(EDITOR’S NOTE: Each weekend this offseason a guest columnist weighs in with thoughts on the NFL – past, present or future. Today it’s the Denver Broncos’ former VP of communications and current historian, Jim Saccomano, making the Hall-of-Fame case for Broncos’ linebacker Randy Gradishar … with an assist from Andrew Mason, who once worked with the Broncos’ website. Mason is credited with the research for Saccomano’s 20-10-7 argument).
Despite a stellar record that should have placed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame years (decades?) ago, former Denver linebacker Randy Gradishar remains on the outside of the Canton Hall ... but looking in strongly.
Gradishar played for the Broncos from 1974, as a number-one draft choice out of Ohio State, through the 1983 season and was credited with 2,049 total tackles, including assists – with each one meticulously calculated by longtime Broncos’ defensive coordinator Joe Collier.
“Randy was unbelievable,” Collier said. “Some people have tried to say those tackle stats were padded, but I can assure you they were not. I personally watched every inch of film over and over; I kept those stats myself, and they were legit.”
Former ESPN National Football League commentator Tom Jackson, who played next to Gradishar for nine seasons in Denver, added that “the problem a lot of people fail to understand is that Randy actually was that good. He was THAT good.”
Of course, tackles are not an official NFL statistic. And just 4.5 of his 19.5 career sacks are “official,” since that category did not become official until 1982, Gradishar’s next-to-last season.
But let’s take a comparative look at facts that are in all the books, the trio of interceptions, fumble recoveries and Pro Bowl selections. Through research compiled on pro-football-reference.com, Gradishar is one of 10 linebackers in NFL history with at least 20 interceptions (he had exactly 20), 10 or more fumble recoveries (he had 13) and a minimum of seven Pro Bowl appearances.
The other nine are Ray Lewis, Joe Schmidt, Jack Lambert, Brian Urlacher, Willie Lanier, Ted Hendricks, Jack Ham, Dick Butkus, and Chuck “Concrete Charlie” Bednarik.
Eight of those linebackers were on the NFL’s 100 anniversary team. Six of them were first-ballot Hall-of-Fame choices. The others were inducted within two years of going on the ballot for the first time. So none of them had to wait more than eight years after retirements for a gold jacket.
Gradishar has waited over 36 years, or longer than the lifespan of all but 34 active players at the end of the 2019 regular season.
In addition to his seven Pro Bowls, Gradishar was a six-time All-Pro, Defensive Player of the Year and the ringleader of Denver’s fabled “Orange Crush” defense, which led the Broncos to their first Super Bowl in 1977.
“In my 30-plus years of coaching,” said Collier, “he was as good as the best. He had an amazing ability to see blockers without taking his eye off the runner. Randy had an uncanny ability to stay on his feet and not get knocked down. Seriously, it was like he had ‘radar’ like a bat. He was a great leader as well.”
Longtime Denver Post columnist Woody Paige said, “Gradishar was the best short-yardage defender in football. He must have made tackles for no gain on third-or-fourth-and-one a hundred times,”
Collier seconded that, noting that “Randy was the best in the league in short yardage. Ask any coach of that era, and they will say Gradishar was by far the best short-yardage linebacker.”
Opinions supporting Gradishar for the Hall of Fame are plentiful, but one keeps coming back to that 20-10-7 club. All of those stats are recorded, and they are real. Plus, those nine other linebackers in the club all went into the Hall of Fame within as soon as -- or quickly after -- gaining eligibility.
Gradishar had the same statistics as they did, so he, too, should be in. Here’s hoping Hall-of-Fame voters take a look at the 20-10-7 Club and call Gradishar’s name soon.