State Your Case: Erich Barnes was a feared force in every secondary he played in

Ron Borges

For nearly half of his professional career, Erich Barnes was a Pro Bowl cornerback who worked like a dentist. He took people’s teeth out.

At 6-2, 200 pounds, Barnes was an intimidating hitter with world class speed and an outlook on wide receivers that many opponents felt was one step short of mayhem, with the exception of the afternoons when it was actual mayhem.

Barnes’ philosophy was simple. You cover wide receivers by not only running with them but also by letting them know the end of their journey might not be worth the price of starting it in the first place.

“I was a little bigger (than most cornerbacks of his day), and if I could manhandle those smaller receivers I would,’’ he told the Orange and Brown Report in 2008. “The key to it was when the guy caught the ball you had to let him know he was going to get hit and give him a few more things to think about.’’

For 14 years Barnes gave them a lot to think about and plenty to worry about, first for the Chicago Bears (1958-1960), then the New York Giants (1961-64) and finally for the Cleveland Browns (1965-71).

He was a punishing tackler and a sure-handed cover corner who retired with 45 interceptions, a number that leaves him 57th all-time despite having been retired for nearly 40 years and having played in an era when opponents threw far less than they do today.

Barnes also played only 12-game seasons his first three years and then a 14-game schedule for the next 11, meaning he played the equivalent of two full fewer seasons than today’s corners. Yet he had remarkable production to go along with his intimidating reputation.

Coaches will tell you a good portion of ability is availability, and Barnes certainly was that. He missed only one game in the first 13 years of his career and ended up starting 164 of the 177 games he played, including all 14 in his final full season at cornerback at the age of 35.

After the Giants acquired Barnes from the Bears in 1961, he wasted little time making an impression. In a game against the Dallas Cowboys that season he returned an interception 102 yards for a touchdown to tie the then-NFL record. He also had seven picks that year and returned two for touchdowns.

A year later Barnes would produce the only Giants’ points in a frozen 16-7 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFL championship game when he blocked a punt that was recovered in the end zone by Jim Collier.

Blocking kicks later would become one of his unique specialties when the Browns, who acquired him from the Giants after the 1964 season, began installing him at the goal line. From there he would leap up and block long field goals, swatting them away like an irksome fly.

He was adept enough at it that the move was later outlawed.

But Erich Barnes’ truest value came in the secondary, where he was a marauding menace. That is why he was a first-team All-Pro selection in 1961 and a second-team pick in 1959, 1962 and 1964. He was an intimidator by trade. He was a cover corner with a hangman’s attitude.

“I was sort of like a dictator and intimidator,’’ Barnes told the Orange and Brown Report. “I never changed my style. I kept receivers off guard. I never let them get into a rhythm. I always wanted the receiver to go where I wanted him to go.

"That’s the reason I never did take to the bump and run. If it wasn’t for the bump and run, I think I would have played another two, three more years. I never agreed in getting in the guy’s face and then chasing him.

“When I was with the Giants and I would come to Cleveland they used to call me dirty. When I went to Cleveland, the Giants would call me dirty and Cleveland would call me aggressive. It (your reputation) all depended on where you were playing.’’

In his time, Erich Barnes was as good as any cornerback in the game. When he was asked once if he ever thought about the Hall of Fame he responded in the way you would expect. He was aggressive about who he thought he was.

“I never considered myself in a position that I wasn’t as good as the next guy,’’ the 84-year-old Barnes said in 2008. “I knew for sure, and I still know, I was as good as anybody who ever played the position and I’m satisfied with that.

"I don’t think there’s anybody in the Hall of Fame who was better than I was…and I admired all the guys in there. Herb Adderley and all of my buddies they belong in there.’’

If you ask Erich Barnes so does he, and maybe he has a point.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1
brian wolf
brian wolf

I felt he should have been in the Hall long ago. One of the most physical cornerbacks of the 60s along with Herb Adderley, Cornell Green, Willie Brown, Fred Williamson and John Sample ... Barnes interceptions and physical play not only fired up the Browns crowds but made up for a defence that lacked big stars and mostly held leads for their offence.