Saturday, March 16, 2024

Neil Smith—Does He Have a Shot at Hall of Fame?

By John Turney 
Quick question: How is it that a six-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro who was on the 1990s' all-decade team, has over 100 career sacks and twice drew votes for Defensive Player of the Year has zero support from the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame's board of selectors?

When you have an answer, contact former defensive end Neil Smith. He's the former All-Pro I'm talking about. 

Smith has never been one of Canton's 25 annual semifinalists, even though many of his all-decade teammates have ... and that must change and change immediately. Because if Smith fails to advance in the Class of 2025, his modern-era eligibility expires ... and you know what that means: He's regulated to the seniors' "swamp" -- a pool of Hall-of-Fame worthy individuals so deep that it includes over 50 all-decade performers never discussed as finalists.

If that happens, and it seems likely, we have to ask: What's the problem? Why hasn't Neil Smith ever advanced? 

Frankly, it's hard to say. He's something of an oddity in that he wasn't just a one-dimensional pass-rushing defensive end. He was an accomplished pass rusher who was also a great run-stopping defensive end.

Just ask him.

"I was a dominant run stopper coming from the Big Eight at one time," the former Kansas City and Denver star said. "(So I learned) how to play the strong side … and, then, when plays come to me, take care of them. And when plays are away from me, chase them down.

Or ask his former coach, the late Marty Schottenheimer.

"He does an excellent job against the run," he once said. "He has natural leverage and body strength and performs quite well against the run."

But it didn't end there, he could get after the passer, too. Again, we call Neil Smith to testify on his behalf.

"When the pass rush came," he said, "I had to never leave the field, and then go hunt and get sacks. So a complete player is really what you’re looking for, and I had everything that a complete player needs as far as trying to get in."

The numbers support his argument.

While it's true that in the eight years he teamed with Hall-of-Famer Derrick Thomas in Kansas City, it was Thomas who had more sacks (98-83), it's also true that, according to the Chiefs' coaches, Smith had more pressures. In those eight seasons Thomas led the club in sacks four times, Smith three and they tied once. But Smith led in pressures six times and Thomas twice.

No, he didn't have the explosive first two steps that Thomas did. Of course, neither did anyone else. But Smith was as successful. From 1992-95 --- the first four seasons after the Chiefs switched to a 4-3 defense -- he was second in the NFL with 53 sacks (including a league-high 15 in 1993). Only Chargers' defensive end Leslie O'Neal had more with 54.

Furthermore, during his time in the NFL, only eight players recorded more sacks ... and six of them are in the Hall of Fame.

Remember also that Smith did that with style, often punctuating his sacks with a "home-run swing" and a Band-Aid on his nose -- something he at first wore because of a broken nose but that later became his trademark. But it wasn't his style that scouts noticed; it was his athleticism and productivity.

"Great reach and good slither," said one. "He can turn his body to separate from blockers." Said another: "He can race to the corner and burst off a block into the pocket. He plays with leverage and comes down hard and quick on inside runs."

By great reach, they meant his 7-foot 1½-inch wingspan. By "burst," they meant his 4.59 40-yard dash time. Yes, Neil Smith was a physical freak, doing all that at 260 pounds.

However, new economics in the NFL caused a change in Smith's career. With a still-new salary cap, the Chiefs couldn't afford both Thomas and Smith. They had to make a decision to keep one, and in 1997 they chose Thomas. That meant Smith's next stop was Denver where his new coach Mike Shanahan said, "For the last decade I was on the other side . . . designing game plans directed toward Neil."

Smith snagged a pair of Super Bowl rings with the Broncos while producing 19 sacks in three seasons. He also went to his final Pro Bowl there.

So what is Neil Smith's legacy?

Hall-of-Fame voters thought enough of him to put him on the 1990's all-decade team, along with three pass rushers you may know -- Reggie White, Bruce Smith and Chris Doleman.

So he was in good company.

But in addition to the sacks, pressures and glowing comments by coaches and scouts, Smith left a record equal or superior to defensive ends with Gold Jackets. His six Pro Bowls are more than Richard Dent, Fred Dean and Charles Haley and as many as Carl Eller, Jason Taylor, Lee Roy Selmon and Claude Humphrey. He was also a consensus All-Pro as many times as Charles Haley and Fred Dean and more times than Elvin Bethea and Ed Sprinkle. 

Not only that, but he has the added credential of changing the game -- an often nebulous criterion you read when supporters promote someone for the Hall. Some of them are true, but often the claim is dubious.

With Smith, it's legit. 

When he played, a defender could move prior to the snap, but an offensive lineman could not. So, Smith figured he'd take advantage by twitching or making a movement to cause the tackle in front of him to flinch ... resulting in a five-yard motion penalty. At least it was until 1998 when the NFL enacted "Neil Smith Rule," prohibiting a defender from making a sudden motion to draw an opposing lineman offside.

Now, it's a penalty on the defender.

Should Neil Smith be inducted? That's up to voters. But that's not the question here. Someone who was all-decade, All-Pro once, second-team All-Pro three times and All-AFC four times ... voted to six Pro Bowls ... produced over 100 career sacks and forced 31 fumbles ... at the very least should be discussed once before he's sent to the seniors category.

Well, the time is now, and the clock is ticking.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Book Review: The NFL's 60-Minute Men: All-Time Greats of the Two-Way Player Era, 1920-1945

By John Turney
A new book by Chris Willis drops on Friday, and I know what you're thinking: Who's Chris Willis? Good question. He's one of the foremost pro football historians, as well as the head archivist and producer at NFL Films and someone who won an Emmy for his work on HBO's "Hard Knox" series.

In short, he's a pro football encyclopedia ... and memo to Hall-of-Fame voters: His new book is proof.

It's entitled "The NFL's 60-Minute Men: All-Time Greats of the Two-Way Player Era, 1920-1945," and it's a foray into the best players in the first two-and-a-half decades of the National Football League. Included are biographies of Willis' top 45 players from that era, with names you know -- such as Dutch Clark, Red Grange, Bronko Nagursk and Don Hutson -- and some you may not, like Joe Kopcha, Charley Brock and Father Lumpkin.

Willis ranks them from top to bottom and makes the case for each, with the help of interviews he did or collected from other works, as well as all-time teams picked by the players themselves ... and let me explain: If, for instance, Curly Lambeau or Mel Hein picked teams, they could ... and often would .. be part of Willis' analyses. He also uses quotes, available statistics, All-Pro teams and other criteria to come to his conclusions.

To describe it as comprehensive would be an understatement. 

In addition, Willis reviews each season from 1920-37 and picks a "Retro-MVP," someone who should've been the MVP in, say, 1922 or 1927, and re-evaluates league winners from 1938-45 -- the years prior to the creation of the official NFL Most Valuable Player award.

All of his choices are supported by impeccable research (the list of sources, end notes, bibliography and index are 21 pages alone), and maybe you agree with them; maybe you don't. But you can't say Willis didn't do his homework.

He did. And then some.

For Hall-of-Fame voters, especially those on the seniors' committee,  the final chapter is noteworthy. That's because Willis picks his All-Time two-way team -- both a first-and second-team -- which could serve as a resource for future debates on pre-World War II stars. Because of his access to old films, Willis is in a unique position to make his picks have special gravitas.

Best of all, the book is entertaining, with most of the chapters having photos to accompany the text. It's an educational experience where you're guided through an era too often forgotten, but it doesn't read like a textbook. You're introduced to the players, discover what drew them to the pro game and hear what their peers thought of them and why history should remember them.

That's one reason I recommend it. The other is the author: Chris Willis is so noteworthy that the Pro Football Hall of Fame picked him for the "blue-ribbon panel" that chose its Centennial Class of 2020. Furthermore, he's the author of eight previous books,  with biographies of Dutch Clark, Grange, Nagurski and Joe Carr among his pre-World War II (and even pre-NFL)  subjects. 

I guess what I'm saying is that, if you care about NFL history, you should read his latest work. I strongly believe it becomes one of the iconic volumes on the great two-way players of the early days of the NFL -- ones with nicknames like "Dutch," "Tuffy," "Ace," "Whizzer," "Slingin' Sammy" and "Blood" and who played in leather helmets on dirt and rock fields.

And, of course, who played both ways.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Tale of Three Defensive Backs

by Jeffrey J. Miller

We here at the Pro Football Journal take great pleasure in occasionally presenting subject matter that is—as our description states--truly “esoteric.” My colleagues (John, Coach, Nick, Chris and Eric) have an uncanny knack for providing fascinating stories with information you, gentle reader, will not find anywhere else.  I am proud to be included among these exceptional historians and do my best to keep pace with their prodigious and informative output. 

So, in the interest of esoterica, I would like to talk about a happening that I believe occurred only once in the history of the National Football League. During the years 1972 through 1980, three men served as the Buffalo Bills’ defensive backfield coach: Billy Atkins, Richie McCabe and Jim Wagstaff. 

What is unusual about this is the fact that all three of these men were teammates on the Buffalo Bills during the team’s first two years as members of the American Football League and, even more interestingly, were all members of the same position group (defensive back).  

Jim Wagstaff  -  Billy Atkins  -  Richie McCabe
When the Buffalo Bills joined the upstart American Football League in 1959, owner Ralph C. Wilson hired Buster Ramsey, to be the team’s first head coach.  Bringing with him a reputation as a defensive guru, it is not surprising that Ramsey prioritized that side of the ball when piecing his roster together. 

He was able to do so by bringing in a group of defensive backs whose resumes included experience on NFL rosters, including Atkins (San Francisco), McCabe (Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins), Wagstaff (Chicago Cardinals) and Billy Kinard (Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers).  As a result, the Bills finished a solid third in overall defense in 1960. 

Our story picks up in 1972, when Lou Saban hired Billy Atkins to tutor the Bills defensive secondary.  Atkins had been a classic multi-threat performer at Auburn University where he played fullback, linebacker and punter. He led the Tigers to a National Championship in 1957 and was rewarded with the team’s Most Valuable Player award. He was drafted by San Francisco in the 5th round in 1958 and played two seasons with the 49ers before signing on as a free agent with the Buffalo Bills of the new American Football League in 1960. 

Atkins never missed a start in two years with the Bills, and by his second year was recognized as one of the league’s best defensive backs. After playing much of the 1960 season as a corner, Atkins was moved to free safety in 1961 and led the AFL with 10 interceptions, earning First-Team All-AFL honors for his efforts. 

Despite his stellar defensive play and leading the loop in punting both years, Ace was traded to the New York Titans in 1963. He retired from active duty after the 1964 season and spent six years as the head coach at Troy State University where he led the Trojans to an overall record of 44-16-2, including an NAIA championship in 1968.

After Lou Saban returned as head coach of the Bills in 1972, he turned to Atkins to oversee the defensive backfield. The Bills had been a laughingstock for several seasons, but it wasn’t long before their fortunes were turning as they improved from 4-10 in 1972 to 9-5 in 1973 and again in 1974 when they reached the post-season for the first time since 1966. 

When Atkins left Saban’s staff in January 1976 to become the defensive backfield coach with the San Francisco 49ers, Saban tapped Richie McCabe to fill the void. This would actually be McCabe’s third stint with the Bills, having also been a member of Joe Collier’s coaching staff 1966-68. 

Like Atkins, McCabe had been a member of the Bills’ inaugural squad, signing as a free agent with club after spending parts of four NFL seasons between the Pittsburgh Steelers (who had drafted him in the 22nd round in 1955) and the Washington Redskins.  After a standout campaign in 1960 in which he was selected All-AFL by the Associated Press, McCabe’s career came to a screeching halt with a devastating knee injury in 1961. 

New Head Coach Jim Ringo, who had taken over for Saban midway through the disastrous 1976 campaign, promoted McCabe to the dual posts of Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backfield Coach in February 1977. 

That season proved a dismal failure as the Bills finished 3-11 and owner Ralph Wilson hired highly touted Chuck Knox away from the Los Angeles Rams as the team’s new head coach. Ringo’s entire staff, McCabe included, was let go as Knox sought to bring in his own guys. 

Which brings us to Jim Wagstaff.  Wagstaff had been coaching the secondary under Knox for five seasons. He was invited to join his good friend in Buffalo, making him the third straight former member of the original Buffalo Bills’ defensive backfield to man the position. 

Wagstaff was a standout defensive performer at Idaho State prior to being drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 21st round in 1958. Wagstaff failed to make the Lions’ lineup and spent the 1959 season with the Chicago Cardinals before casting his lot with the AFL Bills in 1960. He was named Second-Team All-AFL after pilfering six enemy passes that first year. He missed just a single game in his two seasons with the Bills.

After coaching at the high school and college levels for the next several years, Wagstaff was hired by Chuck Knox as the Rams’ secondary coach in 1973. Under Wags’ guidance, the Rams led the league in interceptions in 1976 and the team won five straight division titles.

 In his first year as the Bills’ DB helmsman, the Bills yielded a league-best 104.0 yards per game.  Wagstaff spent three seasons tutoring the Bills’ defensive backs (1978-80), the last of which saw the Bills return to the playoffs for the first time since 1974. 

He left the team in February 1981 to become the defensive secondary coach with the San Diego Chargers. (Note: The streak of succession ended when Knox hired Ralph Hawkins as Jim Wagstaff's replacement. Though Hawkins was not a former Bills player, he had served the team before as a defensive assistant during the John Rauch administration, 1969-70).   

So there we have it. This is believed to be the only time in NFL history that three men from the same team and position group subsequently served that team in the same post in succession.   

Thursday, March 7, 2024

The 1980-2000-ish Non-HOF team

By John Turney 
After picking my all-star teams from three eras (1920-40, 1940-60 and 1960-80) of elite players not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I'm ready for my last installment.

I'm ready for 1980-2000.

But before we get started, full disclosure: I'm not going to be too particular about some overlap, meaning there might be someone who played in the late 1970s or early 2000s. Also, there are some players who still have modern-era eligibility, albeit short. The vast majority, however, are in the senior category.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's see who they are.

First-team—Jay Hilgenberg
Second-team—Kent Hull

A consistent All-Pro and Pro Bowler, Jay Hilgenberg might be the most decorated center not in the Hall of Fame. After being all-league in the USFL, Kent Hull became the anchor for the offensive lines that blocked for Buffalo's Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas. 

First-team—Steve Wisniewski and Randy Cross
Second-team—Bill Fralic and Nate Newton

Wisniewski has two more shots to have his case heard by the Hall's board of selectors, but he's yet to be a semifinalist ... which is perplexing. He was All-Pro in 1990 (PFWA), 1991 (AP, PFWA, NEA, TSN), 1992 (AP, PFWA, NEA, TSN), 1993 (PFWA, TSN), and 1994 (TSN). Plus, he was second-team All-Pro in 1995, 1996 and 2000. He was all-decade for the 1990s and an eight-time invitee to Hawaii.

Cross's career reached back to the 1970s, but his individual honors were in the 1980s. He was the most decorated of the offensive linemen in the 49ers' dynasty.

In the first half of his career, Bill Fralic's career included three All-Pro selections (1986-88), but there were virtually no "alls" in the second. Nevertheless, it was enough to make the 1980s' all-decade second team. 

Big Nate Newton gets lost among Cowboys' linemen and some post-career legal trouble, but he has solid credentials for a Hall-of-Fame discussion.

First-team—Mike Kenn and Joe Jacoby
Second-team—Lomas Brown and Richmond Webb

Though he started 17 years in the NFL, the Falcons' Mike Kenn has had little Hall-of-Fame consideration ... and maybe that's because of Atlanta's lack of success. Granted, he played on good teams early, and he played on them late in his career. But in the middle -- a long middle -- the Falcons weren't close to being a contender. 

But that shouldn't disguise the fact that Kenn was the best pass blocker at left tackle not named Anthony Munoz during his time in the NFL.

The top "Hog", Joe Jacoby gained serious consideration for the Hall in 2016 when he was as top-ten finalist. But he failed to break through the next two years before disappearing into the deep end of the senior pool. Jacoby unselfishly moved from left to right tackle in 1989 to accommodate Jim Lachey -- a move, apparently, that some voters considered a demotion. But it wasn't, according to coach Joe Gibbs.

Lomas Brown's 18-year career creeps into the Hall's modern era. Like Wisniewski and Kenn. he's never been a finalist, but his seven Pro Bowls suggest he should be. The same is true for Richmond Webb, a seven-time Pro Bowler and all-decade choice.

The Hall's board of selectors can remedy the Brown and Webb situations by pushing them as finalists before their eligibility expires in 2027. At least then their cases will have been heard.

First-team—Todd Christensen
Second-team—Mark Bavaro

Christensen was the most productive tight end of this era on a per-game basis and was All-Pro, Pro Bowl and a key part of the 1983 Raiders' team.

When tight ends were getting more and more involved in the passing game (think Kellen Winslow, Ozzie Newsome and Christensen), Bavaro was a throwback tight end akin to Mike Ditka, John Mackey or Dave Casper -- players asked to block defensive ends and linebackers to make running games effective.

First-team—Boomer Esiason
Second-team—Randall Cunningham

What? Boomer Esiason? 

Well, it's like this:  Among non-Hall quarterbacks, Eaiason threw for the most yards and touchdowns in this 20-year period. He also was an MVP, won an NFL passing title and has one AFC championship victory to his credit.

So where was his shot as a finalist? It wasn't. It never happened.

Then there's Randall Cunningham, a player ahead of his time. He was the PFWA MVP in 1990 and the NEA MVP in 1998. Plus, three times he was runner-up in the AP MVP voting.

First-team—Roger Craig and Ricky Watters
Second-team—Eddie George and Ottis Anderson

Craig took rushing and receiving by a running back to a new level in 1988 when he had over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and was the league's Offensive Player of the Year. He was the 49ers' top running back when they won three Super Bowls from 1984-89.

Among non-Hall-of-Fame backs from 1980-2000, Ricky Watters ran for the most yards, had the second-most rushing touchdowns and went to the most Pro Bowls.

Eddie George has been a modern-era semifinalist twice in the last three years, so he's beginning to gain support. His career extended to 2004, tied for the latest of any of the players I picked, which means he has five years of modern-era eligibility left. But I'm not sure that's enough to get him into the room with voters. 

Ottis Anderson had two careers: one as an elite Pro Bowl running back and the other as a late-career pounder who was the MVP in the 1990 Giants' Super Bowl win.

Second-team—Henry Ellard and Herman Moore

Things are beginning to move for Sharpe after his short career was ended by a neck injury, mostly because of recent inductions of players in similar situations (think Terrell Davis, Tony Boselli and Patrick Willis). Reportedly, he was among the final six senior finalists for the Class of 2023 and is one of the favorites for next year.

Morgan began his Patriots' career as the ultimate deep threat, averaging 22.5 yards a catch in his first six seasons before becoming more involved in the short-and-intermediate passing game.

At first, Henry Ellard was an elite punt returner. Then he developed into an elite wide receiver and ended his career with 13,777 receiving yards. Herman Moore, meanwhile, was a three-time consensus All-Pro -- the same number as Sterling Sharpe. 

Wes Chandler Mark Clayton, Irving Fryar and others could have been picked. They all had strong aspects to their cases.  

First-team—Mark Gastineau and Neil Smith
Second-team—Leslie O'Neal and Bubba Baker

The induction of Dwight Freeney opens the door for elite pass rushers were weren't particularly accomplished vs. the run -- which means it opens the door for the Jets' Gastineau.

In the early 1980s, he had huge sack seasons and was a three-time consensus All-Pro. But he was controversial because of off-the-field behavior and because some teammates and opponents criticized him for not playing the run. 

True or not, all that hurt his Hall chances.

People need to remember how good Neil Smith was.  As a strong-side end, he was counted on to stop the run, which he did. But he also had over 100 career sacks. Furthermore, in the eight years he teamed with Hall-of-Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas, he had more pressures and even led the NFL in sacks in 1993.

Leslie O'Neal was such a tactician with his pass-rush moves that he made it an art. He also turned them into 132-1/2 career sacks, or as many as Lawrence Taylor. 

If you count unofficial sacks -- those prior to 1982 -- Al "Bubba" Baker totaled 131 -- including 23 as a rookie -- and would've twice led the NFL.

First-team—Fred Smerlas (nose) and Michael Dean Perry
Second-team—Bob Baumhower (nose) and Ray Childress

As a pure 3-4 nose tackle, Smerlas was elite, going to five Pro Bowls (no pure nose tackle had more) and playing 14 years. 

Michael Dean Perry, the Fridge's (William Perry) younger brother, was usually on All-Pro teams that had some form or players/coaches and executives involved. He was someone who, along with sacks, made scores of tackles in the backfield. In fact, recent reviews of NFL gamebooks show he had more tackles for loss than his career total of sacks (61).

Now that short careers aren't a hindrance, five-time Pro Bowler Bob Baumhower, one of the main "Bs" in the Killer B defense, should be considered. So should the Oilers' Childress, who ended his career as an elite 4-3 defensive tackle. He was explosive off the ball and a complete player. From 1988-93 he received at least some sort of "all" -- either All-Pro, second-team All-Pro or the Pro Bowl.

Another underrated player is Henry Thomas. As someone who played mostly a shade technique over center, he was an effective pass rusher (93-1/2 sacks) and stout vs. the run. And, like Perry, he compiled a surfeit of tackles for loss. He deserves an honorable mention.

First-team—Karl Mecklenburg
Second-team—Hardy Nickerson

The "Albino Rhino," Mecklenburg was more of a hybrid inside linebacker. On passing situations, he'd usually move from inside linebacker to defensive end or tackle ... and he was reliable no matter where he was positioned. He was a three-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler.

Nickerson was a more traditional middle/inside linebacker. He played 15 seasons and was All-Pro twice, second-team All-Pro twice and second-team all-decade in the 1990s.

Second-team—Cornelius Bennett and Seth Joyner

Browns' longtime great Clay Matthews was a near-miss in 2021, his only year as a finalist, making the Hall's top ten. But that was the end of the line as a modern-era candidate. 

Wilber Marshall is one of several linebackers from this era with decorated careers but who, because they weren't edge rushers, had paltry sack totals. Unfortunately, it was pass-rushing outside linebackers whom Hall voters favored. But Marshall was someone who could get over 100 tackles, five sacks and five interceptions in the same season.

Cornelius Bennett began his career as the "rush-type" 'backer but transitioned into an off-the-ball 'backer and an all-decade choice. Like Marshall, Joyner was an outside linebacker who could cover as well as a safety and blitz effectively. In fact, he played a little bit of safety in his time.

The 1991 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Pat Swilling ended his career with 107-1/2 sacks and was a four-time first-or-second-team All-Pro. One problem:  the Saints' famed Dome Patrol linebacker already has two Hall of Famers in Rickey Jackson and Sam Mills. It's hard to see voters putting in a third, but I'll give him an honorable mention.

Matt Blair was caught between eras, but his elite seasons were in the late-1970s and early-1980s. So I put him here as an honorable mention, too.

First-team—Louis Wright and Albert Lewis
Second-team—Everson Walls and Eric Allen

A strong-side corner who could cover, play the run and hit, the Broncos' Louis Wright had elite seasons in the late-1970s and a career that extended well into the 1980s. That's the good. The bad? He couldn't catch. He dropped countless interceptions, one reason why he played defense instead of offense. Nevertheless, he was good enough to be a four-time All-Pro (twice consensus), a five-time Pro Bowler and a second-team slot on the 1970's all-decade team.

Albert Lewis did all that ... and then some. He's the best pure punt blocker ever. A 2023 Hall-of-Fame finalist in his final year of eligibility, he had enough support to reach the final 10. Then, after bowing out, he reappeared seven months later as a senior semifinalist -- a testament to how much voters thought of him.

Everson Walls and Eric Allen both were ballhawks, with the two among the interception leaders at any position in this era. Walls had three NFL interception titles, while Allen had one season with four pick-sixes and another with three.

Walls was a finalist in 2018 but didn't survive the first cut. Allen was a finalist this year and also didn't make it from 15 to 10. However, he's not finished. He has two years of eligibility left as a modern-era candidate.

The Seahawks' Dave Brown's career reaches back to the 1970s, but his 62 interceptions must be noted for this reason: It was 65 career interceptions that carried Ken Riley into the Hall of Fame last year, and Brown is only three behind. So I've made him an honorable mention.

First-team—Nolan Cromwell and Tim McDonald
Second-team—Deron Cherry and Eugene Robinson

Three All-Pros and a 1980 UPI Defensive Player of the Year combined with any eye test puts Cromwell at the top of his era's non-Hall-of-Fame safeties -- with McDonald, who had some sort of "all" eight consecutive years, including six Pro Bowls

I know Robinson wasn't honored much, but he picked off more passes than any safety not in Canton in this 20-year period. Additionally, there are a handful of safeties I like that could have been chosen, including Carnell Lake, Gary Fencik, Joey Browner and maybe Dennis Smith.

First-team—Nick Lowery
Second-team—Gary Anderson

If in-context kicking metrics mattered, Lowery would be in the Hall. He was as far ahead of his peers as Justin Tucker is now. In last week's article, we mentioned the analytics work done by Rupert Patrick and Chase Stuart on this subject, and they confirm Lowery's value.

Gary Anderson was also a kicker far more accurate than his peers, according to both Patrick and Stuart. But the missed field goal in the 1998 NFC championship game (his only miss that season) has dogged him. He was a reliable clutch kicker, but people remember the biggest (and rare) miss in a must-make situation.

First-team—Reggie Roby
Second-team—Sean Landeta

Yes, I picked Reggie Roby over Sean Landeta, and, yes, Landeta beat Roby out for first-team on the 1980's all-decade team. But it probably should have been Roby on the first team. 

The Dolphins' watch-wearing boomer had a better net average, better hang time, better in almost all of the the punting metrics. Just better overall.

In fact, if I were picking the top punters of the era, Landeta may not even be second in terms of net and avoiding negative plays -- i.e., limiting returns and touchdowns. But you have to recognize his place on the second unit of the 1990's all-decade team.

First-team—Mel Gray
Second-team—Brian Mitchell

Mel Gray took six kicks and three punts back for scores. Plus, he was a consensus All-Pro three times, the NFL's leading kicker returner twice and its leading punt returner twice.

Going by career totals, Brian Mitchell has more yards in combined returns than anyone in league history as well as 13 total returns for touchdowns. However, his peak was not as high as Gray's, so he's my second-team choice.

Eric Metcalf gets an honorable mention here. He's right on the heels of both Gray and Mitchell in terms of scores, averages and postseason honors.

First-team—Steve Tasker
Second-team—Hank Bauer

Tasker has had Hall-of-Fame support (he was a nine-time semifinalist) and rightfully so. If you were to go with a special teams ace, he'd be the leading candidate. But now his chances for election seem low because of his failure to become a modern-era finalist. If he didn't make it then, why would he be a finalist as a senior?

The Chargers' Bauer was such an effective kick-cover guy that he set a record that will never be broken: In 1981 he made 52 special-teams tackles. But he didn't block kicks, and he played just six seasons. 

A player who made almost as many game-changing plays (blocked kicks, forced and recovered fumbles) was Michael Bates. He also had the added value of being an excellent kickoff returner.

One more note: Don't sleep on someone named Ivory Sully. Almost no one knows about him, but his big-play total rivals both Tasker and Bates.

Monday, March 4, 2024

Top Seasons By Rams Receivers

 By John Turney 
It didn't matter where the Rams were located. Cleveland? St. Louis? L.A.? It didn't matter. They always seemed to have some of the league's best running backs, with Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Steven Jackson, Todd Gurley, Lawrence McCutcheon and Dick Bass among them.

But they had an equally accomplished cast of receivers, too, and they starred on offenses that were so productive they had their own nicknames ... like the "Point a Minute" and "Greatest Show on Turf." But who among those receivers had the best single seasons?

You're about to find out.

Not the best careers mind you. This is not an all-time Rams' team. It's a career-year team, taking the best season by all receivers who wore Rams' jerseys -- whether they played a couple of years or their entire careers with the franchise -- and ranking the top 20.

Here's how they stack up.

Eddie Kennison
20. Eddie Kennison, 1996—In the 1996 NFL draft, the St. Louis Rams passed on Syracuse wide receiver Marvin Harrison and selected Kennison, a 4.4 speedster out of LSU. The Rams' brain trust thought Harrison was too much the same "type" of receiver as Isaac Bruce.

And that was a bad thing ... how?

Nevertheless, Kennison did have a good rookie season, with 54 receptions, 924 receiving yards (17.1 avg.) and nine touchdown receptions. He also gets bonus points for being an excellent punt returner, taking two to the house.

He was All-Rookie, fourth in the NFL Offensive Rookie-of-the Year voting and pulled down two NFC Player of the Week awards -- one for special teams (Week 11) and one for offense in Week 16 when he caught five passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns.

Kennison never panned out as a Ram but had some decent seasons in Kansas City under Dick Vermeil.

Bet they wished they'd grabbed Harrison. 

Ron Jessie
19. Ron Jessie, 1976—More of an eye-test guy than many of those on this list. Yes, in 1976 he was voted to his only Pro Bowl, but it wasn't the quantity of his 34 catches; it was the quality -- many of which were circus grabs. 

He averaged 22.9 (third in the NFL) yards a catch and, as the receiver playing opposite Harold Jackson on the NFC's top-scoring offense, posed a challenge for defenses.

His top game was in the season's fourth game, in Miami, and Jessie caught seven passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-28 victory over the Dolphins. 

Bernie Casey
18. Bernie Casey, 1967—The Rams turned the corner in 1966 after a string of consecutive losing seasons. Then, in 1967 they made a charge, winning the NFL Coastal Divison and reaching the playoffs game for the first time since 1955.

Casey was a part of that.

George Allen acquired Casey in the offseason from the Falcons for running back Tom Moore (Casey has been shipped to Atlanta as part of a multi-player trade that landed quarterback Steve Spurrier) and the future Hollywood actor responded with 53 catches for 871 and eight touchdowns. He also received the only Pro Bowl invite of his career.

Casey caught a touchdown pass in late-season games vs. the Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Colts -- victories that sealed the division title -- and was the only Rams' player to score in their 28-7 loss to Green Bay in the opening round of the playoffs.

Jim Phillips
17. Jim "Red" Phillips, 1961—Phillips was a first-team All-Pro in his career year and a Pro Bowler who became the fourth receiver in Rams' history to lead the NFL in receptions. He had 78, and his 1,092 receiving yards were third-most in the NFL.

The Rams were bad (4-10), but "Red" was good.

Tommy McDonald
16. Tommy McDonald, 1965—The Hall-of-Famer became the Rams' flanker after spending 1964 in Dallas and was so good that he finished second in voting for NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

The effusive and maskless McDonald caught 67 passes for 1,036 and nine touchdowns. He was third in the NFL in receiving yardage and sixth in touchdown catches. It was his last great season and he was rewarded with his final Pro Bowl.

Bucky Pope
15. Bucky Pope, 1964—The "Catawba Claw" as he was known (one of Steve Sabol's favorite nicknames) wasn't particularly fast, but he did have sneaky speed. And that, coupled with a basketball player's height (he was 6-foot-5), allowed him to go deep on NFL defensive backs.

Though he caught only 25 passes for the season, 10 went for touchdowns -- enough to tie for the NFL lead. Even more noteworthy, however, with 25 receptions he averaged 31.4 yards. 

Thirty-one point four. 

He didn't have enough catches to qualify for the league lead (the minimum was 28), but, if you look at all NFL players with 25 or more receptions in a season, his yards-per-catch figure is tops in NFL
Robert Woods
14. Robert Woods, 2018—"Bobby Trees" had good numbers (86-1,219-14.2-6), but that's not what made him a great player; it was how vital he was to Sean McVay's offense with his blocking and motion. 

His skill set allowed the Rams to say in "11 personnel" (three wide receivers) a majority of the time, though they could still run effectively because of how well receivers could block.

Woods was the best at that.

Jack Snow
13. Jack Snow, 1967—This was a difficult decision. Snow was a consistent player who didn't put up huge numbers but was always a solid split end.

His top year statistically was 1970 when he caught 51 passes for 859 yards and seven touchdowns. I know, that doesn't sound like much, but in a 17-game season it prorates to over 1,000 yards.

But 1970 is not the pick. I'm going with 1967, his Pro Bowl year. 

And not because of the Pro Bowl (which was his only one) but because of his league-leading 26.3 yards per catch. Plus, 1967 was the season of his highlight-reel snag when he grabbed the back half of the ball in Baltimore.

It wasn't the only one that year. He had another one like it in Detroit.

Snow was Roman Gabriel's deep threat in 1967, delivering on his claim never to have been caught from behind.

Flipper Anderson
12. Flipper Anderson, 1989—While we are on a yards-per-catch roll, there's Flipper's 1989 season when he averaged a league-leading 26.0 yards on 44 receptions.

Yes, a lot of his 1,146 receiving yards were built on his record-setting 336 yards receiving vs. New Orleans. But if you throw out that game, he still averaged 27.9 yards a catch.

Flipper could get deep. He led the NFL in yards per catch the next year and finished his career with a 20.1-yard average.

Del Shofner
11. Del Shofner, 1958—After spending a year as a defensive back, Shofner was moved to receiver and ended up leading the NFL with 1,097 receiving yards. He did it on 51 catches and averaged 21.9 yards per catch (Sensing a yards-per-catch theme among here? The Rams have had some of the best deep-receiving seasons on the books).

The tall, slender Shofner was also a consensus All-Pro and Pro Bowler -- the first of five such seasons in his career before leg injuries slowed him in the mid-1960s.

Puka Nacua
10. Puka Nacua, 2023. The rookie out of BYU worked his way into the Top Ten last season with 105 catches and 1,486 yards receiving. At first, he filled in for an injured Cooper Kupp. But after Kupp returned, the rookie was still a focus of the Rams' passing game.

He broke a litany of long-standing records, was named a second-team All-Pro and was voted to the Pro Bowl. 

Tom Fears
9. Tom Fears, 1950—The Hall-of-Fame end set an NFL single-season record for receptions with 84, breaking one he set the previous season. In the season final against the Packers Fears set the NFL record for receptions in a game with 18 -- a record that stood until 2000 when Terrell Owens broke it.

Along with his receptions, Fears' 1,116 receiving yards also led the NFL. Accordingly, he was a consensus All-Pro and was also named to the Pro Bowl, which was reinstated after a seven-year absence.

Henry Ellard
8. Henry Ellard, 1988—Ellard had been an All-Pro as a punt returner in 1984, but in this, his career year of 1988, he led the league in receiving yards (1,414) and was named an All-Pro. He also produced a career-high 86 receptions and 10 receiving touchdowns.

Bob Boyd
7. Bob Boyd, 1954—He's not a familiar name, but Bob Boyd deserves to be seventh on this list.

An NCAA sprint champion and part of the 1954 Rams' three-receiver offense, he had the best season of the three -- which is noteworthy considering the other two were Hall-of-Famers.

Boyd is another Ram who led the NFL in receiving yards (did I say they could throw the rock?) and his 22.9 yards per catch were second in the NFL. All told, he had 53 catches for 1,212 yards and six touchdowns. And he did it in a 12-game season.

Boyd was rewarded as a consensus All-Pro and went to the only Pro Bowl of his career.

Torry Holt
6. Torry Holt, 2003—A league-leading 117 receptions, career-high 1,696 yards and 12 TDs made Holt a consensus All-Pro and Pro Bowler. However, 2003 was not an automatic choice. 

I looked hard at 2000. 

That year he averaged a league-best 19.9 yards per catch on 82 receptions and put up 1,635 receiving yards. Trust me, there aren't many seasons where someone averages almost 20 yards on that many receptions. In fact, among pro players with 80 or more catches in a single season, only one player averaged more yards per reception -- Charley Hennigan of the 1961 Houston Oilers.

Ultimately, though, I went with 2003 when he was the NFL Alumni Wide Receiver of the Year.

Harold Jackson
5. Harold Jackson, 1973—The diminutive Jackson (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) didn't post monster numbers. He couldn't. That's because his coach, "Ground" Chuck Knox, liked to pound the ball -- with the Rams leading the NFL in rushing attempts and yards.

However, when they did throw, Harold Jackson was the target.

Though he didn't have prodigious numbers for the season, he did in Week Five against the Dallas Cowboys when he was the NFL Offensive Player of the Week. On that October afternoon, he caught seven passes for 238 yards and four TDs. 

That game ended Charlie Waters' career as a cornerback. Waters was assigned to Jackson most of the day and couldn't keep up with him. So he was moved back to his natural position of safety.

In 1973, Jackson was a consensus All-Pro, Pro Bowler and even won some votes for AP Offensive Player of the Year. Granted, he only caught 40 passes, but 13 went for touchdowns and he averaged 21.9 yards per catch.

Isaac Bruce
4. Isaac Bruce, 1995—Ike got almost no "alls" in 1995 -- his highest honor was second-team All-NFC -- but he deserved better. He put up record-breaking numbers that season, setting Rams' marks for receptions (119) and yards (1,781), with 13 of his catches going for TDs.

Bruce was the NFC Offensive Player in Week 7, but his best game was the season finale when he caught 15 passes for 210 yards.

He had other years considered as career seasons, especially 1999 and 2000, but 1995 -- when he played without an elite receiver like Torry Holt and didn't have an MVP-caliber quarterback like Kurt Warner -- is my pick.

Jim Benton
3. Jim Benton, 1945—Benton was rookie MVP Bob Waterfield's main target when the Cleveland Rams won the NFL title in 1945. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound two-way end caught 45 passes including eight for touchdowns, for a league-leading 1,067 yards and a whopping average of 23.7 yards a catch. 

In a November game in Detroit, Benton set the NFL record for yards receiving in a game with 303 on ten catches one being a touchdown in a 28-21 win over the Lions.

Then he caught nine more balls for 125 yards and a touchdown in the championship game as Cleveland defeated Washington 15-14.

There was no Pro Bowl in that era, but Benton was a consensus first-team All-Pro and supplanted Don Hutson as the best end in the NFL ... at least for that year.

If you're wondering why someone with just over 1,000 yards receiving is third on my list, I look at it this way: If you prorate his performance over 17 games -- the current length of an NFL season -- Benton would have gone over 2,000 yards.

Enough said.

Cooper Kupp
2. Cooper Kupp, 2021—Kupp was a receiving Triple Crown winner in his career year, leading the NFL in receiving, yards and touchdowns. But that's just the beginning. He was a consensus All-Pro, a Pro Bowler the NFL Offensive Player of the Year and twice the NFC Offensive Player of the Month.

Furthermore, he set franchise records with 145 catches and 1,947 receiving yards (each second-best in NFL history) and caught 16 touchdown passes. Not bad for someone who ran a 4.62 at the 2017 NFL scouting combine. 

The grandson of 1969 Pro Bowl guard Jake Kupp, Cooper kept it up in the postseason, as well, with 33 catches for 478 yards and six touchdowns. He was also named the Super Bowl LVI MVP after catching the game-winning pass in a 23-20 win over the Bengals.

It was an amazing year-long performance, but it was not the best in Rams' history. There's one slightly better.

Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch
1. Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch—"Crazylegs" may have had the best year of any receiver ever in 1951. In a 12-game season, he hauled in 66 passes for 1,495 yards (a 22.7 average) and 17 touchdowns, including a long of 91 yards.

All of those marks led the league, and, yes, you read that right

There have been receivers to achieve a receiving Triple Crown (see Cooper Kupp, above), but what about one who produced a quadruple crown? Add in yards per catch, and Hirsch did it. Or maybe a quintuple crown? Throw in the longest reception of the year, and Hirsch did that, too.

Ten of Hirsch's receptions were for over 40 yards, and six were for 70 yards or more. What's more, only two of his 17 touchdowns were fewer than 19 yards. Plus, 17 TDs tied the NFL mark held by Hall-of-Fame legend Don Hutson, with Hirsch averaging 48.1 yards on each.

Hutson averaged roughly half of that. 

Still not convinced? 

Calculate what his season totals would have been in a 17-game season: 94 receptions, 2,118 yards (still the same 22.7 YPC) and 24 touchdown receptions.

Those are scary numbers.

If you don't like that -- prorating numbers for games he did not play -- fair enough. Then take Cooper Kupp's season and convert it to the 12-game season Hirsch played in 1951. Then his 2021 totals would translate to 102 receptions, 1,374 yards and 11 touchdowns.

A very good season, but nothing like the huge year he had in 17 games.

When evaluating great seasons, I believe that you must consider the era and length of the year for a fair comparison. So I'm not suggesting that Hirsch could do now what he did then. But as someone who likes history, the point is to compare the rarity and greatness of seasons in particular eras -- as well as how they withstand the test of time.

And when you do, I think you'll agree that Crazylegs had the best-ever season by a Rams' receiver -- one that rivals the top seasons of Don Hutson, Jerry Rice or anyone else you care to name.

In 1951, Crazylegs Hirsch put up crazy numbers. 

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Top Players in the 1960-ish to 1980-ish Era Not Yet in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

By John Turney 
After picking teams of Hall-of-Fame worthy players not enshrined from the NFL's first 40 years (1920-40 and 1940-60), I'm ready to take the next step. I'm picking my third two-decade team of Hall-of-Fame outsiders, and it's the toughest exercise yet.

That's because it covers roughly a 20-year period, 1960-80, that spans an era with a new league (the American Football League) and expanding rosters. So what? So that limited spots in each class of the newly created Pro Football Hall of Fame, with an inevitable result: A lot of qualified candidates were omitted.

Well, now it's time to address them, and I will.

As before, I'm not fussy about a player's career fitting exactly in the time frame of 1960-1980. If someone played a few years before 1960 ... or his career extended into the 1980s ... I'm not concerned. They can be included if the majority of their pro football experience was in the 1960s and 1970s.

If you want, we can call it the "1960-ish-to-1980-ish" team.

And, no, not all the players listed are definitively Hall-of-Fame worthy. Some position groups are stronger than others. But as you will see, there are plenty of deserving candidates who check boxes that voters traditionally value -- All-Pro honors, statistics, rings, intangibles and the "eye test."

In addition, I factored in conversations I've had over the years with writers like Paul Zimmerman, John Steadman and Will McDonough, plus people like the late Mike Giddings, Sr., of Proscout, Inc., as well as interviews with former NFL players, many of whom are in the Hall of Fame..

Ready? Me, too. Let's get started.


First-team—Len Hauss
Second-team—Jeff Van Note

No, Hauss was never the best center in pro football during his career. That was usually someone like Jim Otto, Mick Tingelhoff or Jim Langer. But few remember Hauss' consistency. While he may not have been the best, he was always in the top five.

By what measure? In his 14 seasons, he was first-or second-team All-Pro, first-or-second-team All-Conference and/or a Pro Bowl selection 11 times. Granted, his highest honor was first-team on the player's All-Pro team (NEA), but he was second on the AP or PFWA team a handful of seasons.

He never missed a game and started his final 194 -- impressive for a guy who was 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds.

Van Note's 18-year career spanned 1969-86, so his career bleeds into the next decade the most of anyone here. But he belongs in this era even though, like Hauss, he was never the best in the league. But he often was in the upper tier.

First-team—Bob Kuechenberg and Ed White

This is the loaded position for this period.

Let's start with Jim Ray Smith. His career overlaps the 1950s, but he best fits here and is vastly underrated. Though many ardent football fans would have a tough time identifying him, Smith was a four-time All-Pro (three consensus) for some very good Cleveland Browns teams. He's an honorable mention. 

You can throw John Niland into the mix, too, as an honorable mention. He was a six-time Pro Bowler for some great Cowboys' teams. Two AFL guards -- Walt Sweeney and Ed Budde -- could fit here, as well. They went to a combined 16 AFL All-Star Games/Pro Bowls. But I put them on my second-team.

Then there's Doug Wilkerson, the longtime Chargers' stalwart. He could pull, move people in front of him and was a great pass protector. He played for a poor team in the 1970s and didn't get much recognition until the Air Coryell Chargers. Had "Baby Huey" (a nickname given him because of his unnatural strength) played for a contender, he'd have been a 10-time Pro Bowler.

It was difficult leaving Wilkerson out of the top two, but, in the end, I ranked him third-best of this group.

So the two picks are Bob Kuechenberg and Ed White. Their careers extended into the 1980s, but they're most closely tied to what I am calling the NFL's third vicennial. Neither player brought home a surfeit of "alls," though they had some. What they had, however, was the respect of their peers. "Kooch" was the prototype for Hall-of-Famers John Hannah and Joe DeLamielleure, with the two identifying him as the model for how to play guard in the NFL.

White was the classic strongman, often participating in made-for-TV strength competitions and NFLPA arm wrestling contests. Plus. he was versatile. Both he and Kuechenberg could ... and did ... move to offensive tackle when asked to fill in for injured players.

First-team—George Kunz and Jim Tyrer

George Kunz is the top tackle not in Canton from this era. He was elite for a team that was anything but -- the Atlanta Falcons -- then was traded to the Colts where he was part of their 1975-77 resurgence before injuries took their toll.

The other tackle is an odd and tragic case. Chiefs' tackle Jim Tyrer is not in the Hall of Fame because of a 1980 murder/suicide when he took his own life and that of his wife. Their deaths shocked an NFL world decades removed from understanding CTE and its connection to severe depression.

Tyrer's children and his wife's parents have since forgiven him, but the seniors committee has not. Nevertheless, if we're talking about his resume ... and only his resume ... it's beyond reproach.

Russ Washington was a 6-foot-7, 300-plus-pounder overshadowed by Kunz and Hall-of-Fame tackles of the 1970s. But he was the biggest and possibly most athletic individual among all of them. At least, he was according to Jack Youngblood.

Dick Schafrath was a Browns' left tackle, a three-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler who blocked for the immortal Jim Brown.

First-team—Fred Arbanas
Second-team—Russ Francis

Hard to find one. You pick.

Perhaps converted outside receiver Pete Retzlaff? Maybe. Or how about Russ Francis? He's the one who could play. OK. But does his career spill too far into the 1980s to qualify? 

I'm not sure, either, but Fred Arbanas is my pick. He was among one of the best-ever blockers at his position and was the tight end on the All-Time AFL team. So I'll go with him.

After looking at guys like Riley Odoms, Raymond Chester and others, the runner-up is Francis based on what he did in the 1970s. I'd love to see him play today, as he'd be a cross between Travis Kelce and George Kittle.

First-team—Ken Anderson
Second-team—Jack Kemp

There were a few candidates, but. in the end, Ken Anderson edges Jack Kemp, Roman Gabriel and John Brodie. His career bled into the 1980s, but I think of him as a 1970s' player ... even though his MVP season was 1981.

Kemp did not have great passing stats, but he has two AFL championship rings. And Gabriel and Brodie? They get honorable mentions. They had good stats, and each had an NFL MVP to their credit. But, in the final analysis, winning is an important measure for a quarterback, and Kemp got it done. Others did not.

First-team—Chuck Foreman and Larry Brown
Second-team—Abner Haynes and Lydell Mitchell

Larry Brown was an MVP and ran tough, carrying Washington to the 1972 NFC title. The Vikings' Chuck Foreman and his spin move were terrific, but his five Pro Bowls are what get your attention. They're tied for the most of any back from this era not in Canton. 

Foreman was often in the mix as the NFL or NFC Player-of-the-Year Award. He was a 1,000-yard rushing back who consistently challenged for the league lead in pass receptions and was one of the first backs to become a bigger part of pro football's passing game.

The 1960 AFL Player of the Year, Abner Haynes, was one of the top players in the younger league for its first five years. I paired him with Lydell Mitchell, who played mostly for the Colts, as my second-team choice. 

Of all the running backs from 1960-80 not in the Hall of Fame, Mitchell has the most rushing yards and the most yards from scrimmage. Also, among non-HOF running backs, he caught the most passes. I bet you didn't know that.

First-team—Del Shofner and Harold Jackson
Second-team—Art Powell and Otis Taylor

Del Shofner's career began in the late 1950s, but his top years were in the 1960s. The tall, slender Texan was a five-time consensus All-Pro, more than all but Jerry Rice, Don Hutson, and Lance Alworth.

So, who should line up opposite Shofner? Otis Taylor? Art Powell? Lionel Taylor? How about Harold Jackson?

You've read that he led the NFL in the 1970s in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdown receptions, but you can expand that "peak" to include one year of the 1960s and two years of the 1980s -- 1969-81. In those 13 seasons, the diminutive Jackson led the NFL in those same three categories -- catches, yards, scores -- and was fifth in yards per catch.

Not many receivers from his era were that productive in all major categories for that long a period.

Art Powell, the Hall-of-Fame senior finalist voted down for the Hall's Class of 2024, and Otis Taylor are my second-teamers.

First-team—Rich Jackson and Earl Faison
Second-team—L.C. Greenwood and Jim Katcavage

Another deep position with two who had short careers with high peaks -- Rich Jackson and Earl Faison -- and two who excelled on great teams -- L.C. Greenwood of the 1970s' Steelers and Jim Katcavage, who was part of the Sam Huff-led Giants.

My picks are with the high-peak guys, Jackson and Faison.

Jackson was a favorite of Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman, who in 1991 first wrote about his Hall-worthiness in Sports Illustrated, the year Zimmerman joined the Hall's board of selectors. 

"Tombstone" Jackson's knock was not his skills. Those were legendary; it was his lack of longevity -- playing just seven seasons but healthy for only 4-1/2. 

Like Tombstone, Earl "Tree" Faison had a short career. With Jackson, damaged knees failed him; with Faison, it was an injured back that ended his career. He was a four-time All-AFL player in six seasons, and, though regarded as one of the strongest players in pro football, he ran a 4.8 40.

Greenwood was a second-team all-decade choice of the 1970s and a six-time Pro Bowler. His sack total was not as high as some of his contemporaries, but he passed the eye test. Whenever you saw him, he was pressuring quarterbacks. Plus, he played his best in the biggest games, turning in two of the greatest performances by any defensive end in a Super Bowl in IX and X.

Katcavage had some monster years in the early 1960s. 

First-team—Tom Sestak and Roger Brown
Second-team—Larry Brooks and Ernie Ladd

Like Jackson and Faison, Tom Sestak is another AFl defensive lineman who had a short career but a super-high peak.

The Bills' star was somewhat of a cross between Bob Lilly and Merlin Olsen -- bigger and probably stronger than Lilly and quicker than Olsen -- but his seven-year career excluded him from any realistic chance for the Hall. That's not true today, but Sestak's name was long out of consideration when others with short careers (Ken Easley, Terrell Davis and Tony Boselli) were enshrined.

Roger Brown was dominant at times, and, at 300-ish pounds, was one of the biggest defensive tackles of the era with great quickness. He went to six Pro Bowls, and recent research shows he produced double-digit sacks four times.

The other second-team tackle on my team is the L.A. Rams' Larry Brooks, who received some sort of "all" every year from 1974-80 except one. That was 1975 when he missed half the season with a knee injury.

Ernie Ladd is next in line. When "The Big Cat" turned it on, he was elite. He teamed with Faison on the Chargers defensive line -- dubbed "The Fearsome Foursome" before that moniker stuck with the Los Angeles Rams.

The problem with Ladd was that he didn't always "turn it on". At 6-feet-9 inches and over 300 pounds (listed at 290, but he was closer to 315 or more), he could've been one of the best ever.

First-team—Tommy Nobis
Second-team—Bill Bergey

Tommy Nobis beat his brains out for a lot of years in Atlanta and won little thanks for his troubles. Nevertheless, he's been close to Hall election more than once as a senior and still has a shot.

He's followed by Bill Bergey who was a play-making machine. He ended his career with 27 interceptions and 21 fumble recoveries.

I'd be remiss if I didn't name Lee Roy Jordan as an honorable-mention choice. His career total of 32 interceptions is impressive for a middle linebacker.

First-team—Maxie Baughan and Larry Grantham
Second-team—Mike Stratton and Joe Fortunato

First and foremost is Maxie Baughan. He was a smart player who was a nine-time Pro Bowler and earned a NFL championship ring as a rookie.

The AFL's answer to Baughan is Larry Grantham. The man simply made big plays -- with tackles for losses, interceptions, fumble recoveries and quarterback sacks. He was either first-or-second-team All-AFL or chosen to the AFL All-Star Game in every year of the AFL's existence. Plus, he was on the AFL's All-Time team (second-team).

Mike Stratton and Joe Fortunato also have solid cases. Stratton was a top AFL linebacker for years and joined Grantham on the AFL's second All-Time team. Fortunato's career began in the mid-1950s, so he straddles eras. But he has plenty of All-Pro creds, with most of them coming in the 1960s.

First-team—Lemar Parrish and Abe Woodson
Second-team—Dave Grayson and Pat Fischer

Lemar Parrish went to seven Pro Bowls as a cornerback (and one as a returner) and was rated so highly by George Allen that opponents avoided him. The other pick is Abe Woodson who was similar to Parrish. A great cover guy who could return kicks.

Dave Grayson and Pat Fischer are next. Grayson was also an elite safety in addition to being an All-AFL corner. Fischer played 17 years and picked off 56 passes.

First-team—Eddie Meador and Jimmy Patton
Second-team—Jake Scott and Dick Anderson

The Rams' Eddie Meador finally is getting some support from the seniors committee and might be in line as one of its three finalists in 2025. Good. He should be. Meanwhile, Jimmy Patton is largely forgotten, but he shouldn't be. He was a five-time All-Pro with the N.Y. Giants. If you count just AP All-Pro teams, only Jack Christiansen (six) and Johnny Robinson (six) had more. 

Then there's this: Patton had as many as Ronnie Lott, Ed Reed and Larry Wilson. Think about that for a minute. All three were first-ballot choices.

The Dolphins' safety duo of Dick Anderson (1973 AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year) and Jake Scott are the second-team choices. They were ballhawks and excellent tacklers.

First-team—Jim Bakken
Second-team—Garo Yepremian

The late Rupert Patrick, a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association, wrote a book entitled, "A Statistical History of Pro Football", and in it, he developed a metric that allowed for the comparison of kickers across eras. The website Pro Football Perspective did something similar, and both identified -- more or less-- the same kickers as standing out statistically above their peers.

Using those analytics, plus the postseason honors of relevant kickers, I settled on the Cardinals' Jim Bakken as my first-team kicker over Garo Yepremian. Bakken has the additional credential as a clutch kicker, especially in the mid-1970s when the "Cardiac Cards" were squeaking out comeback victories.

First-team—Bobby Joe Green
Second-team—Jerrel Wilson

Bobby Joe Green and Jerrel Wilson are two of the best punters in this era, but, contrary to conventional wisdom, my pick is Green.

"But Wilson was an All-time AFL!" I can hear you say. "He led the AFL or NFL in punting five times. How is he second to Bobby Joe Green?"

Here's how: Green's net punting average was higher. The difference between his gross average and net average was smaller (often a key metric), and he had fewer punts blocked and fewer returned for touchdowns.

No, not all blocked kicks or returns are the punter's fault, but when you dig into the subject you find that some consistently were better at avoiding those super-negative plays than others. So that, combined with a higher net, means that Green was the better strategic punter.

I know, Wilson excelled when the Chiefs were a good team. But much of Green's career occurred after the Bears tailed off so dramatically that they became one of the worst teams in the league. So, it makes sense that he didn't gain the notoriety of the Chiefs' strong-legged thumper.


There's no way to separate Billy "White Shoes" Johnson or Rick Upchurch. You can look at their stats, their film, their all-decade selections or All-Pros/Pro Bowls.

It's a tie. 

Look closely, and you should find (as I did) that their cases cannot be divorced. So they're not. There are two first-team returners, with no one on the second team.