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NFL Announces Special Centennial HOF Class

The NFL has finally made the full announcement of the 15 players, coaches, and contributors who will be part of a special expanded Hall of Fame class in 2020. You can learn more about these players at the link below. Donnie Shell means an astonishing FIVE members of the Pittsburgh Steelers 1974 rookie class are now Hall of Famers, although Shell was undrafted. Paul Tagliabue is probably the most controversial selection because of the league's treatment of concussions during his time as commissioner.

PLAYERS

OT Jim Covert

OT Winston Hill

OT Duke Slater

WR Harold Carmichael

END (WR) Mac Speedie

DT Alex Karras

DE/LB Ed Sprinkle

S Bobby Dillon

S Cliff Harris

S Donnie Shell

CONTRIBUTORS

Steve Sabol

Paul Tagliabue

George Young

COACHES

Bill Cowher

Jimmy Johson

 

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Comments

90 comments, Last at 22 Jan 2020, 2:12pm

1 Randy Gradishar

How do people who aren't Broncos fans feel about Randy Gradishar not being included? I really thought he was a no-brainer in here. The Broncos have gotten more love in recent years, but it still feels as if they're under-represented as an organization given their success, specifically with a lack of players in the 70s/80s/early 90s.

37 As I've said before be very…

As I've said before be very happy to see Howley in the HoF (frankly winning Superbowl MVP on losing side alone is almost enough), but Gradishar's continue omission is start to seem crazy. (Dilweg is so far before my time I'll accept the word of those who know vastly more than me).

Some stats courtesy of Andrew Mason (who is Broncos homer, but still they make a point):

"10 LBs in NFL history have 20+ career interceptions, 10+ fumble recoveries & 7+ Pro Bowl selections.

8 of the 10 are on the NFL100

9 of the 10 were inducted into HoF within 2 years of eligibility.

The other is Randy Gradishar."

It isn't as if he wasn't also a hard hitting tackler. Yes, his tackle figures need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but so do those of many every big name players from that before the era of everyone having VCRs or better. A lot of team gave assists to any one close enough to reach the pile before people started getting up again, but I suspect someone who played like Gradishar probably earned a higher proportion of those than some. Plus you don't get to be a Defensive Player of the Year for just piling on.

Does make me really hope that Kuechly get in quickly and doesn't join the senior logjam that this special class has really not done much to help with.

Sigh.

38 Mecklenburg was fun to watch…

Mecklenburg was fun to watch and leader in both style and substance. Not sure if he quite makes it to HoF though, partly due to his style of play leading to durability problems (I still remember the tory of him having a broken thumb repaired with pins and then breaking the pins on his return during the season). He's deserving of his place in the Broncos Ring of Fame and as a Broncos fan I'd love to see him in the HoF and I think even non-Bronco's fan would certainly put in the 'Hall of Very Good' (kind of like Rod Smith, great story, good player, and teammate, but not quite at HoF level given the number of other people not in at his position).

Definitely a case for Lionel Taylor, especially given the quality of QBs he mostly played with. I would have greatly preferred the fan push for a senior HoF Broncos entry to have been for Taylor or Gradishar than Floyd Little (who I feel is a more marginal case than Smith or Mecklenburg). A case can probably be made for Louis Wright as well.

58 Gradishar 100% belongs and…

In reply to by Phoenix of Fury

Gradishar 100% belongs and is one of the biggest snubs of players I watched play (going back to 1980 basically).

Mecklenburg was a personal favorite of mine as well. But so were Tom Jackson (one of my first football cards! from the 70s) and Clay Matthews v1 (one of my other first football cards! earlier in the 70s).

2 GUYS

Understand these guys were bordelrine but like Slater and Dillon egtgting in. Both were on my top 10 PFHOF snubs list. Now they are off it.
Jimbo Covert very nice player. Little lgith on the all-pro honors and stuff. will now be considering oen of lesser tackles in but he is in, so that is good for him.

Winston Hill more decorated than Covert. very good tackle. no problem with him.

Harold Carmichael? Other receivers of hsi time or overlapping with his prime are good or better and not in such as Pearson, Branch, Harold Jackson, otis taylor. Carmichael very questionable chosie.

Mac Speedie- gerat in AAFC. was little older by time browns enter nfl, then went to Canada due to problems with Paul Brown. Excellent player though, porbably deserves Hall induction.

Alex Karras- monster defender in 1960s on some good Loins team. Later starrred in TV show "Webster"

Ed Sprinkle- dirty and mean player. vwery light on honors. highly questionable selection

Bobby Dillon- had one working eye. tremendous ballhawk

Cliff Harris- very goood. fine that he is in

Donnie Shell- very good player, fine tackle.r. In frequently played earl campbell clip it si shell trying to tackle him and being draggged a few yards,. if watch this a few times it is actually a good tackle. most defenders woudl havbe fallen or been flicked away by Campbell. shell hugn on and made the tackle

Steve Sabol- very instrumental in makign me a fan. Visited NFL Films once but Steve was sick at the time so did not meet him. very deserving due to contributions to NFL

Paul Tagliabue- no comment

George Young- yes, a very fine choice

I wanted Art McNally instead of Tagliabue.

4 What about Cowher? Good…

In reply to by Raiderjoe

What about Cowher? Good coach, certainly. Not particularly opposed to his induction. But I'm afraid other comparable coaches might not get in in the future without a special class. Which might not be a bad thing, if it keeps certain elements out, such as Tomlin or McCarthy.

5 willl and can

comment on coahces later. did soem of it toher day. can continue here, good thing anyway since prior comments are in lnog audibles comment section. willl be better having them ghere

6 Similar coaches to Cowher…

Similar coaches to Cowher are all already in. The three who are not are Belichick, Reid, and Schottenheimer.

\Tomlin is his near-clone, though.
\\That said, if winning 63% of your games, with two SB appearances and one win were as easy as his detractors suggest, everyone would have them.

39 I can take Cowher being in…

I can take Cowher being in. Agree on it being wrong to keep Schottenheimer out because (I suspect) of some playoff results. It seems a lot easier to for the HoF voters to credit someone for winning it all with a great team rather than consistently getting a good team close.

I'm also the kind of person who would happily see someone like Dan Reeves in as either coach or contributor for the player/player-coach/coach career (being Coach of the Year with two different teams ought to count for something too - and neither of those with the team he got to 3 superbowls in 4 years).

88 There are 26 or so modern…

There are 26 or so modern era (~1970+) quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame. There have not been 26 better coaches than Tomlin over that same era, and there should basically be as many coaches as quarterbacks. That's not even close - there aren't even 26 coaches who've won more *games* than Tomlin in the entire history of the NFL, and that's completely ignoring the rate stats (playoff appearance rate, average divisional finish position, winning percentage) where Tomlin's way higher than 26th.

I think Schottenheimer should be in, but "travesty" is a bit much. In terms of winning percentage, average divisional finishes, he's about the same as Reid, Harbaugh, McCarthy but of course with a slightly longer career (other than with Reid). He's got a lower playoff appearance rate than any of those 3, however, and of course the playoff winning percentage is abysmally lower.

So if you imagine Reid, Harbaugh, and McCarthy with absolutely no postseason success, that's about where Schottenheimer is. The main reason I'd put Schottenheimer in is because he did it with so many different teams.

55 coaches

Cowher abnd JHohnson good. Johnson 2x super bowl chamopion. Outside of 2 super bowl titel seasons Johnson does not have any otherr great seasons. he had some very good other oens. btu 2 super bowl titles- major thing. Noto to be discarded. So am okay with Johnson although if rank Hall of Fame coaches, maybe put them in 2 tiers, he would not be a 1st tier one,.

 

Cowher 1x super bowl chamopion coach. longer career than johnson. won often. usually got team into playoffs. Am okya with cowher in too. 

 

Problem is wanted buddy parker in and don coryell. Parker won 2 titles with Loins and helped make Pittsburgh not an embarrassment. had some nice seasons at steelers coahc. literature of 1950s and 1960s, indicates parker highly thought of at tiem. somehow felll throguh cracks of Hall voting. 

 

Coryell very innovative. Only makr against him 3-6 playoff record and no super bnowl titles. Cardinals were okay uinder C. winner and then bad under Bob Hollway. Then coryell enterss cene, fixes team first year during 4-9-1 campaign, then team huge winner netx 3 years (31-11) btu rersults in mere 2 road playoff games beack when winning road playoff agmes was mighty task. Gone shortly after that due to dispute with managhement and problems with draft pciks and stuyff. Then goes to Chargers, makes them good, probably best reguyklar season tema in 1979, then lose to Raiders 1980 AFC Championhisp game, then stays good for few more years, and bottom

 falls out. defemnse nice in 1979 and deteriorated each eyar basicallly till prettyy much was craptastic by time Coryell left. 

 

Do like schottenheimer to eb in HOF even tjough oplayoff record bad. put chuck knox and dan reeves smidge below schottenheimer

 

reid has been hall fof ame coach. if wins super bowl,. it puts him over toop and inn no question

 

Mike holmgren excelllent resumt too. i would vote him in if had vote.

 

mike shanahan and dick vermeil have arghuments too

 

60 Mike Tomlin, if he retired…

In reply to by Raiderjoe

Mike Tomlin, if he retired tomorrow, would have a remarkably similar head coaching record to Cowher. Would you be in favor of him for the Hall? (Not a loaded question, genuinely interested)

62 yes. feel tomlin and cowher…

yes. feel tomlin and cowher pretty similar. might even rank tomlin as a bit better. difference is cowher had successw tih differebnt quarterbacks whereas tomlin relying on one until 2019 season aside form rare Batch or Dixon start. will vbe interesting seeing how tomlin fares afetr Roethlisberger retires  

83 If you think about it, the…

If you think about it, the Steelers are probably the 2nd best franchise in the league over the last 20 years - while sharing a division with arguably the 3rd best franchise. They only look underachieving because of the Pats. Heck, they were pretty good in the 90s, too. They never achieved the dominance of the 90s Cowboys (which lasted 4 years before falling apart due to ego clashes and the salary cap) or the Pats' twenty-year reign, but they've been a consistent winner for thirty years. They've had winning seasons with Mike Tomczak, Tommy Maddox, Neil O'Donnell, and Kordell Stewart at QB.

I'm not sure what underachieving is for the Steelers. They don't have as many titles as the Patriots, but if you look back at the last 50 years, they are probably the best run organization in football. If only they had drafted Dan Marino...

85 I agree with just about…

I agree with just about everything you said.  Yet, as I mentioned, the perception, if not the truth (although it may be the truth) among many is that the Steelers, on paper, have been better than the Patriots most of the last 5 years, and that Tomlin getting outcoached is the reason they don't have more Lombardi's.  I don't necessarily agree, but it's a reasonable position.

7 Sabol is a no-brainer…

In reply to by Raiderjoe

Sabol is a no-brainer.

Tagliabue requires you to have no brain.

Covert feels like a huge reach. None of his career comps are even borderline Hall guys. I guess the Hall guys loved him, putting him on 1st-team all-decade, ahead of Zimmerman and Jacoby. He wasn't better than Lomas Brown, who is never going to even sniff the Hall.

Carmichael feels like a reach as well, but I've at least heard him floated before. He makes more sense if you think of him as prototype of the split TE instead of as a tall, slow WR.

Shell feels like a reach, too, but the Hall loves Raiders.

25 Carmichael's a definite…

Carmichael's a definite reach.  He had decent numbers, and I think had a record or 2 at some point in history, but 4 Pro Bowls in a 13-year career does not a Hall-of-Famer make.

8 Cliff Harris

The one of these I feel strongest about was Cliff Harris. In the minds of many the best safety in the NFL in the decade of the 1970s.

He, not Staubach or Drew Pearson was why the Cowboys upset the heavily favored Vikings in the 1975 "Hail Mary" game, as he shut down Tarkenton and John Gilliam all day. In Tarkenton's biography he mentions how frustrating Harris was, how he and OC Burns were pulling their hair out over how to counter him. On the key play before the final hail mary drive, on a 3rd and short, Tarkenton decided to roll out and try to pick up the first down himself. He did, and found Harris waiting form him at the line of scrimmage, burying him before he had time to do anything. In his head he screamed that Harris could not be there, as he had to respect a possible pass in that situation, but Harris playing on instinct decided there was no way they would throw and rushed the line. He forced the punt that gave Dallas one final shot.

9 one subtext...

basically if you though someone was a worthy omission and they didn't get in here, forget it. This was a one time exception, and it happened. So this means someone like a Randy Gradishar or Mike Kenn or Jim Marshall will never see the HOF.

11 A pathetic disgrace, if you…

A pathetic disgrace, if you ask me.

It's almost as if they purposely picked the 10 worst players available to enshrine. I can't think of any other rational explanation why non-worthies like Jim Covert and Ed Sprinkle got in, or guys like Harold Carmichael and Winston Hill jumped the line. The only flaw in that argument was leaving off Cecil Isbell and Tommy Nobis.

Meanwhile, all of Lavvie Dilweg, Al Wistert, Verne Lewellen, Ox Emerson, Randy Gradishar, Cliff Branch, AND Drew Pearson got snubbed. Someone please explain the logic here if it's not the 10-worst thinking.

There at least were a couple good things here. I'm glad Bobby Dillon, Mac Speedie, and Duke Slater managed to somehow sneak through. I don't have a big beef with the Contributors chosen, though how in a supposed celebration of the 100th anniversary of the NFL they couldn't find a place for Ralph Hay, who FOUNDED the league for dog's sake, is beyond me. I'm fine with Paul Tagliabue getting in, and it's obvious he wasn't going to except via this route (there seems to be a coterie of voters who are determined to keep him out, and they number just enough to manage it).

But really, today was a disgusting, ridiculous train wreck. Makes one wonder why anyone cares about this crapshow in Canton.

19 mixed feelings

Many of the guys definitely deserved induction. I don't know anything about old-timey football, so I'll defer to RaiderJoe on the true old-timers.

Donnie Shell is a very questionable selection, considering who was overlooked. We really have enough Steelers already from those teams, thank you. Taking Shell over Gradishar is nutty and insulting.

When I saw they'd taken Johnson and Cowher, I felt that must mean that Flores was finally in. Nope. This vote seems to confirm that he's screwed forever. (It really isn't easy to win the Super Bowl twice.)

Tagliabue? Really?

Duke Slater might have a record that will never be broken: he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951 and into the NFL Hall of Fame 69 years later.

22 The thing about Cowher and…

In reply to by RickD

The thing about Cowher and Johnson is that only two coaches were allotted to this ballot. Them getting in meant Flores and Coryell were not.

28 What was important is that…

In reply to by RickD

What was important is that we excluded them so a commissioner and a GM could get in.

\At least no owners got in.

31 Tom Flores record in Seattle…

In reply to by RickD

Tom Flores record in Seattle is hugely problematic to me ... 2-14, 6-10, 6-10.

George Seifert has a slightly more success in his stint in Carolina (8-8, 7-9, 1-15) and a lot more regular season success at the 49ers.

Both of them took over from HoF coaches and neither of them were innovators.

(Note also Jimmy Johnson took over from two HoF coaches, wasn't innovative and has two Lombardi's.  I'd probably not have voted him in at the expense of others)

43 Not sure I would lump Jimmy…

Not sure I would lump Jimmy Johnson taking over the 3-13 Cowboys in the same boat as Seifert taking over the defending Super Bowl champs.

And Johnson's time in Miami was "meh".  He never even took the Dolphins to an AFC Championship game.  But would his 5 years in Dallas have been enough to get him to the HOF on its own?

56 As mentioend above re Jimmy Johnson

Research Johnson more. He was innovative on the field and off the field. He was a major contributor to the way defense and the NFL draft unfolded after him, and a good part of that third 90's Cowboy title belongs to him. He's kind of like the Terrell Davis of HoF coaches.

59 yeah, Johnson liked speed on…

yeah, Johnson liked speed on defens,e whereas may contemporaries focused on big and strong guys. johnson knew that sometimes the smaller but faster guy on defense coudl eb better. so that was certainly one thing

his treatment of the drfgat and making his onw sdraft value chart was another big thing

 

75 Excellent points raiderjoe

I’m not a Dallas fan, and even I had to acknowledge that Johnson was an innovator in that he brought an emphasis on speed (back) into the game.  His 1990s teams were formidable for that reason.  As a Steve Young fan, I thought this factor was overlooked in assessing his career vs other QBs including Joe Montana, who did not have to face a comparable behemoth.

77 They never faced a single…

They never faced a single rival behemoth. But the NFC was loaded in the 1980s. In the years the 49ers didn't win the title, you had the 1983 Redskins and Raiders, the 1985 Bears, the 1986 Giants, and the 1990 Giants. The names changed, but the quality didn't.

80 I agree in large part

Not all of those 1980s teams were as good as the Johnson Cowboys (the Bears certainly were), but they were all good.  And when the Joe Montana 49ers faced these good teams year by year, they lost.  Not that it was Joe's fault, but Steve Young, for the longest time, did not get the same kind of break when he was on the losing end of the score during the Cowboys years.

84 4 titles in 8 years buys you…

4 titles in 8 years buys you a long leash.

Young had failed on one team and went a bunch of years on great 49ers teams before breaking through once.

Think Brees, if Brees had replaced Favre instead of Rodgers.

86 By my count, the 49ers were…

By my count, the 49ers were 16-8 against the Gibbs Redskins, Parcells Giants and Ditka Bears from 1981 to 1989. I'd say that's a pretty good record against the other Super Bowl winners in their conference over those 9 years.

54 I am still baffled as to who…

In reply to by RickD

I am still baffled as to who out there in the football world finds it so important to enshrine Tags that it’s worth rigging elections to do so. Who is his bestie in those circles?  Who is he paying off?  Who does he have incriminating photos of?  I just don’t get it. 

64 I've never been to a hall of…

I've never been to a hall of fame.  But I don't even understand the point of putting a commissioner in the HOF by vote.  Shouldn't they just automatically be enshrined?  There should just be a commissioner section, honoring what each of them accomplished.

68 Have seen that suggested by…

Have seen that suggested by someone in the comments here before (maybe you, maybe Will Allen, maybe Aaron Brooks...?), and it is the most sensible thing. Why does the NFL have so much trouble taking sensible actions?

69 That makes sense to me…

That makes sense to me. Unless a commissioner is fired for something egregious (betting on games?) then give them a separate place in the HoF just because like it or not they define their eras to some extents (and if they get an automatic honourary spot then they aren't taking a voted for spot away from anyone more deserving and we can all just shrug it off as a perk of the job and not need to worry about it any more).

20 I'm not someone who enjoys…

I'm not someone who enjoys bringing up Skip Bayless in any conversation, not even ones that tertiarily relate to his awesome brother and restauranteur Rick Bayless. But what do people think about the Skip Bayless Hall of Fame test... If you have to think about it it's a no? I am kind of amenable to it. Especially when borderline candidates get elected... It opens up a Pandora's box of who is and is not deserving.

81 I have no idea who that guy…

I have no idea who that guy is, but of course Mexicans are going to hate a guy who messes with their food. I heard a funny comment a couple of weeks ago, "there will never be a Taco Bell in Mexico, if there were they would burn it to the ground". So probably nothing personal.

49 Why I think the test does not work

Apart from denigrating thinking, the test probably skews towards "name" players, including players that played for big market \ East Coast teams. 

Slothook, thank you -- I didn't know that Rick Bayless was Skip's brother.  As annoying and trollish as Skip can be (there was a funny Onion article on him a few years ago that nailed it, look it up), that's a pretty successful family.

30 Sabol is a no-brainer; I'm…

Sabol is a no-brainer; I'm actually shocked they hadn't already put him in while he was alive.

I would be iffy on Jimmy Johnson on grounds of longevity, if not for the fact that Jerry Jones already went in (which I still hate). If Jerry is in, then yeah Jimmy definitely belongs.

I'm not against Cowher going in (people forget just how long he coached, and how consistently good the Steelers were), but it seems emblematic of voters overrating the importance of rings. Heck, I believe John Madden went in as a contributor and not as a coach. I still think Marty Schottenheimer is easily one of the top 20 head coaches of all time, even though he's never getting in because of his playoff record.

51 Madden was a decent…

Madden was a decent candidate as a coach, became a great candidate as an analyst, and became an undeniable candidate due to his video game franchise. 
 

35 Cowboys Privelage

Drew Pearson isn't the only living candidate that was rejected today. But he is the only one drawing attention to himself and getting press about his plight. Reminds me of Michael Irvin when he was bypassed for the Hall. For Pearson, this is justice for pushing Nate Wright many years ago.

36 Coaches

If Coryell had wanted in, then he shoulda got a job as a studio host. That's seems to be the golden ticket.

44 Howley seems like the…

Howley seems like the biggest snub to me at this point. There are five eligible players (since the merger) who have 4+ first team all pro nods and aren't in the HOF:

Alan Faneca (6), Chuck Howley (5), Zach Thomas (5), Steve Hutchinson (5) and LeRoy Butler (4).

45 Chuck Howely, as noted above…

Chuck Howely, as noted above, also was a Super Bowl MVP, on the losing team, from the linebacker position. He would have been a respectable choice for Super Bowl MVP the next year, when his teammate Bob Lilly won. He's 83 years old. I hate it that he's likely to not be inducted while he's still living. 

74 Alan Faneca hasn't been…

Alan Faneca hasn't been eligible that long, he should make it in soon, as should Hutchinson.  Howley not being in is egregious, as well as inexplicable.  If he played 15 years for a unlucky franchise like the 70s Lions, Falcons or Jets it would make sense (in a bad way), but that he played for the 70's Cowboys, it just doesn't make sense at all.

78 if so it'd be odd . . .

While Steelers were *the* dominant team of the 70s, the Cowboys had a 20 year run from them mid 60s to the mid 80s that was unseen before and after—until the Brady/Belichick Patriots (an even more amazing run given FA). And yet those Dallas teams have been under-represented, so it's not a backlash against numbers (maybe a backlash against hype or something?). Bob Hayes did not get to get in within his lifetime, which was awful. Harris had to wait way, way too long. Pearson belongs in—his numbers, a bunch put up in the dead ball 70s, just make it flat out clear he belongs compared to some of the WRs from the era that have gone in before him. And no one anywhere in any article or on any site has put into context some reason why Howley’s obvious HoF credentials are discounted so much. It's absurd.

79 I guess I didn't realize…

I guess I didn't realize before that Howley spent his first two seasons with the Bears.

Howley's main years as a productive player was from 1961-1972.  Over that time, there were 11 other Cowboys who are in the HOF.

Bob Lilly, 12 seasons with Howley

Mel Renfro, 9

Bob Hayes, 8

Rayfield Wright, 6 (though most of his HOF credentials come from after Howley retired)

Mike Ditka, 4 (most of his HOF case is as a Bear)

Roger Staubach, 4 (only a 1 or 2 year overlap as a productive player with Howley)

Herb Adderley, 3 (he's a Packer)

Cliff Harris, 3

Lance Alworth, 2 (he's a Charger)

Forrest Gregg, 1 (Packer)

Tommy McDonald, 1 (he's mainly an Eagle)

46 I only just found out about…

I only just found out about Harold Carmichael and he is instantly my favorite player of all time. The dude was 6'8"! His highlights are amazing:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=NIRTLswqcfw

I don't care about any of the above arguments about him being a "borderline" candidate. I'm glad a guy like that existed, and maybe him being in the Hall of Fame will help more people learn that he existed. I wish I could have seen him play!

52 Carmichael wasn’t an unknown…

Carmichael wasn’t an unknown. Even casual football fans from the late 70s and early 80s knew him....in part for the reasons you mention.  Heck, Randy Moss name-dropped him in an early ESPN the Magazine TV commercial. 

57 Carmichael deserves to be in…

Carmichael deserves to be in, but he is behind Pearson and then Branch IMO.

I don't have enough of a memory of Harold Jackson. Can't say where I'd put him among those three off the top of my head.

65 I always confuse Harold…

I always confuse Harold Carmichael and Harold Jackson.  Doesn't help that they were even teammates for 2 years.  (I never saw them play.)

But why would Carmichael go in over Jackson?  Their careers were basically concurrent.  Jackson wins in Pro Bowls 5-4.  Jackson wins in All-Pros 1-0.  Jackson wins in receiving yards 10,000-9,000.  Though Carmichael didn't play quite as many games, so his per game averages are a little better and he scored 3 more TDs.

67 I've been meaning to ask…

I've been meaning to ask this question but I haven't found a good spot but here goes anyways:

I've been trying to understand the huge changes in offensive production that have occurred during nfl history. In digging through some of the numbers, the pass run ratios are higher today than they were in the 1970s, but not in some massively extreme way. What really jumps out are the number of plays. Teams ran far fewer plays back then.

Does anyone who watched that period of have a sense of the pace of the game? How does one explain this huge discrepancy?

70 " What really jumps out are…

" What really jumps out are the number of plays. Teams ran far fewer plays back then. "

 

Where are you seeing that?  In the 2010's it looks like teams averaged about 63.8 plays per game.  In the 1970's it was about 63.3 plays per game.  If you look just at 1970-1974, it was 61.4 plays per game.  So the early 70's was about 2.4 fewer plays per game (on offense). 

 

1979 was the last year that the league ran the ball more than 50% of the time.  Which makes since.  The 1978 rule changes made passing easier, but it took teams a year or two to realize that and pass the ball more frequently.  So I think the slight increase over the last 50 years can be tied to the 1978 rule changes along with the understanding that passing is a more efficient option.

 

87 What jumps out at me is the…

What jumps out at me is the massive decline in fumble rates since the 70s and 80s. I can understand things like the Mel Blount rule and Bill Walsh making the passing game more efficient. What I don't understand is how or why fumble rates dropped so precipitously. It's not like coaches suddenly discovered fumbling was bad; it's always been bad. So why did it decline so much, and so suddenly?

89 Late to this, but I suspect…

Late to this, but I suspect referee behavior has a lot to do with it. Late whistles were  a much more common phenomena, I think, and a lot of those fumbles would not be today. Video review also played a role, but I do think coaching has focused on eliminating fumbles more.