—Talk about pressure. Gary was in the untenable position of filling in for superstar Terrell Davis who blew out a knee. 

He met the challenge  - averaging 96.6 yards rushing a game. Only Davis, Clinton Portis and Otis Armstrong have averaged more in team history. The same goes for yards from scrimmage.

First Davis, then Gary were the seeds of the idea that germinated in the heads of folks that a running back does not have to be a high pick to gain yards in the NFL as long as there is proper blocking. 

Now that is conventional wisdom - don't pick running backs high in the draft, don't sign running backs to big free agent contracts, don't trade high picks for a running back like they did back in the day al la Eric Dickerson, Herschel Walker and others.

6. Mike Anderson, 2000—The 6th-round pick was the second guy to fill in for Terrell Davis while he was on the mend. He ran for 1,487 yards on 297 attempts (5.0 average) and had 15 rushing touchdowns.

Only Davis has carried the ball more in a season and has rushed for more touchdowns in a single season for the Broncos.

Anderson was a great story - a former Marine who served overseas, went to a junior college where he dominated then went to Utah State where he set plenty of the school's rushing records.

His rushing attempts and rushing touchdowns (tied) are still a Broncos' rookie record and his rushing total is still second-best. 

For his efforts Anderson was the AP and PFWA Rookie of the Year was All-Rookie - pretty good for a 27-year-old first-year player.

5. Cookie Gilchrist, 1965. Acrimony in Buffalo led to Cookie being traded to the Broncos and he gave them a great year.

Gilchrist was All-AFL, was voted to the AFL's version of the Pro Bowl, was second in the AFL in rushing. He led the AFL in rushing attempts for the third consecutive year - no one carried the load more than he did - and tied for the league leadership in rushing touchdowns. 

And he did it all for a 4-10 club.

4. Clinton Portis, 2003—In his top season, on a per-game basis, his yards from scrimmage per game is the highest in team history - 146.5. It was also the second-most in the NFL behind LaDainian Tomlinson's 148.1 per game.

The 205-pound (at the time) former Miami Hurricane ran for 1,591 yards and 14 touchdowns despite missing three games. Even so, he was still fifth in rushing and his 5.5 yards a pop was tops in the league.

His 122.4 yards rushing a game was second to Jamal Lewis's 129.1 average. Remember Lewis ran for 2,066 yards that year. If Portis was healthy all year he would have challenged the 2,000-yard plateau.

Portis caught 38 passes for 314 yards, was a Pro Bowler and was a Player of the Week once.

3. Floyd Little, 1971—Little had fewer rushing yards than some of the backs ranked lower on this list but he did more with less. 

He led the NFL in rushing and yards per carry and yards per scrimmage.  He was a Pro Bowler but not a consensus All-Pro. He was first-team according to Pro Football Weekly and was second-team on the Writers' All-Pro team.

Though 1,133 yards may not sound like a lot by today's standards remember that teams used two backs in that era, both carrying the ball and both blocking. In his career year Little had about 55 percent of the Broncos' carries - splitting carries more than most of the recent guys.

Terrell Davis in the seasons he started all sixteen games carried it anywhere from 65-75 percent of the time. In his only full season with Denver Portis carried the ball almost 60 percent of the time.

Also consider that his line was composed of mostly players who were not going to be first-team All-Pro to say it kindly, most were journeymen.

The quarterbacks struggled - they combine for eight touchdown passes and 27 interceptions so the  passing game was no help. 

Lou Saban, fired at midseason, was probably screaming, "They're killing me Whitey, they're killing me" and not referring to the officials this time. (If you know you know)

Little doing what he did in that atmosphere is truly making lemonade out of lemons.

2. Otis Armstrong, 1974. O.J. Simpson led the NFL in rushing every year from 1972 through 1976 except for 1974. That year Otis Armstrong paced the NFL with 1,407 yards and a league-leading 5.3 yards a carry average. 

Before him, only Jim Brown (an amazing seven times), Simpson, Jim Taylor, Jim Nance (AFL) and Spec Sanders (AAFC) had ever averaged 100 yards or more per game in a season - it was that rare a season at the time.

He was not a one-trick pony, either. He caught 38 passes for another 405 yards, totaling 1,802 yards from scrimmage, also the league's best that year and his 129.4 yards per scrimmage average a game is still fourth in franchise history. 

He was a consensus All-Pro and a Pro Bowler and for that year at least, the best running back in the NFL.

Otis Armstrong

1. Terrell Davis, 1998—MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, Unanimous All-Pro, Pro Bowl starter, Super Bowl MVP, four times the Player of the Week, twice won the AFC Player of the Month - What award didn't he win?

The numbers? He led the NFL in rushing yards, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns. His 2,008 rushing yards were, at the time, only the third time a player surpassed the two thousand-yard mark and is still sixth all-time. 

In the playoffs he was even better. If his postseason averages were prorated to a sixteen-game season he'd have had a stat line like this:  448 carries for 2,324 yards, a 5.2 average and 24 rushing touchdowns. 

How good was his 1998 season? 

Well, if his year was "only" a great one and not magnificent, like his 1997, and all else was the same not have made the Hall of Fame. He was felled by a devastating knee injury and we were never able to see what he might have accomplished but what got him in, what put him over the top and got him what historians call the "Gale Sayers exception" was his 1998 season.

Not only the best in Broncos history but on the short list of the best-ever by any running back,

Friday, April 7, 2023

Night Train Lane Steals a Pass as a Safety in Rookie Year

 By John Turney

Rams' rookie Night Train Lane intercepted an NFL-record 14 passes in 1952, mostly as a defensive halfback, what is now called cornerback.

But not all came playing outside. He played some safety that year as well. Earlier in the year he played some defensive end and linebacker, perhaps so the Rams coaches could to get an understanding of what a 6-1, 195-pound man could do who had excellent speed and instincts.

Here he gets a tipped ball for one of those 14 picks versus the Bears in Chicago. He was the left safety who walked up into a middle linebacker position to form a 7-1 "diamond" front.

Steve Romanik is the Bears quarterback and he floats one to left end Gene Schroeder and Rams right safety Herb Rich defends the pass, knocking it in the air for the Train to pick.

Here is the complete play. Enjoy—

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Jumpy Geathers—Human Machinery

By John Turney 
Offensive linemen know they get beaten once in a while. It comes with the job. What they hate is getting embarrassed. But embarrassing offensive linemen is what "Jumpy" Geathers would do ... and he did it with a move of his own creation. 

He called it a "forklift." What was it?

"Lift up a guard and throw him at the quarterback", explained Geathers. "Instead of bull-rushing, you just pick the guy up ... I use it on guys who get too high."

Maybe that sounds unimaginable, but it happened. And it worked.

"When he executed it properly," said former 49ers' offensive lineman Randy Cross, "you were going backwards, and there wasn’t much you could do about it."

Now, understand that Geathers will never be a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame or even the Hall of Very Good. His only postseason recognition was in 1995 when Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News picked him as an interior nickel rusher, and John Madden chose him for his All-Madden team.

But if offensive linemen had a vote, his signature "forklift" would be in Canton.

"He had long arms, a solid base and combined quickness and leverage to overwhelm his opponent", said Cross.

Nothing odd about that. What is, however, is that the 6-7¾, 300-pound defensive tackle didn't come to the NFL as the NFL's best power rusher -- mostly because when he arrived he was only 260 pounds. But he was blessed with incredible strength and had good speed for his size - running a sub-4.8 40 and the fastest 20-yard split of any prospect the New Orleans Saints timed in their scouting process.

That was in 1984 when he emerged from Wichita State where he had 34 sacks in his two years. Prior to that, he played at Paducah Junior College (Ky.) and was a basketball and a weight-room legend. 

In fact, when the Saints took him in the second round of the 1984 NFL draft, he looked more like an NBA power forward than a defensive lineman. For his first two years with the Saints, he was a defensive end in passing situations, using his size and quickness on the edge to produce 13.5 sacks and 13 passes defensed.

But his career -- and legend -- began the following year when he moved inside as a nickel.

That was 1986 when he was heavier -- closer to 270 -- and playing defensive tackle. He began to use his natural strength and leverage to push pockets and counter with an excellent swim move, and the results speak for themselves: He racked up nine sacks, batted down six passes and forced three fumbles.

But a knee injury ruined his 1987 season, forcing Geathers to change his game to compensate for the loss loss in quickness and agility.

"I had to survive," he said. "I had to come up with something."

That something was the fabled "forklift."

John Madden, on a FOX telecast, described it this way: "He gets his right hand in behind you and grabs your back, and he pulls towards you and that will lift you up. And then he starts walking you back and collapsing you."

In 1988, the now-290-pound Geathers perfected the move, with the Dallas Cowboys' 318-pound guard, Nate Newton, the first to get a ride. There would be others, but first Geathers had to undergo a second major reconstructive knee surgery at the end of 1989.

That left the 30-year-old unprotected and available for teams to sign under the Plan B free-agency system, and Washington responded. It gambled that his knees were worth the $1.5- million, three-year deal they gave him, and it was right.
Geathers missed the first half of the 1990 season on the physically unable to perform list, but when he returned the 'forklift" victims mounted. One year later, he was a major contributor to a Super Bowl champion -- leading the team in hurries over edge rushers Charles Mann and Fred Stokes, no small feat.

"He just pushed piles out of place," said his defensive line coach, Tory Torgeson. "It's amazing what he does with his strength." 

Torgeson was no newbie. He'd played on or coached teams with powerful guys like Les Bingaman, "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, John Baker, Larry Brooks, Dave Butz and others. So he had a basis from which to compare.

After three years in Washington, Geathers signed a big-money contract (three years, $2.9 million) with the Atlanta Falcons, prompting then-coach Jerry Glanville to celebrate.

"Without a doubt," he said, "he's the best power rusher (in the NFL). He can fork-lift a lineman right back into the quarterback."

He did that with Buffalo guard Jim Ritcher in Super Bowl XXVI and followed with the Rams' 330-pound Keith Loneker in 1994 -- a move that didn't go unnoticed by Loneker's teammate, Tom Newberry.

"Every year," Newberry told Sports Illustrated, "I try to convince my teammates to vote for Geathers for the Pro Bowl. After seeing him lift and carry Keith, it won't be hard to convince them again."

One guard who was convinced was Adam Timmerman, then a rookie with the Green Bay Packers. In a 1996 AP story, Packers' quarterback Brett Favre recalled when Geathers was "(J)umping on Adam. Adam held him or something. I can't tell you what he was saying, but Adam was like (saying)'Yes sir, yes sir.'"

When Geathers retired after finishing his career with Denver in 1997, he'd compiled an impressive resume. From 1990-95, he twice led his teams in hurries, twice was second and once was third. What makes that so impressive is that in all those seasons, he started just four games and did it by playing almost exclusively on passing downs.

That he didn't do it on the edge ... but inside ... is more than outstanding. It's a remarkable accomplishment that didn't escape the attention of former Chicago Tribune columnist Don Pierson..

"A 36-year old Wonder," he called Geathers in 1996. "He was good in New Orleans, good in Washington, good in Atlanta and is now good in Denver. Offensive linemen say he cannot be blocked. But no one has ever heard of him."

Jumpy Geathers will never be recognized for stopping the run, but he has plenty of company. There are a lot of edge rushers in that category. But if you want someone to make a quarterback double pump by seeing hands in his face ... or put a guard on skates ... Jumpy is your man.

"God blessed me with a talent," he once said. "Half the time I don't know what I am doing."

NFL offensive guards did ... and they didn't like it.

"Anyone that ever blocks in this league," John Madden said, "any guard or center, you always talk about who's the toughest guy to block ... who's the best tackle. They always tell you: Jumpy Geathers."

That makes Jumpy Geathers worth remembering ... even if you never heard of him.

Career stats—

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

The Raiders—Cornering the Market on Corners

 By John Turney 
Lester Hayes
Al Davis loved the deep passing game, pass-rushing defensive linemen, and corners who could cover man to man. Not necessarily in that order. Above all he probably most adored the cornerbacks.

He certainly went after them.

Of the twenty top single-seasons of Raiders' corners at least a half-dozen he targeted and acquire through trades or free agency.

Picking a top season by a cornerback is tricky because if a player has a lot of interceptions it could mean it was a great season or just a good season. Conversely, a season with just one, two or maybe three picks can be great. Or poor. 

The same player may have a big interception year and it was his best and then follow it up with seasons teams avoid him. Sometimes postseason honors like All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections come a year after the player had his best season.

With that preface here are the top individual seasons by Raiders' cornerbacks taking all those things into consideration.

20. Fabian Washington, 2006—Four interceptions, a couple of years later signed as a free agent by the Ravens - not a stellar season but it rounds out the top twenty.

19. Tory James, 2002. In his contract year of 2002 James made 45 tackles, had 19 passes defensed and intercepted four passes in a season when he cracked his fibula and missed just two weeks after having a metal plate in his leg. He gets tough-guy points for that.

The Bengals thought enough of his season to sign him to a four-year $14.4 million contract.

18. Casey Hayward, 2021—Always solid, the aging vet had a solid year in Sin City in '21. It wasn't as good as his peak years with the Packers or Chargers but at 32 he did a good job.

17. Eddie Macon, 1960—Macon started in the NFL then had an All-Star career in the CFL. Next, he joined the Raiders in the AFL's inaugural season and promptly picked off nine passes taking one to the house and for his efforts he made the UPI All-AFL team.

16. George Atkinson, 1968—Moved to safety but as a rookie he played corner, filling in for and injured Kent McCloughan and was pretty good. He was the AFL Rookie of the Year, but his greatest contribution to the AFL West Champs was in the return game. His statistical totals were 69 tackles and was credited with 28 passes defensed.

15. Phillip Buchanon, 2003—Buchanan picked off six passes taking two back for touchdowns. The 4.31 speedster was the AFC Defensive Player of the Week once. He also ran back two punts for scores. He'd be higher on this list if he hadn't been beaten for a few too many scores.

14. Skip Thomas, 1975—The Raiders' "Soul Patrol" secondary was stellar in 1975 posting a defensive passer rating of 37.5 and as a unit they picked off 28 passes. "Dr. Death" had six of those to go with his 41 tackles and 26 passes defensed.

As his nickname suggests the 6-1, 205-pound Thomas was a devastating hitter, akin to having an extra safety on the field. (note: the nickname actually had a different origin).

13. Lionel Washington, 1991—The Week 7 AFC Defensive Player of the Week the former Cardinal had 72 tackles and five interceptions and 21 passes defensed.

It was one of those seasons sometimes referred to as a "Pro Bowl snub" - a season worthy of being on the team but didn't get chosen.

12. Nemiah Wilson, 1971—Wilson went to an AFL All-Star game with the Broncos but as a Raider didn't get any accolades but with teams throwing away from Willie Brown, Wilson responded with vigor and in his career year as a Raider he grabbed five enemy passes had 47 tackles, five for losses - a credit to his ability to play the run, and 25 passes defensed. 

11. Fred Williamson, 1962—"The Hammer" had his best season in 1962. The future Hollywood actor was a consensus All-AFL choice, stole eight passes and took one of those to the end zone. 

One paper called the 6-3, 215-pound Williamson the "best secondary defender in the AFL." He played off, now called playing "out of phase" and would play downhill and close on the ball and deflect or intercept. 

10. Albert Lewis, 1996—Lewis was still playing great as a Raider after signing as a free agent, leaving the Chiefs. He was still a fine cover corner, giving up just a single touchdown pass, per Stats Perform (STATS). The should-be Hall of Famer was also and a force in the run defense and coming on the corner blitz.

He had 54 tackles, two interceptions, three sacks and was credited with 15 defended passes.

9. Eric Allen, 1998—In 2000, at 35 years of age, he proved he still could make teams pay when they challenged him. He nabbed six opponent passes and turned three into touchdowns. 

But that is not his top season with the Raiders.

Two years prior Allen had an individual defensive passer rating of 16.3 (STATS). Yes, in a statistic that 50.0 is excellent, 40.0 is great he had a 16.3! 

Only 41.0 percent of passes directed towards him were completed, intercepted give and on the one touchdown he allowed it was a shared responsibility, so he allowed just a half-touchdown.

8. Terry McDaniel, 1994—Twice the AFC Defensive Player of the Week, McDaniel had seven interceptions, one being a pick-six and recovered three fumbles, one a scoop-and-score. He also had 61 tackles and 22 passes defensed.

He was a second-team All-Pro (AP) but astute Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News as well as NFL Films both of whom picked All-Pro teams put McDaniel on their first teams.

7.  Kent McCloughan, 1967—A master of the bump and run, doing so because he had very good but not elite speed, he frustrated receivers by disrupting their routes and throwing off the timing of their routes. 

His 1966 could have been picked, he was All-AFL and snagged an AFL Defensive Player of the Week award but in 1967 he was a consensus All-AFL and was half of the top corner tandem in pro football and had 55 tackles and 23 passes defensed. 

After that season Lance Alworth said, "Kent's the real master of the bump and run. He tied you up by keeping his hands on you all the time. If it is a short pass he's right there. If it's long, he knocks you off stride. It's hard to get moving when someone bumps you every second or third step."

Knee injuries shortened his career but the 6-1, 190-pounder who was as adept at tackling as coverage was among pro football's very best cornerbacks for a short time. 

6. Dave Grayson, 1965—Grayson was somehow let go by Hank Stram and Al Davis was happy to take him in a one-for-one swap of he and Fred Williamson. 

He would become a dominant safety in Oakland but that would come a couple of years later. He was a corner at first and a great one at that. 

You have to love old-school verbiage.  At midseason in '65 one writer said that Grayson had "not been bombed", presumably meaning he hadn't given up a long touchdown so far that year.  

He was a consensus All-AFL selection, His tackle total was 51 and he totaled 21 passes defensed and picked off three "aerials" returning two for touchdowns.

5. Charles Woodson, 1999—In just his second NFL season teams avoided throwing to Woodson's side. "There is a reason he's not getting the numbers (interceptions)" said teammate Richard Harvey, "Nobody's throwing at him. He's not getting any activity."

The 1997 Heisman winner was a consensus All-Pro and Pro Bowl starter and the future Hall of Famer took his only pick back for a touchdown. He had 61 tackles and 15 passes defended. 

4. Nnamdi Asomugha, 2007—In 2006 he had the picks and his lowest individual defensive passer rating of 40.5 (STATS). 

After that teams didn't throw at him anymore. 

There were other years he didn't allow a touchdown and/or and was a consensus All-Pro. Any of those years would qualify for this list.

It's okay to go with the advanced numbers sometimes and in 2007 he allowed just a 36.8 completion percentage and one touchdown (also STATS) even though he had just a single interception. 

He gets some heat because he signed a huge contract with the Eagles and never played as well there as he did as a Raider but he was a true shutdown guy in Oakland for a handful of years.

Free agency has been tremendous for NFL players and the NFL. It has brought fairer pay and excitement for teams looking to improve immediately but it sometimes puts players in situations that hurt their legacies.

Had Asomugha been able to get paid in Oakland and had he kept the level of play at the same level for another handful of years he might have the Hall of Fame. As it is, the Philly years ended all hopes of that.

3. Willie Brown, 1969—Not only was Brown a consensus All-AFL pick he was first-team on the All-Pro teams that picked players from both the NFL and AFL. He was widely considered the best cornerback in pro football that year and probably a few years around it.

Joe Namath said so after he allowed George Sauer one catch for 16 yards in a late November game. Namath targeted Sauer twelve times that game according to media reports.

Sauer also was quoted as agreeing with Namath, "Yep. He's the best".

Willie Brown thought so, too. When asked who the best cornerback in the world Brown reportedly said, "I am." 

He was probably right.

Al Davis coveted him for years when he was a Bronco, in 1967 he finally got his man. Davis marveled at Brown's development of the bump-and-run style that Raiders cornerbacks adopted for decades after. 

Brown was never really given credit for being an excellent force corner and was like McCloughan could be found making tackles in the backfield on sweeps to his side. 

Though numbers never begin to tell the story of Brown or any corner it's always to see them. His stat line was 35 tackles and he was credited with 34 passes defensed.

2. Mike Haynes, 1984—"The Shadow" had several great years in Los Angeles but he was the NFL Defensive MVP (NEA) in 1984 and he was simply the best in the NFL so that year is his Raiders career year.

A consensus All-Pro and Pro Bowler and a top-ranked cornerback by scouts he shutdown receivers week after week. 

Willie Brown, his secondary coach said he was the "Ideal cornerback. It's like you ordered him out of a catalog." Haynes himself felt he played well in 1984, maybe better than usual because teams had to throw to him more than they did in New England. "Here with Lester on the other side, it's tough. Where are they going to throw? They have to try."

Try they did and Haynes made them sorry they did. He had six interceptions and two went for scores, he was the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for a two-interception game against the Dolphins and Dan Marino.

He finished with six picks, a league-leading 220 yards in returns and one was a touchdown. Gamebooks credit him with 53 tackles and 20 passes defensed and one researcher shows his individual defensive passer rating was in the low 40s.

He pitched the shutouts, allowing no completions and four with only one completion. It was simply a tremendous season for Haynes.

1. Lester Hayes, 1980—Sometimes the obvious choice is the best choice. 

Like others on this list after his big interception year teams avoided "the Molester" (at least until Haynes arrived) and he still played very well but 1980 is his top season. It is a year that the interceptions are an indication of elite play.

He was the consensus NFL Defensive Player of the Year, one short of the NFL record for interceptions with 13, had four interceptions called back on penalties, including a 95-yard touchdown, and then had five more interceptions in the playoffs en route to a Super Bowl win.

Hayes even forced a fumble and fell on two for a total of 15 takeaways in the regular season to go with 49 tackles and 22 passes defensed. He did allow a few touchdowns but that was due to his gambling, and quarterback-baiting style and the game-changing plays he made proved the results were worth the gamble.

The stickum-covered, self-proclaimed Jedi Knight was the best defensive player in the league, the best player on a team that got the ring. His career-year of 1980 season was one for the ages and it was the best in the vaunted history of the NFL team that boasts the greatest collection of cornerbacks.