Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Cameron Heyward—Can He Retire Today and Get A Bust in Canton?

By John Turney 
Social media was abuzz last weekend after Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive lineman Cameron Heyward mused about ending his career with the Cleveland Browns, telling The Athletic's Mark Kaboly that "I am not trying to think about all that right now."

Neither, it turns out, should the Steelers.

One day later, in fact, Koboly tried to put out the fire by saying Heyward was joking about Cleveland; that there was a conversation about former Steelers' great Franco Harris finishing his career in Seattle, with Heyward asked what he might do if he had to continue playing outside of Pittsburgh. 

"The goal," Heyward said later, clarifying his remarks, "is to be a Steeler for the rest of my career."

"Whew!" must have been the reaction to Steeler Nation.

But it begs the question: What if 2024 were Heyward's last NFL season? What would that mean for his legacy? More to the point, if that did happen, has he done enough in his career to merit Hall-of-Fame consideration? 

Let's take a look.

He's certainly played long enough. This season will be his 14th, and he should surpass 200 games played and, possibly, 170 games started.

No problem there. 

However, he never played on a championship team. Unlike previous Pittsburgh teams, these Steelers failed to reach a Super Bowl during Heyward's tenure. In the decade prior to his arrival, they advanced to three, winning two.

That could be an issue ... except he never played on a losing team and has been part of eight playoff teams. In other words, he's never been stuck on a perennial loser. Moreover, he's been noticed by those who vote for All-Pro teams and Pro Bowls.

He's a three-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler.

That's the good news. That bad? He wasn't voted to the 2010s' all-decade team and won't make the 2020s' squad. But there's a catch: Heyward is someone who would benefit from a mid-all-decade team, if there were such a thing -- one that spanned from 2015-2024. He'd almost certainly be chosen to it.

As it is, his three All-Pros are similar to others who played his position -- a 3-4 defensive end in a base defense and a defensive tackle in passing downs. Howie Long did that. So did Richard Seymour. Both were All-Pro three times, with Long going to eight Pro Bowls and Seymour seven.

Lee Roy Selmon, a pure 3-4 end who didn't "sink" to defensive tackle, was also a three-time All-Pro. Two guys who played multiple positions -- Dan Hampton and Joe Klecko -- could also be considered for comparison, with Hampton a four-time All-Pro and Klecko chosen twice.

Both were four-time Pro Bowlers, while Long, Selmon, Hampton and Seymour were honored on all-decade teams. In reality, the only player in Heyward's genre whom he doesn't match in terms of All-Pro seasons is former Houston Texans' star J.J. Watt. He was a five-time All-Pro. Oddly, Heyward went to one more Pro Bowl.

Now, before I go further, let me explain something: I didn't compare Heyward to other defensive interior linemen who were 4-3 defensive tackles -- guys like John Randle, Warren Sapp or even his contemporary, Aaron Donald -- the so-called "three-techniques," or pure pass rushers.

But it's important to note that, as Heyward's career progressed, the Steelers used less and less of their 3-4 base defense -- which was around 35-40 percent during his All-Pro run as a defensive end -- and more nickel. That means he's been a three-technique tackle a lot (among other things), though he plays the position differently than the quick, slashing interior rushers.

He does it with so much power that 49ers' defensive tackle Javon Hargrave called him "the strongest defensive lineman in the league" -- someone who's able to hold blockers at bay, he said, with what coaches call a "long arm stab."

"He has a left long arm that is better than anyone else in the league," Browns' All-Pro guard Joe Bitonio told NFL Films. "Once he gets it locked in there, it's pretty tough to get it off."

Critics will contend that he hasn't accumulated an abundance of sacks during his career, and that's fair. He has 80-1/2, with three double-digit seasons. But that's not his role in the Steelers' defense. In fact, when Heyward signed a six-year $60-million contract in 2015, he made that clear.

"If I can become a double-digit sack guy," he said, "or just take up a lot of attention so other guys get pressure, that's fine. The front seven has to dominate, and we're all a part of it."

Heyward's "part" is to create interior pressure, making sure opposing quarterbacks have no place to step forward when edge rushers like teammate T.J.Watt swoop in from the outside. And he's been effective. But there's more to the former first-round pick's game than rushing the passer; more like another, less glamorized, aspect of the game that Heyward values.

Playing the run.

"The first key to this defense," he said of the Steelers, "is stopping the run. You can look at any game. When we didn't stop the run, we got beat." 

It is hard to beat someone with Heyward's strength and determination. He stacks blockers with his leverage and power to close gaps. Then, if the play is away from him, he chases down runners with hustle rarely seen from a 6-5,  295-pound lineman.

"His motor never stops", said three-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Melvin Ingram. "He just keeps going, keeps going, keeps going. Cam's motor is crazy."

That motor led to 333 tackles of opposing rushers since 2019, and if that seems like a lot it's because it is. Only two other NFL linemen have been involved in more stops during that time, and neither is yet 30. Heyward turned 34 last year. 

"Talk about an ageless wonder," said former Buffalo center Mitch Morse, now with Jacksonville. "From play one to the last play, he's chasing the ball down. If you don't anchor on a bull rush, he has more than you can handle."

So there you have it: Glowing opinions of his peers to add to Cam Heyward's case.

No, he probably won't end his career with 100 sacks, and he may not make another Pro Bowl or gain the Super Bowl ring he covets. But there's no denying that Heyward passes the eye test. You can't help but notice him when the Steelers' defense is on the field. 

Not only that, but his teammates insist he's been the heart and soul of the Steelers' defense the last decade. He set the tone, the standard and the conscience for the unit. In short, he was the absolute leader.

That should count for a lot.

So what does all this mean for his Hall-of-Fame chances? Like others asked to do similar things -- namely, play both the pass and the run -- Heyward should be seen through the same lens as Hall-of-Famers Howie Long, Richard Seymour, Dan Hampton and Joe Klecko. They were versatile, almost positionless, defensive linemen who didn't produce a slew of sacks, dominated the middle and were enshrined.

If Cam Heyward is viewed that way, then we have the answer to our original question. If he were to retire now, then, yes, he's done enough to warrant a Gold Jacket.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Ravens Add Alternate Helmet to Alternate Uniform

 By John Turney

They are back.

From 2016 to 2019 the Baltimore Ravens wore an all-purple "color rush" alternate uniform that featured purple jerseys with gold numbers with white trim. The pants are purple with gold and white stripes.

We quite liked them—

Today the Ravens brought them back, but with a difference. This time they will have a matching purple helmet. 

As a stand along the helmet looks really good—

We're not a huge fan of the forward-facing Ravens logo but -- okay. It's a good helmet with contrasting and complimentary colors.

The question is this: Is it too much purple? 

Here is the entire kit—
Well, maybe. But maybe not. The gold complements (with white trim) break up the purple enough to not make it a monochrome look. It's not a purple block of color, in our view and that is a good thing.

Before the black lid contrasted the purple nicley and we think contrast is a highly underrated design element but it is not mandatory, either. And this seems to work.

Here are a few more shots released by the Ravens—



So, overall, it's good. For some reason, they pop. So the grade? We'll give them a B+ to maybe even an A- ... somewhere in there.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Remember When Two Teams Swapped Rosters ... Twice? This NFL Vet Does

 By John Turney

Merlin and Phil Olsen

What? Really? 

Are you telling me there really was a time when the Rams' entire roster was swapped with the Colts' roster, only to have both rosters traded back to each other?

"Yes, that's right," said someone who knows. "When (NFL owner) Carroll Rosenbloom and Robert Irsay traded the Colts for the Rams, everything was traded. The equipment. The desks. All the assets and liabilities. Everything. And that included all the players, so they had to be traded back."

That someone is former NFL player Phil Olsen, brother of Hall-of-Famer Merlin Olsen. But how would he know?

Good question. Rosenbloom, then the Baltimore Colts' owner, wanted to own the Los Angeles Rams. So he worked out a deal in July, 1972 where Irsay would buy the Rams, then swap them for the Colts and cash. But some of the niceties were never brought up or discussed ... until Olsen is questioned.

"Ed Masry was my agent and lawyer," he said, "and he was an extremely smart and aggressive attorney. He was my brother Merlin's lawyer and also Roman Gabriel's. You'll remember his name from Eric Brockovich fame.

"Ed caught wind of the deal and used the information to get Gabriel a bonus for not trying to block the trade."

It turns out that Gabriel had a no-trade clause in his contract and was one of the few -- and perhaps only -- individual with veto power over a trade.

"Merlin didn't," said Olsen. "I didn't. But Ed had negotiated one for 'Gabe.' So when he found out what was going on and how it worked, he used that as leverage and reasoned that, with the swap of assets comes the swap of the players. So the only way to get them to the right team was to trade them back"

Consequently, Gabriel was entitled to compensation for waiving his no-trade clause ... at least in Masry's thinking.

"Roman got the compensation, and it was sizable," said Olsen. "I think it was maybe three or four hundred thousand dollars, which was a lot of money back then."

According to the papers, Gabriel's salary was $125,000 at the time. So, chalk one up for Masry. But it wasn't the first time the shrewd lawyer took advantage of holes in the system.

"Prior to the 1970 NFL draft," Olsen said, "I was expected to go high. But I didn't want to go back East. I wanted to play in Denver, in the Intermountain West, (and) I expressed that with Ed. So he sent a letter to everyone drafting in front of the Broncos, telling them not the draft me; that I wouldn't sign."

Masry's bluff didn't work. The then-Boston Patriots chose Olsen with the fourth overall pick, leaving Olsen in an uncomfortable situation. Other than holding out, there really wasn't much he could do, and he wasn't going to go that sit out the season. He wanted to play in the NFL.

So, he signed with the Patriots -- a one-year contract with a one-year team option.

"Ed was a bold advocate," Olsen said, laughing.

But Olsen never played with the Patriots. Practicing for the College All-Star game that summer, he suffered a serious knee injury in a collision with what he called  "a big, but a very clumsy player" and was sidelined for the year. At the end of the season, his one-year contract expired, and the Patriots didn't exercise their option.

Apparently, they'd forgotten about it.

"They had some turnover in the front office," Olsen said, "and for some reason the Patriots didn't exercise my option, nor did they for a number of other players who also were in the same situation as I was."

Which, according to Olsen, made him and those players free agents.

"I got a call from Ed asking if the Patriots had contacted me about the option," Olsen said, "and I told him, no, I hadn't. So he went to work in getting me to Los Angeles. He was sure that missing the deadline made me a free agent."

So Olsen ended up in Los Angeles to play next to his Hall-of-Fame brother in what newspapers reported as a "loophole in Olsen's contract," while Masry ended up in NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle's office to discuss a sticky situation he wanted kept quiet.

"Ed and I flew to New York," Olsen said, "and met with Rozelle and Ed laid out our position. The Patriots were not happy and were concerned about me leaving."

So Rozelle struck a deal.

"He agreed to let me be a free agent," Olsen said, "if we did not reveal the details of how my free agency came about. He didn't want the Patriots to lose any more players if they found out about the implications of the team's lack of exercising the options. 

"It would have been chaos, but, as far as I know, Ed was the only player representative who was on top of it. The others were not yet wise to the situation. I was able to sign with the Rams, and Rozelle would name the compensation the Patriots would receive. That ended up being a first-round pick and a third, I think."

That's exactly how it turned out, but only after the Patriots tried to pry a top player (Isiah Robertson and Jack Youngblood were mentioned) and a 1972 first-rounder from the Rams. That didn't happen. Instead, Rozelle settled on a 1972 first-round pick, $35,000 cash to reimburse Olsen's original signing bonus, and "additional compensation at the end of the 1971 season."

As it turned out, that was the 1972 third-round pick Olsen mentioned -- a package Rozelle called "just compensation" but left the Patriots furious.

"As it stands, I have nothing but total dissatisfaction with the settlement," said Upton Bell, then the Patriots' general manager. "It's an example of giving to a team that already has and taking from a team that has not."

Olsen played four years for the Rams, first as a defensive tackle next to his brother; then as a third defensive end behind Youngblood and Fred Dryer.

"I went from being a starter," he said, "to playing maybe one-third of the snaps. So I played out my option." 

Then he decided to move.

"John Ralston was the coach of the Denver Broncos," Olsen said, "and he'd recruited me to go to Stanford when I came out of high school before I settled on Utah State. He was interested in signing me. So Ed worked out a deal".

Only one problem: Compensation.

To avoid having Rozelle decide the terms, the Rams agreed to trade Olsen's rights for the rights of unsigned wide receiver Otto Stowe, plus a draft pick. That meant Olsen finally would play where he wanted five years earlier and get what he wanted where he wanted ... or not.

Surprisingly, the Broncos asked him to change positions and move from the defensive line to the other side of the ball and play center.

"They didn't tell me until I got to Denver," Olsen said. "But I wanted to do what John asked me. So for the next two years I split time at center with myself and Bobby Maples alternating quarters. He'd play the first and third, and I'd play the second and fourth quarters. I also was the captain of the special teams."

Those special teams were elite, especially in 1976 when Rick Upchurch was returning a punt for a touchdown or Olsen was blocking kicks seemingly every other week.

Though Olsen was expected to be the full-time center in 1977, those plans were derailed by a player revolt that forced the firing of Ralston and had Red Miller replace him. Miller didn't see Olsen as his next starting center; he wanted him to play left tackle. And that was a no-can-do.

"Red brought his own center with him," said Olsen, "and didn't give me a chance to keep the job. I told him I didn't mind moving to tackle, but I wanted a chance to compete at center ... and if I got beat out, that was fine, I'd move. But, he didn't want competition at the center position. He wanted the guy he was bringing in to start."

Faced with playing a position he'd never tried before on a surgically repaired knee, Olsen retired and moved on to business interests. His NFL career, he thought, was over. But, to his surprise, Buffalo coach Chuck Knox -- who had just joined the Bills -- wanted him to play center there.

Knox had been Olsen's coach in Los Angeles in 1973-74.

When Olsen agreed, the Bills worked out a deal that sent a conditional 1979 draft pick to Denver. His early practices impressed coaches and the media, but one final knee injury in July felled him. After undergoing surgery, he spent the season on injured reserve.

However, he wasn't exactly finished.

"I was disappointed (to get hurt)," he said, "but it turned out well because I got to do a little coaching and a little scouting. I'd fly to cities and watch games and come back and report to the coaching staff and also I'd work with some of the linemen on techniques."

After the year, though, Olsen retired for good. Officially, he played for two teams in his NFL career, but unofficially he was on the rosters of four. Olsen had gone from the Patriots to the Rams to the Broncos and finally the Bills -- with none via a conventional player-for-player trade.

Furthermore, each time the move technically was as a free agent. However, that doesn't count the time he was traded to the Colts, then traded back to the Rams, in the franchise swap of 1972. 

What a long, strange trip it was.

As of Right Now Has Matthew Stafford Done Enough to Earn a Gold Jacket?

By John Turney 
Matthew Stafford
When Houston's C.J. Stroud, the NFL's reigning Offensive Player of the Year, was asked last week about the kind of career he might want to have, he was given the choice of Aaron Rodgers or Eli Manning.

He chose Manning.

"You want the rings, dawg," he said on the "Million Dollaz Worth of Game" podcast. "Eli got two."

Rodgers is a four-time MVP and one-time Super Bowl winner, but Stroud is old school. And he thinks rings are the thing.

But that's not all. He had more to say, suggesting that had former Detroit Lions' quarterback Matthew Stafford -- now with the L.A. Rams -- been on the Packers, he would have won more than Rodgers' one NFL championship. 

"If you gave Matthew Stafford a chance like Aaron Rodgers," he said, "I guarantee you: He might've had more rings ... three or four."

Of course, that's his opinion, but it makes for a lively debate when talking about Stafford's career from a Hall-of-Fame perspective. Furthermore, it begs the question: Has Matthew Stafford done enough -- at this point in his career-- to be a Hall of Famer?

What do you think?

Supporters, like Stroud, point out that Stafford was not in a good situation for most of his career in Detroit, and that's true. The Lions' 2009 first-overall pick, he took over a terrible team that was 0-16 the year before he was drafted and had, at least for much of his career, a defense that was as mediocre as its run game.

Yet Stafford endeared himself to fans in and out of Detroit with his moxy and courage, beginning his rookie season when he led the Lions to victory over Cleveland. After taking a vicious hit to his left shoulder -- one that would have sidelined most guys -- he not only didn't miss a play; he threw the game-winning touchdown pass.

An NFL Films microphone revealed how much pain Stafford experienced. But it also caught him telling then-offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, "I can throw the ball if you need me to throw the ball," demonstrating a trait of great quarterbacks.

Toughness.

By his third year, the Lions were in the playoffs, one of only three appearances they made in Stafford's 12 seasons in Detroit. However, they were one-and-done in all three ... which, considering their history, should surprise no one. Most of the time during Stafford's tenure, the Lions were losers. His record with them was 74-90-1 in the regular season, 0-3 in the playoffs.

But that obscures a significant stat documented by Pro Football Reference: In 44 of those 74 victories, Stafford was credited with the game-winning drive, suggesting another trait of great quarterbacks.

He was clutch.

Nevertheless, for most of Stafford's career with the Lions, they were a second-tier franchise, and, yeah, I know, critics will tell you that's life in the NFL and truly great players overcome adversity. They might also add that he should've won at least one of his three playoff opportunities.

Fair enough. 

But that's not the end of the story. After bowing out of the 2020 playoffs, the Rams decided to upgrade their quarterback situation with someone better than Jared Goff ... even someone who was elite, first looking to Green Bay. 

"They made a run at Aaron Rodgers," said Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, "and the Packers were adamant that they weren't trading him."

So the Rams took the next best option and sent Goff -- the 2016 first overall draft pick -- to the Lions, along with a pile of premium draft picks, for the then 33-year-old Stafford. The deal worked wonders for both teams, with the Rams winning a Super Bowl and the Lions using the draft capital to build a playoff team around Goff.

That Super Bowl win changed the Stafford narrative, with observers suddenly describing him as an excellent -- but not truly elite -- quarterback who could be in a Gold Jacket conversation some day. But in talking to several Hall-of-Fame selectors at Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas, I found that he doesn't have much support ... albeit from a small sample.

The sense I got is that they thought the former Georgia Bulldog has Hall-of-Fame skills -- rare arm talent, for example -- but that in an era where passing numbers pile up quickly, his numbers needed to be examined in the context of the era.

However, I also found a member of the media who disagreed but is not a Hall voter ... and that's the NFL Network's Rich Eisen.

"Tell me who throws a better spiral than Matthew Stafford ... consistently," he said on "The Rich Eisen Podcast. "Matthew Stafford is on a Hall-of-Fame path right now. I fully believe it. He's got statistics for it. He's got a trophy for it. If he gets another trophy, I think we're done."

He went on to list other qualifications, including throwing to two Triple Crown receivers, Hall-of-Famer Calvin Johnson and the Rams' Cooper Kupp, with Eisen identifying that as evidence that Stafford "makes the guys around him better."

OK, that's one view. But there's another, voiced the year before by Nick Wright -- another non-voting member of the media -- on the national "First Things First" show.

"The Hall of Fame," he said, "cannot just be a bunch of quarterbacks and Aaron Donald. And I guess J.J. Watt can come in, too, and Randy Moss. Guys, it's the Hall of Fame. And while there is no specific checkmark-based criteria, I think we can all agree (that) to be a Hall of Famer, can you maybe be consistently one of ... I don't know ... the five best currently playing at your own position?

"Matt Stafford has not been that throughout his career. Matt Stafford is a very nice player. But Matt Stafford, I want to tell you guys, in his career he has been an All-Pro zero times. He's been a Pro Bowler once. … Same as Mac Jones now. Unbelievable."

Ouch.

So who's right? Maybe neither. It seems more like a jury-is-still-out situation.

Stafford turns 36 this season, so he'll be around a while to add to the evidence a Hall-of-Fame jury will weigh. In fact, he's seeking an adjustment in guaranteed money to his $160-million contract, which runs through 2026. Granted, having dealt with chronic injuries to his back and arm, he's not the picture of health. But he's not gimpy either. He can move within the pocket and, when healthy, make throws few others can.

So there's no indication he can't have more seasons playing at a high level. Quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and others had success after their 36th birthday.

So why not Stafford?

Besides, he may not have to be what he was to be successful.  The Rams are reloading on both sides of the ball, and that includes a strong offensive line to protect their aging passer. It's designed to facilitate a strong rushing attack, which could take pressure off Stafford and open up the play-action game. Plus, don't forget that Kupp is still around, and they have a bright young star in Puka Nacua, last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year runner-up. 

The point is that Stafford has a chance to "do more" to increase his chances of reaching Canton.

If he finishes his contract reasonably healthy, at his current rate of production he'd be approaching 70,000 career passing yards and could surpass 400 career touchdowns. He could add to his pair of Pro Bowls and, most importantly, improve his playoff record by making another deep playoff run or two.

And that's important. Because what do we remember about Matthew Stafford and the playoffs? In the 2021 NFC divisional round game vs. Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Bucs, he made a career throw to Kupp that went for 44 yards and put the Rams in field-goal position to win. Then, in Super Bowl LVI, he made a no-look throw to Kupp on the game-winning drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown to -- who else? -- Kupp.

Those are signature moments that voters look at, and a few more would help Stafford's cause.

Look, if the Hall were based on talent alone, Stafford would be, as Eisen suggests, a sure-fire candidate. His intangibles are also off the charts. Who throws better no-look passes? Maybe only Patrick Mahomes and Rodgers. Who has a better arm in league history? Perhaps Bert Jones, John Elway, Michael Vick and Rodgers? And perhaps not. 

But the Hall is not a pro personnel evaluation. It if were, Jones and Vick would be in. It's an evaluation by voters of a player's achievements, and they will ask questions like: Was he ever the best at his position? How many times was he an All-Pro? Was he ever an MVP or a top-three quarterback in his own conference? 

In those areas, Stafford lacks.

But he has what Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks Dan Marino, Dan Fouts and Warren Moon dream of -- the precious ring -- and that's a plus because voters will also ask, "Did he win?" Once he was given a chance in Los Angeles, Matthew Stafford did. 

Still, he's no more than a borderline case for Canton, though that can change. If he "does more" -- and he has the ability, the team and the opportunity -- he could move some voters from one side of the room to the other. 

The denouement will make all the difference. Stay tuned. 

State Your Case: Chiefs' Steve Spagnuolo for PFWA’s 'Dr. Z' Award

By John Turney 
Steve Spagnualo
Maybe somebody was listening.

In February, I suggested that Chiefs' defensive coordinator Steve Spagnualo should be one of the recipients of the Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman Award, a lifetime achievement honor given annually by the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA).

Well, as it turns out, he is.

He and long-time offensive line coach Bill Callahan, now with the Tennessee Titans, were named this week as winners of the award, outpolling Larry Beightol, Tom Catlin and Jeff Stoutland to become the 24th and 25th recipients of the "Dr. Z" honor. Both Spagnuolo and Callahan had stints as head coaches but made their marks in the NFL as assistants.

Callahan is noted for his prowess as an offensive-line coach and coordinator, coaching 14 Pro Bowl offensive linemen in those roles. He's been in the NFL since 1995, stepping away only for the 2004-07 seasons when he served as head coach at the University of Nebraska.

Spagnuolo, known as "Spags", has been the winning defensive coordinator for four Super Bowl champions and is the only coordinator to coach the winning defense for two different franchises.

The first ring he won was with the 2007 New York Giants, when his defense slowed the then-unbeaten New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Attempting to become the first 19-0 team in league history, New England was held to 14 points as Spagnuolo's pressure defense harassed Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady.

The last three Super Bowl rings were with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2019, 2022 and 2023.

Both are deserving.

That said, I do have a concern:. Both coaches are still active, which means they jumped a long line of others who aren't. As happens with older players in the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame process, worthy coaches who worked a generation or two ago are, to some degree, overlooked. Perhaps there was room this year for Catlin or Beightol ... or a couple of personal favorites, Floyd Peters and Jim Hanifan.

Or perhaps ... next year?

In the meantime, congratulations to Spagnuolo and Callahan, and, hopefully, in 2025 we can congratulate past coaches who are beginning to form their own version of the "seniors' swamp."

AJC's D. Orlando Ledbetter Latest Addition to Hall's 'Writers' Wing'

By John Turney 
D. Orlando Ledbetter

When the Professional Football Writers of America (PFWA) chooses someone for its annual (PFWA) Bill Nunn Jr. Award, the recipient is said to have entered "writers' wing" of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It doesn't carry that specific designation from the Hall, but that's really what it is -- with recipients honored in Canton each August at Enshrinement Weekend.

They don't get a bust and jacket, but their names are engraved on a large plaque that honors the contributions of football writers and can be found on a wall inside the Hall.

There are 56 names on that plaque, all chosen by the Pro Football Writers of America, with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter the latest. The vast majority are or were members of the Hall's board of selectors, as well as legend makers -- those who weighed and measured candidates for the Hall.

Ledbetter is both.

"I am honored and humbled to be named as the Nunn Award winner this year," he said, "and it is always wonderful to be cited by a group of your peers ... It is a joy to cover the NFL along with the people and stories that make the game what it is today. I look forward to receiving this award in Canton, and share my joy with my family, friends, co-workers and fellow NFL writers.”

The PFWA award is named after Bill Nunn Jr., a pioneer in football reporting for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most prestigious black publications in the nation. Nunn later helped build the Pittsburgh Steelers' dynasty of the 1970s, transitioned to the front office of the Steelers and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame's Class of 2021.

By definition, the award goes to "a reporter who has made a long and distinguished contribution to pro football through coverage," and that description fits Ledbetter. He not only earned an undergraduate degree in journalism at Howard University; he has a law degree from the Cincinnati College of Law, too, and practiced law while working as a writer.

In addition to covering the Falcons for the Journal-Constitution, he was a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Cincinnati Enquirer and Charlotte Observer, has practiced entertainment and communications law and is currently a professor at the University of Georgia's Carmical Sports Media Institute.

A former adjunct professor at Atlanta Clark University, Ledbetter was the president of the PFWA in 2013-14, was a co-winner of the 2022 George Sportswriter of the Year and has lectured at the Marquette University National Sports Law Institute.

Ledbetter will be honored with others during Enshrinement Weekend in Canton in early August.

The complete list of winners:

1969 – George Strickler (Chicago Tribune)

1970 – Arthur Daley (New York Times)

1971 – Joe King (New York World Telegram & Sun)

1972 – Lewis “Tony” Atchison (Washington Star)

1973 – Dave Brady (Washington Post)

1974 – Bob Oates (Los Angeles Times)

1975 – John Steadman (Baltimore News-American)

1976 – Jack Hand (Associated Press)

1977 – Art Daley (Green Bay Press-Gazette)

1978 – Murray Olderman (Newspaper Enterprise Association)

1979 – Pat Livingston (Pittsburgh Press)

1980 – Chuck Heaton (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

1981 – Norm Miller (New York Daily News)

1982 – Cameron Snyder (Baltimore Sun)

1983 – Hugh Brown (Philadelphia Bulletin)

1984 – Larry Felser (Buffalo News)

1985 – Cooper Rollow (Chicago Tribune)

1986 – William Wallace (New York Times)

1987 – Jerry Magee (San Diego Union);

1988 – Gordon Forbes (USA Today)

1989 – Vito Stellino (Baltimore Sun)

1990 – Will McDonough (Boston Globe)

1991 – Dick Connor (Denver Post)

1992 – Frank Luksa (Dallas Morning News)

1993 – Ira Miller (San Francisco Chronicle)

1994 – Don Pierson (Chicago Tribune)

1995 – Ray Didinger (Philadelphia Daily News)

1996 – Paul Zimmerman (Sports Illustrated)

1997 – Bob Roesler (New Orleans Times-Picayune)

1998 – Dave Anderson (New York Times)

1999 – Art Spander (Oakland Tribune)

2000 – Tom McEwen (Tampa Tribune)

2001 – Len Shapiro (Washington Post)

2002 – Edwin Pope (Miami Herald)

2003 – Joel Buchsbaum (Pro Football Weekly)

2004 – Rick Gosselin (Dallas Morning News)

2005 – Jerry Green (Detroit News)

2006 – John McClain (Houston Chronicle)

2007 – John Clayton (ESPN.com)

2008 – Len Pasquarelli (ESPN.com)

2009 – Peter King (Sports Illustrated)

2010 – Peter Finney (New Orleans Times-Picayune)

2011 – Bob McGinn (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

2012 – Tom Kowalski (MLive.com)

2013 – Dan Pompei (Chicago Tribune)

2014 – Ed Bouchette (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

2015 – Dave Goldberg (Associated Press)

2016 – Chris Mortensen (ESPN.com);

2017 – Ed Werder (ESPN)

2018 – Charean Williams (Pro Football Talk);

2019 – Sam Farmer (Los Angeles Times)

2020 – Don Banks (SI.com)

2021 – Bob Glauber (Newsday)

2022 – Jarrett Bell (USA Today)

2023 – Jim Trotter (The Athletic)

2024 – D. Orlando Ledbetter (Atlanta-Journal Constitution)

Monday, June 10, 2024

Todd Christensen: He Could Catch The Rock

By John Turney
Quick, what receiver had the best hands in the 1980s? 

Jerry Rice? In his first year or two he had an issue with dropped passes, so maybe not. How about Cris Carter? OK, but because he came along late in the decade he's more of a 1990s' answer. What about Steve Largent? No question, he'd have a strong case. Anyone else? Yes.  But he wasn't a wide receiver. 

He was Raiders' tight end Todd Christensen, a guy who "could catch the rock," according to teammate Lyle Alzado.

Ranking the best hands, of course, is subjective. But no matter what the answer may be, Todd Christensen is in the conversation. However, it's another conversation that interests me, and that's his worthiness as a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

So far, he really hasn't been. Yes, he's been on preliminary lists, but he's never made it as a modern-era or seniors' semifinalist ... and that should change because his case for Canton is strong.

He was a two-time consensus All-Pro voted to five Pro Bowls -- and that was when Hall-of-Famers Kellen Winslow and Ozzie Newsome were in the AFC, which may explain why Christensen didn't make the 1980s' all-decade team. But he was a major part of the Raiders' offense in the 1980s -- arguably THE focus of the offense, which is saying something on a team with Hall-of-Fame running back Marcus Allen. 

Simply put, Todd Christensen was an elite tight end.

But not at the beginning, he wasn't. A lot was expected of him when the Dallas Cowboys chose him in the second round of the 1978 draft. He'd been a fullback at Brigham Young University who specialized in catches passes and hitting the weights, earning him the nickname of "Toddzilla" for his athletic prowess. 

He first dazzled Cowboys' coaches and teammates by breaking rookie records for weight-lifting, including a 430-pound bench press. But it was his hands that impressed them most -- so much so that they wanted to move him to tight end.

"A lot of receivers catch all the good passes," said former Cowboys' executive and Hall-of-Famer Gil Brandt. "This guy catches those, plus all the bad ones."

But there was a hitch: The stubborn Christensen resisted the change. So, after breaking his foot as a rookie, he was cut loose in 1979. Claimed by the Giants, he played just one game before he was released and signed by the Oakland Raiders ... and the rest you know. 

Christensen's future as an NFL tight end was solidified. 

At first, he starred on special teams. He'd force and recover fumbles, even returning one for a touchdown. He'd block kicks and even long snap, too. But by 1981 he was starting to catch passes, and in 1982 he was the Raiders' starting tight end.

Though small for his position (he was 6-feet-3, 230 pounds) he was effective, catching 438 passes from 1982-87. That figure was more than anyone in the NFL, and it wasn't close. The next highest total belonged to Hall-of-Famer Art Monk with 390.

He also led the NFL in receptions twice during that span with 92 in 1983 and 95 in 1986. When Christensen retired after the 1988 season, those were two of the top seven receiving seasons in league history -- for any position. Wide receiver, running back or tight end. Furthermore, to this day those two seasons rank in the top 25 among tight ends in NFL history.

As Alzado said, Todd Christensen could catch the rock.

Though the Al Davis philosophy was predicated on a vertical passing game, the Raiders still needed someone to work underneath and the middle of the field. And that is how Christensen proved his value, with scouts in Pro Preview magazine marveling at Christensen's ability to gain yards after the catch:

--- "(B)usting through linebackers and safeties after the catch," said one. 

--- "(G)reat hand-eye coordination and terrific in traffic," said another. "His play is never over ... he works off the linebackers as well as any tight end in the history of the league."

--- "One of the best I ever played with", said James Lofton, even though they were together for only two seasons.

Christensen was also one of the best interviews, a favorite of writers covering the team. He was smart, and he was clever -- one of the reasons NBC, ESPN and CBS, among others, hired him as an analyst after he retired. But he was so outspoken that he could annoy teammates like Howie Long and Alzado, who nevertheless tolerated him because ... well, because he could catch the rock.

"He was my go-to guy in so many instances, especially around the goal line," said quarterback Jim Plunkett. "He was a guy who could catch the ball no matter where it was thrown, and he really produced when he was playing for the Raiders."

Exactly.

When he caught "the rock" 92 times In 1983, 12 of them went for touchdowns, tying Mike Ditka and Jerry Smith for the NFL single-season high by a tight end. Through the 2023 season, it's still tied for 6th most. That year his receiving yardage total was 1,247 -- second only then to Winslow for most in one season. And now? Now it ranks as tenth best for a tight end. 

That was the season when Christensen earned his second Super Bowl ring -- this one a 38-9 drubbing of Washington in Super Bowl XVIII -- and consider that another box checked for Canton. Voters like candidates with jewelry. 

But there's more. 

They should consider that Christensen's five Pro Bowls are as many as Hall-of-Fame tight ends Mike Ditka, John Mackey, Kellen Winslow, Dave Casper and, Jackie Smith. They're also as many as Hall-of-Fame likely Rob Gronkowski and two more than Ozzie Newsome's three Pro Bowls.

Further, "Toddzilla" was first-or second-team All-Pro four times, tied with Casper and Winslow and only one less than Shannon Sharpe, Antonio Gates and Gronk. In all, Christensen played 10 years and in 137 games, with 461 receptions for 5,872 yards and 41 TDs.

I told you, it's a strong case.

Todd Christensen had hands as sure as anyone who played the game. He has two Super Bowl rings. He was a five-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro. Plus, he put up receiving numbers that would make him an All-Pro today.

Put it all together, and Christensen should have been in a Hall conversation long ago as a modern-era player. But that ship has sailed.  His fate now is in the hands of the seniors' committee, and, hopefully, it can catch the rock and make his case heard.  

His achievements warrant it.