Three-down linebackers in the NFL are rare.
In the era of specialization in today’s NFL, if linebackers hope to stay on the field they need the bulk to play the run on first down and the speed to stay with backs and tight ends in pass coverage on second and third downs.
Four-down linebackers are even more rare. In any era. Which is why the career of the late Matt Blair deserves far greater scrutiny than it’s received thus far. He was an impact player on all four downs with the Minnesota Vikings in the 1970s and 1980s.
The turn of the 1980 decade marked a golden era for outside linebackers with the position transitioning from the physical prototype (Ted Hendricks, Brad Van Pelt, Dave Wilcox) of the early 1970s, to the technicians (Jack Ham, Thomas Henderson, Tom Jackson) of the mid-to-late 1970s to the edge rushers (Lawrence Taylor, Rickey Jackson, Hugh Green) of the early 1980s. There was a blend of all three types from 1977 through 1982 but only two went to the Pro Bowl all six of those seasons – Matt Blair and Robert Brazile.
Brazile was enshrined in Canton as a senior candidate in 2017. Blair has never been discussed as a Hall of Fame finalist. He became eligible for Canton in 1990 but his 20-year window of eligibility expired without his ever advancing to the semifinals. He has languished in the senior pool now for 11 years without any movement on his candidacy.
Matt Blair was a better player than that.
Blair posted a career-high 220 tackles in 1981, the third-best single season in franchise history, and finished his career with 1,452 – second-best in Vikings’ history. He was named one of the 50 greatest Vikings of all-time in 2010 and was enshrined in the club’s Ring of Honor in 2012.
Blair was a second-round draft pick out of Iowa State in 1974 and started six games as a rookie backing up one of the most vaunted defensive fronts in NFL history, the Purple People Eaters. That line featured Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Alan Page and formed the backbone of teams that went to four of the first 11 Super Bowls.
Those appearances came during an era before the blitzing linebackers. With Eller, Page and Jim Marshall, Minnesota didn’t need any help with the pass rush up front. All three retired with 100-plus career sacks. The Vikings needed their linebackers to play a traditional game, stuff the run and cover the pass. At 6-5, 232 pounds, Blair was the physical prototype for that style of play.
Blair recovered a team-leading five fumbles in 1976, led the team in tackles for the first time with 112 in 1978 and then led the team with six sacks in 1981. He finished his career with 23 sacks, 20 fumble recoveries and 16 interceptions. He returned one fumble 49 yards for a touchdown in a 24-20 victory over the Chicago Bears in 1978.
You can debate whether his production as a three-down linebacker was Hall of Fame worthy. But there is no debate that his fourth-down productivity bore a Hall-of-Fame stamp. The adage that special teams are a third of the game? Blair took his role in the kicking game seriously. In fact, he took it to another level.
In 1976, in his first full season as a starter, Blair led the Vikings with 18 special-teams tackles on Minnesota’s way to the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl. The following year he set a franchise single-season record with five blocked kicks, then repeated that feat in 1979.
In all, Blair blocked a franchise-record 20 kicks – 16 conversions, two field goals and two punts. He blocked two kicks in a single-game three times. Blair also blocked three more kicks in the post-season, including a punt by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1975 Super Bowl.
Blair made tackles, sacked quarterbacks, intercepted passes, forced fumbles, recovered fumbles and blocked kicks. He did everything you could ask of a linebacker during the course of a four-down offensive series.
His game was complete – and Blair played that game for 12 seasons, going to the Pro Bowl in half of them. He played in 96 regular-season victories on teams that won three NFC championships. Blair passed away in October at the age of 70 … but his career should not be forgotten. Nor should it be as overlooked as it has been.