(EDITOR'S NOTE: To access the Emmitt Thomas interview, fast-forward to 1:06:20 of the attachment above)
The NFL hasn’t had a defensive player produce double-digit interceptions in one season since Antonio Cromartie in 2007, yet 75 players in league history have had 10 or more -- including record-holder Dick “Night Train” Lane with 14 in 1952.
So where have all the interceptions gone?
For an answer, we turned to Hall-of-Fame cornerback Emmitt Thomas, who had a league-leading 12 in 1974 and who just retired from the game after 38 years of coaching. Thomas had 58 in his career, which ranks 12th all-time and is more than either of the two cornerbacks (Ty Law and Champ Bailey) in this year’s Hall-of-Fame class.
And which is also why we asked him: Why is it so difficult for today’s defensive backs to produce double-digit interceptions?
“They play so much combination defenses now,” Thomas said on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast. “You’re not tied up with an individual where someone can go at you, and you can get a chance to make plays on the ball.
“Back then, we played a lot of single-high (safety), a lot of man-to-man, so they threw the ball a lot – especially in the AFC and the AFL. We threw the ball a lot over there. It was the first league to start having receivers to catch a hundred balls.
“So the ball was thrown in the air a lot, like it is now, but guys now are so specialized in one event in high school and college that ball skills are sometimes lacking.”
They weren’t with the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs, a defense so good that it produced the most Hall-of-Famers (including Thomas) from one team on one side of the ball. Moreover, it was the last defense to lead the league across the board in every noteworthy statistic – rushing, passing, yards, points, first downs, takeaways, you name it.
Oh, yeah, and it was also the only Super Bowl champion not to allow 10 points in any of its playoff games – including a 23-7 defeat of heavily-favored Minnesota in Super Bowl IV when the Chiefs forced three interceptions and two fumbles.
So back to the original question: How were they able to do what most individuals can’t today – namely, produce a raft of interceptions?
“When we grew up we played football, basketball, baseball … did everything,” said Thomas. "Our secondary was full of offensive guys (from high school or college). I was a quarterback. Jimmy Marsalis was a receiver. Jim Kearney was a quarterback in college. Johnny (Robinson, a member of the Hall's Class of 2019) was a running back at LSU.
“(Willie) Lanier had great hands. (Jim) Lynch, Bobby Bell, all those guys had 20-plus interceptions in their careers. So we had some guys who could really get the football, and our defensive coordinator put us in positions where we could make plays.
“We had Buck Buchanan, Curley Culp, Aaron Brown and Jerry Mays up front giving us pressure and a guy that protected me for years was Jim Lynch on the right-hand side. So that enabled us to get some picks.”
No kidding. The 1969 Chiefs led the AFL with 32 that year (in a 14-game season, remember) and 47 takeaways, including nine in a shutout of the Houston Oilers.