ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — There are thousands of artifacts inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame — helmets, jerseys, shoes, letters, programs — that provide a tapestry of the game over the past century.
There are 354 players, coaches and contributors who have been selected for enshrinement to in Canton, Ohio shrine, including the eight members of the class of 2021. But roam the hallways, dig through the archives, search the exhibits, stroll through the gallery of the bronze busts, cultivate all of the memories and one of the game’s most important groups is still wanting.
With Hall of Fame ceremonies just more than a week away, no one from the Denver Broncos‘ fabled Orange Crush defense from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s — not a coach, not a player — has a bust in the Hall. Not one has made an enshrinement speech to thank all of those who helped him along the way.
During a nine-year span, that group ranked third overall in total defense, second in run defense, first in fewest passing touchdowns allowed, second in fewest touchdowns from scrimmage allowed and fourth in scoring defense overall. It’s a chapter, a significant one, that is simply missing from the Hall’s history book.
“Oh, it should be, I’ve said it for years, said it over and over again,” former Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Collier said. “It should be. Start with Randy [Gradishar]. Start right there. But that group was special.”
“I still wonder why,” former Broncos cornerback Louis Wright said. “I watch games every Sunday and sit there and see a play, and say, ‘We did that, that’s our stuff,’ especially in the red zone. We had great players, we ran things people are still running today, and we did it as good or better than anybody. Somebody should be [in Hall of Fame] for that. You see the number of guys from some of the other defenses and you do wonder. Do people remember us like they should?”
Just ask Belichick
The group was historic in almost every way, with rankings that put it on the same tier with some of the greatest defenses the league has ever seen in one of the NFL’s greatest eras for defense. The Orange Crush has been lost in the evolution of rulebook adjustments and multitasking quarterbacks that have ushered in the current pass-happy NFL.
None other than Bill Belichick — with six Super Bowl wins as coach of the New England Patriots, three Coach of the Year awards and master builder of the greatest dynasty of the league’s salary-cap era — has called it “a really underappreciated group, not only of what they did, but how they did it … innovative, creative and something I still look to.”
Belichick, who spent the 1978 season on the hip of Collier while with the Broncos, has repeatedly said the roots of his defensive philosophy over three-plus decades can be found in what he gleaned from Collier. Belichick said his intention during his time with the Broncos “was to learn how to see the game through Joe’s eyes.” Belichick said last season he uses many of the concepts he learned in games he calls now, especially in the red zone and in goal-line looks.
“[Just] how consistently they played, it wasn’t just game-to-game, honestly,” Belichick said. “It was play-to-play, and even in practice. They didn’t make a lot of mistakes. They were very disciplined, good fundamentals. … They took a lot of pride in their responsibility, in their role.”
Their excellence was somewhat camouflaged in the golden era of defense, an era when the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ Steel Curtain, the Dallas Cowboys‘ Doomsday Defense and the Minnesota Vikings‘ Purple People Eaters roamed the pro football earth. Despite that kind of company, the Broncos’ prime Orange Crush years — 1975 to 1983 — put them at or near the top of the defensive categories that were the measuring stick of the time.
They defended the run, they defended the pass and did it at an elite level when the AFC featured powerhouses in Pittsburgh, Oakland, Miami and Baltimore.
The case for Gradishar
Pro football historian John Turney, who founded the website Pro Football Journal, has called Gradishar’s Hall of Fame omission, in particular, one of the most significant. Gradishar has been a finalist for the Hall on multiple occasions, including a finalist for the Hall’s Centennial class that will be enshrined next Saturday. But he has not been selected for a bronze bust.
No other player from the Orange Crush defense, with players like Wright, Tom Jackson, Billy Thompson and Lyle Alzado, who have all been endorsed as potential HOFers by many in the league, has even been a finalist. Wright, in particular, was not only a five-time Pro Bowl selection, but was one of four cornerbacks chosen by the Hall of Fame’s board of selectors at the time as an all-decade selection for the 1970s.
Jackson once characterized the omission of the group as a whole as “inexplicable, that’s just what I think,” as he, and others, have always said Gradishar should have been in the Hall of Fame “decades ago.”
“Joe [Collier] and the defensive coaches created things, particularly in the 3-4 look in short-yardage people are still using today,” Gradishar said.
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Gradishar is simply one of the most decorated players, perhaps the most decorated defensive player on the not-in-Hall list. A Defensive Player of the Year award in 1978, seven-time Pro Bowl selection during his 10-year career and two-time first-team All-Pro in an era with the likes of Hall of Famers Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Robert Brazile just in the AFC at linebacker. Gradishar also finished third in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year in 1977 and received votes in two other years, something several Hall of Famers who have won the award did not.
In fact, of the Hall of Fame-eligible players with at least seven Pro Bowl selections, multiple first-team All Pro selections and a Defensive Player of the Year award, Gradishar is the only one who is not enshrined in Canton.
Some have questioned Gradishar’s double-take-worthy tackle totals — he was credited with 2,049 during his 10-year career — given the fact tackles are not an official statistic and have long been routinely dismissed given they are handed out with irregular reliability leaguewide based on each home team’s statistics crew. But former Broncos assistant coach Stan Jones, a Hall of Famer as a player with the Chicago Bears, said five years before his death in 2010, “I will swear on a stack of Bibles those numbers are correct. I charted those numbers and there was too much pride, too much talent in that group for those numbers not to be real. Randy made every single one of those tackles.”
The late Merlin Olsen, a Hall of Famer, once said he never saw a player make more unassisted stops than Gradishar. And Mike Giddings, whom NFL teams have used for decades to evaluate their players, has said his review shows Gradishar was rated as a “blue” player (Giddings’ highest ranking) in eight of his 10 seasons. Giddings also said in a selection of more than 20 Broncos games he reviewed over multiple seasons, Gradishar averaged just more than 16 tackles per game — a total of more than 2,300 if taken over Gradishar’s 10-year career despite a strike year in 1982.
“We’re very proud of what we did … it’s part of Broncos history, part of football history,” Gradishar said. “It’s always just been underappreciated by people who didn’t see it all the time.”
Super Bowl XII loss looms large
By comparison from their prime years, the Steel Curtain has five Hall of Famers, Doomsday and the Purple People Eaters have three. Those teams also had players on offense who have been enshrined in the Hall, including the quarterback for each of those teams.
Perhaps the Broncos’ blowout loss to Dallas in Super Bowl XII following the 1977 season looms large, but the Vikings did not win the Super Bowl in four appearances with their historical defense to go with a Hall of Fame quarterback in Fran Tarkenton. And the Raiders, for example, have double digit Hall of Famers, including a coach in John Madden, from a group that went to, and won, one Super Bowl between 1968 and 1979.
The first Super Bowl was played after the 1966 season. Since the 1977 Hall of Fame class — the first to include players who had played most or at least half of their career during the Super Bowl era — 83 defensive players from the Super Bowl era have been enshrined and 31 of those did not win a ring. Showing how difficult the road is without a Super Bowl, 21 defensive players who never played in a Super Bowl have been enshrined.
“Those [Orange Crush] teams won an awful lot of games,” Wright has said. “… It’s like people are saying we won an awful lot of games with something other than players and coaches. Maybe no Super Bowl, but a lot of Hall of Famers weren’t fortunate enough to win Super Bowls.”
The Broncos will have two former defenders honored next week at the Hall of Fame when John Lynch (Broncos 2004-2007) and Steve Atwater (Broncos 1989-1998) will each be enshrined. Since 2004, when quarterback John Elway was enshrined, the Broncos have gone from zero Hall of Famers to eight.
But the Orange Crush shutout is inexplicable in many ways, “in every way,” Collier has said. In the end the Hall has said its mission is to “honor the heroes of the game, preserve its history and … celebrate excellence everywhere.”
“It should do that,” Collier has said. “When it comes to that group, it should do that.”