Monday, March 20, 2023

George Kunz—The Gentleman Tackle

 By John Turney 
George Kunz
The NFL's golden age of left tackles was from the mid-1980s through the mid-2000s. That was when Anthony Munoz, Gary Zimmerman, Willie Roaf, Tony Boselli, Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones and Orlando Pace - Hall of Famers all roamed NFL stadiums.

A generation earlier, when the top defensive ends were playing on the left side it was the right tackles that were the premier tackle, not the left. It was the mid-1960s through the early 1980s that were "peak right tackle".

Hall of Famers like Bob Brown, Ron Mix, Ron Yary, Rayfield Wright and Dan Dierdorf were all protecting the frontside of quarterbacks. Even Hall of Famer Art Shell, who was indeed a left tackle, was mostly a front-side blocker since his quarterback was left-handed. 

The "blind side" was not yet a thing. 

However, one name is missing from the great right tackles of that era - George Kunz.


Because he was great.

"George was as good as any of us, Rayfield, Dan, and myself", said Ron Yary. "He was every bit as strong, quick and smart as anyone who played."

He was known for being quick on the snap and a "wicked drive blocker" and also a good pass protector.

In fact, the Associated Press (AP) voters agreed in 1975 when Kunz beat out Wright and Dierdorf on their All-Pro team.

However, younger fans don't remember but All-Pro team that had as much, if not more, gravitas in that era was the Newspaper Enterprise Association's. (NEA). The NEA was a rival press organization to the AP (and United Press International) and starting in 1955 they polled NFL players and published the Players' All-Pro team. 

It was included in the NFL Record and Fact Book and is still included by the Pro Football Hall of Fame when they compose bios for Hall of Fame players and candidates.

It was on the NEA team that Kunz got recognition - the players knew his quality. He was first-team All-Pro in 1972 and 1973 making him a three-time first-team All-Pro.

He was a second-team selection in 1976 and 1977, second-team All-NFC in 1974, and went to a total of seven Pro Bowls. In fact, every year Kunz was healthy (he missed five games in 1970 with a knee injury) he got some level of postseason honor, including being the 1976 AFC Offensive Lineman of the year on the 1977 NFL Offensive Lineman of the Year.

Kunz was a man of letters, intelligent but also almost stoic and nice, almost to a fault. He wanted to be a priest as a young man but chose athletics and academics instead and transferred from a seminary school to a regular high school.

His coach at Notre Dame, Ara Parseghian, said that Kunz had a "certain something that set him apart, both talent-wise and spirit-wise." 

A consensus All-American as a collegiate tackle, and even played some tight end and was also an Academic All-American. He was the second overall pick in 1969 by the Falcons where he became an immediate starter. 

His time in Atlanta ended in 1975 when he was traded to the Baltimore Colts to the Falcons could draft quarterback Steve Bartkowski. Colts' General Manager Joe Thomas coveted him and called him "One of the best drive blockers anyone has seen in a long time." 

It was in Charm City that Kunz says he played his best football by his own accounting. He had more experience and he was bigger. He was an avid weight lifter prior to college but Parseghian told him to get down to 245 pounds.  

But by the time he got to the Colts had built himself up from around 250-260 pounds, his weight in Atlanta, to 270 or so, without losing any of his quickness but with added strength.

Whitey Dovell, his line coach with the Colts said Kunz was, "simply the best pro lineman I've ever coached."

Defensive end Jack Youngblood adds, "Oh yeah, I remember when he was traded out of my division and was happy I didn't have to face George twice a year anymore. Then, the schedule comes out and it turns out the Colts are on it and I have to face him that year."

Youngblood continued, "George was kind of a mixture of Rayfield, Dan, and Ron in a way. On running plays he was quick off the ball like Rayfield, he could get into you if you were not careful. And if he did that big 'un could move you like Yary could. On pass plays he'd short-set you like Dan would do. Meet you at the line of scrimmage so you couldn't do your moves, take away your momentum."

It also needs to be noted that Kunz, the gentleman tackle, was a tough man. 

Very tough.

However, he postponed the operation because his coach asked him if he could possibly play the season opener (against the reigning Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys) because by the time the doctors told Kunz surgery was necessary it was too late to prepare another player to replace him.

Kunz complied and played through the pain. 

The following year, after missing 15 games in 1978, he wanted to play in 1979 and reported to camp but the X-rays showed the back had not recovered so he was forced to retire.

But still, the fire burned, and while he was pursuing other things, including being a color commentator on NFL games for NBC he quietly worked out with the goal of getting back to the game and "finishing what he started."

The following Spring, he passed a physical and was cleared to play for the 1980 season, which he did, starting at his old right tackle spot. He and his coach thought he could help the Colts, who'd been in the doldrums for a couple of seasons.

But he was not his old All-Pro self, not the difference maker he'd been when he first got to Baltimore.

And what a difference he had made.

In his first three years with the Colts, they were a top-ten offensive team in rushing, passing and total offense. In the two years he was out they fell to near the bottom.

In his two-year absence, the Colts quarterbacks were sacked 101 times, more than in the three previous years combined and most notably Bert Jones kept getting hurt.

But it was more of a domino effect and without the big tackle and the wheels did come off the offense in his absence so it cannot be simply a coincidence. 

In his final year he played with a broken thumb and a "cracked" elbow that left him "without any strength in that arm." He also had another back injury, a spinal concussion and that ended things for the season and as it turns out his career. 

In all, Kunz played eleven seasons and played 129 games, starting 126. That is roughly the same amount of starts as Bob Brown, Ron Mix and Rayfield Wright and more than Boselli, Jimbo Covert and his final coach Mike McCormack. 

He has the same number of Pro Bowl appearances as Ron Yary, Zimmerman, Pace and Jackie Slater and more than seven other Hall of Fame tackles and he was first-team All-Pro as many or more times than the following:  Boselli, Bob St. Clair, Slater, Covert,  McCormack and Winston Hill.

Kunz deserves a chance to be "in the room" (or now "on the Zoom") to have his Hall of Fame creds discussed. 

He certainly measures up.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Remembering Linebacker U

 by Joe Zagorski 
During the 1960s and 1970s in the National Football League, several colleges across the nation gained a reputation for producing quality athletes at one specific position on the gridiron. One of those schools was Penn State University, who behind head coaches Rip Engle and then later, Joe Paterno, seemed to churn out linebackers left and right.  

And not just any old linebackers, mind you. No, Penn State was sending high-quality linebackers to the NFL Draft, and many of them would make a name for themselves in the pro ranks. So often and so many great linebackers came to the NFL from Penn State, that the university was respectfully regarded for a time as “Linebacker U.” 
Jack Ham
Perhaps the most successful PSU linebacker to make a name for himself in the NFL in the 1970s stayed in the state of Pennsylvania.  Jack Ham was born and raised in Pennsylvania and was drafted in the second round in 1971 by the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

His impact on their team was almost immediate.  He missed only nine regular season games during his 12-year pro career. He intercepted 32 passes and recovered 21 fumbles. He also was named to eight straight Pro Bowls and played in four Super Bowls during the 1970s, each of which his team won.  In 1988, Ham was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Ham’s greatest talent was his ability to drop back into zone defenses, and tightly cover opposing tight ends and setbacks coming out of the offensive backfield. Moreover, almost any ball he touched, he caught.  He was a ballhawk, and he was always around the ball carrier. 

The knowledge that he gained at Penn State served him well in the NFL, and it was readily apparent that his coaches with the Steelers did not have to touch on the fundamentals with Ham. Nor did they really have to stress the keen nuances of playing his position of outside linebacker. Ham was indeed given plenty of proper tutelage in his years at Penn State. Nicknamed “Dobra Shunka” by Pittsburgh’s fans of Polish ancestry, the label stood for “Great Ham,” which Jack Ham certainly was. He was truly a great linebacker.

Dave Robinson
Another legendary linebacker to come out of the Penn State ranks was another member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Dave Robinson. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound outside linebacker, was big enough in the mid-1960s to the early 1970s to play on the defensive line if he wanted to, yet still could drop back quickly enough into the coverage zones of the defensive secondary. 

He played for 12 years in the NFL, the first 10 with the Green Bay Packers, and the last two with the Washington Redskins. He intercepted 27 passes during his career, and he also recovered 12 fumbles from 1963 to 1974. He won three NFL Championships with the Packers (1965-1967) and was a member of Green Bay’s Super Bowl I and II world championship teams. 

He was one of the most reliable linebackers in pro football history.  In 10 of his 12 seasons, he did not miss a game. At Penn State, Robinson played for head coach Rip Engle.

Many other linebackers came to the NFL from Penn State. True, they were not as successful as Jack Ham or Dave Robinson, but they each made a name for themselves on the pro teams that they played for. In random order, those linebackers included the likes of John Skorupan, Greg Buttle, Ed O’Neil, and Charles Zapiec.

John Skorupan
John Skorupan was drafted in the sixth round of the 1973 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills. He was a mainstay on their defense and their various special teams units until 1978 when he became a member of the New York Giants. Skorupan saw action in 92 games during his eight-year pro career. 

He only intercepted two passes during his career, but he was as reliable and as dependable as they come. The Bills and the Giants did not usually have strong defenses during the 1970s, and a player of Skorupan’s caliber generally had to contribute a lot of his efforts just to keep the opposing scores down as much as possible. 

Skorupan’s main claim to fame was that he was the Giants’ left outside linebacker just before the great Hall of Famer, Lawrence Taylor, took over for him at that position in 1981.

Greg Buttle
Greg Buttle also played in New York, but for the Jets and not the Giants. Buttle entered the NFL with plenty of fanfare, and he did not disappoint. Even though the Jets were not a winning team for most of his nine years in pro football, Buttle nevertheless played every play as if it was his last. 

Buttle was a consensus All-American at Penn State, and he parlayed that success immediately in the NFL by being named to the league’s All-Rookie team. 

Like Jack Ham, Greg Buttle only played for one pro team after being drafted by the Jets in the third round of the 1976 NFL Draft. He intercepted 15 passes and recovered seven opponents' fumbles during his career. 

His best asset was his speed.  Buttle was one of the fastest linebackers in the league, especially during his first few years in pro football.  

Ed O'Neil
Another fast Penn State linebacker who went on to play in the NFL was Ed O’Neil, who was drafted very high by the Detroit Lions. O’Neil was the eighth player selected in the first round of the 1974 NFL Draft. He played a total of seven years in the league, the first six of which were in Detroit. 

O’Neil’s final season (1980) as an active player was as a member of the Green Bay Packers.  O’Neil was one of those players that every good team needs…a type of athlete who can fill in at any linebacker position, and the type of player who has the smarts to understand the multitude of strategies in the pro game.  

Like all good Penn State linebackers, O’Neil was groomed to make a quick transition from the college to the pro ranks, thanks to the knowledge that he picked up from his coaches at PSU.
Charlie Zapiec
Charles (or Charlie) Zapiec is the final linebacker on this list, but his story is very different from those of the other men mentioned in this article. 

While Zapiec’s size and weight were similar to most of the others (he stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 216 pounds), his location after his college days at Penn State was definitely different. Zapiec was drafted in the fourth round of the 1972 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys, but he did not stay there. Zapiec was released before the 1972 regular season began.  

Almost immediately, he was claimed by the Miami Dolphins, who kept him on their roster for almost three full weeks. He was somewhat discouraged by his lack of success in the NFL following his departure from Miami, and when the Ottawa Roughriders of the Canadian Football League gave him a shot to make their team, he jumped at the chance. 

He stayed there during the 1972 and 1973 CFL seasons. Zapiec was waived once again, however, but he remained in Canada when another opportunity came his way. The Montreal Alouettes gave him a chance to play on their defense, and he settled there for five years from 1974 to 1978. They were the best and most productive five years of his pro football career. Zapiec was named to the CFL All-Star team in four of those five seasons.  

The above names are by no means a complete list of linebackers who have played for the Penn State Nittany Lions and who also went on to play pro football. But it is a good overall representative inventory of those players who have etched their names in both categories. 

For over ten years, many scouts, personnel directors, and coaches across the NFL knew that if their teams were in need of a linebacker, the first place to look for a good one was a college known as Linebacker U.

Sources Used:
Antonacci, Chris.  “The Legacy of Linebacker U.”  The Daily Collegian, September 2, 2000.
Zagorski, Joe.  “The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football’s Most Important Decade.”  Jefferson, NC.
 McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016.

Joe Zagorski is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Pro Football Researchers Association.  He has written numerous articles and books about pro football, its games, and its personalities.  His upcoming book, a narrative about the 1973 Buffalo Bills, is entitled The 2,003-Yard Odyssey: The Juice, The Electric Company, and an Epic Run for a Record.  It will be published by Austin-Macauley Publishers (New York) sometime later in 2023.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

CHARLEY BROCK: "Tough as Nails"

By TJ Troup 
Charley Brock
Every player who enters the league wants to win a championship, and contribute. Thus when a team wins a title we can all look at the roster of who was on the team, and who contributed. How many men played a decade for the same team, and had a winning season each year? 

This is the saga of one of the handful of men pre-modern era (before 1950) that can state he made both lists. Charley Brock was chosen by Green Bay in the second round of the '39 draft, was joining a team that had a winning tradition, and was a contender in '38. 

Late in that season, the Packers lost to the Giants to close the regular season and then lost the rematch with the New York Giants in the Championship Game. The Packers of '39 were well coached, and talented, and though they stumbled at mid-season in a loss to the Bears (30-27)—the men in dark blue and gold ran the table and shut out the Giants in a very convincing title game clash. 

Charley Brock got plenty of playing time at center, and linebacker, and in the win over NYG, the lean youngster intercepted twice. Without a doubt a sparkling rookie season for young Charley. 

The NFL did not keep individual interception stats then, yet have learned he intercepted 8 times, and returned an errant Eagle pass 42 yards for a touchdown. Brock also intercepted the legendary Sammy Baugh three times in the victory over the 'Skins. The 1940 Packers were not able to defend their title as they finished 6-4-1. Brock is still playing center, and linebacker and intercepted three times. 

Over the years the games between the Bears and Packers had become a trademark of hard-hitting, spirited football. With so many outstanding players for both teams. The defending champion Bears of 1940 split the two games with Green Bay in '41, and as such a tie in the standings, and a playoff game. 

The Bears not only beat Green Bay, they defend their title with a win over the New Yrok Giants. Brock has become a mainstay at center and continues his sterling play at linebacker. Green Bay has a strong season in '42 with a record of 8-2-1, but lost both games to the Bears. Losing at home to the Bears to open the season, the Packers traveled to the Windy City to take on the Cardinals. 

Trailing 14-10 in the 4th quarter Brock picks a Cardinal fumble and strides 20 yards for the winning touchdown. Though he had many fine games previous to this one, this is one of those games that every defensive player dreams of. 

Earlier in the game, Brock had intercepted twice. The NFL did not have a player of the week award in those days, but no doubt he would have been defensive player of the week. 

Five weeks into the campaign and Charley Brock has registered five interceptions from his right linebacker post, but he is not the only right linebacker who can read the quarterback and intercept. Clyde "Bulldog" Turner of Chicago is the first Bear to intercept in four consecutive games and goes on to lead the league with eight interceptions. 
Bulldog Turner
Charley Brock intercepted against the Eagles in late November and finishes with six for the season. Every Packer player knows the division crown runs through the North Side of Chicago, but again in 1943 the Packers cannot beat the Bears. 

They tie on opening day, and later in the year lose the rematch in Chicago. Brock continues to pilfer passes as he latches onto four errant throws in '43. 

He is part of the record-setting brigade that steals nine, yes folks, NINE Lions passes on October 24th victory. Anytime a team has a record of 29 wins, just 2 losses, and a tie you would expect them to be playing for a championship, but the Packers from 1940 through 1943 just cannot beat the Bears or Giants. 

Their record against these two longtime rivals in this four-year time period is 2-7-2. Since Charley has played such exceptional football on a consistent bases week after week he begins to receive recognition (second-team All-Pro in '43). 

 Again in '44 Green Bay loses to the New York Giants and the Bears, but they win the rest and finally wins the division. The rematch with the Giants in the title game is a classic as Coach Lambeau makes some needed adjustments to the offensive game plan—while Brock and his compadres on defense stifle the New York offense. Brock is again a champion and is again voted second-team All-Pro. 

Many times when I write here at the Journal relish detailing aspects of how each man played his position. Film study is needed, and have enough film from 1943 and '44 to do so. Brock is 6' 2" yet looks taller as he bends over the ball. 

His snaps to the Packer backs in the Notre Dame box offense Green Bay uses are crisp, and accurate. Every snap I saw was a tight spiral. After the snap he usually position blocks a defensive tackle or middle guard, and almost always leads with his left shoulder. 

He is not a pile driver as a run blocker but is nonetheless effective. Green Bay aligns in a standard 6-2 defense as Brock aligns on the right side, sometimes stacked behind the end, sometimes walked off farther outside. He is quick to read the play and takes excellent pursuit angles. He is not a physical tackler, yet he displays raw strength as he more than once in film study wrestled a ball carrier to the turf. 

No doubt there are times he is in man coverage, yet usually, he drifts back into his assigned area and then plays the ball in flight. He is instinctive in diagnosing plays, and is uncanny on pass defense. Charley Brock's season of 1945 stands as one of the best ever for an outside linebacker. 

For the first time, the league keeps individual fumble recoveries and Charley leads the league with five recoveries. When a player has a game like Don Hutson does against the Lions on October 7th he is going to get the headlines, yet in this game, Charley again intercepts a Lion pass, and motors 31 yards for a touchdown. 

Green Bay is in a dogfight to win the western conference crown with an improved Detroit Lions team, and the Cinderella Rams led by Waterfield. Brock makes tackle after tackle during the year against the run, and with two games to go, he has recovered three opponent fumbles and intercepted twice. Have watched the Giants vs. Packers film at the Polo Grounds many times.—just one of those games you treasure watching. 

The New York Giants has Junie Hovious at tailback, and he is a pre-Tarkenton scrambler. Very entertaining, but Junie on the second NYG possession throws across the field where Brock is laying in wait. The veteran's timing is textbook as he cuts in front of the receiver and dashes 38 yards to the New York thirty-yard line. 

Five times in the first half Hovious has completed passes to Ward Cuff, but in the 3rd quarter Cuff on a running play where he gains 16 yards Charley not only forces the fumble he returns the ball 30 yards to the New York six-yard line. 

Late in the quarter, Hovious pitches the pigskin toward George Franck, and there is Brock again, He intercepts and dashes 27 yards to score. Can only speculate that this is Charley Brock's best game—numerous tackles, many in pursuit in the open field, two interceptions, and a key fumble recovery in the Green Bay win. 

Detroit and Green Bay meet at Briggs Stadium for second-place money as captains Callahan and Brock meet for the coin toss. Again film study is a joy as Brock again wrenches the ball free for a 5th and league-leading fumble recovery, he intercepts late in the game. He returns 26 yards, and as such leads, the league in interception yards returned. 

How many men have ever led the league in opponent fumble recoveries, and interception yards returned in the same season you ask? 

Only one......Mr. Charley Brock. 

For the only time in his career, Brock is voted first-team All-Pro. The Packers are 5-3 with three games to go in '46, but falter and cannot keep pace with the future league-champion Bears. Brock does not intercept in '46, but again leads the league in opponent fumble recoveries with five! 

Twice against the Lions in October Charley falls on Detroit fumbles. He again receives All-Pro recognition for his stalwart play. Green Bay struggles in '47 yet manages to again finish above .500 with a mark of 6-5-1. 

Now in his tenth season, he is spelled much more often at center but still plays a vital role in the Packer defense at right outside linebacker. November 30th against the Los Angeles Rams he again intercepts and recovers an opponent fumble in the same game. 

His outstanding career comes to a close and I feel compelled to evaluate and compare his career to other men who played the position. 

The best pre-modern era outside linebacker, and he also played on the right is Mel Hein. He is also a bulwark in the offensive line for the Giants. Bulldog Turner is a close second; a pile-driving blocker on quarterback sneaks and very instinctive as a right outside linebacker against both the run and the pass. 
Mel Hein
Those two Hall of Famers stand out, but what about Charley Brock? 

Can draw many comparisons between these three men and who was the best defensive centerfielder in the '50s. Mantle and Mays were breathtaking, yet watch Richie Ashburn cover ground, and catch everything he got near. 

Charley Brock is the poster boy for the takeaway in pre-modern era football. During the 60 games he played in from 1942 through 1947, he took the ball away 28 times! 

Today would have been Charley's 107th birthday. Time to pay tribute to this outstanding player.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Ranking the Best Seasons By Seahawks Safeties

 By John Turney 
Seattle has been the home to very good, and often great, safety play since the Seahawks became a franchise in 1976. 

But out of all of them who had the best individual season?

Taking each player's single best season and then ranking them is not an easy thing to do but using the criteria of stats, postseason honors, scouts' views when available, and the eye test, here is one take on the subject.

The list—
25. Lawyer Milloy, 2010 (strong)—At 37 he made 87 tackles and had four sacks - then a team record for safeties (since broken). Not a great year but good enough for the top 25.
24. Deon Grant, 2007 (strong)—Seventy-eight tackles, ten passes defensed, three interceptions. He had an individual defensive passer rating of 54.5 per Stats, LLC (STATS).

23. Al Matthews, 1976 (strong)—Taken in the expansion draft the former Packer stepped in at strong safety and started all fourteen games and totaled 95 tackles, 13 passes defense, picked off three passes -  taking one to the house. 

22. Steve Preece, 1977 (free)—The Seahawks were his fifth and final NFL team in his nine-year career. He'd signed as a free agent to play free safety with the starter from the previous season, Dave Brown, moving to cornerback. 

He was a good tackler, a smart, savvy type but didn't have much speed. He played pretty well, making 96 tackles intercepting four passes, forcing a fumble and recovering one.

The only issue is he beat out Lyle Blackwood who was waived and picked up by the Colts. All Blackwood did that year was lead the NFL with 10 picks playing free safety in Charm City.


21. Paul Moyer, 1988 (strong)—He had to step in for Kenny Easley who showed up to camp but had to retire due to a serious kidney issue. Moyer did a credible job, intercepting six passes.

20. Jordan Babineaux, 2009 (free)—Just as he'd settled in at free safety and having a decent year (104 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two picks, and a forced fumble, a rookie named Earl Thomas arrived in 2010 to take his job.  

19. Nesby Glasgow, 1989 (strong)—One of the NFL's greatest names, the former Colts took over for Paul Moyer in 1989 at strong safety and made 97 tackles and fell on five fumbles (tied for the league lead) one was a scoop and score. 

18. Dave Brown, 1976 (free)—Brown was a highly underrated cornerback in the 1980s but few remember he started as a free safety. He'd been left unprotected by the Steelers and the 'Hawks grabbed him in the expansion draft. 

His season totals were 111 tackles to lead the team and tied for third-most by a safety in franchise history, 17 passes defensed, four interceptions and he forced two fumbles, all on a 2-12 team. 

One observer said he would have had ten interceptions if his hands were better. Apparently, he got that fixed, ending his career with 62 interceptions, tied for tenth all-time.

17. Michael Boulware, 2005 (strong)—The younger brother of Peter Boulware, a big safety (6-3, 223) he played mostly nickel linebacker as a rookie before becoming the starter at strong safety late in the year. That year he saved four games due to big plays, but since he was a hybrid player who was not on the field in all the defensive packages his sophomore year is the pick.

In his second season, his career year, he made 73 tackles (second on the team) had a couple of sacks and intercepted four passes plus two in the playoffs, including one in Super Bowl XL off Ben Roethlisberger. He also blocked a kick in 2005.

16. Ryan Neal, 2022 (strong)—Neal just became a starter in the Seattle secondary this past season at age 27. He missed three games, started ten, made 66 tackles, and had a sack, an interception and a forced fumble. He was named to Pro Football Focus All-Pro team. 

He spends most of his time on the box but when Seattle goes with a 2-high look, he's usually a boundary safety, almost always on the short side of the field with Quandre Diggs playing the field, or wide side.

15. Bradley McDougald, 2018 (strong)—Rated higher by scouts than by All-Pro voters. His stats were good enough - 78 tackles, three picks, three forces, but he was a top-five strong safety in 2018. 

He was sent to the Jets as part of the deal that brought Jamal Adams to the Seahawks in 2020. The Seahawks also got two first-round picks and change. 

14. Autry Beamon, 1978 (strong)—Beamon had ball skills. Coming over from the Vikings in a trade he had six picks in 1977 in just nine starts. 

In 1978 he had fewer picks but started all sixteen games, had 112 tackles (second-most ever by a Seattle safety), forced a fumble, recovered one and was credited with fifteen passes defensed. Though he got no postseason honors the was rated highly by one independent pro scouting service. 
13. Reggie Tongue, 2002 (strong)—He could lay a lick, pun intended - Tongue was a good hitter. 

He was signed by Seattle as an unrestricted free agent (coming from the Chiefs and getting $13 million for five years- huge money in those days). In his second year in the Pacific Northwest, he picked off five passes, took one back for a touchdown and made 105 tackles. He had an individual defensive passer rating of 54.7 per STATS.

In week five against the Vikings, the game he had returned a interception for a score, he made six tackles, he intercepted a second pass, defensed a total of four and recovered a fumble on special teams that led to a Seahawks touchdown  

12. Jay Bellamy, 2000 (free)—In his seventh and final season with the Seahawks, a contract year, he put it all together and had a career year that the Saints noticed, giving him a four-year $4.4 million contract. 

He had four interceptions, two sacks, two forced fumbles, all tied for his career highs, to go with his 88 tackles and eight passes defensed and pick-six. 

11. Ken Hamlin, 2004 (free)—Another big-time hitter in an era when that was allowed. He played 100 percent of the defensive snaps, made 80 tackles had two sacks and stole four passes - a career-high, and his individual defensive passer rating of 57.7 (STATS) was a career-low. 

His interception in week three broke the 49ers' streak of 420 straight games of not being shut out, dating back to 1977. He also had seven tackles and an interception in the playoffs.

His 2006 season was also very good. He'd recovered from a head injury he'd received in a nightclub brawl the year before but in the end, he was at his best pre-injury so we went with that.

10. Robert Blackmon, 1996 (strong)—He was a second-team All-AFC selection in 1995 and had a career-high in interceptions that season and was even an AFC Defensive Player of the Week twice, in Week 12 and Week 15. 

But he missed some games that season and the next year stepped it up with 102 tackles, three picks and forced four fumbles. 

It was a close call but in this case, the season without the postseason honors was the better one.

9. Keith Simpson, 1979 (strong)—A first-round draft pick the previous year, he filled in at strong safety for two seasons though he had always been a cornerback. When Kenny Easley was drafted in 1981 Simpson got to play the position he preferred.

As a strong safety, his 1979 season was his best. he had four interceptions, forced four fumbles, totaled 85 tackles and fifteen passes defensed and had a pair of sacks. He was also graded as a top safety by one professional scouting firm.

Pretty good for a cornerback playing out of position.
8. Quandre Diggs, 2021 (free)—He's been a Pro Bowler the last three years but this past year was not his best, the year before was. Not as tall as you'd like as a safety (he played a lot of cornerback early in his career, when he was a Lion) but he makes big plays in big games. 

Even though he missed four games he had five picks and 94 tackles and gave up just one touchdown according to both Sports Information Solutions (SIS) and Sports Radar, two of the leading sports analytics organizations.

7. Darryl Williams, 1997 (FS)—A former first-round pick of the Bengals, Williams signed with his college coach Dennis Erickson in 1996 as a free agent and paid immediate dividends picking off five passes and returning one for a score. 

His second year in blue, silver and green was even better - he was an AP second-team All-Pro (first-team by NFL Films) and was the AFC Player of the Week for Week 4. 

He pilfered eight passes, again taking one to the house, and totaled 93 tackles and he had a 47.9 individual defensive passer rating (STATS). 

His year is good enough for seventh on our list.
6. Jamal Adams, 2020 (strong)—Love him or hate him, think he was worth what Seattle gave up for him or not, his 2020 season was rare for a strong safety/linebacker hybrid.

His specialty was lining up in the box making plays in the run game and pressuring quarterbacks. His 9.5 sacks set a record for the most ever by a defensive back. 

Even though he missed a month of the season he still had  41 pressures (SIS) - four fewer than Joey Bosa (who also missed four games) and the same number as Matt Judon (who missed two games) and Frank Clark (missed one game).  

He was second-team All-Pro, All-NFC and a Pro Bowler. 

It was a great year in everything except coverage which was never his strong suit.

5. Kam Chancellor, 2013 (strong)—One of the NFL's last dominant hitting safeties. Chancellor had several years that could qualify as his career year. We chose 2013. He was second-team All-Pro, made 99 tackles (four were stuffs), picked off three and was his usual intimidating self.
4. John Harris, 1981 (right)—A seventh-round draft pick in 1978, Harris took over for Steve Preece as a rookie, lost it midway through his sophomore season regained it his third and kept it after that.

In 1981, as a right safety, (not free safety, they played left- and right under new defensive coordinator Jackie Simpson) and was surrounded in the secondary by Ken Easley, Dave Brown and Keith Simpson. He ballhawked his way to ten interceptions and took a pair of them to the end zone. He also recovered three fumbles, forced two and defensed 17 passes while making 91 tackles.

Even with all that the only postseason honor he got was All-AFC by the New York Daily News

3. Eugene Robinson, 1993 (free)—Any of a half-dozen seasons could have been his career year, Robinson was steady and as underrated as they come. 

But 1993 was special. he tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with nine, made 111 tackles (four short of his team mark for tackles by a safety), recorded two sacks, forced three fumbles, recovered two fumbles and was credited with fifteen passes defensed.

He was the AFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 11, first-team All-Pro and went to the Pro Bowl.

2. Earl Thomas, 2013 (free)—The second safety from the Legion on Boom to have his best season in 2013, though like Chancellor and Robinson, he had more than one year that qualifies.

In 2013 Thomas had a career-high in tackles (105), tied his career high in interceptions (five), was third in the AP Defensive Player of the Year voting and was a consensus All-Pro and was a Pro Bowler as well.

Add in the 'Hawks thumping the Broncos in the Super Bowl which just adds icing to the cake of the former Longhorn's career year.

1. Kenny Easley, 1984 (strong)—"Oh, I'm vicious. I'm definitely vicious", said Easley when he was asked about his style by NFL Films. he was every bit as intimidating a safety as younger fans may think Kam Chancellor was. It was just different then, big hits were celebrated and Easley was always on any list of the hardest-hitting safeties

His 1984 season being first on this list is no surprise. The 1981 first-round pick of the Seahawks went off that year. He was the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and was the Defensive Player of the Week twice, one by the NFL and another by Pro Football Weekly.

Statistically, he led the NFL in interceptions with ten, setting the franchise record, took two back for touchdowns, tying the team record, made 75 tackles, forced three fumbles and defensed 24 passes, including the ten picks. 

He also picked off a pass in the 13-7 upset win over the defending Super Bowl champion Raiders in the playoffs.

His career year of 1984 was the best in Seahawks' history and one of the best all-time by any safety on any team.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Curtis McGriff—Run Stopper Par Excellence

 By John Turney 
Curtis McGriff
Only one NFL defensive end has started 70 games and never recorded a single sack. His name is former New York Giants defensive end, Curtis McGriff. 

This goes back not just to 1982 when sacks became official but back to 1960 the point at which Pro Football Reference has unofficial numbers and you can be pretty sure it dates further back than that.

Defensive ends, even 3-4 two-gap ends, are expected to rush the passer at least to some degree. If they don't, they better be very good against the run. 

Curtis McGriff was more than good at stopping the run. He was great.

Just ask Jackie Slater.

In 1995 Slater was asked by USA Today to list the ten toughest opponents he faced in his career. Listed first was Curtis McGriff.

Yes, McGriff. 

He was listed ahead of Reggie White, Howie Long, Too Tall Jones, and others. "At the very top of my list - one of the best run-stoppers to ever play in the NFL", said Slater.

It didn't start out that way, however. It took a little time before McGriff became a roadblock in the way of NFL running backs.

As a rookie, McGriff played both a 4-3 defensive tackle and then a nose tackle in a 3-4 in his rookie year for the New York Giants since the team switched scheme during the season. 

However, he was known for not being a hard worker. "Lazy" is the word his coach Ray Perkins used to describe him in his rookie year. He had plenty of ability but didn't always apply himself. 
At minicamp in 1981 he was over 300 pounds and new defensive coach Bill Parcells thought to himself that McGriff would never play for him. Said McGriff to Vinny DiTrani of the Bergen Record, "I had gotten out of shape because I didn't do anything in the offseason." 

But after that McGriff worked out and by the Summer was down to 268 pounds but retained his base, his low center of gravity that anchored him.

"He's still a load. He's hard to move out against the run", Parcells said concerning the weight loss. And it paid off. McGriff earned the starting left defensive end position - on running downs. He was lifted in likely passing situations and replaced by George Martin who was the designated pass rusher.

It was a fantastic duo for the next five years with McGriff doing the dirty work and Martin averaging 8½ sacks a year over those five seasons. (Martin did start some games to fill in for injured starters but by and large, he was the left defensive end in nickel situations).

It was during those years McGriff built his reputation as one of the best, if not the best run-stuffing defensive end in the NFL.

He was a one-dimensional defensive end, but he was the exact opposite of the usual meaning of that term. That almost always refers to a pass-rushing end, a sack specialist, who cannot or is not willing to play the run - and there have been a lot more of those in league history than the run-stopping specialist types.

Oh tried. He worked on his pass-rushing moves and actually could get some push at times, but a sack never came. You'd think Lawrence Taylor or Leonard Marshall would have pushed one or two his way when an opponent passed on first and ten. 

That eventually caught up to him. 

In 1986 the Giants drafted a couple of defensive linemen who they projected to be the future stud two-gapping ends - Eric Dorsey in the first round and John Washington in the third round. 

About Washington Parcells said, "I think he runs better than Curtis McGriff will ever run." It was clear the Giants wanted to improve the athleticism of their base ends.

As luck would have it McGriff badly pulled a hamstring and was placed on injured reserve so he missed the shot at being a part of the Super Bowl-winning team. 

The next Fall his old bad habits befell him and he was out of shape again and was waived by the Giants. Washington picked him up but he was no help to them so he was cut by them as well.

Playing nose-up on a tackle (four technique), or perhaps slightly outside (tight-five) takes its toll on a player. A defensive end in those pure 3-4 schemes has to play two gaps rather than one, meaning he has to knock the offensive tackle back, read the flow of the play (if it is to the left or to the right) and then fill the appropriate gap. 
Playing in a two-gap scheme like Parcells' and Belichick's is far more physically taxing than a one-gap scheme where a defensive end has a better angle on an offensive tackle and can charge the gap without having to read the flow of the play without having to meet him head-on.

As a result, run-stopping specialists don't have long careers, at least compared to their pass-rushing specialist counterparts, their bodies just break down, though McGriff's helped it along by not being as dedicated to his workouts as he should have.

As for the athletic replacements who were supposed to play the run and also get some pressure, Dorsey and Washington didn't quite deliver as promised.

Dorsey started 57 games in the NFL and recorded just seven sacks. Washington started 53 games and recorded a single sack in his career. And though both were very good run-stoppers they were not great like McGriff was.

If you can only do one thing well, make sure you're great at it, and when a Hall of Fame tackle verifies it then you are a player that is worth remembering.

Career stats—

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Ernie McMillan—A Pro's Pro

 By John Turney  
Ernie McMillan
St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame tight end Jackie Smith called his longtime teammate Ernie McMillan  a "professional football player's professional football player."

Smith first saw an athletic player who also had a tremendous work ethic coupled with leadership.

He was probably the first of the tall, athletic offensive tackles that became the norm in the NFL, a predecessor to Rayfield Wright, Ron Yary, and George Kunz - who were 6-5, 6-6, weighed 255-260 pounds and could run the forty in under five seconds and could have played tight end if they dropped twenty pounds.

The 6-6, 255-pound McMillan was in their class athletically but toiling on mediocre teams he didn't get as much national notice.

For fifteen years, playing for a franchise that was up and down, mostly in the middle in terms of wins and losses, he still managed to garner postseason honors in eight consecutive seasons from 1964 through 1971. 

He was a first-team All-Pro in 1967 (NEA), second-team All-Pro in 1964 (New York Daily News), 1965 (NEA), 1966 (AP and UPI), 1968 (NEA and UPI), 1969 (New York Daily News), 1970 (NEA) and in 1971 and was All-NFC (UPI), as well as being a Pro Bower four times along the way.  

Hard work and desire took McMillan from a talented player to an elite player. His first coach Wally Lemm said at the time, "He's a student of the game. And he has no peer as a pass blocker." McMillian explained "we have a wonderful film library at the Cardinals. I'd be a fool not to take advantage of it."

In 1967 his coach next, Charley Winner, was effusive about McMillan's abilities saying that his 1966 season graded out at 96 percent in pass protection. And though he didn't give a number he said it was better than any year that Hall of Famer Jim Parker had and that he'd know since he'd been on the Colts' coaching staff during the bulk of Parker's career.

A check of Weeb Ewbank's old Colts records shows that from 1957 through 1961 Parker's overall grades were between 83 and 89 percent so there is some documentation of Winner's claim.

So why didn't the Hall of Fame committee ever notice him?

Hard to know.

In that era, it was the right tackle that had the tough assignments, not left tackles, that came later. The left ends dominated the game in the sixties and seventies and that meant McMillan faced some of the best defensive ends of all time - Gino Marchetti, Willie Davis, Deacon Jones, Carl Eller and Jim Katcavage among others.

He had the reputation for hustle -  getting downfield on blocks and also finishing blocks on running plays. He was always in great shape and run well for a tackle - like Wright, Yary, and Kunz.

Perhaps he lacked a lot of team success and that is why he went unnoticed.

A few teams were pretty good early in his career but it was not until 1974 that he played on a 10-win team. That was when Don Coryell's Cardiac Cards won the NFC East. That was also the year he unselfishly moved from right tackle to left, to accommodate Dan Dierdorf and did it without complaint and made the transition well. 

Said his line coach Jim Hanifan to the AP, "He's having an excellent season, an excellent season. he hasn't been beaten this year. Not by Ed Jones. Not by Cedrick Hardman. Not by Verlon Biggs."

Even so, he was released in the 1975 preseason and was quickly picked up by Bart Starr's Packers and he played his final year in Green Bay and even tried to play in 1976. He just did not want to give up playing the game he loved and wanted to play his sixteenth season at age 38 but Starr had a first-round rookie slated to play in McMillan's spot. 

So he was released and his next move was to get into coaching and scouting.

In all, the Cardinals co-captain played 190 games - more than all but five Hall of Fame offensive tackles, starting 184. he didn't miss a game due to injury until his thirteen season when he was 35 years old (he did miss some games as a rookie but that was due to military service).

He was first-team All-Pro the same number of times as Winston Hill and his second-team selections are also similar to Hill's as well. 

Maybe had he talked more, perhaps promoted himself he might have gotten more attention from the media.  But McMillan was not that guy saying in 1973, "Whoa, I'm not going to talk about myself . . . you know me."

Others did. He was enshrined in the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame and is a Missouri Sports Hall of Fame Inductee as well. 

So will McMillan ever get a shot at being discussed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame? 

Hard to know.

He certainly should.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Otis Taylor—R.I.P.

By John Turney 
 Otis Taylor
When the Oakland Tribune's Jeff Faurdo conducted a 1993 poll of seven Hall of Famers, former Kansas City Chiefs' wide receiver Otis Taylor won votes from Lance Alworth as "best after the catch" and Charlie Joiner and Charley Taylor as the "best big play receiver."

Taylor passed away Thursday at the age of 80 after a decade of health problems.

Via Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt released a statement following the news of Taylor's death:

  "My family and I would like to extend our heartfelt condolences to Otis' wife Regina, his sister Odell and the entire Taylor family as we mourn his passing. He was one of the most dynamic receivers of his era, and he helped revolutionize the position. Off the field, he was kind and dedicated to his community. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. Otis' legacy will live forever."

He was first-team All-Pro in 1966, 1971 and 1972 and was a second-team pick in 1965 and 1967. He was also a Pro Bowler/AFL All-Star three times.

More significantly he was the 1971 AFC Player of the Year (UPI) and tied for second in the AP MVP voting - both rare honors for a receiver. With few exceptions, those awards usually go to a quarterback or running back.

But Taylor was also a key component of the 1969 Chiefs that won Super Bowl IV, catching six passes for 81 yards -- including a memorable 46-yard touchdown reception -- to lead Kansas City to an upset of Minnesota in the last game involving NFL vs. AFL.

While Taylor had good numbers and good postseason honors it was the eye test that separates him from other wide receivers. 

Listed at 6-3, 215 pounds he was among the first big wide receivers to have success in pro football. Fellow AFL receivers Lionel Taylor and Art Powell along with NFL receivers Dave Parks and Homer Jones were the first players 6-foot-2 and taller and who weighed 210 pounds or more to have a 1,200-yard receiving season. 

Lionel Taylor in 1960, Powell in 1963, Parks in 1965 and Otis Taylor in 1966.

It didn't happen again until Art Monk did it in 1984.

Beginning in 1995 it became commonplace - thirty-five players have done it a total of eighty-eight times. 

Otis and the others were the trailblazers for big receivers. 

Of course, that is going by listed weights. If Taylor's actual weight were used (it was suspected that he hadn't weighed 215 since college and was likely 225-230 pounds) he becomes more of a marvel, especially with this 9.5 100-yard dash speed. 

Taylor was not only big, but he was also a smooth athlete who had good speed, and terrific hands and was eye-catching to watch. At least he caught the eye of some of the NFL's greatest wide receivers.

While Jerry Rice was the overall leader in votes in the Tribune poll, Otis made a good showing.

You might say Ben Davidson noticed him, too.

In 1970 Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson scrambled for a long gain and Davidson speared Dawson when he was on the ground. An infuriated Otis Taylor was the first Chief to arrive, rushing in to defend his quarterback throwing a right cross to the big defensive end's face and then body slammed the bigger man and then the famous melee ensued.

No one could question Taylor's toughness, that's for sure.

Raiders' coach John Rauch once told author Lou Sahadi, "Taylor does everything well. He has great range for the ball. Throw it out there, he'll run under it. You through it in a crown and he will take it away from people ... He'll comeback and crack-block, he'll go downfield and pick up a blocker."

"He caught the ball extremely well in traffic and did an excellent job in blocking. This is very important in our offense", added his longtime coach Hank Stram.

John Madden, who succeeded Rauch as the coach of the Raiders, noticed as well, naming Taylor to his All-Time Super Bowl All-Madden Team in 1996.

The rest of his "alls" - All-Pros, Pro Bowls, etc., are very respectable - .

Statistically, he had two 1,100-yard seasons, leading the NFL in that category in 1971 and in 1966 he led the AFL in yards per reception (the Chiefs made the Super Bowl that year, losing the Lombardi's Green Bay Packers). The following season he tied for the league lead in touchdown receptions.

While true his numbers in the NFL, after 1970, were not as stellar as in the AFL it should be noted that historians often call the seventies the "dead ball" era in terms of the NFL passing game.

Without a doubt, Taylor was ahead of his time. He was special and for a time at the top of his profession.  Early in 1971, Don Meredith offered his opinion on Monday Night Football, "If he's not the best (wide receiver in football), I don't know who is." 

No one was.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Spec or Speck Sanders? It's Both. Runner or Passer? It's Both.

 By John Turney 
What was it Spec or Speck Sanders?

It's both.

Orban Eugene Sanders was nicknamed "Speck" due to being a freckled lad. 

The name stuck. Kind of.

Later in life he signed autographs "Speck" Sanders. He named his drying cleaning business in Lawton Oklahoma the "Speck Sanders Drive-In Cleaners" and is still in business to this day.

But in the middle and even now he's also referred to as "Spec", without the "k". 

In the middle of his life, as a pro football player, the names were interchangeable in newspapers but it does seem like the New York papers mostly used Spec.

Sanders was an Oklahoma high school star who got his start in college ball Cameron Junior College in Lawton where he also starred (Later he was inducted into the Junior College  Hall of Fame).

From there he transferred to the University of Texas, though he wanted to go to the University of Oklahoma, and again he played well but was not the big man on campus as he had been. However, he did catch the attention of the Washington Redskins who took him in the first round of the 1942 NFL draft.

However, duty called and Sanders entered the U.S. Navy. He spent his time as an athletic instructor, including one year on New Hebrides in the Pacific Theater in 1944. But prior to that found time to play football for the Georgia Pre-Flight Skycrackers and the year after that played service ball with the North Carolina Pre-Flight Cloudbusters whose quarterback was Otto Graham.

After the War ended Sanders finished his degree at Austin in the Fall of 1945 and in the Summer of 1946 he signed with the New York Yankees in the new All-America Football Conference (AAFC). 

What was Spec Sanders a running back or a quarterback?

It's both.

He was a tailback in a single-wing offense, one that the tailback took the ball on the snap and who could run it, hand it off or pass it, and even punt it.

At that position, he did things no one did before or since in pro football. 

In his first season he recorded the only 700-yard rushing, 200-yard receiving and 400-yard passing season in NFL/AAFC history. His 706 rushing yards led the league and six rushing touchdowns tied for the lead. It was good enough for a 10-3-1 record and a shot at the league title, though the Yankees fell short, losing to the Cleveland Browns.

The next year, though, is really one for the books. He rushed for 1,432 yards, again leading the AAFC but also threw for 1,442 yards - the only 1,400-1,400 yard season in NFL/AAFC annals.

Again the team rivaled the Browns going 11-2-1 but losing in the AAFC championship game to Otto Graham's Browns for the second year in a row. He was again All-AAFC that remarkable year. There was no MVP award but had there been one, Sanders would have been it.

The Yankees slipped some in 1948, Sanders rushed for 759 yards and passed for 918 yards and accounted for 14 touchdowns but the team went just 6-8.

He sat out the 1949 season to have a knee operation. 

The NFL absorbed the AAFC with only a few teams taken into the NFL fold. The players were divided up among the NFL teams some of them in an odd free-agent draft pool that occurred in June of 1950. In it Sanders was drafted by the New York Yanks, a remnant of the New York Bulldogs a 1949 NFL expansion team that, in part, merged with the AAFC New York Yankees. 

In the preseason Sanders played halfback - the Yanks ran a T-formation offense - but he ended up playing safety the centerfielder in what one newspaper called the New York Yanks defensive "outfield".

That year, his only one in the NFL, he led the league with 13 interceptions, setting the NFL record (broken two years later by Night Train Lane), made the New York Daily News All-Pro team and the Pro Bowl. 

And that was it for Sanders and football. He'd signed a one-year contract with the Yanks and chose to not return. He turned down an offer from Paul Brown to play in Cleveland in 1951. 

Sanders was really the last star of the single-wing in pro football the last in a line of players like Dutch Clark, Arnie Herber, Ace Parker and others. By 1950 the end of his career the wing was barely used, though some teams still used some forms of it but they were the exception, not the rule.

Still, he is only one of four players to have 1,000-yard rushing and 1,000-yard passing in the same season. The others?  Lamar Jackson, Michael Vick and Justin Fields.

And Sanders did it in 14 games. In 1947.

Nineteen forty-seven.  

That's a player worth remembering.