Legends of The Fall: When Auburn Running Backs Ruled the NFL

In the annals of college football there was a time where USC had earned the moniker “Tailback U”. Then in the late 80s Oklahoma St churned out back to back Pro Football Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders. Yet go back another decade and you’ll have a hard time topping the talent Auburn sent to the NFL over a 10 year period.

From 1979 -1989 William Andrews, Joe Cribbs, James Brooks, Lionel “Litte Train” James, and Bo Jackson took the NFL by storm. While each touched a level of greatness during this era none would make it to the hallowed halls of Canton. Although injuries derailed 2 of these promising careers right at their zenith.

Of this list most think of Bo Jackson as the leading ground gainer who lost his prime to an injury. Not true the 1st of our super backs who had their career cut short was the punishing William Andrews. He’s the man that began this era of excellence unexpectedly as a 3rd round pick by the Atlanta Falcons in the ’79 draft.

To offer some context consider Andrews was the powerful fullback blocking for the shifty and elusive Joe Cribbs and James Brooks. In ’78 Cribbs led the Tigers with 1,278 yards while Brooks spelled him gaining 514 more. Andrews was the 3rd choice with the fewest carries at 72.

He exploded onto the NFL scene rushing for 1,023 yards in his rookie campaign in ’79. Then followed it up with back to back 1,300 yards seasons in ’80 & ’81 yet came to be known as the running back who once knocked out Hall of Fame hitter Ronnie Lott. We don’t have that hit but we do have one encounter on a Monday Night fans everywhere remember during that era…

By 1983 Andrews had supplanted Hall of Fame Member Earl Campbell as the NFL’s premier power back. His ’83 rushing total of 1,567 yards stood as a team record until Jamal Anderson broke it in 1998. He was 2nd in the league in rushing to another Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson. It was the 2nd time Andrews gained over 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 3 years. Yet he was derailed with a knee injury that shortened a potential trip to Canton.

Take a look at how lethal he was both running and receiving from 79-83.

  • 79 – 239 car. 1,023 yds 3TDs / 39 rec. 309 yds 2TDs
  • 80 – 265 car. 1,308 yds 4TDs / 51 rec. 456yds 1TD
  • 81 – 287 car. 1,301 yds 10TDs / 81 rec. 735 yds 2 TDs
  • 82 – 139 car. 573 yds 2TDs (strike shortened year)
  • 83 – 331 car. 1,562 yds 7 TDs / 59 rec. 609 yds 4TDs

Andrews was either 1st or 2nd team All Pro 4 straight years and was in the Pro Bowl as well from 80-83. Guess who joined him in Hawaii for 3 of those Pro Bowls in ’80, ’81 and ’83?? Former “War Eagle” backfield mate Joe Cribbs. Do you realize in 1980 these former backfield mates wound up the #4 (Andrews 1,308 yds) and #6 (Cribbs 1,185 yds) rushers in the NFL??

In ’80 Cribbs blossomed into the AFC’s Rookie of the Year as he was the sparkplug in the Bills 1st division championship dating back to 1966. Cribbs juked his way to 1,185 yards rushing 11 TDs while gaining another 415 yards on 52 receptions. Quite simply he was Thurman Thomas before Thurman Thomas as he was a threat out of the backfield. He tortured linebackers trying to cover him.

Check out the move on the 1st vid at the 2:32 mark when he rushes for a 16 yard TD against New England. He makes 4 unblocked Patriots miss in a phone booth… just sick…

While being a Bills fan up close, it’s hard to choose between his rookie year or his 2nd year as his best. Both years the Bills were in the playoffs and in ’81 he rushed for 1,097 yards and only 3 TDs but made up for it with 7 TD receptions and another 603 yards on 40 receptions. He flashed on big play after big play as a the Bills rose to prominence challenging the NFL’s elite.

Amazingly Cribbs and Andrews were rarely used as receivers at Auburn and they’re game fully maturing on the NFL level is what elevated both. Auburn in ’78 completed just 5 passes a game in a run heavy offense.

Ironically this was the role James Brooks also found himself as the 3rd down back in his rookie season with “Air Coryell” in ’81. Chuck Muncie was the feature back and he scored an NFL record 19TDs rushing. Brooks was the change of pace scatback who recorded 46 receptions for 329 yards and 3 TDs and had to fit in where he could. He only ran the ball 109 times for 525 yards but had a whopping 4.8 yard average.

He was the AFC’s leading punt returner in 1981 and led the NFL in kickoff return yardage in 1982… so of course you’re asking “How is that dominant at the pro level?”

With a potential contract dispute looming, he was traded to the Cincinnati Bengals in 1984. His 2nd season in the Queen City saw him improve with 929 yards rushing and 7 TDs. Out of the backfield he caught 55 aerials for 576 yards and crossed the goal line 5 more times.

Over the next 5 seasons Brooks would make the Pro Bowl as a runner 4 times while being selcted All Pro in the same seasons. He had 3 1,000 yard season and in 1988 finished with 931 yards. Had he gained another 69 he and Ickey Woods (1,066) would have been just the 4th set of 1,000 yard rushers in the same backfield in a season. Brooks and Woods powered the #1 offense to Super Bowl XXIII that year.

His 1989 season of 1,239 yards rushing was the most in Bengals history up to that point. Corey Dillon broke it in 2000. Try this vignette:

So if you’re keeping score, between 1980 and 1990, these 3 running backs accounted for 11 Pro Bowls, 11 All Pro selections, a Super Bowl appearance (Brooks XXIII) and 10 – 1,000 yard campaigns. Each saw success as the Bills and Falcons twice made it to the divisional round of the playoffs and 1 trip to the AFC Championship Game with Brooks in ’81.

While these men were killing it on the NFL level, Bo Jackson and Lionel “train” James were the new set of Auburn backs to make names for themselves. James was thought of to be too small for the NFL standing at 5’6 and 171 lbs soaking wet. Yet he would have to make a name on special teams and spot duty in the backfield.

As a rookie in ’84 James led the NFL in kick returns (49) and kick return yards (949) to prove he belonged. Of course you’re asking “How is that dominating in the NFL?” Well…then came 1985…

In a season where Roger Craig became the first 1,000/1,000 yard performer both rushing and receiving & led the NFL with 92 receptions out of the backfield. Guess who was 3rd with 86 receptions 1,027 yards and 6 TDs? “Little Train” James. He actually outgained the more celebrated Craig in yardage 1,027 – 1,016. This was an NFL record for receiving yards out of the backfield.

However by the time you add James 516 yds on 105 carries & 949 yards on 43 kickoffs, he set an NFL All Purpose Yardage record with 2,535 yards. This didn’t count another 205 yards on punt returns!

His reception yardage record didn’t fall until 1999 when Marshall Faulk broke it with 1,048. His all purpose yardage mark stood until 2000 when Derrick Mason of the Titans broke it. Do you realize James’ ’85 season still ranks 4th in history?? He’s been gone from the NFL 31 years. His last season with the Chargers was 1988.

His best game ever?? His 345 yard performance against the LA Raiders where he won it in overtime:

By the way… that was the 2nd most all purpose yardage in a game in NFL/AFL history. In a brief 5 year career… James could fly. His 1985 was so dominant that it changed the Pro Bowl voting as the following year special team kick returner was added to the vote. In 1986 Bobby Joe Edmonds of Seattle became the 1st voted in but we know who’s play created that spot. Lionel James!

Bo powering past perennial all pro Cornelius Bennett of Buffalo.

Then we finish with the Heisman winning Bo Jackson. He was so great that 30 years later we’re still watching Bo Knows in a 30 for 30 documentary of what could have been. He shocked the world when he didn’t play for Tampa who drafted him in ’85 and we know of his baseball and football exploits. When he came back to “take on another hobby” in ’87 with the Raiders, it didnt sit well with a young Chancellor. It seemed arrogant and then we saw what happened on the Monday Night in Seattle:

Yikes! Bo can do whatever the hell he wants. To watch him just dust Hall of Famer Kenny Easley who had the angle on him… I was done. Apparently so was the rest of America. For the next 4 years every football season began with “When is Bo coming over from baseball?” He had other great games but not as electric as that Monday Night.

In 1990 Bo Jackson became the 1st backup to ever make the Pro Bowl as he ran for just 698 yards and 5 TDs. League wide respect poured out over what he could do if he turned to football full time. He was an adonis with sprinter speed that made the best athletes in the world view his exploits in awe.

But alas … we never saw Bo get to full potential as he went out with a fractured and dislocated hip in a 1990 AFC divisional playoff against Cincinnati. He never played again.

“Little Train” James had knee injries slow a once promising career that lasted just 5 seasons.

None of these men will make the Pro Football Hall of Fame but each left an indelible mark on the NFL of the 1980s. They arrived on the scene and turned lesser than franchises into teams that contended for championships. What was remarkable was how complete these backs were catching the ball out of the backfield when they rarely exhibited this in college.

This was one of the great runs from one school in NFL history. Even USC’s best was really OJ Simpson and Marcus Allen. Two Hall of Famers that came out 12 years apart in ’68 and ’81 respectively. Not a series of game changing backs.

To think that 3 players out of the same ’78 Auburn Tiger backfield, Andrews, Brooks, & Cribbs would go on to produce 27,771 yards from scimmage and 162 TDs in the NFL is nothing short of brilliant. Especially with Andrews and Cribbs having brief careers.

An era of dominance to be remembered for all time.

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Best NFL Cornerback Tandem Ever: Frank Minnifield & Hanford Dixon! Time to clear up the misreporting of their hand in The Drive.

From 1970-1985 there was the “Three Rivers Jinx” where the Browns lost 16 straight against their division rival Pittsburgh. With Dixon and Minnifield’s rise to prominence, the Browns won four straight until they were broken up as a tandem.

We have always believed that some of the greatest NFL stories have been left on the cutting room floor when it comes to players that didn’t play for the glamour teams. Such is the case for the best cornerback tandem in modern NFL history. During this offseason of condensed free agency, when it appeared Namedi Asoumgha might wind up with Darelle Revis to form the best conrerback tandem in decades. We had thoughts and images of Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon dancing in our heads.  They were the best tandem in league history and yes better than Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes of the Los Angeles Raiders. Dixon and Minnifield starred and went to Pro Bowls together for 3 seasons. The most in NFL history.

The Hayes / Haynes connection really was half a season, or at least it’s zenith. Alright they did have a good 1985 but what happened in 1984?? Haynes joined the team in week 6 of 1983, and played on through the season but look up the Raiders 1984 statistics on defense after Super Bowl XVIII, abysmal. The Raiders were 25th against the pass in a 28 team league. Case and point Dan Marino threw for his 37th TD to break the all time touchdown record for a season and went on to throw for 470 yards and 4 TDs on them. They got scorched … Mark Clayton almost put up 200 on ’em…yet we digress. No one put yards on these two like that during their years together. Yet they don’t get their just due for being the terrific tandem that they were and should be receiving more looks when it comes to Hall of Fame Consideration.

Hanford Dixon in contemplation

From 1986-1988 these two Cleveland Browns were your Pro Bowl Starters for the AFC in Honolulu Hawai’i. Understand that this was the heydey of the AFC Central as well. Of course Steeler fans will disagree but this is where the entire division reigned near the top of the AFC as a whole. From 1986-1989 there was an AFC Central team in the AFC Championship Game all four years. The Browns in 1986 and 1987, the Bengals made it to the Super Bowl in 1988 and then the Browns returned in 1989 to the title game.

Throughout the division there were stellar receivers in Louis Lipps / John Stallworth of the Steelers, Ernest Givins, Haywood Jeffires, Drew Hill of the Houston Oilers, then Tim McGhee, Cris Collinsworth, and Eddie Brown (The [[_]]) of the Cincinnati Bengals. Dixon and Minnifield kept them under wraps throughout this era.

In fact, in 1986 the only receivers that topped 100 yards against them was Chris Burkett of the Buffalo Bills and Wes Chandler of the San Diego Chargers. Burkett’s numbers were strengthened by a 75 yard TD while Chandler piled up yards in garbage time during a 47-17 loss where many Browns starters were pulled during the finale. They had wrapped up homefield advantage and were in the midst of a celebration.

In fact during the AFC Divisional Playoff double overtime win against the Jets, in 6 quarters, Dixon and Minnifield covered Al Toon and Wesley Walker so tight the Browns produced 9 sacks. An NFL playoff record. Neither receiver went over 100 yards and the touchdown that Wesley Walker scored was on a flea flicker and the safety had coverage.

“Mighty Minnie”  4 time Pro Bowler Frank Minnifield

In ’86, Dixon gathered in 5 interceptions, while Minnifield picked off 3 on their way to their first Pro Bowl together. Along the way they shut down the prominent receivers in their division, Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, who both made the ’86 Pro Bowl, and future Hall of Famer James Lofton. None of which gained over 100 yards against them and by the way…. Duper (1,313 yds 11TDs) and Clayton (1,150 yds 10TDs) battled Dixon and Minnifield on a Monday Night and these two Browns gained the country’s attention and respect with that performance.

In 1986 Dan Marino threw for 44TDs and over 4,700 yards…so he was at his zenith. This was the second time, going back to the previous season’s 21-20 playoff loss to the Dolphins that they did this to Miami. In the playoff loss in 1985, Duper never caught a pass and Mark Clayton only caught one!! And that game was in Miami!!! So they came in with something to prove and got shut down again.

So here comes the most misreported fact in NFL history, The Drive, during the ’86 AFC Championship Game. Keep in mind that Denver only had 216 yards for the game on offense going into that famous last drive. Erroneously and without fact checking these two get blamed for this loss when only 1 pass to Steve Watson at the 2 minute warning at midfield was thrown in their territory. The Brown’s Dave Adolph opted to go into a zone and the main passes thrown by John Elway was a pass over 20 yards to Steve Sewell, a running back going up the seem into Chris Rockins territory.

The other was a pass on 3rd and 17 where Mark Jackson who started on Dixon’s left side cut into an opening on a zone in front of the safety. They were just well executed plays. Throw in 2 scrambles by Elway for first downs because the Browns coverage forced him to and a screen pass to Steve Sewell and they were now at the 5 yard line. Again down in the red-zone, the Browns were in a Nickel zone facing a multiple receiver set. They ran a scissors route and threw the ball inside Nickelback Mark Harper to Mark Jackson for the tying touchdown. Now where was it these two failed to deliver??

Even in overtime on the winning drive by the Broncos the two big plays were a corner route to TE Orson Mobley for over 20 yards and another to Tom Watson for a 22 yard gain where Felix Wright #22 made the tackle in zone coverage. Karlis kicks the winning field goal and Denver was off to the Super Bowl. Yet time and time again, writers and nitwit pundits bring up The Drive without knowing ANY of the evidence. Lionize John Elway, fine, but don’t victimize these excellent players who performed well on that day. Take a look

Who were these two?? Well you had Hanford Dixon, who when he came into the league might have been the fastest cornerback in football.  The Chancellor first caught wind of him when he chased down Buffalo’s Joe Cribbs enroute to a 60 yard touchdown in 1981 as a rookie.  Dixon had been blocked and Cribbs had a 15 yard cushion when this flash of brown and orange tracked him down like Darryl Green on Eric Dickerson. He didn’t prevent the touchdown but he had speed to burn as a young player as that play signified.

Dixon was drafted out of Southern Miss in the 1st round and developed into a top flight man to man cornerback who lined up right in a receivers faces. He was the taller of the two at 5’11 and 186 lbs and was as fluid an athlete that has played corner in the NFL. He could turn and run with anybody that got through his “strike” off the line of scrimmage. He was as effective as a Lester Hayes and had his best year in 1987 when it was recorded that only 7 passes were thrown his way the entire year. He was first team All Pro in 1987 which was the middle year of their 3 year run as well as Pro Bowl teammates with Minnifield.

Hanford “Top Dawg” Dixon one of the all time great cornerbacks.

Mighty Minnie?? Yes that was the nickname for Frank Minnifield on the poster that had he and Dixon atop the roof of the Cuyahoga County Courthouse that sold all over Ohio. Top Dawg and Mighty Minnie were their nicknames. Hanford was the one that coined the phrase “Dawg Defense” during the off-season to motivate the defensive line during training camp in 1985. It caught on full fledged in 1986 so he earned that nickname. Minnifield was the harder hitter of the two.

Frank Minnifield was the shorter of the two at 5’9 180lbs, and had calves as large as his thighs. He had an unbelievable verticle jump as did his brother Dirk Minnifield who starred at the University of Kentucky and later played for the Boston Celtics. Frank played at the University of Louisville and joined the Browns after a 2 year stint in the USFL. He was voted All Pro in 1987 & 1988 and was voted to the Pro Bowl 4 times 1986-1989.

In fact it was his 1988 season that was in our estimation the greatest season by a cornerback in NFL history. With injuries to the Brown quarterbacks that season, the defense had to bear the brunt of the work. In that crucible and facing future Hall of Famers Art Monk, Steve Largent, and ’88 Pro Bowlers Eddie Brown (1,273 yds/9TDs), Mark Clayton (1,129 yards / 14TDs), Drew Hill (1,141 yards  /10TDs), Al Toon (1,067 yards /5TDs), J.T. Smith (986 yards / 5TDs) and Andre Reed (968 yds / 5TDs) Minnifield in 11 of 17 games against this top competition allowed ZERO touchdowns all season. An incredible performance. He allowed ZERO touchdowns for the entire 17 game slate.

Unfortunately all good things come to an end and the Browns window to the Super Bowl shut without their having earned the trip.  They played in 3 AFC Championship Games in four years but came up short. In all actuality, they were a real good team who almost stretched it to greatness based on the exploits of two tremendous cornerbacks who masked other Brown defensive deficiencies. For their careers Dixon was a Pro Bowler on 3 occasions and Minnifield 4, and each were 1st team All Pro Once. They were intimidating and could cover the field and as a tandem were the best ever. How good would the Cleveland Browns been without them??? How much better would the Cleveland Browns had been had Safety Don Rogers not died from a cocaine overdose the week after Len Bias in summer of ’86??

Below is the middle of their 3 year run in Honolulu when they were 1987’s All Pro cornerbacks.

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Robert Brazile Should Be in The Hall of Fame – HOF Edition

Dr. DoomOriginally Published 2, March 2011 w/ Postscript 21, August 2018 

There are many former NFL players swept into the dustbin of history who aren’t given their due. There are those that are victims of where they play as much as who they lost to that defined how they are remembered historically by the sporting press.

Enter Robert Brazille.  During the late 1970s the Houston Oilers were overshadowed by the perennial champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the players that comprised those teams that bested them in the ’78 and ’79 AFC Championship games.

Whereas the Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the greatest strong side outside linebackers in Jack Ham in a 4-3 defense, the Houston Oilers fielded the epitome of the weakside linebacker in Robert Brazile for the 3-4 defense.  Yet we must go back to NFL rule changes earlier in the decade that necessitated changes that had repercussions for years to come.

The 1974 NFL season saw several rule changes, kickoffs were moved back to the 35 yard line, goalposts were moved to the back of the end zone and the hash marks were narrowed on the field.  This brought the necessity for more speed to cover additional field at outside linebacker, where a new type of player was needed.  Enter the thought process of deciding if it was best to go after the passer or cover the flank from the outside linebacker position.

Several teams adopted the “53 defense” that the perennial champion  Miami Dolphins instituted part time which saw DT Bill Heinz replaced with LB Bob Matheson, who wore #53, and could rush the passer as well as drop back into coverage. This change from 3 linebackers to 4 linebackers clogged the underneath passing routes.  Many teams that were desperate for a winner went for this new tactical defensive adaptation of the old’50’s  “Oklahoma” Bud Wilkinson defense full time.  The 3-4 was just the old “Wilkinson 5-2” which had the two ends take their hand off the ground and become trackers.

Robert Brazile was the first truly great outside linebacker that was based out of the 3-4 alignment and was the start of a new breed of linebacker.  He was the 1975 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and broke the mold for what was expected from the outside linebacker position. He took home 5 defensive and rookie of the year honors. Before him, the Jack Ham 6’1 215 lbs outside LB, was the prototypical build, Brazile was the breaking of that mold weighing in at 6 ft 3 inches and 235 lbs. More like Bobby Bell and David Robinson from the 1960s.

He was strong enough to take on offensive tackles and tight ends at the point of attack, speed to chase down ball carriers from behind and power to rush the passer.  Brazile was the only player to make All-Pro from 1976-1980 at any position and was the player that the late George Young envisioned when he drafted North Carolina’s Lawrence Taylor.

This talent, who was a collegiate teammate of Walter Payton, played at a time where sacks weren’t recorded as a statistic. It wasn’t until 1982 when sacks became official stats. Had this happened earlier, Brazile could have gained more acclaim as the best outside linebacker of his era.  In fact do you realize Robert Brazile is a member of the all decade team of the 1970s as voted by the Pro Football Hall of Fame?? In fact he’s on their 2nd all decade team right next to Jack Lambert who is inducted, and remains the only linebacker within that group, not elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. An injustice that needs to be corrected.

Again Robert Brazile was the prototype to the heavier more athletic linebacker, bred to cover a wider field circa 1974 to the present, that played with an intensity that Lawrence Taylor,  Andre Tippett, Hugh Green, Rickey Jackson, and E.J. Junior carried into 1980’s stardom.  Yet that notoriety started because Lawrence Taylor landed in New York and the sporting press lauded him as the greatest defensive player ever.  Rightfully so… If that’s the case, what do you call or gauge the 7 time Pro Bowl member of the All Decade team of the 70’s, 5 consecutive year All Pro linebacker selection he replaced and was patterned after??

Brazile,Robert4The biggest difference is the Oilers didn’t realize what they had and should have sent him crashing off the corner more. He should have been blitzing 40 – 50% of the time. Even though statistics on sacks weren’t kept until 1982, he finished that year with 6.5 sacks when the strike shortened the year to 9 games. It was the last of his 7 straight trips to Hawaii.

Robert “Dr. Doom” Brazile, an all time great that should not be swept into the dustbin of history because he played in Houston and not Dallas.  The fact that the sporting press has failed to stand up for a great player who didn’t play for a great team or self promoted gives way to why we see those players who do.

Understand this, the next time you see Clay Matthews Jr., James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley blitz off the corner from a 3-4 linebacker spot, you’re watching what started with Robert “Dr. Doom” Brazile in 1975 and not Lawrence Taylor and 1981.  For the Hall of Fame, I present Robert Brazile… an all time classic.

Postscript August 21, 2018: Just a few weeks removed from a glorious trip to Canton. He was presented by his father and Brazile let us know how he had lost the love of football and now the game was showing him it loved him back.

brazile.partyIt was great to hear Lawrence Taylor share the phrase “He was LT before LT” …now where had we heard that before?? Even Black College Football Hall of Fame LB Thomas Henderson was in the house for Brazile’s induction and The Chancellor got to catch up to him.

brazile.chancellorIts an honor for me that Brazile was the very 1st player written about in this series of all players who belonged in Canton who had yet to make it. Keep in mind when Brazile went into The Gridiron Greats Hall of Fame in 2016 the words of this article before this postscript were read to introduce him on that June night. It was great to catch up to him late in the evening after The Gold Jacket Dinner at the hotel, right as he was leaving the stage after the ceremony, and again at the airport as we were all leaving Canton.

brazile.lockerCongratulations on your induction and I told you I’d be there. You’re forever in the Pro Football Hall of Fame now.

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