Bill Barnwell, among others, has written about “championship belts” at different positions, with the idea that the title of best player at position X can be passed around like a heavyweight belt. With the retirement of Troy Polamalu last week, there has been some discussion as to whether the Steelers is the greatest safety of all time (for some convincing arguments to the contrary, you can read Neil Paine’s take here).
As complicated as it is to evaluate quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers, that’s child’s play compared to comparing individual defensive players. Who is the greatest safety of all time? That’s an even more impossible question to answer, so I’m not going to even try. Instead, today and tomorrow, I’m going to look at who held the unofficial title of best safety in the league over the last 65 years.
1950 – 1951: Otto Schnellbacher, New York Giants
In 1950, the free substitution rule was permanently instituted: along with the AAFC-NFL Merger, that makes 1950 a good demarcation point for our project. Prior to the free substitution rule, players were forced to play on both offense and defense, but with unlimited substitution, specialization could occur.
Schnellbacher played with the AAFC’s New York Yankees, and led that league in interceptions with 11 interceptions in 1948. When the team disbanded in connection with the merger, Schnellbacher landed with the other team in New York. In 1950, the NY Daily News named him a first-team All-Pro, and in ’51, the NYDN, Associated Press, and UPI all selected him to their first team. That year, he led the NFL with 11 interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns.
Schnellbacher was a star at Kansas on both the gridiron and the court, and even played one year in the NBA. Schnellbacher retired after the season to become an insurance executive in Kansas, but the Giants would be fine without him. New York had quite the star-studded secondary in ’51: Schnellbacher, Tom Landry, and our next champion:
1952: Emlen Tunnell, New York Giants
Tunnell was a 9-time Pro Bowler and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and the first African American to make the Giants or the Hall or Fame. He’s one of the game’s legendary figures that deserves to be remembered, and was the key at the top of New York’s famed umbrella defense. In 1952, he recorded 7 interceptions and recovered six fumbles in 12 games, while also leading the NFL in punt return yards. Tunnell made the Pro Bowl every year from 1950 to 1957, but this is his only appearance on the list. That’s because another Hall of Famer was emerging as the game’s premier safety.
1953 – 1956: Jack Christiansen, Detroit Lions
Christiansen entered the NFL in ’51, and and returned six punts for touchdowns in his first two seasons. Beginning in 1952, he was named a first-team All-Pro by at least one major service in six straight seasons. In ’53, Christiansen and Baltimore’s Tom Keane were each unanimous choices (by the Associated Press, NY Daily News, and UPI) as first-team All-Pro safeties. But it was Christiansen who led the NFL in interceptions (12) and interception return yards (238), helping the Lions win the NFL championship for the second season in a row.
From ’54 to ’56, Christiansen was again a unanimous first-team All-Pro choice, although Green Bay’s Bobby Dillon had also emerged as a top safety and Tunnell was still playing at a high level. And in ’56, Christiansen’s Lions teammate and future Hall of Famer, Yale Lary, was in the mix for the title of the game’s best safety, too.
There are few nits to pick here. In ’57, the AP, NDYN, UPI, Sporting News, and Newspaper Enterprise Association all named Dillon and Christiansen as first-team All-Pro safeties. Those five organizations repeated that choice in 1958.Butler, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012, recorded 19 interceptions in ’57 and ’58. Dillon had a dominant six-year stretch beginning in ’53, and led the league with 47 interceptions over that period.
1959-1961: Jimmy Patton, New York Giants
Patton’s great run began in ’58, when he led the NFL with 11 interceptions and received nearly as many honors as Dillon and Christiansen. But by 1959, Patton could finally emerge as the game’s top safety, and the services recognized him as such. There may have been safeties playing at this time who would go on to have better careers — including the next man on our list — but Patton was a unanimous first-team All-Pro selection at safety in ’59, ’60, and ’61.
1962: Yale Lary, Detroit Lions
Lary was a great safety, punter, and punter returner: he’s the only member of the 500 (Punts) / 50 (Interceptions) club, and I have a feeling he’ll hold that distinction for awhile. Lary and Pat Studtill — profiled here — are the only players to record 500 punts and 50 punt returns in their careers.
Picking the best Lary year is a challenging task. He was a Pro Bowler in ’53 and then served in the Army for two years, before beginning a six-year run as a Pro Bowler in 1957. In ’62, he tied a career high with eight interceptions, and he and Tunnell shared in all the All-Pro honors. Given Lary’s Hall of Fame career, it makes sense to name him the game’s best season in at least one season, and ’62 is as good a choice as any other.
1963: Rosey Taylor, Chicago Bears
The ’63 Bears had one of the game’s greatest defenses, and Taylor was a first-team All-Pro choice from the Sporting News, the AP, the NEA, and the NYDN. He led the league with 9 interceptions (although Houston’s Fred Glick had 12 in the AFL) in what was the best season of his career. Because of unfortunately for Taylor, a bunch of Hall of Fame safeties were about to take over the league.
1964: Paul Krause, Washington Redskins
Krause was a star wide receiver and defensive back at Iowa, and as a senior, he tied the Hawkeyes record with six touchdown receptions. Then, as a rookie in 1964, he led the NFL with 12 interceptions. Over the course of his 16 year career, he intercepted 81 passes, a record that still stands today. He continued his dominant play in ’65, but a trio of safeties emerged as the game’s best.
1965: Willie Wood, Green Bay Packers
From ’64 to ’68, Wood could stake his claim as the league’s best safety. At least three organizations named him a first-team All-Pro, and he helped the Packers win threepeat from ’65 to ’67. It’s easy for history to view Wood as just a cog in the Green Bay Hall of Fame machine, but Wood can make a good claim to holding the title of best safety of the ’60s. His seven Pro Bowls and five AP first-team All-Pro selections in the decade speak for themselves.
You’re a better man than me if you can identify the best safety during this three-year period. Robinson was playing in the AFL, making the comparison even harder, but but he was perhaps the AFL’s best safety over the league’s last five years. The Chiefs defense was dominant in the late ’60s, and Robinson was one of the big reasons why. Larry Wilson began a streak of five straight first-team All-Pro seasons in ’66, while Wood was still dominant through ’68.
Robinson and Wilson continued their dominant play on each year on side of the AFL/NFL merger. Honorable mention goes to Oalkand’s Dave Grayson, a great AFL safety who had excellent years in ’68 and ’69, too, along with Eddie Meador and Mel Renfro in the NFL. But Robinson and Wilson did more than enough to keep their title belts.
Robinson made the Pro Bowl every year from ’63 to ’70, and was a first-team All-Pro the last six of those years. In ’70, he led the NFL in interceptions with 10, a year after picking off eight passes for a league-high 158 yards in the AFL. The Chiefs defense had a clean sweep atop the AFL rankings, finishing first in every major category. Robinson was a big part of that team, which would become the first — and so far, only — Super Bowl champion in Kansas City history.
Each year from ’66 to ’70, Wilson could lay claim to being the game’s best safety. He dominated the awards circuit each year, and was one of just three safeties selected to the NFL’s 75ht Anniversary All-Time team.
That brings us through two decades of football history, enough for one day. Check back tomorrow for Part II.