Saturday, April 16, 2011
The Best Middle Linebackers Not In Canton
1973 - 1984
145 Games Played
7 Pro Bowls
1978 NFL Defensive Player of the Year
Randolph Charles Gradishar was drafted in the first round of the 1973 draft by the Denver Broncos. He was the 14th player chosen overall.
He attended college at Ohio State University under legendary coach Woody Hayes. Hayes, who sent over 98 players to the professional football level in his Hall of Fame career, called Gradishar the finest linebacker he ever coached.
Not only is he a member of the schools All-Century Team and their Hall of Fame, but Radish is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. An excellent student in college, he is also inducted into the GTE Academic Hall of Fame and is on the ABC Sports All-Century team.
Denver brought him along slowly in his rookie year, starting just three of 14 games behind veteran Ray May. May was the 1971 NFL Man of the Year and a member of the Super Bowl V champion Baltimore Colts.
He started every game the next year, the last season the Broncos would run a base 4-3 defense during his tenure with the club. He was named to the Pro Bowl after grabbing three interceptions and taking one in 44 yards for a touchdown. He scored once again the following year off of another three picks and had seven quarterback sacks.
Denver went into the 1977 season running the 3-4 defense under coach Joe Collier. With players like Gradishar, Louis Wright, Tom Jackson, Bill Thompson, Reuben Carter, Bob Swensen, Lyle Alzado, and Barney Chavous, the Broncos had one of the most feared defenses in all of football history.
They were dubbed the "Orange Crush", and a soft drink named after them soon became very popular. Five members of the defense was named to the Pro Bowl that year and four were named First Team All-Pro, including Gradishar.
They led Denver to a 12-2 record and an appearance in Super Bowl XII. Though they lost the game, the defense left a permanent mark on NFL history with their excellence by allowing just 10.6 points per game that year.
Radish may have had his finest season the following year, where he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year by both the Associated Press and UPI. He also was named the winner of the George Halas Award and Linebacker of the Year by Football Digest.
Denver's defense was second in the league in points allowed, and Gradishar was one of five Bronco defenders to go to the Pro Bowl.
Football Digest named him NFL Linebacker of the Year again in 1979. He was once again selected to the Pro Bowl.
Though he failed to make the Pro Bowl in 1980, he did take one interception a career long 93 yards for the last touchdown of his career. He was also named First Team All-NFL by the Sporting News.
Gradishar made the Pro Bowl the next three years before retiring after the 1983 season. He never missed a game in his entire career, an amazing feat for someone playing such a violent position where he had to give up his body on virtually every play to prevent the opponents from success.
Not only was he durable, very intelligent, quick on his feet, and a big hitter, but Gradishar was also a masterful technician. He had the innate ability to diagnose a play and was seldom fooled.
This, along with his foot speed, allowed him to defend just about any opponent on a pass play. This ability allowed Denver the luxury of blitzing their outside linebackers, knowing he could cover their assignments.
His specialty may have been the short-yardage situation. With a superb ability to sift would-be blockers, he often filled the holes the opposing running backs would run to. Though he didn't have the toothless snarl of Jack Lambert or easily seen nastiness of Dick Butkus, he was just as good as those two Hall of Famers.
Some of the best running backs in NFL history, Walter Payton and Tony Dorsett, are on record espousing his tremendous hitting ability. "The chance for a real good shot comes very seldom, but when it's there I take full advantage of it." Gradishar once said.
There have been few linebackers to take the gridiron on his level. He is a member of the Broncos Ring of Honor and Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. Why he has yet to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is beyond bewildering. He has been a finalist twice and a semi-finalist four times.
Now he is in a gigantic pool of candidates in the Seniors Committee list. Though he should have long been inducted before he made it that far, he is caught in a quagmire of a selection process where no more than two candidates yearly can just make it to the final vote process.
It would behoove Canton to double that, allowing the Seniors Committee to try to induct at least four each year. The backlog of excellent players is too long, and it is frustrating seeing lesser modern players go in as superior players are caught in a numbers crunch that is much harder to win than a slots machine jackpot at a casino.
Watching a player as great as Randy Gradishar wait this long to get his deserved respect truly shows the ineptness of the Canton voter.
Though no one can question the recent inductions of linebackers like Andre Tippett, Ricky Jackson, and Derrick Thomas, no one would ever say that any were better football players than Gradishar.
Though deserving, it is a travesty the much more deserving Gradishar continues to wait on his rightful placement in the hallowed walls of Canton.
1966 - 1976
133 Games Played
5 Pro Bowls
1966 NFL Rookie of the Year
Thomas Henry Nobis Jr. was the first draft pick ever by the expansion Atlanta Falcons in the 1966 NFL draft. He was also the first player chosen overall.
Nobis is a legend in Texas. He was was the only sophomore starter on the Longhorns' 1963 National Championship team.
No bis averaged nearly 20 tackles per game at Texas, and was a two-way player on teams that were ranked first in the nation at some point during each of his three years.
He graced the covers of Life, Sports Illustrated and Time magazines. Nobis won the Knute Rockne, Outland, and Maxwell Awards and finished seventh in the Heisman voting.
Nobis was selected to the Football News All-Time All-America Team, Sports Illustrated's All-Century Team, and the Walter Camp Football Foundation All-Century Team.
He is also a member of the Texas and Georgia State High School Halls of Fame, Thomas Jefferson High School Alumni Hall of Fame, the San Antonio Hall of Fame, the Longhorn Hall of Honor and the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame.
Nobis started right away for the Falcons, and was very busy on a new team that struggled to a 3-11 record.
He set a Falcons record, that still stands today, when he amassed 294 tackles. It may be an NFL record, but that stat is unofficial and kept by individual teams.
He was named to the Pro Bowl and was the 1966 NFL Rookie of the Year.
Nobis intercepted the first three passes of his career the next season, and returned one for a touchdown. He was also selected to his second Pro Bowl and only First Team All-Pro honor.
In 1968, he was named to his third Pro Bowl, as the struggling Falcons went through a coaching change by hiring Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin after the third week of the season.
Nobis was injured in the fifth game of the following year, and missed the rest of the season. He came back in 1970 and was named to the Pro Bowl. He then was injured in the fourth game of the following season, and missed the rest of the year.
Nobis would only miss two games for the rest of his career. He made his last Pro Bowl in 1972, and also scored the last touchdown of his career.
The 1973 season would be the best record the Falcons had during Nobis' career. They went 9-5. Atlanta won 50 games in his eleven seasons.
His number 60 the first number retired by the team, and he is a member of the Falcons' Ring of Honor, Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame.
He has also been named the NFL Man of the Year (Dodge and Vitalis), and Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. award, due to his work with the Special Olympics as a member of the Falcons front office, and in his own foundation.
Nobis is on the NFL's All-1960s team, which is quite an accomplishment if you consider he didn't even play half of the decade.
It is TRULY astounding that 'Mr. Falcon' still has yet to be inducted into Canton. While he played on many lousy teams, but he was outstanding.
Atlanta got little publicity during his time as a player, but the voters cannot use this as an excuse. These voters are supposed to represent the whole NFL, not just the media driven franchises.
They are supposed to be experts, or at least this is what their positions as voters implies. The exclusion of Nobis for all of these years belies that thought.
Tommy Nobis epitomizes what a Hall of Fame football player is supposed to symbolize. Both on and off the field. It is truly disgraceful, and disrespectful, that he is not in Canton.
Lee Roy Jordan
1963 - 1976
186 Games Played
18 Fumble Recoveries
5 Pro Bowls
Lee Roy Jordan was the Dallas Cowboys first draft pick of the 1963 draft. He was the sixth player chosen overall. Jordan was already a gridiron legend in college, after a spectacular career at Alabama University.
In his last game with Alabama in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma University, Jordan piled up a whopping 30 tackles and was named the games MVP. He is a member of the Alabama Hall Of Fame and the College Football Hall Of Fame.
He only suited up for seven games in his rookie year, but started each game at outside linebacker on the left side. He ended up swiping three interceptions and recovering a fumble.
He was moved to middle linebacker in 1966 and would stay there the rest of his career. This was the time the famous "Doomsday Defense" was at its beginnings, and Jordan was the leader.
He picked off one pass that year and returned it 49 yards for a score that year. Jordan had three interceptions the next year for a career best 85 yards, while scoring another touchdown and recording a safety.
The Cowboys would end up making it to the 1967 NFL Championship Game before losing to the Green Bay Packers in the famous "Ice Bowl". He was named to the first of three consecutive Pro Bowls that season.
Jordan ended up playing in Super Bowl V, the first Super Bowl after the NFL/ AFL merger. The Cowboys ended up losing in the waning seconds to the Baltimore Colts in a game dubbed "The Blunder Bowl" because it was a game that featured 11 turnovers by both teams and 10 penalties against Dallas.
Jordan had two interceptions and a career best three fumble recoveries in 1971. The Cowboys would go on to beat the Miami Dolphins 24 - 3 in Super Bowl VI. It is the only Super Bowl where a team was prevented from scoring a touchdown.
Jordan had two more swipes in 1972, then had a career high six interceptions in 1973. In one game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Jordan picked off three passes in a five-minute span.
He took one ball for a 31 yard touchdown, and was named to the Pro Bowl after the season. He made his final Pro Bowl in 1974 after getting two interceptions.
The 1975 season saw Jordan tie his career high of six interceptions, while leading the Cowboys to Super Bowl X. The Cowboys ended up losing a close game to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jordan again started every game in 1976, but did not record any turnovers for only the second time of his career.
He then retired after that season as the franchises all-time leader in tackles, and his 32 interceptions are still tied for the third most ever by a linebacker in NFL history. Jordan is a member of the Cowboys Ring Of Fame.
There are a few theories as to why Jordan still awaits his call to Canton. One is that he was a member of a fantastic defense that featured Hall Of Fame Defensive Tackle Bob Lilly, along with such greats as George Andrie, Chuck Howley, Jethro Pugh, Charlie Waters, Cornell Green, and Cliff Harris.
Then there is some that say is was because of the genius diagramming of Hall Of Fame Coach Tom Landry that the "Doomsday Defense" was so effective.
Others believe that the voters have some anti-Cowboys bias from that era as well. Maybe all those points have some validity, but you cannot ignore the facts that Jordan has placed in front of all to see through his play on the field.
He was a true leader who always gave it everything he had on every play without fail. Not only was he a tackling machine, but the man helped get the ball back for his teams offense over 50 times in his career.
Jordan gathered a turnover in every 3.72 games he played in his career, an outstanding percentage. His three interception game was named one of the ten most memorable moments in the history of Texas Stadium in 2008.
Not a big man in size or stature, Jordan's heart was immeasurable, and he was one of the top linebackers in the NFL almost every year that he played.
When you see the late Derrick Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs inducted, though deservedly so, it can make one wonder. Thomas was known for just rushing the passer, and was not the complete player that Jordan was.
Lee Roy Jordan certainly is deserving of being inducted into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame.
New Orleans Saints
181 Games Played
23 Fumbles Recovered
5 Pro Bowls
Samuel Davis Mills Jr. went undrafted in 1981, then tried out with the Cleveland Browns and was cut. He then tried out with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League and was cut again.
The United States Football League began playing in 1983 and Mills tried out for the Philadelphia Stars. Not only did he make the team, he became an instant success. Nicknamed the "Field Mouse", the 5'9" Mills was known for his leadership and intensity both on and off the field.
The USFL folded after 1985, but it did have many successes. Six members of the USFL are inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including four players. Mills played in the USFL Championship Game all three seasons, winning twice. He is a member of the USFL All-Time Team, and was named All-USFL, their version of the Pro Bowl, all three years.
David Dixon created the USFL. He also was instrumental in bringing the Saints to New Orleans. His connections with the USFL proved to be valuable when that league folded as he signed many former USFL personnel.
He hired Jim Mora Sr. as his head coach, Bobby Hebert as his starting quarterback, Chuck Commiskey as a starting offensive guard, Buford Jordan as the starting fullback, Antonio Gibson as the starting strong safety, Mel Gray as the return specialist, and Mills and Vaughn Johnson as his starting inside linebackers. Mora had coached Mills, Commiskey, and Gibson in the USFL.
The Saints already had Hall of Famer Ricky Jackson at one outside linebacker slot, and had just drafted future Pro Bowler Pat Swilling to bookend him. Teamed with Mills and Johnson, New Orleans has one of the best linebacker corps in NFL history. The group was so devastating that they were called "The Dome Patrol".
Mills was the leader of the group and made his first Pro Bowl in his second season. He was always around the ball and averaged almost 100 tackles a year in his nine season with the Saints. He also took two fumble recoveries in for touchdowns and made the Pro Bowl four times total.
When his contract expired in 1994, the Saint allowed the 36-year old to leave despite the fact he had just piled up a career high 155 tackles that year for them. Mills signed with the expansion Carolina Panthers determined to show he had a lot of football still in him. He became an instant hero for the Panthers.
The 1996 season was one of his best. He was named to the Pro Bowl and was also given his only First Team All-Pro honor. Mills had a career best 5.5 sacks to go with 122 tackles and became the oldest player in NFL history to recover a fumble and return it for a score.
He retired after the 1997 season and became a linebackers coach for Carolina. He found out he had intestinal cancer and only had a few months to live in 2003, but kept coaching and pleading for his players to "keep pounding". This inspired Carolina to reach Super Bowl XXXVIII that year.
Mills died in 2005 and the Panthers have a statue of him outside of their stadium in his honor. He is a member of the Panthers Hall of Honor, the Saints Hall of Fame, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey, and the College Football Hall of Fame.
There is still a good chance Mills will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day. Though critics may say his five Pro Bowls with the NFL isn't enough for induction, that means they are discounting what he did in the USFL.
The USFL was professional football, and Mills was a huge star in that league. The building in Canton has the words Pro Football" engraved on their buildings, signs, and letterheads everywhere. The USFL obviously had tremendous impact and influence on the NFL as well.
His is a story of perseverance. The "American Dream" that became reality. Even if Mills never gets into Canton, he is probably the greatest inside linebacker the Saints franchise ever had wear their jersey.
159 Games Played
21 Fumble Recoveries
5 Pro Bowls
William Earl Bergey was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round of the 1969 AFL draft out of Arkansas State and was an AFL All-Star in his first year. Bergey started for the Bengals for five years.
He was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1974 for two first-round and one second-round draft picks because he had signed a "futures contract" with the World Football League.
The WFL folded, so he went to Philadelphia. With the Eagles, Bergey went to four straight Pro Bowls, and became the highest-paid defensive player in the league.
He earned Eagles MVP status three times. Bergey recorded 233 tackles in a single season with the Eagles. After Philadelphia lost to Oakland in Super Bowl XV, Bergey retired in 1980 with 48 turnovers, which means he got the ball back for his teams every 3.3 games.
Bergey is a member of the Bengals 40th Anniversary Roster, the Eagles Honor Roll, and the city of Buffalo's Hall of Fame. Though he was excellent in Cincinnati, it was with Philadelphia he enjoyed his best years in the NFL.
In his five years with the Bengals, Bergey had 9 interceptions and 6 fumble recoveries.
He accumulated 18 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries in seven seasons as an Eagle.
He was a tackling machine that allowed fellow Eagle linebackers John Bunting, Frank LeMaster and Jerry Robinson to excel.
When you talk of the rich history of the Eagles, names like Van Buren, Bednarik, McDonald, White, Montgomery, Carmichael, and Bill Bergey roll off the tongues of most die hard Philly fans.
He may not get into Canton, but he is a Hall of Fame player in my book.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
225 Games Played
1990s All-Decade Team
5 Pro Bowls
Hardy Otto Nickerson was drafted in the fifth round of the 1987 draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. After spending his rookie year as a reserve, he soon moved into the starting lineup and became a solid member of the team.
He signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent in 1993, and blossomed in the 4-3 base defense that head coach Tony Dungy ran. He was named First Team All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl in his first season after setting a team record with a whopping 214 tackles that still stands today.
Though he never exceeded 147 tackles in a season for the rest of his career, Nickerson was the fiery, intelligent leader of the defense and was called "The Dragon" by teammates and fans.
In 1996, he went to the Pro Bowl again, something he would continue to do until 1999. He also was named First Team All-Pro in 1997, and was honored with the Byron "Whizzer" White NFL Man of the Year Award for his work in the community and country.
He became a free agent after his last Pro Bowl season of 1999, so he signed a contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He got hurt after six games, missing the rest of the season.
The 2001 season saw him get a career high three interceptions and nine defended passes. He then signed with the Green Bay Packers in 2002, then retired at the end of the season.
Nickerson is a member of the NFL 1990's All-Decade Second Team. No other Buccaneers middle linebacker has more tackles than him and he has the third most in team history.
His getting inducted into Canton may seem a long shot to some, but Nickerson's career stacks up next to some of the greatest middle linebackers in NFL history. His longevity also shows how tough he was and how much he had.
180 Games Played
6 Pro Bowls
Karl Bernard Mecklenburg was drafted in the 12th round of the 1983 draft by the Denver Broncos, the 310th player chosen overall. He made the team as a rookie, but started out playing defensive end.
He was able to work his way on the field by impressing the coaches with his determination. After getting a pair of sacks as a rookie, he was used as a pass rush specialist the next year and got seven more. He also picked off two passes and returned them for 105 yards.
Denver knew they had to find a way to get Mecklenburg on the field, and they also wanted to upgrade their linebacking unit. Joe Collier, the Broncos legendary defensive coordinator, decided to try him at inside linebacker.
Though he split time with incumbent starter Rick Dennison, Mecklenburg was still able to rack up a career high 13 sacks. He was named First Team All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl despite starting just nine games.
He took over as a full-time starter in 1986 and was named First Team All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl again after getting 9.5 sacks. Denver would reach the Super Bowl, but lost.
The Broncos would go back to the Super Bowl in 1987 and 1989, but lost each time. Mecklenburg was a big reason for their success. In 1987, he went to the Pro Bowl after getting the last three interceptions of his career.
He was named First Team All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl in 1989 after scoring the first touchdown of his career, which came off of a fumble recovery. He scored off another fumble the next year, as well as recording a safety.
From 1986 to 1997, Mecklenburg was one of the best linebackers in all of football. He wasn't just a pass rusher, though he did pile up 55.5 sacks over that time, but he was also a tackling machine.
Starting in 1986, Mecklenburg had at least 100 tackles every year until 1986 except for the 97 he had in the strike shortened 1987 season. He had 99 tackles in 1997. After getting 68 in 1998, his lowest total as a full-time starter, he retired.
Nicknamed the "Albino Rhino" by teammates, he has the second most tackles and sacks in Broncos history. His 180 games played are the third most ever as well.
No other Broncos linebacker has been to the Pro Bowl six times, and his three First Team All-Pro nods are tied as the second most in franchise history. He is a member of the Broncos Ring of Honor.
Mecklenburg was a winner, as shown by his helping Denver reach the Super Bowl three times. His was career not expected, so the term "self-made man" certainly applies in his care.
Through determination, he ended his career on the same level as Randy Gradishar. Many consider Gradishar the greatest Broncos linebacker ever, but Mecklenburg is not far behind.
Besides missing seven games in 1988, and one the next year, he took the field every time his team did. Consistent, tough, and fiery, Karl Mecklenburg had a career certainly worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
209 Games Played
5 Pro Bowls
Jessie Lloyd Tuggle Jr went undrafted in 1987 despite having a career at Valdosta State University that had him inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He signed with Atlanta and soon found himself starting at left inside linebacker after 1980 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Buddy Curry went down with a career-ending injury.
He split time with Joel Williams the next year, starting in eight games. He was still able to rack up 103 tackles and score a touchdown off of a fumble recovery. Atlanta then handed him the job full-time the rest of his career, and he missed just three starts over that time.
After getting 183 tackles in 1989, he had 201 tackles and a career high five quarterback sacks the next year. He also took a fumble 65 yards for a touchdown.
He followed that up in 1991 with a career-best 207 tackles, and scored again off of a fumble recovery. He also had his first career interception.
The 1992 season saw him finally get recognized as a Pro Bowler after somehow not being named in either of his two previous stellar seasons. He had 193 tackles, and interception, and he scored off a career-long 69 yard fumble recovery.
After getting 185 tackles the next year, he returned to the Pro Bowl in 1994 after getting 93 tackles. The 1994 season was the last time he exceeded 100 tackles, when he had 111.
He also had a career high three interceptions, the last of his career. One was returned for a touchdown, and he made the Pro Bowl again.
After making the Pro Bowl in 1997, he made his last Pro Bowl the next year. He also scored his last touchdown, which happened off of a fumble recovery.
The Falcons would reach Super Bowl XXXIII, their only championship appearance in franchise history, but lost.
He had 3.5 sacks in 1999, but missed two games. After missing half of the 2000 season, he retired with a Falcons record of 1,640 tackles.
His five fumble recoveries for touchdowns was an NFL record until Jason Taylor of the Miami Dolphins surpassed it by one in 2009.
"The Hammer" has his jersey retired by the Falcons, and he is a member of the team's Ring of Honor.
Tommy Nobis may be the best Falcon middle linebacker ever, but Tuggle is right up there with him. Being the ultimate team player that he was, Tuggle still has a shot at induction into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame.
166 Games Played
4 Pro Bowls
1970 AFC Defensive Player of the Year
James Michael Curtis was drafted in the first round of the 1965 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Colts. He initially played fullback and even ran the ball six times as a rookie, as well a catching a pass.
The Colts switched him to linebacker the next year, where he played on the weak side. Though he started seven games in 1966, he did score off a fumble recovery. He got hurt in the third game of 1967, missing the rest of the year.
Curtis rebounded strong in 1968, helping lead the Colts to Super Bowl III after being named First Team All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl. In Baltimore's first playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings, Curtis took a fumble 60 yards for a touchdown.
He had an interception in the Colts 34-0 win over the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship and helped hold Cleveland's powerful running game to 58 yards.
Baltimore switched him to middle linebacker in 1969. Curtis responded by being named First Team All-Pro. He got a career best five interceptions in 1970, helping the Colts win their division.
After getting an interception in a first round win over the Cincinnati Bengals, he picked off another pass in Super Bowl V as the Colts defeated the Dallas Cowboys 16-13.
He was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Year by the NFL 101 Club for all of his accomplishments that year.
He was a captain on the Colts most of his time with them, known for his intensity and mean streak. Many called him the meanest player of his era.
He made the Pro Bowl in 1971 and 1974 again for Baltimore, and was named the team MVP in that 1974 season. He got hurt in 1975 and was able to play just six games.
The Colts left him exposed to the expansion draft, so the Seattle Seahawks grabbed him. He was moved to outside linebacker again, where he started every game.
Curtis, who grew up in suburban Maryland, asked to be traded closer to home. Seattle acquiesced by dealing him to the Washington Redskins before the 1977 season. Curtis retired after 1978.
Many fans who saw him play think Curtis is one of the most underrated middle linebackers of his era, in spite of the many accolades he attained. They point to Hall of Famers like Willie Lanier and Nick Buoniconti being in his way of more Pro Bowl accolades.
The fact is that Curtis was more than a vicious hitter who brought violent collisions. He was very athletic, being one of the very first players to ever retire with at least 20 interceptions and sacks in a career.
His 21 interceptions with Baltimore is still the third most ever by a Colts linebacker. His presence also helped fellow linebackers, and Colts legends, like Stan White and Hall of Famer Ted Hendricks be even more effective.
As the years pass, his chances for going into Canton dwindle. Yet Mike Curtis certainly did have a career worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.