Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Does Larry Brown Have A Chance to Make the Hall of Fame This Year?

By John Turney 
Art credit: LeRoy Neiman

Recent inductions to the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened the door for qualified candidates who had short careers but were never seriously considered. -- with Larry Brown the latest example.

It's about time.

The former Washington running back is one of 31 senior semifinalists for the Class of 2024, and, yes, that's news. He's never been a semifinalist until now. Maybe that doesn't matter to young fans who don't know who Larry Brown was. But it should.

He was a first-team All-Pro twice second-team once, a four-time Pro Bowler, NFL MVP and NFL Offensive Player of the Year. Furthermore, he was the first Washington running back to gain 1,000 yards rushing ... and he did it twice. He also finished in the NFL's top five in rushing attempts five times, yards rushing three, yards from scrimmage three and total touchdowns twice.

But there's more. From Brown's rookie year of 1969 through 1974 (six years) only Hall-of-Famer O.J. Simpson rushed for more yards, while Brown was second in receptions among running backs, too. Second is not bad. In fact, it's terrific.

But the following items are even more impressive. From 1969-74 ...
  • No NFL player had more yards from scrimmage, no RB, WR or TE.
  • No NFL player scored more touchdowns.
  • No running back had more rushing touchdowns (tied).
  • No running back had more receiving yards.
  • No running back had more receiving touchdowns.
Also note, the above stats include 1974 which really was not part of his peak years. If excluded, his yards-from-scrimmage lead is higher.

In his four-year peak, Hall-of-Famer Terrell Davis was also second in the NFL in rushing, but he was second in yards from scrimmage. Like Brown, he scored the most touchdowns in the NFL, but he didn't have Brown's all-around capabilities. Davis was tenth in receptions, 11th in yards and tied for 14th in receiving touchdowns.

And that includes none of his injured years.

The biggest difference? Davis was enshrined in Canton in 2017, while Larry Brown has never had his case discussed by Hall-of-Fame selectors.

Nevertheless, his career corresponds to Davis. He was an elite, dominant back whose career was derailed by knee injuries. The only difference is that Brown's injury wasn't sustained on one play; it happened over years and degenerated to where he was no longer effective and forced to retire after eight seasons.

It was the same injury, but it played out in different ways. And that should be considered by the seniors committee as it reduces semifinalists from 31 to 12 this month.

Decades ago, short careers were common, with the Hall inducting several players with careers of five, six or seven years. But until 2017, modern-era players were expected to play longer, though there were a handful of notable exceptions.

One was Chicago running back Gale Sayers. He was inducted despite a career that lasted seven years, mostly because that at his five-year peak he was considered one of the top two or three running backs of all-time. Severe knee injuries ended his career, and voters understood it wasn't fair to hold that against his candidacy.

So they didn't. 

His election became known as the "Gale Sayers" exception to an unwritten rule that longevity matters when considering a player for the Hall of Fame.

Then there was Miami center Dwight Stephenson. He was elected because he had a five-or-six-year span as a dominant player. Others enshrined under that same logic were Kenny Easley, Jimbo Covert and Tony Boselli -- all elected within the past seven years.

As was Terrell Davis.

His induction in 2017 (the same year as Easley) was a landmark event in that it devalued the Hall-of-Fame's emphasis on longevity. Davis had a four-year span of elite play (including marvelous playoff performances) deemed Hall-of-Fame worthy despite his playing only 78 games over seven seasons. But a devastating knee injury early in 1999 derailed his ability to sustain his greatness.

Like Sayers, he was rewarded with a Gold Jacket.

And Larry Brown? He's one of 31 senior semifinalists for a Class of 2024 that will choose three finalists. The odds are against his election, but so what? That's been true most of Brown's life.

"NOTHING HAS EVER COME EASY FOR ME"

Living in an area in Pittsburgh known as the "The Hill", Brown had to be smart, street-wise and tough. He was that and more. He took that toughness on to the football field and kept it from high school through the NFL.

Along the way, he always stood up for himself.

If subjected to a racial slur, Brown would respond with his fists. It didn't matter who it was or if it meant getting arrested. Brown wouldn't tolerate it. He wouldn't tolerate preferential treatment of players, either, especially if it stemmed from racial bias.

"Nothing has ever come easy for me," he once wrote. "Looking back to the time I was a kid growing up in a ghetto in Pittsburgh, I am not exaggerating when I say I'm lucky I am not in jail or hooked on dope or dead."

Toughness and courage will always be Brown's calling cards. They, as much as anything, allowed him to make Washington's roster as a rookie in 1969, with then-coach Vince Lombardi saying he liked his young back because "he's got guts."

An eighth-round draft choice (pick 181) out of Kansas State, Brown was known as a blocker first, a runner second and a receiver not at all. In 1969, one scouting group that ranked draft-eligible players from 0-5, with 5 the worst, had Brown at 3.2 and Simpson at 0.5.

Lombardi preferred bigger backs like Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung and Jim Grabowski in Green Bay, but he was impressed with Brown's desire to hit. In fact, according to one witness at a practice, Brown put a "280-pound lineman on his fanny" during a nutcracker drill.

However, as the 1969 preseason wore on, Lombardi noticed the rookie was slow off the ball. Brown at first said he was trying to read the defense but later admitted he couldn't hear out of one ear. So he was fitted with a hearing aid and moved to the opposite side of the huddle so his good ear could be exposed to the quarterback calling the play.

It worked.

But he also had another problem that held him back:. He was of no use in the passing game.  He couldn't catch, and he couldn't run proper routes -- missing the depth and width by inches ... or even feet.. so that he'd be a yard too short or too wide.

"I was dropping everything," he said.

Fortunately, Brown's position coach, George Dickson, came to his rescue -- convincing Lombardi to keep Brown around until the final cuts. In the meantime, he and Brown worked on routes and pass-catching techniques, with Brown carrying a football with him all day. On the field, in the locker room, at meals, in the dorm.

That worked, too.

Result: Larry Brown earned Washington's starting halfback job as a rookie, ran for 888 yards and caught 34 of the 37 passes thrown to him according to coaches. The rest is history.

Larry Brown became the best all-around back in the NFL, bad knees or not.

"MY LEGS ARE MY LIVING"

Brown had to fight from last string to first string from high school to junior college to Kansas State to the NFL ... and he won every battle. He had to overcome deafness in one ear and a severe sinus condition that dogged him on the field and, on occasion, would hospitalize him.

But knee injuries betrayed him. He was first hurt in 1970 but played through the injury. He injured a knee again in 1971 and refused surgery. Another knee injury in 1972 (among other ailments) caused then-coach George Allen to sit him the final two games of the season so he'd be ready for the playoffs. That cost him the 1972 rushing title.

All the while, Brown declined to submit to surgical procedures.

"My legs are my living," he wrote in 1972, "and I was not going to let anyone mess when them unless there's absolutely no other choice. You are never the same after an operation."

Prophetic words.

Struggling through the 1974 season, he finally allowed doctors to attempt to correct his knee issues. But, after the surgery, his knee was never the same, just as Brown feared. Like Sayers and Davis, his waning years were simply not effective. But, also like Sayers and Davis, his peak years were tremendous.

From 1965 through 1969, for instance, he was first in rushing, second in rushing touchdowns. And his receiving stats? They were as follows: tenth in receptions, 11th in receiving yards and tied for 11th in receiving touchdowns.

Admit it. Maybe you knew that he led the NFL in rushing once and in yards-per-game twice. But you didn't know that Larry Brown was the NFL's best receiving back of his era.

The 5-11, 195-pound Brown was Washington's offense in 1972, and the Redskins rode him to the Super Bowl and a 14-7 loss to Miami. Though the Dolphins' No Name defense bottled him up, he still gained 72 yards on 22 carries and 26 more yards on five catches.

"(Brown) is the complete back," said Miami Herald columnist Edwin Pope, hardly a Washington fan, "one who apparently embodies the best qualities of the Dolphins' Morris, Csonka and Kiick."

That endorsement by a former Hall-of-Fame voter should suffice for Hall-of-Fame consideration. Yet, here we are, hoping that Larry Brown makes the next cut from 31 semifinalists to 12.

“I should be there (Canton) based on my performance and talent. It was comparable to some [inductees],” Brown once told the Washington Post. “I thought it would happen. The rumor is I didn’t play long enough."

He's probably right. But that was then. This is now. And now we can hope that the Hall's seniors committee takes a closer look at Brown's resume and gives him the same consideration as Davis and Sayers. No, he wasn't the human highlight film that Sayers was on returns. Nor did he have the playoff career of Davis.

But they didn't catch or block like Brown did. And no one ran harder.

"Brown ran too hard for his body," former Hall-of-Fame voter Paul Zimmerman wrote.

"Everybody's keying on him," an Eagles' safety said in 1973. "He's taking six, seven, eight shots on each carry. I would have to say he's a brave soul."

How brave? Once after punching a defensive lineman in the facemask he suffered a hand injury so severe that it required 20 stitches. The procedure was done with Brown refusing pain killers and the locker-room surgery so grotesque that veteran tackle Jim Snowden ... who was there ... said he nearly vomited.

"I have something inside me that keeps me driving on," said Brown. "Especially when I'm hurt. When I'm down I can see Vince Lombardi's face ... I can hear him saying 'Get up', I can hear his voice. That's the God's honest truth."

Comparing Brown to Sayers or Davis isn't to oversell him to voters. However comparisons are made to show where each ranked among their peers. When someone shows as well as Larry Brown in an era that had Hall-of-Famers like O.J. Simpson, Leroy Kelly and Floyd Little ... when he outpaces them in stats ... and when he's as honored as much or more as Kelly and Little,  it means he has the goods.

Forty years after he became eligible for the Hall of Fame, Larry Brown finally has the attention of Hall-of-Fame voters. Good. He deserves it.

6 comments:

  1. He won't make it but was better than Little.

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  2. If I had a vote, he would definitely get it.

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  3. From Brian wolf ...

    At least he is now on the radar.
    A complete back. Despite excellent receivers on the Redskins team, including Taylor, Smith and Jefferson, QB Kilmer liked to throw to Brown.

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  4. How is Floyd Little in the Hall of Fame and not Larry Brown?

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    Replies
    1. Good question brown was better than little

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  5. Borderline candidate at best but falls short. Hopefully he gets in the final 12 someday (not this year) so he’ll get discussed.

    ReplyDelete