Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Should Steve Spagnuolo Receive A 2024 PFWA Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman Award?

By John Turney 
A decade ago, the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) created a lifetime achievement honor for NFL assistant coaches and named it the Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman Award, after the long-time NFL writer for the New York Post. In the past nine years, 23 assistants have won the award, and another dozen have been finalists. 

They're names you would know.

Winners include Dick LeBeau (also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in part for his success as an NFL assistant), Bud Carson, Bill Arnsparger Jim Johnson, Fritz Shurmur, Emmitt Thomas, Bobby Turner, Monte Kiffin and Wade Phillips. Basically a who's who of the assistant coaching world.

However, one name that's never been among the finalists is Kansas City Chiefs' defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and that should change. In fact, current events dictate he goes to the head of the list now.

Why? Easy.

Spagnuolo's defense was the key reason the Chiefs won this year's Super Bowl, unlike what happened in Kansas City's Super Bowl LVII win over the Eagles the season before. In that game, MVP Patrick Mahomes and the offense did the heavy lifting during the regular-season and in the NFL championship game. But this time the 64-year-old "Spags" walked off the field knowing his defense delivered all year, in the playoffs and in the ultimate game.

That's because his defense in 2023 was among the best in the NFL (2nd in fewest points allowed, 2nd in fewest yards allowed and 7th in DVOA) and his pressure concepts thwarted the Dolphins, Bills and Ravens in the AFC playoffs and allowed the Chiefs a comeback win in Super Bowl LVIII.

In the Big Game, he upped his blitzing by 10 percentage points and doubled his usage of man-to-man coverage from about 20 to 40 percent (both per Pro Football Focus). Plus, he prevented the elite 49ers' offense from getting in rhythm in key moments, forcing it to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns. 

Result: The 49ers produced just 22 points in five quarters, a significant drop from their yearly average of 29 points per game.

No Spags, no ring.

That hearkens back to 2007 when his Giants' defense beat up the then-undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII by allowing the record-setting offense just 14 points. In that game, the Giants sacked MVP Tom Brady five times, notable because he hadn't been sacked four times in a game all season, and countless pressures in addition to the sacks.

Any one of a few Giants' defenders, including Justin Tuck, could have been the Super Bowl MVP. It was a game plan for the ages, spoiling what would have been a perfect season for Brady and Patriots' coach Bill Belichick. And you just know they wanted that perfecto.

But, it didn't happen, in large part, due to Spagnuolo.

What was said then about Tuck as a possible MVP could've been said earlier this month for Chiefs' defensive tackle Chris Jones. While the 49ers were trying to defend free-running corners or linebackers, they forgot to block Jones -- and it cost them. It was an unblocked Jones who forced quarterback Brock Purdy into a hurried incompletion on a critical third-and-4 in overtime that led to a field goal.

Credit to Jones, just like it was credit to Tuck. And credit to Spaguolo. MVP performances by quarterbacks Eli Manning and Mahomes aside, defense won Super Bowls XLII and LVIII. And isn't that what makes a legacy for an assistant coach ... what makes him worthy of a career achievement award ... coaching up big in the biggest of games?

With his latest victory, Spagnuolo became the first coordinator -- offensive or defensive -- to earn four Super Bowl rings, breaking a tie with defensive coordinators Richie Petitbon (Washington) and Romeo Crennel (New England) and two assistants who coached the other side of the ball -- Charlies Weis and Josh McDaniels for the Patriots.

A year ago, Spagnuolo was the first to coordinate Super Bowl victories for two NFL franchises when he tied those four coaches with three coordinating rings. Now he stands alone, and the Chiefs' brain trust recognizes it. Less than a week after Super Bowl LVIII, it signed Spagnuolo to a contract extension.

Now it's time for the PFWA to respond.

To become a Paul Zimmerman Award winner, an assistant coach can be active or retired. Two of last year's winners, Don “Wink” Martindale and John Mitchell, were active at the time, though Mitchell retired after the season. The third winner, Bobb McKittrick, passed away in 2000.

I've advocated for several finalists who have yet to be named recipients, namely Floyd Peters and Jim Hanifan. But with the PFWA naming as many as four assistant coaches in one season, there's room for Spaguolo to be included.

We won't know who the winners are for a few months, but this is one case where "recentism" -- paying closer attention to recent events than ones in the past -- may be warranted. While I understand that recentism clouds judgment and can work against deserving players and coaches (see the Pro Football Hall of Fame), there can be ... and are ... exceptions.

Steve Spagnuolo is one of them.

Monday, February 19, 2024

The Hall-of-Fame Class of 2025 Will Have Stiff Competition It Seems

By John Turney 
Antonio Gates
When the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame's Class of 2024 was announced last week, there were some surprises, disappointments and perhaps a snub or two. Nothing new there. So relax. We get to do it all over again in 51 weeks. That's when the Class of 2025 is elected, and we opine about next year's surprises, disappointments and snubs.

But who will they be?

Obviously, it's impossible to know, but you can always try to predict ... which I intend to do here, but only with the modern-era candidates. I'll leave out the coach/contributor and senior candidates for now.

A good place to start is the finalists who survived this year's reduction cut from 15 to 10. They often are elected the following year, and, with this year's group, there's a strong possibility that at least a few -- if not more -- wind up enshrined in 2025.

Those five are tight end Antonio Gates, safety Darren Woodson, tackle Willie Anderson, receiver Torry Holt and defensive end Jared Allen. Then there are notable first-time eligible players like quarterback Eli Manning, linebacker Luke Kuechly, guard Marshall Yanda, running back Marshawn Lynch and edge rusher Terrell Suggs.

Of the five holdovers, you'd think Gates would be the leading candidate. I do. With more touchdown catches (116) than all but six receivers in NFL history, it was surprising he wasn't included in this year's class. But his eight Pro Bowls and tight-end record for touchdown receptions mean he won't wait long.

Pencil him in for next year.

After that, however, it gets complicated. Really complicated.

Former Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly will be the most decorated in terms of the "alls" -- he was a Pro Bowler every season but his rookie campaign, as well as a consensus All-Pro five times and the 2013 AP Defensive Player of the Year. But he also had his career cut short after eight seasons due to repeated concussions. So he lacks the longevity voters like in their first-ballot inductees.

His resume is similar to that of another linebacker, the 49ers' Patrick Willis, who was just elected after becoming eligible in 2020. Will Keuchly wait that long? Probably not. But he's not a lock to be chosen in his first try, either. 

Former Giants' quarterback Eli Manning will bring a serious, prolonged and, in all likelihood, impassioned discussion to the Hall-of-Fame vote. It will be the classic debate of how important "quarterback rings" are vs. career credentials. Manning's two Super Bowl wins over Tom Brady are his calling card for election (he was the game's MVP both times), but his passing statistics and honors (MVPs, All-Pros, Pro Bowls) aren't as numerous as other quarterbacks of his era. 

He was a four-time Pro Bowler but never an All-Pro.

Eventually, he'll get his bust in Canton. But I'd bet a lot of money it doesn't happen next year. The debate almost surely will be long and possibly contentious.

There's a lot of substance to guard Marshall Yanda's case, but he'd not only have to leapfrog Jahri Evans, the longtime Saints' guard who was a finalist this year but other finalists at positions not overlooked as often as guard to reach the Hall right away.

That just won't happen.

He could make the Final 15, but he doesn't have the case needed to be a first-ballot guard. The next one will be the Cowboys' Zack Martin, five years after he retires.


Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch will have supporters, as will pass rusher Terrell Suggs, but there are players at their respective positions ahead of them in the queue. 

So, back to this year's Top Ten.

Andre Johnson broke the wide-receiver logjam, so it would seem that Torry Holt ... and perhaps Reggie Wayne ... would move up. Because he was a Top Ten finalist and Wayne was not, Holt seems to have more momentum -- as of now. He's been in the Top Ten the past two years, so he's a logical guess.

Mark him down after Gates.

Like Holt, Jared Allen has been in the Top Ten the past two years, too. So, based on that, I think he'd be a reasonable pick for next year's Class.

That's three. 

Now, two more. But who? 

Darren Woodson and Willie Anderson? Or one, plus Kuechly? Or Wayne, who was in the Top Ten in 2023 but missed this year? Maybe someone else, like running back Fred Taylor? As I said, there are a lot of accomplished players in the mix for next year. All have strong cases, but each also has a box or two that isn't checked ... and that should make decisions exceptionally hard for voters.

Not for me. My final two picks are Willie Anderson and Darren Woodson, making it a clean sweep of this year's Top Ten.

While I think Kuechly was elite -- among the best ever at his position -- it seems likely he may have to wait a year to get his Gold Jacket, with the logic something like this: "Patrick Willis had to wait. Why is Kuechly's case significantly stronger?" I could just as easily be wrong, and he wins his Hall pass right away, but I don't think so. 

As you can see, it's going to be a deep group of candidates next year, and good luck to voters sorting them out. They're going to need it.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Will the Hall's Doors Open to Specialists, Pass-rush, Returners and Others?

By John Turney
Coy Bacon

Defensive end Dwight Freeney and return specialist Devin Hester are two of the seven members of a Hall-of-Fame Class of 2024 that tilts heavily to one side of the ball.

And that's defense.

Look who joins them: Defensive tackle Steve McMichael, linebackers Patrick Willis and Randy Gradishar and defensive ends Julius Peppers and Freeney. That means that wide receiver Andre Johnson is the only offensive finalist who will be enshrined in August. 

But it's not Johnson or the others who interest me. It's Hester and Freeney, and here's why: Their elections raise the possibility of other one-dimensional players reaching Canton ... with the key word there being "possibility." If nothing else, their elections offer others hope where there was little before.

With Hester, that's easy to explain. He's the first return specialist ... period ... to be inducted. Until now, there were only three specialists enshrined in Canton. Two were kickers (Jan Stenerud and Morten Andersen) and one was a punter (Ray Guy). But now that Hester's in, other dominant returners may get a shot, too, with Billy "White Shoes" Johnson and Rick Upchurch the most obvious. 

Both made all-decade teams in the 1970s and 1980s. Both were also All-Pro and Pro Bowlers multiple times, as well as league leaders in punt returns, and both are still high on all-time lists for punt return yards, touchdowns and yards per return. Plus, there were two return specialists named to the NFL's 100th anniversary team. Hester was one. Johnson was the other.

Before Hester, he and Upchurch were often considered 1A and 1B among all-time punt returners. 

Like Hester, Johnson and Upchuch also started occasionally at wide receiver (Hester played some defensive back, as well), but they are Hall-worthy because they could take punts and kicks to the house better than others in their era. Or any era, for that matter.  And isn't that what the Hall of Fame is about? Finding those who separated themselves from their peers?

Hester did. So did "White Shoes" and Upchurch.

And since we're speaking of specialists, maybe it's time to revive Steve Tasker's candidacy. He was a nine-time semifinalist as a modern-era candidate but never made it to the final 15. However, now that Canton has its first return specialist, a precedent has been set ... and that may make his case a bit stronger.

Now let's look at Freeney.

First-ballot choice Julius Peppers was a pretty complete defensive end. He wasn't the best run-stopper among Hall-of-Fame peers at his position, but he made enough plays vs. the run that no one would suggest he was a one-dimensional player. But Dwight Freeney? Not so much. 

He was always among the best pass rushers of his era ... and of all time ... but he created more than just sacks. He created tons of pressures, knocking down quarterbacks and chasing them out of the pocket. Plus, he did it with a rare skillset, exploding off the ball to make off-balance tackles. With 4.48 40 speed, he could fly around the edge and motor to the quarterback.

But if the tackle overset to the outside, then Freeney really had him with the patented counter-move --- the inside spin. No, he didn't invent the spin move. He perfected it. And his success with it caused a lot of later pass rushers to copy it. You cannot watch football on a Sunday (or Saturday for that matter) without seeing the move multiple times.

But that focus on hitting the quarterback came at a cost: It left the spinmaster vulnerable to the run. He didn't drop many running backs for losses or at the line of scrimmage, as the record book shows. In his career, Freeney was credited with 36 run stuffs -- tackles for loss on running backs. 

For a quick comparison, look at former Baltimore pass rusher Terrell Suggs, who's eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2025. He had 101. Then there's five-time Hall finalist Jared Allen. He had 69.

Freeney was a rush-first guy who performed in a scheme and an era where playing the run was less important than it had been. So what he did ...  and did superbly ... was lauded by his coaches. They let Freeney do what he did best -- namely, rush the passer -- and let others worry about the run.

That ethos was not prevalent in previous generations. Defensive linemen who didn't play the run were criticized by coaches, other players, writers and even fans -- even if it was only partially true or true for occasional seasons. But with Freeney's election, fairness dictates that those rush-first guys now get a second look.

Like who, you ask?:

-- Let's start with Mark Gastineau. In ten seasons he had 107-1/2 sacks, though some are unofficial as they happened prior to 1982. He was All-Pro in 1982-85 and second-team in 1981 and went to the Pro Bowl all five seasons. He often got dogged out in the media for not playing the run, even by other All-Pro defensive ends. But in his era, no one -- no one -- got to the quarterback or hurried him more than Mark "Conan the Barbarian" Gastineau.

Maybe now he has a shot at a Gold Jacket.

-- Then there's Al "Bubba" Baker. He exploded onto the NFL scene with 23 sacks, 16 and then 17-1/2 in his first three seasons and ended his career with 131, though, like Gastineau's some are unofficial.  He didn't have a reputation as a poor run defender but he wasn't a great one, either. He was a prototypical blind-side defensive end who was concerned about getting to the quarterback before all else. If he found a running back on his way there, all the better. And, like Freeney, Baker had a fair spin move of his own.

Baker was All-Everything as a rookie and went to three Pro Bowls. 

-- Another example was Coy Bacon, the pass-rushing gypsy. He played for the Rams, the Chargers, Bengals, Redskins and even had a stint with the USFL Washington Federals. And, at every stop, he harassed quarterbacks. Three times he was voted to the Pro Bowl and three times he was second-team All-Pro. Though he retired before sacks became official, NFL gamebooks reveal he had 130-1/2 in his career, including 21-1/2 in 1976.

Coy could bring the heat but never got a sniff of Canton. Maybe that changes now.

Time will tell.

Regardless, it does seem that the Hall-of-Fame seniors' committee will have more players on its plate in the future because cases previously closed to specialists and one-dimensional players possibly are reopened because similar players -- i.e., Hester and Freeney -- will be enshrined this summer. And what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Friday, February 2, 2024

If It Were Me

By John Turney
Writers, researchers, historians, drafniks, analytics followers, fans, you name it, enjoy playing games of "What If"... as in: What if they were the coach or GM of their favorite team? What would they do or whom would they draft? 

It's a form of second-guessing that's more a source of entertainment, and it doesn't just apply to games or draft boards. It can apply to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, too. 

And it will. Now.

As a writer, researcher and fan of pro football, I sometimes wonder: Whom would I choose if I were on the Hall's board of selectors? Not the ones I think will be elected. But the ones I thought were most deserving. What if I had that opportunity?

Well, now I do. So, I'm choosing my Class of 2024.

I'll ignore the four senior and coach/contributor nominees because I presume they all make it. It's just a "yes" or "no" vote, with 80 percent approval needed. So barring something bizarre, they should all make it. But I'll just say that if I had a vote, I'd affirm all four -- coach Buddy Parker, linebacker Randy Gradishar, defensive tackle Steve McMichael, and receiver Art Powell.

So, who would be my five modern-era candidates? 

First is Julius Peppers. Given that Jason Taylor was a first-ballot selection in 2017, there's no reason not to give Peppers the same honor. In my mind, neither matches up to the only previous first-ballot defensive ends -- the Mr. Rushmore at that position -- Gino Marchetti, Deacon Jones, Reggie White and Bruce Smith. We know them all by their first names.

But Peppers did have a career roughly the same as Taylor, enough to easily make him the top name on this year's finalist list.

Patrick Willis would be next. The 49ers' linebacker has the most first-team All-Pros among all the final 15. He was a tackling machine and did tremendous work in both the run game and coverage. In fact, coverage may have been his forte.

His career was cut short after eight seasons because of a foot injury, so his peak was not that long. But it was extremely high.

It's clear to me that Andre Johnson is the top wide receiver and one of the best five players among the finalists. He's just different than Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne.

He's a true No. 1 receiver and someone who, at his peak, was a bigger problem for defenses. Imagine what he'd have done with an elite quarterback like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady ... or even a few seasons with Kurt Warner.

Even so, he had three 1,500-yard receiving seasons, including one after the age of 30. He's ranked third in my book of these finalists.

Tight end Antonio Gates would be my fourth. Of all the pass catchers -- regardless of position -- in the final 15, Gates had the most touchdown catches (116).  Incredibly, he has more touchdown receptions than most of the Hall-of-Fame pass catchers, with only six ahead of him -- Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Cris Carter, Marvin Harrison and Larry Fitzgerald.

You may recognize those names. Pretty good work for a tight end who has to block some of the time.

While he may not fit the classic first-ballot definition, he is one of the top five on the ballot this year. His stats, plus his All-Pro resume -- a three-time All-Pro, eight-time Pro Bowler and 2004 NFL Alumni Tight End of the Year -- make him my fourth pick.

It may surprise you that Devin Hester would be my fifth.

It shouldn't. 

And yes, I know the arguments against his case: That he was a specialist and the Hall should be for position players or that a returner doesn't have enough impact on games. Okay, then take out the two kickers and punter.

The reason Hester belongs is that he's not only the G.O.A.T. at his position, but he's so far ahead of the field he's a phenom. He had 20 non-offensive touchdowns (most ever in NFL history) and combined for 19 combined kick/punt return touchdowns, also the most. His 14 punt returns are four more than the next player on the list.

He has a hold on the return record book the same way Jerry Rice has a hold on the receiving record book. Both top most of the lists.

Hester did play on some scrimmage plays at wide receiver and defensive back, but he was not quality at either. But if you kicked or punted to him, he'd make you pay big time. And, if you didn't, the Bears still gained good field position, as punts could be shortened or shanked and land out of bounds.

The same was true on kickoffs. He was avoided by squib kicks or kickoffs launched high and short to allow coverage teams to defend him. Even so, he was always a threat to take one to the house. Because of that dominance, he should get a bronze bust. In fact, if it were up to me -- which it's not -- he'd go in this year. He's one of the top five football players on the list.

But that's my opinion. We'll hear what voters have to say on Thursday, Feb. 8, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame reveals its Class of 2024 at the NFL Honors show.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

TUESDAY TIDBITS: "We're Not Going Out Like This"

By TJ Troup 
When the Chiefs scored the first touchdown last Sunday afternoon, thought well they have a 75% chance to win the game, and they did! When the Lions scored the first touchdown last Sunday afternoon, thought well the Niners now have a 25% chance of winning, and they did. 

The rest of this column will not be a scouting report, but thoughts on each team. 

When Dick Vermeil stepped down as coach after 2005 the Chiefs went 38-74 until Andy Reid took over. Is there any doubt he has proven his acumen as a coach? Reid's record in his last fifteen games in the playoffs is 13-2! 
Andy Reid
We all can evaluate the players, and surmise what the Chiefs game plan will be, yet from the game last Sunday at half-time Kelce had 9 catches for 96 yards! 

Thought is it possible if they needed him to continue his ability to get open and catch the ball, he might be the first tight end to have 18 catches for 200 yards?

Possibly the 49ers might want to come up with a coverage to at least limit him on Super Bowl Sunday? 

Three penalties called on Kansas City, and none for defensive holding or pass interference. Now that is one helluva job by the young men in the Chiefs secondary or we have officials that missed a few penalties. Does that continue in the Super Bowl? 

After reading my narrative today, you will be able to surmise that I want the 49ers to win and believe they will. 

Last Sunday McCaffrey had 10 carries for 29 yards in the first half, and 10 carries for 61 yards in the second half. The Lions gained 148 rushing in the first half, and 34 in the second half. San Francisco made the correct and necessary half-time adjustments last Sunday, will they be able to do that in the Super Bowl? Would relish hearing from all of you who you believe are the "key" player or players for each team, and why? 

Watch Fred Warner play and you see why he is All-Pro, and as the game unfolds will be watching to see how he defends the run and if he drops into coverage towards Kelce? 
Kyle Shanahan needs to have his game plan force Kansas City into untenable match-ups, so when he hoists the silver trophy he can finally look his dad in the eye. His statement to his team at half-time last Sunday is the title of today's narrative, and his players responded. 

The last time San Francisco won a Super Bowl their quarterback was Steve Young, and that man is now 62 years old, is this the time for the Niners to again be champions? 

Over the years have been humbled and honored to be interviewed by the folks at NFL Films, and tomorrow night on "NFL Films Presents" will be a segment on the "Playoff Bowl", a Rozelle masterpiece of public relations where he had the two second place teams from each conference play in Miami. .
1962 NFL Playoff Bowl
Yes, I did watch all ten of the games, and some of them were worth watching. My personal favorite came after the '62 season when the Steelers in black helmets for the first time played the Lions. Enjoy the Super Bowl

Monday, January 29, 2024

Four Rams Make the 2023 PFWA All-Rookie Team—One Short of the Most Ever

By John Turney 
In 1974, the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) asked its members to select an All-Rookie team, and nothing unusual there. Other organizations did the same thing. But the PFWA outlasted them, asking members this week to choose another All-Rookie team.

Appropriately, for a 50th anniversary squad it was one to remember: 

That's because four members of the Los Angeles Rams were picked -- just the sixth time four or more players from one team were selected and a reflection of how special the team's 2023 draft was. Those players are wide receiver Puka Nacua, guard Steve Avila, defensive tackle Kobie Turner and edge rusher Byron Young
Puka Nacua
In the 50 years of the PFWA award, only one team had more, and that was the 1998 Indianapolis Colts with five. That group was led by Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning wide receiver Jerome Pathon, guard Steve McKinney, defensive tackle Larry Chester, and kicker Mike Vanderjagt.

But only five others had as many all-rookie choices as the Rams: The 1977 Miami Dolphins, the 1996 Patriots and Dolphins and the 1999 Colts.
Peyton Manning
That's it.

The Dolphins' rookie class was composed of defensive end A.J. Duhe, nose tackle Bob Baumhower, outside linebacker Kim Bokamper and safety Vern Roberson. Duhe, Baumhower and Bokamper became integral parts of the famed "Killer Bees" defense in the early 1980s, a unit that took them to two Super Bowls and one Lombardi Trophy. Roberson, a safety out of Grambling, played only one season for Miami and then one more for the 49ers before he was out of the league.
Kim Bokamper
Who else?

In 1996, New England Patriots coach Bill Parcells expertly filled his grocery bag, while Jimmy Johnson, in his first year in Miami, began the post-Shula rebuild of the Dolphins by picking a solid quartet of players. The All-Rookie players selected by Parcells were wide receiver Terry Glenn, safety Lawyer Milloy, defensive tackle Devin Wyman and kicker Adam Vinatieri.

Only Wyman didn't do much in the NFL, playing just two years.

However, Glenn caught 90 passes in the 1996 regular season, plus a dozen more in the playoffs. After that, he was injured for much of his career, playing 16 games just three times in his 11 seasons. Milloy ended up playing 15 NFL seasons, was a starter in 14 and made four Pro Bowls. 
Adam Vinatieri
Then there's Vinatieri, who will be in the Hall of Fame some day. He's one of the most clutch kickers in the history of the league, with his foot providing the margin of victory in Bill Belichick's first three Super Bowl wins.

Middle linebacker Zach Thomas, 1,000-yard running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar, defensive tackle Daryl Gardener and special teamer Larry Izzo were Jimmy Johnson's All-Rookie haul. Thomas has been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while Izzo became one of the best special teams players in NFL history -- for the Patriots. 

In 1999, one year after choosing Manning & Co., the Colts hit on Hall-of-Fame running back Edgerrin James, linebacker Mike Peterson, punter Hunter Smith and returner Terrence Wilkins (who also started 11 games as a wide receiver). All were chosen to the PFWA's All-Rookie squad.

James led the NFL in rushing and not only was All-Rookie that season but also a consensus All-Pro who helped the Colts flip their record from 3-13 to 13-3.

This year's Rams are exceptional in that Nacua and Turner received strong support for the PFWA's Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year before losing to two Texans -- quarterback C.J. Stroud and defensive end Will Anderson. Nevertheless, they were named finalists this week for the Associated Press Offensive and Rookie of the Year awards. 

In any other year, Nacua would have been the OROY. The rookie out of BYU set numerous rookie receiving records, including most receptions and yards. Turner, who sang the National Anthem at Monday's Los Angeles Kings hockey game, provided more music to the ears of Rams' fans by tying future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Aaron Donald's rookie sack record.

Consider that good company for a third-round pick many Rams fans felt was drafted too high.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Hall-of-Fame Worthy Players of the 1940s and 1950s Who are Still Waiting

By John Turney

Last summer, I picked a team of pre-World War II players who had the most deserving cases for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Now, I'm fast-forwarding through the next 30 years to choose a team covering a span from the beginning of World War II up until the AFL-NFL merger.

It's an era that began with two-way players and ended with a platoon system made possible when free substitution became permanent in 1949 ... or about midway through the careers of many of these players.

If someone's career began before the war or bled into the first few years of the 1960s, he qualified for my team. I wanted to be flexible and group players in the eras they were dominant. So I did. But, as you can see, there are no full offensive and defensive squads here; just a dozen players that excelled in their eras.

Call it journalistic license. I call it my Dirty Dozen. Let's see who they are.


Jim Benton—In 1945, the season his Cleveland Rams won the NFL title, Benton had one of the best years of any receiver in any era with 1,067 receiving yards in a 10-game season. But he missed a game, so his per-game average was 118.6 yards -- the fifth-best of all time. He was a two-time All-Pro and a two-time second-team All-Pro.
Jim Benton 
Ken Kavanaugh—A deep ball threat (he had a career average of 22.4 yards per catch), Kavanaugh was twice an All-Pro, a 1940s' all-decade selection and part of three NFL championship teams.
Ken Kavanaugh
Gene Brito—A defensive end who played some offense, Brito was a consensus All-Pro four times and played in five Pro Bowls. Plus, he was a 1954 all-conference choice in the CFL when he went north for a better paycheck. Among this group, he has one of the top two cases for induction into the Hall.
Gene Brito

Al Wistert—Yes, him again. I've written about him several times before. "Ox" may be the most honored player without a bust in Canton. He was a consensus All-Pro five times and six overall, as well as an all-decade choice. He was a key blocker for Steve Van Buren, who retired as the NFL's all-time leading rusher, and the owner of two NFL championship rings.
Al Wistert
Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb—"Big Daddy's" 10-year NFL career crept into the 1960s, but he's included anyway. Right after the 1962 NFL season, his life was cut short by an accidental drug overdose -- one many think may not have been self-induced. 

A defensive tackle, Lipscomb was a consensus All-Pro with the Baltimore Colts in 1958-59 and was on the Player's All-Pro team (released by the Newspaper Enterprise Association) in 1960 and 1961 -- making him a four-time All-Pro. He was a dominant run defender on the two Colts' NFL title teams, then developed into a great pass rusher with the Steelers.
Gene Lipscomb

Dick Barwegen—Playing eight seasons, Barwegan was a four-time All-Pro and member of the 1950s' all-decade team. He was a four-time consensus All-Pro and a second-team selection a few times, as well. 
Dick Barwegen
Riley Matheson—"Snake" has been a truly forgotten player. A World War II-era player, he was a six-time All-Pro (five consensus) and played for the 1945 NFL champion Cleveland Rams. His best years occurred when so many young men were in the military that the NFL was talent-depleted, so he failed to gain the recognition he deserves. But there are plenty of Hall of Famers who excelled during the war, including Sammy Baugh and Sid Luckman.

It may be time to take another look at some of these players. Wistert's case reportedly was hurt because he didn't serve in the war, with some early Hall voters using that as a reason not to induct him. 


Charley Brock—Brock didn't get a lot of "alls," but he was a fine center and linebacker for the 1940s' Green Bay Packers. He played for two NFL title teams and was an all-decade choice. Brock had a knack for causing turnovers, including interceptions. And, while no stats are available, reports then had him responsible for a significant number of forced fumbles.
Charley Brock

Frankie Albert—Albert twice led the All-American Football Conference in touchdown passes and was the AAFC's co-MVP (with Otto Graham) in 1948. However, his teams could never get past Graham's Browns, even though they had a winning season in each of his years in the AAFC. But Albert wasn't alone. A lot of teams couldn't get past the Browns.
Frankie Albert

Ward Cuff—Cuff's career began before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, but he really didn't fit that group. So he was omitted from my pre-WWII team. He fits better here.

Cuff was one of the last great wingbacks, a position in the old single-wing offense. The Giants also used a variant of the single-wing called the "A-formation," and Cuff was vital in both. His value was as an all-around player -- blocker, runner, receiver and defender -- and he was the most prolific kicker of his time.

He was an  All-Pro in 1941 and 1943-44 and second-team a few other seasons. He's someone who cannot be judged by stats alone. 
Ward Cuff
Tank Younger—Younger was a fullback and linebacker most noted for being one-third of the Rams' so-called "Bull Elephant" backfield. But even though he was a fine runner, blocker and receiver, he was better as a defensive player 

He was All-Pro in 1951 and second-team in both 1952 and 1954. Only his final season was based on his running alone.  
Tank Younger (left) and Dan Towler (right)

Dan Towler—"Deacon" Dan was another Rams' running back and another one-third of the "Bull Elephants." He was the NFL's leading rusher once and an All-Pro three times. He and Younger have championship rings from the 1951 season.

In Towler's six NFL seasons, only Hall-of-Famer Joe Perry rushed for more yards, and no one ran for more touchdowns.

Note: The All-Pro teams cited are all accepted by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and are included in "Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the NFL".