Thursday, September 16, 2010

So Sad (To Watch Good Teams Go Bad)

Just so you know, I am the only writer in the world who would dare to explain Jerry Sherk and Walter Johnson by way of Gale Gillingham.

The HOF has been extremely reluctant to recognize players from teams that used to be great but were absolutely useless when these players played for them. Actually, “extremely reluctant” is not quite right. They haven’t done it, period.

Players who played their whole career for a bad team? That’s a different story. Larry Wilson, Roger Werhli, Dan Dierdorf, and Jackie Smith played for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1960-80, a team that went 136-134-12 with a near-HOF coach for half the time. The Cardinals couldn’t yank the flags off a second-grade Pop Warner halfback and ran the ball collectively as well as Sonny Jurgensen after a brewery tour, and they have four HOFers? It must have been everyone else’s fault. Larry Stallings’ fault. Johnny Roland’s fault. Jim Hart’s fault. Ernie McMillan’s fault. Okay, it was Sam Silas’ fault, but still. Good players on traditionally bad teams skate. Good players on recently bad teams suffer.

Leroy Kelly is not an example of this. The Leroy Kelly Browns were an extension of the latter-day Jim Brown Browns. And anyway, Kelly had Gene Hickerson blocking for him.

Neither is Claude Humphrey. Humphrey really was the diamond in the dungheap. There was nothing he could do to make the Atlanta Falcons anything more than unremittingly awful. And someday he’ll be in the Hall of Fame for it.

Compare their cases to that of Gale Gillingham. Gillingham didn’t get a shot with the Packers until most of the good players blew the Bay in the wake of Vince Lombardi’s departure, and while everyone and everything around him went instantly bad under Phil Bengston’s somnolent non-leadership Gillingham stayed good – great, almost. He was a five-time All-Something playing for an offense that did not exactly trot Taylor and Hornung out there, and yet there is no one touting Gale Gillingham for the HOF.

And honestly: Who is going to push enshrinement for a player whose plaque might read, “Was the anchor of a Packers’ line that went from legendary to lousy over his 11-year career”? Who among you is willing accept that Gale Gillingham played better in 1968, the year the Packers went 6-8, than the year before, when the Packers went 9-4-1? This stuff might get written about in the hopeful between-the-seasons stories, but it’s the first to escape from long-term memory when the past is re-evaluated and players are separated good from bad.

The same applies to Mike Curtis. Curtis won a Super Bowl, but the worse the Colts got the better Curtis played. He was the definitive middle linebacker of the post-definitive-middle-linebacker era, Joe Schmidt when everyone was focused on Bubba Smith. If anyone talks about Mike Curtis for the Hall of Fame they do it under their breath.

And Pete Retzlaff, whose star rose as the Eagles slowly sunk into the east, who supplied the best early definition of a pass-catching tight end and made Norm Snead look good. (Try that sometime.) And John Gordy, Alex Karras, and Roger Brown, O-line and D-line stars on a team whose offense was built out of melted-down Edsels. And Bruce Bosley, who got to block for Ken Willard instead of Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny, and John Henry Johnson.

While it’s a fact that going down on the up escalator is not the way to get to Canton, this is not a way of making a compelling case for Walter Johnson and Jerry Sherk as Hall of Famers. Can't be done. Sherk, a Joe Klecko-type white tornado in the middle of the line, was a four-time All-Something and Johnson, a Humphrey-like pass rusher, was a three-timer, which makes them the equivalent of a Tom Keating or a Larry Hand. They’re good players, but there are better. Their teammate Jim Houston, for one.

So given that Sherk and Johnson were anchoring the D-line, Houston was linebacking, Doug Dieken was blocking his limbs down to the nubbins, and the Greg Phipps and the rest of the running-back-by-committee were cracking off 2,000 yards a season, who gets the blame for the Browns’ steady slide into mediocrity?

Forrest Gregg, just because he was rotten in Green Bay. The receiving corps, who had nothing going for them but cool names (Billy LeFear, Fair Hooker, Chip Glass, Jubilee Dunbar, Gloster Richardson). A nasty secondary beyond Clarence Scott. The rest of the linebackers and D-line. The fact that Mike Phipps had to learn on the job because Bill Nelsen couldn’t execute a five-step drop without rupturing his patellar tendon.

Guilt-by-association is easy when good teams go bad. Sherk and Johnson are undeserving of being lumped in with undeserving players. But other players deserve even better.

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