Thursday, May 30, 2024

Texans' John Metchie III Winner of PFWA's 2024 George Halas Award

 By John Turney  

We all teared up. I did. You did. Everyone who watched it did.

Those of a certain age saw the made-for-TV movie "Brian's Song", the 1971 tear-jerking biopic of Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers' friendship when the two were teammates with the Chicago Bears and Sayers made a poignant and emotional speech after he was chosen for a national courage award. 

It was the George Halas Award, awarded annually by the Pro Football Writers Association to the "NFL player, coach or staff member who overcomes the most adversity to succeed." 

I thought about that moment this week when the PFWA named Houston wide receiver John Metchie III as this year's recipient. The 44th overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft, Metchie missed his rookie season to undergo treatment for acute promyelocytic leukemia.

But the Texans' second-year wide receiver fought his way back in 2023 to play 16 games and catch 16 passes for 158 yards. He also had three receptions for 44 yards in Houston's 45-14 shellacking of Cleveland in the playoffs.

Metchie is the 56th recipient of the Halas award. Sayers was the second. One difference: Instead of accepting the award, Sayers gave it to Piccolo -- saying his friend showed more courage in his fight against cancer than Sayers did to overcome a serious knee injury to lead the NFL in rushing.

"Brian Piccolo has never given up," Sayers said when given the award. "He has the heart of a giant, and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent - cancer. He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word 'courage' 24 hours a day, every day of his life.

“You flatter me by giving me this award, but I tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. Brian Piccolo is the man who should receive the George S. Halas Courage Award. It’s mine tonight, but tomorrow it’s Brian Piccolo’s. I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him, too.

"Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.”

Here is the full list of recipients:
1969 — Joe Namath, New York Jets
1970 — Gale Sayers, Chicago Bears
1971 — Tom Dempsey, New Orleans Saints
1972 — Jimmy Johnson, San Francisco 49ers
1973 — Mike Tilleman, Atlanta Falcons
1974 — Dick Butkus, Chicago Bears
1975 — Rocky Bleier, Pittsburgh Steelers
1976 — Billy Kilmer, Washington Redskins
1977 — Tom DeLeone, Cleveland Browns
1978 — Pat Fischer, Washington Redskins
1979 — Bert Jones, Baltimore Colts
1980 — Roger Staubach, Dallas Cowboys
1981 — Rolf Benirschke, San Diego Chargers
1982 — Joe Klecko, New York Jets
1983 — Eddie Lee Ivery, Green Bay Packers
1984 — Ted Hendricks, Los Angeles Raiders
1985 — John Stallworth, Pittsburgh Steelers
1986 — Gary Jeter, Los Angeles Rams
1987 — William Andrews, Atlanta Falcons
1988 — Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers
1989 — Karl Nelson, New York Giants
1990 — Tim Krumrie, Cincinnati Bengals
1991 — Dan Hampton, Chicago Bears
1992 — Mike Utley, Detroit Lions
1993 — Mark Bavaro, Cleveland Browns
1994 — Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers
1995 — Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins
1996 — Larry Brown, Dallas Cowboys
1997 — Jim Harbaugh, Indianapolis Colts
1998 — Mark Schlereth, Denver Broncos
1999 — Dan Reeves, Atlanta Falcons
2000 — Bryant Young, San Francisco 49ers
2001 — Kerry Collins, New York Giants
2002 — Garrison Hearst, San Francisco 49ers
2003 — Robert Edwards, Miami Dolphins
2004 — Sam Mills, Carolina Panthers
2005 — Mark Fields, Carolina Panthers
2006 — Tony Dungy, Indianapolis Colts
2007 — Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
2008 — Kevin Everett, Buffalo Bills
2009 — Matt Bryant, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2010 — Mike Zimmer, Cincinnati Bengals
2011 — Mike Heimerdinger, Tennessee Titans
2012 — Robert Kraft, New England Patriots
2013 — Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis Colts
2014 — O.J. Brigance, Baltimore Ravens
2015 — Steve Gleason, New Orleans Saints
2016 — Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs
2017 — David Quessenberry, Houston Texans
2018 — Marquise Goodwin, San Francisco 49ers
2019 — Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh Steelers
2020 — Travis Frederick, Dallas Cowboys
2021 — Alex Smith, Washington Football Team
2022 — Ron Rivera, Washington Football Team
2023 — Damar Hamlin, Buffalo Bills
2024 — John Metchie III Houston Texans

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Jimmy Patton - Hall of Fame Worthy?

By John Turney 
Soon after former New York Giants' safety Jimmy Patton became eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he died tragically in an automobile accident. Then it wasn't long afterward that he was lost in a queue of Canton-worthy teammates and forgotten.

At least by Hall voters, he was. Instead of fast-tracking Patton's candidacy, they focused more on his former teammates.

Emlen Tunnell was one. He'd been inducted a handful of years earlier (1967). Andy Robustelli was another. He was enshrined in 1971. So was quarterback Y.A. Tittle, who played longer in San Francisco but was known more for his career with the Giants.

Then there was Roosevelt Brown, enshrined in 1975 after four tries. Two years later, it was Frank Gifford's turn. There were so many Giants that Sam Huff wasn't a finalist until some of his former teammates went off the board. Nevertheless, in 1982 he joined them. 

Quarterback Charlie Conerly was a finalist nearly every year in the 1970s, but he was never elected. Still, he took up a lot of oxygen in the room  But if you add senior inductees Ray Flaherty (1976), Red Badgro (1981) and Arnie Weinmeister (1984), that's nine Giants enshrined from 1967-84.

Maybe now you see how Jimmy Patton got lost. There was a Big Blue tidal wave. But that doesn't explain why he's never been re-discovered. He's Hall-of-Fame worthy and deserves to have his case heard. Why? Because he was one of the best safeties in the NFL for almost a decade.

"I don't think there's a finer defensive back in the National Football League," his former position coach, Hall-of-Famer Tom Landry, once said.

A standout offensive and defensive player at the University of Mississippi, Patton was a three-time all-conference selection who, as a junior, scored 26 points in a single game. The following year he co-captained the SEC champion Rebels and led a defense that allowed 47 points all season, including a letdown in the Sugar Bowl when they surrendered 21.

To say he was a big deal at Ole Miss is an understatement.

If there was a knock on him, it was only his size. He stood just 5-feet-10 inches tall and weighed around 170 pounds. Nevertheless, the New York Giants drafted him in the eighth round of the 1955 NFL draft and had him play backup cornerback and safety as a rookie -- a season where he gained more attention by returning a punt and kickoff for touchdowns in the same game.

"The odds against returning a punt for a touchdown," the Giants' media guide said the following year, "have been figured to be 98-1. The odds against returning a kickoff all the way are even steeper, 158-1. Yet against the Redskins in the Polo Grounds last season Patton performed both feats in the same game. The odds on that feat have yet to be figured."

No wonder they couldn't figure it out. He was the first to do it. Since then, only 13 players have followed. But throw in his first NFL interception in that game, and Patton's accomplishments become a club of one.

When the Giants' starting right safety was hurt in 1956, Patton stepped in as the starter ... and never left until retiring after the 1966 season. He had an interception and 22-yard punt return in that year's championship game, a 47-7 drubbing of the Chicago Bears. Two years later, he led the league in interceptions with 11 when he was a consensus All-Pro for the first of five times. 

On a team with stars galore, Patton might have had the best season -- offense or defense.

"Being smart," said Landry then, "that is what it takes. Very seldom does a player have the physical equipment of say, a Jimmy Brown. So they must have the mental ability to make up for it. That is Patton."

The Giants lost the NFL championship that year to Johnny Unitas' Colts and lost again to Baltimore in 1959 when Patton repeated as a consensus All-Pro. Over the years, he gained a reputation as a ballhawk -- intercepting 43 passes from 1958-62 -- but he was more than that. A strong and sure tackler, Jimmy Patton was a complete player.

In short, he was everything you want in a safety.

Not only that, but he was one of the first pure free safeties, helping to pioneer the position. When he joined the Giants, there were two safety spots -- left and right -- and Patton was used on the right.  However, starting in 1961, he played the weak side almost exclusively, allowing him to read and hunt passes. It also allowed the strong safety to play closer to the line of scrimmage, often taking the tight end in man coverage.

"A free safety has to have some speed," Patton said then. "A good roamer is what he actually is. He has to get over and help."

And help he did. He ended his career with as many interceptions as Hall-of-Famer Larry Wilson, another early free safety. Even today, their 52 career picks rank among the top ten among safeties. That should be enough to warrant consideration for Canton, but Patton has never been a finalist, either as a modern-era or seniors' candidate.

So let's see what more there is that voters should know.

-- During his 12-year career, no one intercepted more passes. No one.

-- During that same span, only 10 players were named first-team AP All-Pro more than his five selections. Their names? Jim Brown, Bill George, Jim Parker, Gino Marchetti, Ron Mix, Joe Schmidt, Rosey Brown, Forrest Gregg, Jim Otto and Jim Ringo. Hall of Famers all.

-- The seven players tied with Patton are also impressive, including Lenny Moore and and Robustelli.

-- The list of safeties who were AP first-team All-Pro five times or more is as follows: Jack Christiansen, Johnny Robinson, Ronnie Lott, Ed Reed, Larry Wilson and ... Jimmy Patton. Christiansen, Robinson and Lott were named six times, just one more than the other three. All but Patton are in the Pro Football Hall.

Overshadowed by other Giants or not ... forgotten or not ... Jimmy Patton has more than credentials to be considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He should be in. Period.

But don't take my word. Listen to former Giants' coach Allie Sherman.

"He was tops, not just good," he said. "One of the greatest defensive backs. He had the three qualities you find in the best players. Consistency, top performance and great heart."

What more do voters need?

Monday, May 27, 2024

Memorial Day—Jack Lummus, A True Hero

 By John Turney 
Most fans have never heard of Jack Lummus, but if your father or grandfather were in the United States Navy or Marines during and after World War II they'd know about him. You may even have a parent or family relative currently in the Navy who may have served aboard the USNS 1st Lt. Jack Lummus -- the flagship of Maritime Prepositioning Ships Squadron Three. 

They'd know about him, too.

So who was Jack Lummus, and why should they ... or we ... hear about him on Memorial Day? Because he was as good an officer in World War II as he was a football player ... and he was "a damn good end" who didn't mind saying so.

Born in Ennis, Tex., Lummus was an accomplished football player at Texas Military Academy before moving on to Baylor University, where he was a terrific two-way end and gifted centerfielder who hit .300. As an honorable mention All-American in football, he went undrafted but was signed by the New York Giants in late August, 1941 after missing over three weeks of the team's training camp in Wisconsin. 

He hadn't planned to play pro football, dropping out of Baylor during his final semester to fly for the U.S. Army Air Corps, but when those plans went awry he decided to play for one of the New York Giants' -- the New York Baseball Giants' -- minor-league teams.

When that was done, he moved on to the New York Football Giants, where was a teammate of Mel Hein and Tuffy Leemans -- both Hall of Famers -- and was coached by Steve Owen, also immortalized in Canton. It was also where there were two Pro Bowl ends ahead of Lummus in Jim Poole and Jim Lee Howell.

Lummus caught only one pass that season for five yards, but you must remember a couple of things: 1)  The Giants were a team that ran the ball and played great defense, so every catch mattered; and 2) Poole only caught six passes and Howell four. In all, the Giants' ends combined for just 12 receptions all year.

And that great defense? It was the NFL's best that year ... though, unfortunately, not in its final performance. That was a 37-9 loss to the Chicago Bears in the league championship game on Dec. 21, 1941 -- two weeks after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, causing the United States to enter World War II. News of the attack had been announced during the Giants' regular-season finale.

In just over a month after his final NFL game, Lummus enlisted in the Marine Corps, did his basic training and was assigned as a military policeman. But he wanted more. So he was accepted into Officers Candidates School and, almost one year to the day following the attack on Pearl Harbor, was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

In time, he was given command as an executive officer for Company F (Fox), 2nd Battalion, 27th Marines and sent to the Pacific where, in early 1945, he landed on Iwo Jima to face a dug-in and determined enemy intent on repelling Operation Detachment, as the invasion was named, from taking the island's two airfields. 

A week and a half later, he was dispatched to lead a rifle platoon from Company E (Easy) to secure and pass through a key gorge where he and his men were pinned down by Japanese sniper fire for a day and a half. According to military reports acquired by Mary Hartman, Lummus' love interest in California, he grew so impatient with the stalled advance that he decided to spring into action.

"Finally, Jack could bear it no longer," she wrote. "He raced into no-man's land, sprinting in the graceful, gazelle-like style that had scored him so many touchdowns."

Lummus headed for the first of three pillboxes he would take out that day when an enemy grenade exploded nearby, concussing him as he fell to the ground. Undaunted, he climbed to his feet and led a charge to the second enemy position where a second grenade struck, wounding him. But Lummus rose again, charging the second target and killing the snipers inside.

That left one final pillbox, and it was the most challenging. Armed with a heavy machine gun, its fire scattered Lummus' men. But, in an heroic scene that seems scripted by Hollywood but, in fact, was documented by the military, Lummus once again charged and silenced the bunker's occupants. Afterward, the wounded junior officer rallied his Marines to clear Japanese positions from additional pillboxes, caves, spider traps and even cover created by Naval air strikes to get through the gorge.

And that's when it happened. 

Lummus stepped on a land mine that shredded his legs and feet. He would not survive the day. As he was carried to medical aid, he reportedly said, "Well, it looks like the Giants have lost a damn good end." Reports say that he repeated that phrase several times, perhaps as a mantra or prayer.

The Marine companies Fox and East moved through the gorge and completed their objective, but it came at the highest of costs for Lummus: He was one of over 6,800 men killed in the taking of Iwo Jima.

Hartman's research showed that doctors thought Lummus could have survived his lower-leg injuries but that he couldn't overcome internal damage, caused perhaps by the pair of exploding grenades that landed near him.

For his heroics, Lummus was awarded the Medal of Honor, the United States Armed Forces' highest decoration, with a citation that read:

"By his outstanding valor, skilled tactics, and tenacious perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, 1st Lt. Lummus had inspired his stouthearted Marines to continue the relentless drive northward, thereby contributing materially to the success of his regimental mission. His dauntless leadership and unwavering devotion to duty throughout sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country."

On Oct. 11, 2015, the Giants honored Lummus by inducting hiim into their Ring of Honor.

They knew what Jack Lummus did seven decades earlier: They lost "a damn good end" in World War II. But they weren't alone. The United States Marines Corps lost a damn good officer, too.

Friday, May 24, 2024

Book review: 'The Juice, the Electric Company & an Epic Run for a Record'

 By John Turney
Have you seen the new book on the 1973 (Bills) season? This guy knows what he's talking about."

That was Hall-of-Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure's response when I spoke to him recently about Joe Zagorski's forthcoming book, "The 2,003-Yard Odyssey: The Juice, The Electric Company, and an Epic Run for a Record." He'd been given a copy of the book, released today, and to say he enjoyed what he read would be understatement.

Then again, who wouldn't be?

It covers in detail the 1973 record-setting season of Hall-of-Fame running back O.J. Simpson when he became the first NFL player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season and was the best football player on the planet -- leading the Buffalo Bills to a 9-5 record one year after they'd won four times with a starting quarterback who didn't throw for 2,000 yards.

The reason? Simple. O.J. It was his team, Zagorski argues.

In his 300-plus page treatise, Zagorski hits the high notes, the low notes and all the notes of that season. It's a week-by-week ... sometimes even play-by-play ... review, with details you won't find elsewhere through interviews with DeLamielleure, linemen Reggie McKenzie and Donnie Green, quarterback Joe Ferguson and even the late O.J. Simpson.

What I found most interesting was how the Bills built the offensive line that would become the legendary "Electric Company," choosing DeLamielleure and tackle Paul Seymour in the first round of the 1973 draft before converting Seymour to tight end. They also moved a collegiate tight end, Jim Braxton, to fullback. Then it was up to line coach and Hall-of-Fame center Jim Ringo to mold the group into something special.

Which he did.

Zagorski notes how Buffalo broke from tradition with its use of the two tight-end "I" formation, something uncommon then in the NFL. The "I" was just not a thing at that time. Teams more frequently used a single tight end with split running backs. But not the Bills. They featured guards who could pull, a tight end (Seymour) who blocked like a tackle and a fullback who blocked like a tight end.

Plus, they had unexpected help on the outside. Wide receiver J.D. Hill was as an accomplished blocker (among the best ever, according to his teammates), as was slender receiver (6-foot, 175-pounds) Bob Chandler who blocked down on defensive backs. All played contributing roles in an unforgettable season where Simpson accounted for 51 percent of Buffalo's offensive yardage and 50 percent of its offensive TDs.

That is not a misprint. Rookie quarterback Joe Ferguson, who started every game, threw for only 939 yards and four touchdowns.

One chapter explains why then-coach Lou Saban decided to lean so heavily on O.J. (he was the best player on the planet, remember?), while no fewer than 20 pages are devoted to the 1973 season finale vs. the Jets when Simpson ran for 200 yards to finish with 2,003 for the year, breaking the existing record of 1,863 set by Jim Brown in 1963.

Both marks were set in 14-game seasons. 

A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Zagorski has written three previous football books: "The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football's Most Important Decade", "The Year the Packers Came Back: Green Bay's 1972 Resurgence" and America's Trailblazing Middle Linebacker: The Story of NFL Hall-of-Famer Willie Lanier".

Like DeLamielleure, I recommend this book not only for Bills' fans but for anyone who followed the NFL in the 1970s. It takes you inside the huddle with heretofore untold information and anecdotes about a great football player, a great season and a damaged and tragic legacy.

But don't take my advice. Listen to Joe DeLamielleure. He was there -- inside the huddle -- and he knows. Plus, he just told you what to expect.

"This guy knows what he's talking about." 

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Jahri Evans—'Well, SOMEBODY Had to Block for Him'

 By John Turney 
Jahri Evans
"Well, SOMEBODY had to block for him."
That statement frequently is part of Hall-of-Fame cases for offensive linemen, repeated to illustrate how a great offense or running back can't operate without great offensive-line play. In fact, it was employed nearly two decades ago when Cleveland Browns' guard Gene Hickerson was elected to Canton.

"Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly didn't get all those yards blocking for themselves," voters were told then ... which is another way of saying: "Surely, their linemen had something to do with it."

Voters agreed.

They elected the most decorated Browns' lineman of that era (he went to six Pro Bowls) to the Class of 2007, making Hickerson one of two senior inductees (Charlie Sanders was the other) after he'd disappeared from the Hall's radar in the early 1980s.

A three-time modern-era finalist, Hickerson no doubt was a beneficiary of the "someone had to block for him" remark. So was former Buffalo and Cleveland guard Joe DeLamielleure, a key figure in "The Electric Company" that opened holes for Bills' running back O.J. Simpson. Like Hickerson, he was named to six Pro Bowls. And, like Hickerson, he was a leader of an offensive line that blocked for record-setting backs.

So how is that relevant here?

Well, the same argument that helped push Hickerson and DeLamielluere into the Hall can be made for former New Orleans Saints' guard and Hall-of-Fame hopeful Jahri Evans. Like Hickerson and DeLamielleure, he was a consistent All-Pro and Pro Bowler with a litany of accolades. He was a six-time Pro Bowler, four-time first-team All-Pro, all-decade choice (DeLamielleure was; Hickerson wasn't) and part of an NFL champion (Hickerson was; DeLamielleure wasn't). 

But it's the success of the Saints' prolific offense that plays an enormous role in Evans' case, just as the accomplishments of Brown, Kelly and Simpson brought clarity to the Hall-of-Fame arguments for Hickerson and DeLamielleure.

Simply put, Jahri Evans was the best offensive lineman on the best offense of his era. The Saints' offense set records and was always at or near the top of leaderboards in scoring, yards and victories. Consider that from 2006-16, the years Evans was a starting guard for the Saints, they accomplished the following:

--- Threw the ball more than anyone They passed 7,057 times, or 277 more than the next-highest total. They also allowed the fewest sacks with 274. 

--- The Saints' sack percentage was 3.74. The next closest was 4.35 percent. So it wasn't close.

So the Saints threw the most and protected the quarterback the best. Something up front must have been working, and it did. Granted, Drew Brees got the ball out quickly, and that's part of the story. But ask him if he thinks his pass protection, especially in the middle, was important.

Because it was. 

Coach Sean Payton and Brees didn't run a "chuck-and-duck" offense where they tried to spread the field, sent out as many receivers as they could and got the QB hammered. No, theirs was a highly sophisticated offense that was the NFL's most productive of its era .... or any era, for that matter. During Brees' time in New Orleans, the Saints threw the most touchdown passes, ranked first in total yards, second in points and second in team passer rating.

Blocking mattered, and the Saints had several elite offensive lineman. But none was better than Jahri Evans, .

With his success, you'd think he was a sure thing coming out of college, but he was more in the "unlikely story" category. The 108th overall pick, Evans was chosen in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL draft and became an immediate starter at right guard.

As a rookie, he was the third highest-ranked guard by Pro Football Focus, allowing just one sack in nearly 1,100 snaps. By his fourth season, however, PFF had him ranked first at his position. Evans went on to miss only nine games in his 11-year career with New Orleans, starting all 193 contests he played in (203 including the playoffs).

Surprising? Definitely. Evans played collegiate football at tiny Bloomsburg (PA) College, a story not unlike that of another guard, Hall-of-Famer Larry Allen, who played at Sacramento State. Both were downgraded because they didn't play elite opponents, yet both excelled once they reached the pros. 

"I know there were going to be questions," Evans said, "but it came from not knowing as much ... or seeing the film and the stuff you see from D-1 guys."

Translation? "Give me a chance and I will show you what I can do with just a little experience."

The Saints did give him a chance, and he became a big-bodied right guard with long arms and strong legs who, like Larry Allen, could anchor against top NFL bull rushers.

"He will uncoil, show great power in his hips and plenty of lower body strength," said Pro Football Weekly, which ranked Evans as an elite guard. "Evans does everything the right way."

He could lead on screens, make blocks on the move, stone pass rushers who tried to run through him and move his feet to thwart those who tried to race around him. In short, he was a complete player.

"His transition into the league happened immediately," said former Saints' coach Sean Payton, now with Denver. "He is strong, smart, and very durable. He's powerful and good in pass protection."

The Saints knew what they had. So, after winning Super Bowl XLIV, they rewarded Evans with the most lucrative contract in NFL history for a guard, calling him an "impact player" after signing him to a seven-year, $56.7 million deal.

The contract was big but it wasn't incentive-laden. Instead, it was backloaded with money Evans would never see. At least, that's how it seemed. But he remained with the Saints for the entirety of the deal, collecting all the money over sevens seasons. Afterward, he signed on for a 12th year with Green Bay before retiring.

It's a great story, but it's not over. Not yet, it's not.

The next step for Evans is the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he was a finalist in for its Class of 2024 in his second year of eligibility. That makes him a leading contender to return to the Hall's list of 15 for the Class of 2025 and, eventually, put on a Gold Jacket.

“Jahri Evans," said Hall-of-Fame voter Jeff Duncan, "was the best player to play on arguably the best offense in NFL history."

But don't take it from Duncan. Listen to former Saints' quarterback Drew Brees, whom Evans protected for 11 seasons.

"The best offensive lineman I ever played with," he said. "There was no one tougher, smarter, as skilled or more reliable. When you needed a play, you were running behind Jahri Evans. He was a tone-setter, a great leader and fierce competitor. A Hall-of-Fame player and teammate."

Maybe that happens in 2025, maybe not. But it should happen soon, Because Jahri Evans was an elite player on an elite offense for a long time.

Is This Sterling Sharpe's year?

By John Turney 
A new world order reigns at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where so much has changed in the last two decades, and it's a world that could ... and should ... improve the chances for one deserving candidate.

Former Green Bay receiver Sterling Sharpe.

Ever since his career was cut short in 1994 by a neck injury, he's been bypassed by voters as a modern-era and seniors' candidate. He's never been a finalist in either category. But no longer. Because that was then and this is now, and now an obstacle holding him back has been minimized.

Call it longevity, sustained greatness or whatever works. It's simply not the issue for election that it was years ago.

Old-school voters once held on to a belief that a serious Hall-of-Fame candidate had to play at least a decade for consideration. Otherwise, you were dismissed. If you played in or before the 1950s, it wasn't an issue. But with anyone later, that "longevity box" had to be checked, with few exceptions.

I know, Bears' running back Gale Sayers made the Hall of Fame even though he played seven seasons ... and, in reality, only five full years. But in those five he was one of the best anyone had seen. So, yes, he was one of those exceptions.

But he was pretty much it.

Then there was something of a breakthrough in the 1990s when the "Gale Sayers exception" was used to boost former Dolphins' center Dwight Stephenson, even though he played just eight seasons. Like Sayers, he was felled by a severe knee injury. Like Sayers, he was an all-time great at his position. And, like Sayers, he was enshrined ... in 1998 after a bit of a delay.

But that was about it ... until 2017.

-- That's when former Seahawks' safety Ken Easley, who played in 89 games, was elected as the seniors' nominee. 

-- That same year, former Broncos' running back Terrell Davis, who played only seven years and excelled in four, was elected.

-- Then, in 2020, the Hall's Centennial Committee elected Bears' tackle Jimbo Covert even though he played eight seasons.

-- Two years later (2022), former Jaguars' tackle Tony Boselli (seven years) was enshrined, followed this year by 49ers' linebacker Patrick Willis (eight seasons). 

The inductions of those five in the past eight years sent a clear message to Sharpe, and it reads like this: Your seven-year career no longer can be a detriment. As proof, he's been a seniors' semifinalist the past two years, and once, according to a podcast, was one of the final six before that group was cut to three.

So now that longevity apparently has been removed as a hurdle, voters can focus on the positive aspects of Sharpe's career ... and there are plenty. First up is this: During Sharpe's years in the NFL, only Jerry Rice was a better wide receiver. From 1988-94, he was the only receiver with more receptions and more touchdown catches. Plus, only Rice and Henry Ellard had more receiving yards.

Three times Sharpe led the NFL in receptions, and twice he topped the league in TD catches. He also led the NFL in receiving yards once. In his final season, he caught 18 scoring passes -- which, at the time, tied for the second-most all-time and is still tied for third. 

Say what you want about Sharpe, but those are massive numbers for his era. Currently, he's 23rd all-time in receiving yards per game -- which, with today's expansion of the passing game, doesn't sound terrific. But keep this in mind: Rice is 16th, Terrell Owens is 22nd and Randy Moss is 29th. When Sharpe retired, only Rice and Lance Alworth averaged more receiving yards per game.

Not only that, but he earned a lot of his yards by turning upfield and fighting for them, as noted by former Pro Football Weekly analyst Joel Buchsbaum.

"Not a burner," he wrote of Sharpe in early 1993, "but he caught an NFL-record 108 passes in 1992 and led the league in yards after the catch."

When Sharpe broke his own record the following season, Buchsbaum wrote that he "caught 112 passes last year and gained a large chunk of his yards with powerful, aggressive tackle-breaking runs after the catch ... a big physical receiver who can run over or around people."

Imagine what Sharpe would have done had he played longer. If he was setting records in 1992 and 1993, what might he have done as Brett Favre was winning MVPs with receivers who took Sharpe's place post-injury?

More records? Another Super Bowl win?

Just as important as Sharpe's productivity was that his work did not go unnoticed by writers and peers. Three times he was a consensus All-Pro -- making first-team on the majority of the accepted All-Pro teams at the time. And in five of his sevens seasons, he got a free trip to Hawaii as a member of the NFC Pro Bowl team.

Three times consensus All-Pro? Is that a big deal? Actually, it is. Going back to Don Hutson, there are 34 modern wide receivers/ends in Canton, but only seven were consensus All-Pro more. Five had just as many, while the remainder -- 22 -- were consensus All-Pros fewer. That puts Sharpe in the upper echelon of all-time receivers.

He also won MVP votes in two seasons, and, yes, that's  a big deal, too, mostly because it's not common for a wide receiver to get that kind of notice.

But it wasn't just numbers that made him elite. Sterling Sharpe was someone opponents had to target in game plans; someone they had to try to contain and control ... but couldn't. In his first playoff game, for instance, he became the ninth player in league history to catch three TDs passes in a post-season game. 

Final score: Green Bay 28, Detroit 24.

That year he also caught game-winning passes against the Saints, Buccaneers and Lions, and he did it despite being held out of practice from early November through the rest of the season due to a painful turn-toe injury. Nevertheless, Sharpe soldiered on. In fact, he never missed an NFL game until he hurt his neck.

There's little question how good Sterling Sharpe was. He was great. From the time the Packers made him a first-round pick out of the University of South Carolina, he looked different and played differently from NFL receivers. He was strong but sublime. He was a precise route-runner but could make clutch catches on broken plays. If there was a question, it was only this: How long was he great?

When he first became eligible for the Hall in 2000, its board of selectors answered: Not long enough. But that attitude has changed, with voters today more receptive to candidates who, because of career-ending injuries, couldn't play 10 or 12 years. Now, they take a "how elite was he?" approach. 

And that bodes well for Sharpe.

"There are receivers going in the Hall of Fame that can’t compare to him," former Packers' GM Ron Wolf said on an "Eye Test for Two" podcast (Ron Wolf: Why Isn't Sterling Sharpe in Pro Football Hall? - Talk of Fame ( "He was just a tremendous football player. I always thought (that) in order to get into the Hall of Fame you had to be elite. Sterling Sharpe is elite. The record proves he’s elite. It’s a shame he’s not (in)."

When Sharpe's younger brother, Shannon, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011 he, too, made a plea to voters to recognize the greatness of his sibling.

"(To) the 44 men and women that I thanked and congratulated earlier for bestowing this prestigious honor upon me," he said of the Hall's board, "all I do is ask. All I can do is ask, in the most humblest way I know how, that the next time you go into that room or you start making a list, look at Sterling Sharpe’s accomplishments for (a) seven-year period of the guys that’s in the Hall of Fame at the receiver position and the guys that have the potential to be in this building ... The next time you go in that room, think about Sterling Sharpe’s numbers for seven years."

Yes, Sharpe was dealt a hand that didn't include a longevity card. But Terrell Davis, Ken Easley and Tony Boselli (among others) didn't, either, and voters sorted that out by recognizing greatness. If that is now the standard, then Sterling Sharpe should be one of three candidates announced as finalists for the Hall's Class of 2025.

Steve Wisniewski—An Elite Guard Who's Been Virtually Ignored by HOF Voters

By John Turney  
You're a Raiders' lineman. You played the same number of NFL seasons as Howie Long, but you played more games because you were healthier. You missed just two games. You went to the same number of Pro Bowls as Long, were first-and-second-team AP All-Pro eight times where Howie was three and, like Long, you were all-decade.

So, like Long, you must be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, right? 


Not if you're former guard Steve Wisniewski you're not, and that's not the worst news. Not only are you not in the Pro Football Hall; you've never been a finalist and were a semifinalist only once (2014).

How is that possible? I have no idea.

Because the Raiders' comparisons don't stop with Howie Long. Look at Hall-of-Famers Art Shell and Gene Upshaw, both offensive linemen. They played 15 seasons to Wisniewski's 13. But "Wiz" was a starter from the cradle to the grave -- from his rookie season through the end of his career. Shell was not a starter until his third season and did not start in his final season of 1982. Upshaw did start as a rookie, but he was benched in his final season of 1981.

Wisniewski went to as many Pro Bowls as Shell and one more than Upshaw ... was an AP first- or second-team All-Pro eight times, the same as Upshaw and four more than Shell ... and was an all-decade choice, as were Shell and Upshaw.

So, let's try this again: Why can't Steve Wisniewski again make the Final 25 as a semifinalist, much less the Final 15?

Well, there's the Super Bowl. Shell and Upshaw won two Lombardi Trophies as starters, while Long won one. Wisniewski retired before the Raiders played in Super Bowl XXXVII, which they lost. That was the 2002 season when Rich Gannon was the NFL MVP. The Raiders' left side blocked for Ken Stabler in 1976 when he was voted that same award.

One problem with that explanation: Multiple Raiders who missed Super Bowls have been elected to Canton. Center Jim Otto, who passed away Sunday, was one. Tim Brown is another. So was George Blanda. So how much can that be held against Wisniewski? I admit that Wisniewski may not quite be in the class of the Raiders' greats I've mentioned,  but he should not be in no-man's land when it comes to consideration for a Gold Jacket.

The issue can't be that he lacks All-Pro merits because he has plenty. Maybe ... and I said maybe ... the reason is that he was considered a "dirty" player, and that's not me talking. It's others. He was fined, as well as admonished, by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue for his controversial play, while a poll conducted by Sports Illustrated on the league's dirtiest players put "Wiz" on top. Others over the years listed his name, too, so the reputation likely remains in the collective memories of voters who watched him play during the 1990s.

But that begs the question: If true, should it be a reason not to gain Hall-of-Fame traction? It's a reputation that characterized former safety Rodney Harrison, yet he was a Hall finalist this year. The same goes for Steelers' wide receiver Hines Ward, and he's been a Hall semifinalist ... eight times.

"The 'dirty thing' is a misconstrued perception of him," Winiewski's former coach, Jon Gruden, said. "You can't fault a guy for giving you all he has and trying to get involved with collisions. I don't see anything that's ruthless or dirty."

Neither did Wisniewski, who maintained he always played to the whistle.

"I was known for giving the extra effort," he said. "I was doing my best to bust you up. There were never any grudges. No one I hit needed to be carted off the field."

I guess what I'm saying is that if Harrison and Ward haven't been penalized by reputations as "dirty" players, why is it fair to penalize Wisniewski for the same label? Answer: It's not.

Wisniewski was an excellent guard who excelled at run blocking (he was called a "devastating run blocker" by one publication) and a solid pass protector -- especially in short sets when he met opposing tackles at the line of scrimmage rather than setting deeper.

"A blue-collar worker with very good tools and superior intensity," is how Pro Football Weekly's personnel guru Joel Buschbaum described him.

When the Indianapolis Star several years ago wrote about Colts' guard Quenton Nelson, Hall-of-Fame center Kevin Mawae -- then the Colts' offensive line coach -- was asked if Nelson reminded him of anyone. He said he did. He mentioned Will Shields, the Chiefs' Hall of Famer, and ... Steve Wisniewski.

That's respect. 

When Wisniewski was a restricted free agent in 1993, Hall-of-Fame voter Armando Salguero asked then-Dolphins' offensive line coach John Sandusky how the club should fill its hole at guard. Sandusky's answer was brief and to the point.

"Get Steve Wisniewski," he said. "Just get him."

Of course, the Raiders never were going to let him go. Not then and not a couple of years later when he was an unrestricted free agent. Wiz was a classic "Raider for life." 

After his All-American career at Penn State, he was chosen by Dallas with the first pick of the second round of the 1989 NFL draft. But he was traded that day to the Raiders so that the Cowboys' Jimmy Johnson could gain a couple of extra draft picks. In return, the Raiders acquired an outstanding athlete who could immediately step in and play guard.

Wisniewski was 6-feet-4 and 275 pounds then (he'd quickly gain 30 pounds to play around 305 most of his career) and tested well at the annual NFL scouting combine. He ran a 5.08 in the 40-yard dash and benched 225 pounds 33 times. Plus, he was already schooled in the rigors of the NFL, following older brother Leo, who had to retire after three solid seasons as a nose tackle for the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts in the early 1980s.

The younger brother would know the ropes, and it paid off. He was an instant success, making the NFL's 1989 All-Rookie team. Soon after, he was voted a perennial Pro Bowler and frequent All-Pro. In all, he played 206 regular-season games, starting every one of them -- including a 161 consecutive-game streak. 

Steve Wisniewski played hard, and he always played. Furthermore, he was regarded as one of the best at his position in the 1990s -- an unlikely landing spot for someone from Vermont who was an ordained minister and known as one of the nicest guys in the NFL -- so long as he was not on the football field.

Though he was a two-time All-American, he's been snubbed by the College Football Hall of Fame. But at least he's been on the ballot nearly every year for over a decade. The only Hall of Fame he's joined has been the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.

With his resume, Steve Wisniewski deserves better. At the very least, he deserves to have his case heard by the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame's board of selectors as a finalist. You've just heard why.

Riley "Rattlesnake" Matheson—A Virtual Unknown With a Fine NFL Career

By John Turney 
Riley Matheson (#11)
Ever heard of Riley "Rattlesnake" Matheson? You should. An offensive lineman for the Rams, Lions and 49ers, he was an All-Star at every stop of his football career.

He was all-conference in college and junior college, All-NFL, second-team All-AAFC and a CFL All-Star. He was also called the best guard in the NFL and one of the best defensive players some had ever seen.

One thing he's not, however, is a Hall of Famer.

He's never been granted serious consideration as a modern-era or senior candidate, and don't ask me why. Nor was he mentioned when Hall voters chose all-decade teams to celebrate the NFL's 50th anniversary. Matheson inexplicably was left off the squad, while Bill "Monk" Edwards was not. He was a Giants' guard who played four seasons. Matheson played 10.

Had Matheson been elected, maybe he'd have a higher profile with Hall voters. But let's be honest: He doesn't have much of a profile with anyone.

Even ardent followers of the Hall-of-Fame process don't talk about him when the discussion leads to senior candidates who fall through the cracks. You hear about guys like Al Wistert, Verne Lewellen, Lavvie Dilweg, Ox Emerson and Cecil Isbell when it comes to so-called "super seniors".

Those five guys fell through the cracks. And "Snake?" He fell down a hole.

The question is: why?

A native Texan who went to high school in Oklahoma, Matheson had a rancher's swagger and devil-may-care attitude that led him to show up at his first NFL training camp in a 10-gallon cowboy hat and old Levi's. The 6-3, 207-pounder (he'd eventually grow to 220 pounds) figured he had nothing to lose. He was there to make a stand and make the team.

In time, he did, playing eight years with the Cleveland/L.A. Rams (1939-42 and 1944-47)) and one each with Detroit (1943) and San Francisco (1948).

He not only was accomplished; he was so popular with teammates, writers and fans that a "Riley Matheson Day" day was held to honor him ... while he was still an active player. He was given a new station wagon paid for by fans, extra cash collected by the Rams' faithful and a gold watch from teammates.

So why has he been forgotten?

It's hard to say. Probably the simplest answer is that he had some of his best seasons during World War II when many players were in the military and the talent pool was smaller. Nevertheless, a few of his best seasons occurred after the war was over. 

Not only that, but there are Hall-of-Famers who didn't serve and had their best seasons in the 1940s. Among them: Don Hutson, Sammy Baugh. Sid Luckman, Bulldog Turner and Alex Wojciechowicz. They played during World War II, too, so that shouldn't be the reason the Hall's early boards of selectors snubbed Matheson.

Maybe it's because when Matheson was a modern-era candidate, voters thought Canton had more than enough Rams from his era. Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin, Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch and Tom Fears represented the Rams' offense, but they mostly came later and were part of the "point-a-minute" offenses that changed football. Andy Robustelli and Dick "Night Train" Lane were part of the defense, but, like the others, were inducted later and finished their careers with other teams.

Still, that's only six, which doesn't seem like an overrepresentation; certainly not enough to exclude someone who was a five-time first-team All-Pro like Matheson. 

So what's the problem?

The Cleveland Rams' teams that he played on early in his career weren't competitive, and that could be a factor. In fact, Matheson played on more teams with losing records than winners, and let's face it: Proven winners have an easier time reaching Canton than perennial losers. But it's not as if he never played on a winner. Because he did. 

So what's the issue? Whatever it is, it's time to reopen "Snake's" case because his career warrants a fresh look.

Matheson began his pro career with a compelling story that didn't begin with his first game with the Cleveland Rams; it began long before that, on his journey to the Rams' training camp in 1939. With no football team at his high school, Matheson first played the sport at Cameron Junior College (now Cameron University) in Oklahoma where he made the All-Conference team.
Riley Matheson (#11)
He tried to parlay that into playing for the University of Florida and traveled there with a teammate to try out. When that didn't work out, he returned to his native Texas and accepted a basketball scholarship at the State School of Mines and Metallurgy at El Paso, now called UTEP.

In his two years there, he played basketball and football, serving as a tackle and end. He was good enough to be named second-team All-Border Conference as a junior and first-team as a senior when he was chosen the Muckers' (now Miners') team MVP.

After graduating, he took a job laying a pipeline line in Arizona where he was bitten by a rattlesnake. Twice. Or four times, depending on which account you read. There's also a version that has two of the bites occurring when he hunted mountain lions and timber wolves to earn enough money to attend Cameron.

Because Matheson passed away in 1987, he's not here to clarify the details. But suffice it to say, he earned his nickname and it stuck.

He had applied to play pro football by sending in an application to the Cleveland Rams. Yes, a resume. Back then teams didn't scout much, especially at a Border Conference school. So NFL teams would send applications to schools that had promising players.

Matheson filled it out and along with recommendations from coaches, players and even a few writers, he got a camp invite from the Cleveland Rams by coach Dutch Clark.

The Rams didn't take a lot of walk-ons with Clark telling the media, "We are not taking many players outside the draft list," but Matheson made the cut, at first, anyway.

When asked what position he wanted to play Snake said tackle but was rebuffed and was told the club had plenty of those. End? Same answer.

He then just offered his service to play wherever and that he'd "Make a good hand."

Clark put him at defensive guard (now called a defensive tackle) and he actually played in the first couple of games but Snaked was reportedly "too eager" and fell for trap plays over and over. Back then they called them "mousetraps" and being suckered so much he earned the nickname "Limberger" and "Cheesehead".

As a result, the Rams farmed him down to their minor league team the Columbus Bullies where he played 20 games that season. Matheson later recounted that playing minor league football helped his development -- and boy did it.

In 1940 Clark gave the newly confident "Cheesehead" another chance and he returned to the Rams a much-improved player, sticking to the roster all season.

The next season he made his mark in the NFL being voted to the United Press All-Pro team. But that was just the beginning. The next year he made the Associated Press All-Pro team -- he was on a roll.

But the Rams weren't on a roll.

They had to disband in 1943 because of the depletion of players serving in the military there were not enough players to fill all the franchises. Teams combined and the Rams players were distributed around the NFL with Rattlesnake surfacing in Detroit.

He immediately was noticed by Detroit News columnist Dale Stafford, who wrote, "He's a lean wirey Texan with the build of an end. Possessed of tremendous strength and agility, Matheson is as fine a guard as these eyes have looked at in some time."

Fittingly the paper named him to their own All-Pro team and the New York Daily News named him second-team All-Pro. Not bad for a year in exile in the Motor City.

The Rams resumed play in 1944 and the rest of his time with the Rams -- through 1947 he was a consensus All-Pro pick -- AP, UP, Daily News, you name it. If there was an All-Pro team he was usually on it. The man was simply recognized as one of the best players in the NFL, year in and year out.

Matherson had such an impact that in 1945 he even got two votes in the Official MVP balloting. Two you say? Big deal. Well, Sammy Baugh only got nine and Snake was the only lineman to garner any votes at all.

He was a big factor in the Rams' NFL Championship in 1945 and recovered a key fumble. Plus, the glib cowboy even suggested a play to rookie QB Bob Waterfield. Waterfield sarcastically agreed, telling Snake, "Why don't you call the plays and I'll center the ball."

Point made, Bob.

The Rams won the game 15-14, checking the "ring" box on his Hall qualifications.

Perhaps another reason he's not been at the forefront of Hall discussions is that folk may not know exactly what he was on the field. 
Riley Matheson (#11) making a tackle on Chicago Cardinals' End Ed Rucinski
Yes, he was listed as a guard but he also played tackle on an unbalanced line in the Rams' single-wing wing offense. When they moved to the T-formation he slid inside to guard.

But on defense, he'd move around playing middle guard, move to defensive tackle, and drop back as a linebacker usually in the middle.

Later, when the Rams had moved to Los Angeles he played some center and would sometimes be outside linebacker in a 6-2 defense but it varied from game to game. Generally, though, he should be remembered that he was a nose guard when the Rams ran the 6-2 and he'd step back and play the middle linebacker when they deployed a 5-3 defense.

In all cases, he was called the defensive signals and was elite at diagnosing plays, and usually led the team in tackles. "Matheson has a sixth sense or something," said Jack Lavelle, a New York Giants scout, "He's fast and strong. Riley must make 90 percent of the Ram tackles, or so it seems."

"One of the best defensive guards to ever grace a National League roster", raved Los Angeles Daily News writer Ned Cronin. Los Angeles Daily Mirror columnist Maxwell Stiles was even more effusive calling Matheson, "One of the finest defensive linemen or linebackers I've ever seen."

After all those All-Pro seasons in 1948, they thought he was getting old and wanted to trade him and found an East Coast suitor. Matherson found out about it and said he wouldn't go but asked permission to seek a deal with the other West Coast team -- the San Francisco 49ers of the rival AAFC.

Ironically, a few years earlier Matheson received a lucrative offer from the Cleveland Browns to play and coach in the new league. He ultimately rejected it after cleverly using it as leverage to get a raise from the Rams.

One of his concerns was the threat of a five-year suspension that he would have received from the NFL for signing with the new league. He was wise enough to know the whole thing could be a flop and he'd be out of the NFL.

In 1948 he was approaching 34 years of age so that was not a concern. His career was winding down.

Quitely the Rams released him and he showed up as a 49ers. It's suspected it was a cash deal between the teams since they could not exchange players or draft picks but the secrecy of the move caused some rancor among the Los Angeles sports media.

How had they gotten rid of Rattlesnake Matheson, they asked?

At first, the 49ers told the press that Matherson would be a backup on both offense and defense but he quickly earned a starting spot as a linebacker and he became one of the AAFC's best defenders.

He was second-team on the official All-AAFC team on the second-best team in the league. Pretty good for a guy who was "getting old".

The Niners played in the same division as the Cleveland Browns and their 12-2 record didn't qualify them to make the playoffs with the Browns going undefeated in 1948.

After that quality season, the Matheson hung up his cleats. Until he didn't.

In the summer of 1949, he signed to play for the Calgary Stampeders in the Western Interprovincial Football Union (thankfully now called the Western Division of the CFL).

All he did there was become a starter and help the Stampeders attempt to defend the CFL title, losing in the Grey Cup Game. He was also a unanimous choice on the All-league team and called "the best guard in Canada" by one writer.

Snake played one more year north of the border and finally retired from professional football but he went out with a bang. He again was All-League in 1950 -- the only player to repeat from 1949 and in 1957 was named to the all-time Stampeder team.

He'd also be named to the all-time Rams team by Bob Waterfield and among others.

Outside Bob Waterfield and perhaps Jim Benton he was the Rams' best player in the 1940s. And that is a big perhaps with Benton. Matheson was probably better.

In all, he totaled 83 games in the NFL, 14 in the AAFC and 24 in the CFL over a total of 12 professional seasons.

In those seasons he got some sort of "all" in all but his first two with six of them being first-team All-NFL.

Six you say? Sounds like a lot.

It is.

It's the same number of selections as the Bears' Hall-of-Fame guard Danny Fortman, considered among the best guards of the two-way era. It's also more than George Musso, another Bears legendary guard who has a bust in Canton.

It's also more than Packers guard Mike Michalske who appears on many all-time teams and is immortalized in Canton.

It's also more than a lot of modern-era guards. Too many to name, really.

Not only that, it's also more than George Trafton, Frank Gatski and the aforementioned Alex Wojciechowicz -- all Hall-of-Fame centers who also played both ways, like Snake did.

By objective standards, Riley Matheson's career matches up with the Hall-of-Fame offensive interior players of his era and matches up well with a lot of recent guards and centers.

So there you have it -- Matheson's case: An All-Star in collegiate football, the NFL, the AAFC and the CFL.

An NFL champion.

A tough-as-nails player who was probably the league's best defensive player in 1945. He probably should have been on the 1940's All-Decade team and who probably should be in the Hall of Fame.

It's time for his case to be heard in toto by the Hall's seniors' committee and when they do, they cannot help but be impressed because the Rattlesnake checks all the boxes.

All of them.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

New York Giants Reveal 'Century Red' Alternate Uniforms

 By John Turney 
Today the New York Giants revealed their "Century Red' throwback/alternate uniforms and they are interesting as well as terrific. They are not 100 percent historically accurate but that can be forgiven.

They took the 1938 helmets with wings that are based on the contours of leather helmets of the time. It's the Michigan look, more or less.

They matched the 1925 socks with the 1933 Jersey and that pair works because they match very closely. 

Here are the shots released by the Giants—

Here are a couple of colorized shots of the 1933 jerseys—
Bo Molenda (23), Dale Barnett (18), Ken Strong (50) and Harry Newman (12)

Harry Newman

Mel Hein in the 1938 winged helmet
Mel Hein

A shot of the 1925 socks (colorized)—

From what we can tell the reaction is mixed. Some Tweets (now X) are mocking them and some seem to enjoy them. 

For those who like them, the complaint is the tan pants, preferring that they be white. 

To each is own, but it's a good effort, in our opinion. Well done.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

RIP Jimmy Johnson -- 49ers Legend

 By John Turney 

Not everyone knows how good former San Francisco 49ers' cornerback Jimmy Johnson was ... and that includes the NFL media. Yet he was one of the NFL's first shutdown corners, a Pro Football Hall of Famer so accomplished that he was once called "the greatest defensive back who ever lived."

Sadly, Johnson died Wednesday night after what his family said was a long illness. He was 86.

The brother of Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson, Jimmy Johnson was an all-decade choice (1970s) and the most decorated 49er ever before Hall-of-Famer Ronnie Lott. He also played in more games for San Francisco (213) than everyone but Hall-of-Famer Jerry Rice (238).

He played 16 years with San Francisco, more than any 49er outside of quarterback John Brodie, and was named first-team All-Pro by the AP, PFWA and NEA from 1970-72 and second-team in 1965 and 1966. However, when you include the NEA All-Pro teams -- those chosen by NFL players -- he was also first-team All-Pro in 1969 and second-team All-Pro in 1964, 1965, and 1968. 

It seems his peers respected Johnson more than the NFL media.

He was also a five-time Pro Bowler and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame's Class of 1994 along with Bud Grant, Tony Dorsett, Jackie Smith, Randy White and senior finalist Leroy Kelly. 

“Jimmy Johnson," said Hall-of-Fame president Jim Porter in a prepared statement, "was extraordinarily athletically talented. The 49ers enjoyed the luxury of using him on offense and defense early in his career to fill team needs. Once he settled in at left cornerback, he flourished.

"The notion that a 'lockdown' cornerback could cut the field in half was true for Jimmy. Only rarely would other teams' quarterbacks even look in his direction and, more often than not, regretted the decision if they challenged him."

A track star and two-way player at UCLA, Johnson was the 49ers' first-round draft pick (sixth overall) in 1961 and immediately became a starter at right cornerback. But, as he did in college, he played on both sides of the ball the next two seasons -- both as a defensive back and receiver -- before settling in at left corner where he didn't move until the age of 38 in 1976.

Johnson ended his NFL career with 47 interceptions, returning two for touchdowns, but that doesn't tell his story. An outstanding man-to-man defender, he was respected so much by opponents that they rarely tested him, keeping him from posting big interception numbers -- figures that define cornerbacks.

However, the 49ers' media guides of the early 1970s tell how invaluable he was to the team. That's because they included stats beyond interceptions -- with completions allowed, yards allowed and pass attempts in Johnson's area among them -- and they reveal what made Johnson so extraordinary.

In 1969, for instance, he allowed 25 completions on 74 pass attempts for 250 yards, with five interceptions. In 1970, the figures were similar -- 32 of 85 for 362 yards with two picks. Anecdotally, former Hall-of-Fame voter and legendary Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman reported that Johnson wasn't beaten for a touchdown in either year.

If that's true, then Johnson's individual defensive passer rating for those combined years would be ... 29.7. Twenty-nine point seven. Think about that. Anything under 60 would be considered excellent. Under 50 would be great. But under 30? That's another universe.

Maybe that's why Zimmerman picked Johnson for his personal All-Time NFL team and praised him as someone who, "without reservation, is the greatest defensive back who ever lived."

OK, so that's one man's opinion. Except Zimmerman wasn't alone. There's Dick Nolan, one of Johnson's coaches with San Francisco, and he joined the chorus, too.

"I coached three defensive backs I felt were great," he said. "Mel Renfro and Cornell Green with the Dallas Cowboys and Johnson. Jimmy is the best I've ever seen."

But Johnson was more than an extraordinarily talented athlete. He was tough, too, an individual could ... and would ... play through pain. In 1971, for example, he played almost half the season with a cast protecting a shattered wrist and never missed a game -- including the playoffs and Pro Bowl.

Yet he still was named All-Pro. 

"Even with one arm," said former 49ers' cornerback Bruce Taylor, one of Johnson's teammates, "Jimmy Johnson is better than 90 percent of the defensive backs in this league. He's knocking down passes with one hand. I can't get over it."

That offseason, Johnson was voted the PFWA's George Halas Most Courageous Player Award. He was also a recipient of the 49ers' most prestigious honor, the Len Eshmont Award, given annually to the player who best symbolizes courageous and inspirational play.

Johnson won it twice, in 1969 and again in 1975.

"I don't look at someone and think that he can't beat me," Johnson once said. "If you play long enough you're going to get beat. The question and the key to your effectiveness is how often."

In addition to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Johnson is a member of the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame and the San Francisco 49ers team Hall of Fame. His number 37 was retired by the 49ers in 1977.

"Jimmy embodied the essence of what it meant to be a 49er," the team said in a statement. "He was the ultimate gentleman and will be remembered for his humility, kindness and lovable demeanor." 

Maybe fans today don't remember Jimmy Johnson. At least, not this Jimmy Johnson. But they should. He wasn't just a great player; he was consistently great, with his last career interception a defining statement. It happened vs. Seattle when Johnson was 38 years and 179 days old -- making him the oldest player at any position at the time to produce an interception.