(EDITOR'S NOTE: To access the Joe Collier interview, click on the following attachment: Ep 44: Randy Gradishar and The Orange Crush Defense With Joe Collier | Spreaker)
Randy Gradishar was one of the greatest NFL linebackers on one of the NFL’s greatest defenses. He played 10 years for the Denver Broncos, was a seven-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro and 1978 Defensive Player of the Year who was credited with … get this … over 2,000 tackles in his career.
So how come he’s not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
That’s a question that not only puzzles Gradishar and legions of Broncos’ fans but Gradishar’s former defensive coordinator, Joe Collier, architect of the famed “Orange Crush” defense that took Denver to three Super Bowls.
“I’ve known for years that Randy deserves to be in the Hall of Fame,” Collier said on the latest "Eye Test for Two" on fullpressradio.com. “To me, he was one of the top linebackers in the history of the NFL, and I’m very sorry that he’s not been able to get into the Hall of Fame by now.”
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been close. He was a two-time modern-era finalist (2003, 2008) and one of 20 senior finalists for the Centennial Class of 2020. But each time he failed to make the final cut, and don’t ask me why.
Don’t ask Collier, either. We did, and he has no explanation.
“He had the attributes that you need in a linebacker,” he said. “He had the size. He was about 6-3 and 230. He had the speed. He was very intelligent. He led our defense in calls and all that stuff. And he was very durable. He didn’t miss any games.
“He was the most durable linebacker I think that I’ve ever coached. I remember one week his wife came in said, ‘There’s no way he can play. He can hardly walk.’ And the next day Randy came in and said, ‘I’m playing.’ That’s the kind of guy he was. He was our leader. To me, if you wanted to make a linebacker, he was the example.”
Playing in Collier’s 3-4 defense, Gradishar was a tackling machine – with 2,049 stops (including assists) during his 10-year career. But that’s just the beginning. As Collier pointed out, he never missed a game – suiting up for 145 during the regular season, 151 if you include the playoffs. And when he finally sat down, he was -- according to pro-football-research.com -- one of only 10 linebackers in NFL history with at least 20 interceptions, 10 or more fumble recoveries (he had 13) and at least seven Pro Bowl appearances.
The other nine are Dick Butkus, Ray Lewis, Joe Schmidt, Jack Lambert, Brian Urlacher, Willie Lanier, Ted Hendricks, Jack Ham and Chuck Bednarik. All are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Eight were named to the league’s 100th anniversary team. Six were first-ballot Hall of Famers, and the three others were named within the first two years of eligibility.
Then there’s Randy Gradishar, the leader of a defense that in 1977 allowed 10.6 points per game, held all but one regular-season opponent to 14 or fewer points and led the Broncos to their first Super Bowl.
“One of the things that a lot of people forget about Randy,” said Collier, “is that he was probably the top short-yardage goal-line linebacker in the history of the NFL ... We probably won 20 games just because of crucial situations where we had to play goal-line defense or had to play short-yardage defense out on the field. (It would be) fourth and a half-yard to go or whatever, and we won the game because he, who was our leader of that short-yardage defense, made a big play.
“He was unbelievable in short yardage, there’s no question about it. We were the best short-yardage goal-line team for all the years that he played, and he was the main reason.”
Of course, there’s always a debate about those 2,049 tackles. If you do the math, that works out to 205 per season in a career where Gradishar played four years in 14-game seasons and a fifth in a nine-game, strike-shortened year (1982). That makes some observers skeptical of the figure’s accuracy. More to the point, they think the numbers are padded, reasoning that no one could be that productive or that consistent over a decade.
Except Gradishar was, Collier insisted. And he should know. He’s the guy who graded the film and recorded the tackles before handing them to then-public relations director Jim Saccomano on Monday mornings.
“By looking at the film, I would make the sure the tackles were accurate,” said Collier. “Randy made a lot of first hits, and he made a lot of assisted tackles. A lot of people probably don’t give credit for assisted tackles. If a ballcarrier is still moving and the whistle hasn’t blown, and a guy gets there to help with the tackle that’s an assisted tackle.
“I think the guys up in the press box didn’t pay much attention to a guy who came in with the second or third hit on a ballcarrier. To me, taking tackles the next day off of the film … they’re accurate tackles. No question about it."
Gradishar was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Broncos' Ring of Fame in 1989. But Canton? Nope. Hasn't called. And that makes no sense to Joe Collier.
"All the things he did as a linebacker," he said, "are unbelievable."