Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Now that we're through the all-time playdowns and in the midst of that sleepy time of year, I thought I'd throw out the names of some non-Hall of Famers for your consideration.

Are these guys Canton-worthy? Depends about the part of Canton you're talking about, and whether you really mean Canton, Ohio, or The Huge, Stinking Chinese City Formerly Known As Canton. But they deserve to be in one of those conversations, alongside the moo goo gai pan.

Here you go.

Bobby Dillon: Just because Sammy Baugh and Don Hutson could play D-back doesn't mean it was easy, not with the Messrs. Fears and Hirsch and Lavelli and Speedie bearing down on you and the position itself going through full-on puberty. Through the mid-'50s, when the Packers' front seven consisted of Hawg Hanner and Clayton Tonnemaker flanked by large cardboard cutouts, Bobby Dillion was supporting Val Joe Walker, Jim Psaltis, Veryl Switzer, and Clarence Self in the defensive backfield. By any measure Dillion had his own work cut out for him, yet he excelled -- four times All-Pro, five times Pro Bowl. On a better team this was Canton material. On the Packers of the mid-'50s it was self-preservation.

Steve Tasker: If a healthy disregard for sanity is a prerequisite for playing special teams, Steve Tasker's disregard was Jack LaLanne healthy. It was selling carrot juicers to all the other special-teams' guys disregards. This was fortunate for Tasker, as there are few jobs not being held by North Koreans where disregarding sanity pays so well. Tasker was the Kim Jong Il of the special-teams' world, not because he came to work in a Hongqi V12 or launched pre-emptive nuclear strikes against Vai Sikahema, but because he didn't give a rip what western civilization said, he was going to disembowel Elbert Shelley if it was his last act on earth, and damn the U.N. sanctions. Such miscreance is usually only found on SpikeTV, but it got the dude seven Pro Bowl appearances, and if they ever figure that screaming down the field 10 times a game like a candidate for the rubber room is enough to get you immortalized a short drive away from The Rubber City, Tasker is so there.

Jim David: At some point with the Detroit Lions' defensive backfield you have to ask how much of it was the reputation and how much was the players. From 1949 to 1967 the Lions had at least one All-Something D-back. From 1952 to 1963 they had two or more. Now granted, the Lions essentially defined modern D-back philosophy, and granted, the Lions stuck some tremendous players in their D-backfields. But was Jim David All-Pro for six straight seasons in the '50s because he was that good, or because the system was that advanced? With the exception of Night Train Lane, none of the Lions' D-backs played much anywhere else, so it's hard to judge. There's definitely something to the system, however. Other teams that followed it, most notably the Lombardi Packers, churned out All-Pros and HOFers, though never to the extent of the Lions. It's like the Lions discovered something that no one else could figure out or find for a decade. It's perplexing, and it really took the AFL to bring pro football around to something the Lions had known since 1951.

Dave Robinson: Three Pro Bowls, four times all-something, could match Herb Adderley stride-for-stride in a straight-line race … based on athletic ability alone, Dave Robinson would be the all-time-great Packer linebacker you'd pick first -- and then your team would be mediocre because Ray Nitschke played like a guy who missed his appointment with the exorcist. But Dave Robinson certainly had it all.

Neil Smith: Lest you think I'm just Jackson Pollock splash-painting with football words, this thing about the strength of a team resting in its lines really exists. You can prove it using a spreadsheet and the simplest of analytical tools: your brain. Go to Call up the page that lists current teams and their all-time records. Copy it and dump it into an Excel spreadsheet, then eliminate all the extraneous stuff, such as the all-time leading receivers for the various teams. Sure, there’s some hungover eyebrow-raising to be done at the revelation that Eric Martin is still the Saints' all-time leading receiver, but that only proves that records truly are made to be broken. Once the non-essentials have been banished to Deleteville, sort the teams by won-loss percentage, with the winningest teams at the top. You should wind up with a spreadsheet that starts with the Chicago Bears and ends with the Houston Texans. (It's not a straight oldest-to-youngest search, thanks to those Terry Feltons of the football world, Detroit and ChiStlAz.) Now, go though the spreadsheet and identify the part of each team that has historically been the strongest -- QB, RB, O-line, D-line, LB, DB,WR, special teams. Do that and you wind up with nine of the 10 best teams characterized by at least one dominant line -- and the teams have been able to perpetuate those lines over time and changes in personnel, rules, game play, and coaching staffs. You can win some games with a great QB, about as many with a great RB, proportionally less with great pass-catchers and D-backs. But you ain't perpetuating nothin' unless you're committed to building powerhouse lines every season, regardless of coach or quarterback. And while Kansas City isn't the winningest team out there, its whirpool runneth over with really solid D-linemen like Neil Smith -- a stout run-stuffer, a sack machine, and very, very comparable to Buck Buchanan. If you're wondering what a perennially great team is made of, here's your answer: Neil Smith. Four Neil Smiths, ideally.

Tom Sestak: By all accounts Sestak, who died young, was an absolute monster. His coach, Lou Saban, said Sestak was "one of the best I've ever seen, on any field, in any league ... for strength, interior pass rush, ability to read offensive keys, instinct to fight off traps, and raw courage." His knees were goulash but his upper body was like the palisades, and he could one-arm-tackle anyone, even bruisers like Jim Nance. The nearest thing to Sestak in today's game are Minnesota's Williamses, but Sestak was better. And less heralded, but that's Buffalo.

Maxie Baughan: This is a head-scratcher. You don't figure, do you, that the NFL is holding down Maxie Baughan because he slept with an assistant coach's wife when he was head coach at Cornell? Isn't that what assistant coaches (and their wives) are for? But it must be that, because there are a bunch of HOFers besides Trippi and Hornung with worse credentials than Mad Max. Consider that Baughan was All-Something nine times out of 10 in the Decade of the Linebacker, when teams finally concluded that, hey, it's pretty neat to have a guy who runs up into the hole and tackles Tucker Fredrickson for a loss and runs back and nails Aaron Thomas in the ribs when Gary Wood overthrows him. Nine times out of 10 for Baughan beats Dave Wilcox's seven, which is not the same thing as Baughan being better than Wilcox. If Baughan had laid down these numbers playing the middle instead of the outside he'd have been in Canton 20 years ago, because the Decade of the Linebacker was all about the middle. Just because Sam Huff was miked and Ray Nitschke had a steel plate in his head and Dick Butkus screamed at people and Tommy Nobis was the most fought-over No. 1 draft pick ever middle linebackers got an aura in the '60s, even though they were playing a position that five years earlier centers played in their free time. That stinks for Baughan, who really was a corker.

Bill Forester: Bill Forester may have been better than Ray Nitschke. Contemporary measurements say so; All-Pros are three-to-one in favor of Forester, and Forester has a 4-3 edge in Pro Bowls. Forester doesn't have as many rings and he spent more years playing nose tackle, of all things, on rotten teams, but he was Lombardi's first choice for defensive captain over Nitschke. Let's call it a draw then, except for one thing: Nitschke's one of the all-time greats and Forester nuzzles up to Brian Noble in the Packer Hall of Fame. Fairly unfair, in other words.

Alex Karras: The case is clearer with Karras, who deservedly or not served a one-year suspension for gambling in 1963, along with Paul Hornung. Gambling has always been the big stop stick in the road for halls of fame, and Karras hit it full-on – though, it must be noted, it didn't stop his partner in alleged crime. But with Karras, there was also Paper Lion, and the movie where he punched out the horse, and the other movie where he played a gay bodyguard, and the goofy TV series where he wore an apron, and, and ... and the lesson here, kiddies, is that if you want to have your cake and eat it too, relax, be patient, and always remember to play for Vince Lombardi. Think about this, though: At the time of their suspensions, what would have been the over on who would have the longer acting career: the curly-haired Golden Boy with the dimple, or the brick-shaped, stolid Greek? Gyro Boy’s upset win is the Jets-over-Colts of football-to-acting transitions.

Winston Hill: Hill was an accomplished tennis player, so ostensibly he was better than Franco Harris, whose tennis game was not much different from his football game (meaning that, yes, he sent it out of bounds every chance he got). Just the mere fact that Hill played tennis tells you something about him: He was very nimble as offensive linemen go, even by '60s standards. Hill was listed at 6-4 and 270 but played around 250. He made all-Star games eight times, or about four times more than he would have made it in a unified NFL, but he was probably one of the 10 best AFL linemen. The fact that he was able to stand up to the Bob Lillys and Bubba Smiths after unification tells you how good he was. And you'd best stay away from his overhead smash.

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