Thursday, October 4, 2012

Culp Will be Only Seniors Candidate Inducted Into the NFL Hall of Fame as Part of the Class of 2013

By Dan Trammel

In August, Defensive tackle Curley Culp and linebacker Dave Robinson were chosen by the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Seniors Committee as finalists for the Class of 2013. Many people have criticized the Committee’s nominees, arguing other players, most notably Jerry Kramer, are more deserving. Sports Illustrated writer Peter King defended the selections, stating Kramer “was a Hall of Fame finalist nine times in his 15 seasons as a modern-era candidate…and then once again as a Senior Committee nominee, in 1997…Kramer’s case has then been heard before the full Hall of Fame selection committee 10 times over a 24-year span. Robinson has never had his case heard by the full selection committee. Culp has never had his case heard by the full selection committee…The committee doesn’t have as its stated objective to get the cases of the forgotten heard. But those are the players who make the most sense to me to get in the room.”[1] I rarely agree with Peter King, but on this point I do. The Hall of Fame voters are limited to selecting 5 Modern-era candidates each year, which includes players, coaches, and administrators. As a result, many deserving players get caught in a numbers game and fall through the cracks. The Seniors Committee was created to address these perceived wrongs. Kramer, Dick Stanfel, and Marshall Goldberg have had multiple opportunities as finalists. It is time for players like Culp and Robinson to have the opportunity. With that said, Curley Culp will be a member of the Class of 2013, while Dave Robinson will not.

Culp was a 2-time All-WAC selection from Arizona State as a middle guard while winning the 1967 NCAA heavyweight wrestling championship. A member of the 1968 United States Olympic wrestling team, Culp was drafted in the 2nd round by the Denver Broncos. According to then Kansas City Chiefs head coach Hank Stram, “To look at him, he was…just about a perfect guard—except that he didn’t want to be. He wanted to play defense.”[2] The Broncos viewed him as an offensive player, but, unlike Stram who had met him at a banquet, were unaware of his disinterest in the offensive side of the ball. After a poor preseason, Bronco coach Lou Saban offered Culp in a trade to Kansas City for the Chiefs’ 1969 4th round pick, which turned out to be Mike Schnitker. The Chiefs immediately put Culp on defense and never looked back.

Culp was instrumental in helping the Chiefs defeat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. The Vikings All-Pro Center Mick Tinglehoff, listed at 237 pounds, accustomed to playing with no defensive tackles lined up over him, was used to blocking linebackers. That was typical in the NFL at that time. The Chiefs, however, did not give him the opportunity to get to the linebackers, lining up Culp (listed at 265 pounds) and Buck Buchanan (290) over him. To complicate things for Minnesota, Kansas City stacked its linebackers behind the defensive tackles. The Vikings were held to 67 yards rushing on 19 carries in the Chiefs 23-7 win.

Culp played 6 seasons in Kansas City, where he was named to 2 Pro Bowls. In 1974, Culp signed with the World Football League. The Houston Oilers, believing the World Football League would never get off of the ground, traded John Matuszak to the Chiefs for Culp. Culp continued to play over the center, but this time in a 3-4 defense. The trade paid immediate dividends. The Oilers were losers of 31 of their previous 34 games, including 1-5 to start the 1974 season. After trading for Culp, Houston went 16-6 during the next season and a half. In 1974, the Oilers allowed opposing rushers 4.3 yards per carry. In Culp’s first full season, that average fell to an NFL leading 3.4 yards per carry.

In 5 full seasons in Houston, Culp helped the Oilers to 2 playoff appearances and was named to 4 Pro Bowls.

After retiring, Culp was named to the Chiefs 25th Anniversary team in 1987 and the Oilers 30th Anniversary team in 1989. He was selected to the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 2008. Pro Football Weekly named Culp to its All-Time 3-4 Defensive Team, along with Hall of Famers Harry Carson, Lawrence Taylor, Howie Long, Lee Roy Selmon, and Andre Tippett. Randy Gradishar is the only other member of the team that has yet to be enshrined in Canton.

Culp wrote the book on playing nose tackle in the NFL. As Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman wrote in 1987, “[T]here’s only one man you could rank as No.1—then, now and possibly forever. That’s Curley Culp.”[3] Culp will soon be joining the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2013.

The second selection by the Seniors Committee is Dave Robinson.  Robinson was an underrated player throughout his career, playing in the shadow of Hall of Famers Willie Davis, Willie Wood, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, and Henry Jordan. An All-American end at Penn State, Vince Lombardi selected Robinson in the first round of the 1963 draft and immediately made him a linebacker. An extremely intelligent player, at 6’4”, 245 pounds, Robinson had the size to battle tight ends but the speed to cover running backs, the type of player that “comes along maybe once or twice in every coach’s lifetime.”[4] But being a gifted athlete is not enough to gain entry into the Hall of Fame. The table below compares Robinson to some of his contemporaries:

Pro Bowls
AP 1st Team All-Pro
AP 2nd Team All-Pro
Championship Rings
Chuck Howley
Maxie Baughan
Dave Robinson
Dave Wilcox
Chris Hanburger

The Hall of Fame voters have a tendency to elect members of championship teams. So, it is somewhat odd that Wilcox and Hanburger, the two without championship rings on the above list, are the only 2 Hall of Famers.

Robinson is not the best player on the above list. In fact, most people would argue he is less deserving than the others listed to be a Hall of Fame candidate. Fortunately, unlike players such as Andre Reed, Cris Carter, and Tim Brown, who are on the ballot with each other and, as a result, are canceling each other out, Robinson, as a Seniors Committee candidate, is automatically a finalist, and thus needs only a yes vote (albeit from 80% of the voters) to be inducted. The question is, however, how will he be evaluated. Will the voters compare him to Howley and Baughan and say, “If they are not in, we can’t vote for Robinson.” Or will they look at his career as a whole and assess whether he is or is not a Hall of Famer?

He was a member of the 1960s All-Decade team. Many people put a lot of stock in such proclamations, particularly the Jerry Kramer fan club. The other linebackers on the 1960s All-Decade team are Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Tommy Nobis, and Larry Morris. Butkus and Nitschke are Hall of Famers. Nobis was the first ever draft pick of the Atlanta Falcons and was named to 5 Pro Bowls. He is often cited as a glaring omission of the Hall of Fame. Larry Morris made 0 All-Pro teams and 0 Pro Bowls in his career, which only spanned 5 years of the 1960s. It is a mystery how he was selected over Howley, Baughan, or Hanburger. Clearly, being an all-decade team member is not an automatic pass to the Hall. His 3 Pro Bowl appearances would be the second lowest total among Hall of Fame linebackers, ahead of only former teammate Nitschke’s 1. And his 1 1st-team All Pro appearance is not a lot to hang your hat on. In the end, his candidacy is based on the team for which he played, the Green Bay Packers.

The Packers dominated the 1960s. As a result, many members of those teams are currently enshrined. A sixth Hall of Fame member of that defense, however, is one too many. The Packers in 1962, the year before Robinson was drafted by the Packers, finished first in points allowed and second in yards allowed. With the help of Robinson, the Packers defense never finished worse than 4th in either category through the rest of the decade. How much of the team’s success was based on Robinson? In 1970, after the loss of 3 of the aforementioned Hall of Famers, the Packers slipped to 19th in points and 16th in yards. It is nearly impossible to gauge the importance of one player, particularly one surrounded by other great players. In the end, the voters will decide the Packers are adequately represented, and that Robinson is not the best linebacker from that era omitted from the Hall.

Consequently, only 1 Seniors Committee nominee will be among the Class of 2013 in Canton.

[1] Peter King, Monday Morning Quarterback, (August 26, 2012).
[2] Hank Stram, Lou Sahadi, They’re Playing My Game (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1986), 101.
[3] Paul Zimmerman, “Brutal Face-Off,” Sports Illustrated, September 9, 1987, 32.
[4] Paul Zimmerman, A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football, Rev. ed. (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1971), 136.

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