(EDITOR’S NOTE: Each weekend this offseason a guest columnist weighs in on the NFL – past, present and future. Today, it’s historian Andy Piascik of the Pro Football Researchers Association who examines the role of all-decade teams in evaluating Hall-of-Fame candidates and offers his own reassessment of the 1950s’ all-decade team.)
The NFL, via the Hall-of-Fame selection committee, in 1969 selected all-decade teams for the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. It was a nice way to popularize the game’s past on the occasion of the NFL’s 50 season and honor outstanding players of pro football’s first four decades.
It also stimulated discussion at the time … and continues to do so years later. There isn’t much fans like to discuss and debate more than Who’s Better and Who’s Best.
There are, of course, built in difficulties with such an undertaking. As with the Hall-of-Fame election process, there are differences in evaluating players. Some prioritize honors like All-Pro, all-conference and the Pro Bowl. For others, ranking high in any number of statistical categories is a priority. Studious voters may examine game film. Then there are testimonials from prominent contemporaries of the player in question, including coaches, executives, scouts, sportswriters, broadcasters and fellow players.
Best of all are raves from opposing players and coaches.
There are other factors such as visibility, popularity and character, regardless of what it may say anywhere about anything off the field not being relevant. A player with a second, decades-long career as an announcer, coach or general manager is likely to be favored over an equally good player who dies young or goes home to his small hometown, his family and quiet job.
An arrest or two or a public battle with drugs undoubtedly hurts. A family-man who gives or raises millions for the right kind of causes may gain votes for doing so.
Arbitrariness of the Numbers
Aside from the issue of subjectivity and how voters weigh all of the above, as well as other factors, there is the arbitrariness of the numbers. A decade is any period of ten years. The period from 1983 to 1992, inclusive, is a decade. All other ten-year periods from the founding of the NFL are decades. For better or worse, and for no other reason than convenience, the ten-year periods involved are all of those we generally identify as a decade: 1920-29, 1930-39, 1940-49, etc. This makes perfect sense, for there really is no other way.
The problem, though, is obvious and applies directly to a number of players. If Player A has many great years that are equally divided between two decades but not enough in either, he is likely to lose out. Let’s call such players ‘Tweeners. Conversely, if Player B has all of his best years in one decade, he has an edge over A even if the full body of his work is less, even significantly less, than A. So B goes home with his all-decade trophy while A is left empty-handed even if the general consensus is that A was the better player.
On some level, that’s just the way it goes. Where it becomes problematic is when “making an all-decade team” becomes a big factor, maybe even the leading factor, in determining who gets into the Hall of Fame. And from a number of indicators, making an all-decade team has become more important in Hall-of-Fame voting in recent years.
Moving beyond the hypothetical, consider the case of four great offensive guards: Dick Stanfel, Jim Ray Smith, Gene Hickerson and Jerry Kramer. Smith had a number of great years, but they are about equally divided between the 1950s and 1960s, while Stanfel, Hickerson and Kramer had all of their best years in a single decade (Stanfel in the 1950s and Hickerson and Kramer in the 1960s). Consequently, those three made all-decade teams and are in the Hall of Fame. Smith did not make an all-decade team and is not in the Hall of Fame.
A case could be made that Smith was the best of the four, and I’m one who would make such a case. Stanfel, Hickerson and Kramer’s all-decade honors helped get them into the Hall of Fame even though Smith is, in my opinion, more deserving.
Jimmy Patton is another ‘Tweener who had multiple great years in both the 1950s and 1960s. He was a better player than defensive backs who made the 1950s’ and 1960s’ teams but Patton, like Smith, did not make either. Patton is also not in the Hall of Fame while some lesser defensive backs who had all their best years in a single decade and made all-decade teams, are.
Is Every All-Decade Player a Hall of Famer?
Fifty-one years after the first all-decade teams were selected, many of the players named to those teams have been elected to the Hall of Fame. One result is that in recent years we have begun to hear with some frequency statements like “Player A is one of only three players from the all-1950s’ team not in the Hall of Fame” or “Player B is one of only two offensive players from the all-1970s’ team not in the Hall of Fame” made in support of certain candidates. These are statements grounded on the assumption that everybody named to an all-decade team should be in the Hall of Fame.
Reviewing all of the all-decade teams, it’s clear that some of those selected DO NOT belong in the Hall of Fame. Making a Hall case for a weak or undeserving candidate on the grounds they were picked for an all-decade team is a lazy, dishonest argument. Making an all-decade team is ONE bit of evidence, and not a particularly strong one. It is NOT the sum total of a player’s case.
Not only were many players mistakenly picked for all-decade teams, there are many others who did not make all-decade teams who are more deserving of the Hall of Fame and not in.
Every player should be evaluated solely on his complete body of work. Not only should a player’s career body of work override an all-decade team, the Hall-of-Fame selectors must consider that some players picked to all-decade teams were mistakes. The more obvious point, and one that cannot be repeated often enough, is that some players who did not make an all-decade team are more Hall worthy than others who did.
Here is the official 1950s’ team:
FIRST TEAM/OFFENSE/SECOND TEAM
Raymond Berry/End/Bobby Walston
Tom Fears/End --------------------
Elroy Hirsch/End --------------------
Roosevelt Brown/Tackle --------------------
Bob St. Clair/Tackle --------------------
Jim Parker/Guard/Dick Barwegan
Dick Stanfel/Guard ---------------------
Chuck Bednarik/Center ---------------------
Otto Graham/Quarterback/Bobby Layne, Norm Van Brocklin
Ollie Matson/Halfback/Frank Gifford
Hugh McElhenny/Halfback/Lenny Moore
Joe Perry/Fullback/Alan Ameche
Lou Groza/Placekicker ---------------------
FIRST TEAM/DEFENSE/SECOND TEAM
Gino Marchetti/End ---------------------
Len Ford/End ---------------------
Leo Nomellini/Tackle/Art Donovan
Ernie Stautner/Tackle ---------------------
Bill George/Linebacker/Joe Fortunato
Sam Huff/Linebacker ---------------------
Joe Schmidt/Linebacker ---------------------
Jack Butler/Cornerback ---------------------
Night Train Lane/Cornerback ---------------------
Jack Christiansen/Safety/Yale Lary
Emlen Tunnell/Safety ---------------------
No explanation was made as to why 12 players were picked on offense instead of 11. There was also no explanation as to why the second team is incomplete.
There are obvious mistakes like Bobby Walston and Joe Fortunato. Jim Parker was a tackle in the three seasons he played in the 1950s, not a guard. Chuck Bednarik, the 60-minute man myth notwithstanding, played very little at center compared to linebacker. There was no recognition of the difference between the middle and outside linebacker positions, and all three linebackers selected played the middle.
Here is an alternative team I think is better:
FIRST TEAM/ OFFENSE/ SECOND TEAM
Elroy Hirsch/End/Billy Wilson
Billy Howton/End/Pete Pihos
Lou Creekmur/Tackle/Lou Groza
Roosevelt Brown/Tackle/Bob St. Clair
Dick Stanfel/Guard/Stan Jones
Duane Putnam/ Guard/Dick Barwegan
Frank Gatski/Center/Jim Ringo
Otto Graham/Quarterback/Norm Van Brocklin
Frank Gifford/Flanker/Lenny Moore
Hugh McElhenny/Halfback/Ollie Matson
Joe Perry/Fullback/Jim Brown
Lou Groza/Placekicker/Gordie Soltau
Horace Gillom/Punter/Norm Van Brocklin
Ollie Matson/Kickoff Returner/Lynn Chandnois
Jack Christiansen/Punt Returner/Emlen Tunnell
FIRST TEAM/DEFENSE/SECOND TEAM
Gino Marchetti/End/Andy Robustelli
Len Ford/End/Gene Brito
Leo Nomellini/Tackle/Arnie Weinmeister
Art Donovan/Tackle/Ernie Stautner
Joe Schmidt/Middle Linebacker/Bill George
Chuck Bednarik/Outside Linebacker/Les Richter
George Connor/Outside Linebacker/Walt Michaels
Night Train Lane/Cornerback/Jim David
Jack Butler/Cornerback/Warren Lahr
Jack Christiansen/Safety/Yale Lary
Emlen Tunnell/Safety/Bobby Dillon
Special Mention: Middle Guard Bill Willis
Dick Barwegan only played five seasons in the 1950s, but they were great years and I believe he is one of the four best guards of the decade, not to mention one of the greatest guards of all time. As good as Parker was, his short stint in the decade leaves him behind the four tackles on my team, all of whom played all or most of the decade and were outstanding.
Jim Brown only played three years in the decade, but he did so much in those three years that he earns a spot as a fullback on the second team. If one decides Brown did not do enough to warrant selection to the second team, Casares is a better choice than Ameche. But it’s not like either Casares or Ameche played the whole decade. Each played five seasons in the 1950s, compared to Brown’s three.
Unlike the official team, I selected OLBs and MLBs. There were plenty of close calls such as picking Van Brocklin as the second-team quarterback over Layne. Despite only playing four seasons in the 1950s, Arnie Weinmeister was so great he gets a second-team spot.
There are three players from the official list who are not in the Hall of Fame: Barwegan, Fortunato and Walston. As mentioned, Fortunato and Walston were mistakes and certainly do not belong in Canton. Barwegan absolutely, positively belongs in Canton. Putnam and Brito are close, but I think the Hall is OK without them. Howton gets discussed more frequently, but I rate him behind Barwegan, Putnam and Brito. Others like Lahr, David, Michaels, Chandnois, Soltau and Gillom absolutely do not belong in the Hall of Fame.
Debate and Discussion
One goal here is to stimulate debate and discussion. Another is to highlight the weaknesses of the official 1950s’ team. Fudging a guy’s position to fit him in is troubling (Jim Parker and Chuck Bednarik), including a guy who had most of his good years in a different decade (Joe Fortunato). As mentioned, there are definite mistakes with the choices. There are mistakes on the official teams from other decades, too, and those should be critically examined and discussed as well.
The ‘Tweener problem is a big one, and the cases of Berry and Fears illustrate that. Both had better careers than Howton and Wilson, and both are very deservedly in the Hall of Fame. But the best years of both were divided between two decades, while Howton and Wilson had all of their great years in the 1950s and did more cumulatively in that decade.
No matter their greatness, selecting Fears and Berry is a disservice if the goal is to truly recognize those who were the best in a specific span of ten years. That is the big drawback of the strict 1950-59 time frame and all the other decade time frames.
All-Decade Teams Are Fun But They’re Not That Important!
Perhaps most of all, this is a call to downgrade and perhaps eliminate altogether all-decade teams from the evaluation of Hall-of-Fame candidates. It sometimes seems the Hall is trying to justify the work of those who picked the all-decade teams in ways that absolutely aren’t warranted. If somebody wants to argue that Dick Stanfel is more deserving of enshrinement than Jim Ray Smith, that argument should be based on the totality of the career of each, not on the basis that Stanfel made an all-decade team and Smith didn’t. To not see Smith shortchanged in such a comparison due to the randomness of when his career began and ended is the equivalent of hiding one’s head in the sand.
Besides Smith and the aforementioned Jimmy Patton, there are others from other time periods whose best years were divided between two decades and did not make all-decade teams who deserve a close look by Hall voters. Randy Gradishar is one such player who, unfortunately, was bypassed by the special Centennial Committee in January.
Others include Walt Sweeney, Cornell Green, Lou Rymkus and Karl Mecklenburg. This in no way means Smith, Patton or anyone else should be fast tracked to Canton. Not at all. It simply means they should be looked at closely with the goal of making the Hall of Fame the best it can possibly be. To that end, all-decade teams would be best left out of the selection process altogether.
(Andy Piascik is a long-time member of the Pro Football Researchers Association and is the author of many articles on football history as well as two award-winning books: Gridiron Gauntlet: The Story of the Men Who Integrated Pro Football in Their Own Words and The Best Show in Football: The 1946-55 Cleveland Browns, Pro Football's Greatest Dynasty.)