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Joe Klecko and the weight of history

NFL: Pro Football Hall of Fame Gold Jacket Dinner Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

My dad and I speak regularly on the phone. It became an unofficial tradition each year in late July or early August that he will turn one of our conversations to a specific topic.

He would say something like, “You’ve got that website and podcast. Why don’t you do something to get Joe Klecko into the Hall of Fame?”

I’m flattered that my father thinks I have that much influence. I think I control my own opinion, and sometimes I’m not even sure I can convince myself.

My dad was doing everything he could, though. Prior to the vote to finally honor Klecko with enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, if you asked him the things that annoyed him most in the world he would have told you:

  1. My brother refusing to update his address on various services and subscriptions. This leads to my parents getting a lot of his mail even though he’s at a stage of his life where he’s on his own, married with two kids.
  2. Joe Klecko not being in the Hall of Fame.

And it would be in that order.

He’s thrilled that Klecko has finally made it, but can't understand how it took this long. I’m with Dad. You're probably with him too. If you’re a Jets fan you probably know he was one of the best players of his era and made the Pro Bowl at three different positions.

I think Klecko’s long wait speaks to bigger problems we have contextualizing the history of football.

Statistics are the first place American sports fans turn when they try to rank players historically. For basketball, baseball, and even hockey, it more or less works. Of course numbers aren’t perfect, but the game is similar enough across NBA, MLB, and NHL history that era to era comparisons generally are applicable.

Everything is different in football. The only constant in the history of professional football has been change. In the early days of professional football, the game beared little resemblance to the NFL of today. Players never left the field. They played every snap, offensive, defensive, and special teams. Moving the ball on offense was so difficult that a surprise punt on an early down to flip field position and gain a territorial advantage was conventional strategy. Because of the offensive difficulties, kicking was one of the most valued skillsets. The ability to get a booming punt off to pin the other team deep or convert a field goal meant everything. The great college coach Fielding Yost once criticized the game’s best running back Red Grange by saying, “All Grange can do is run,” and it actually kind of made sense in that context.

Over the course of more than a century, the passing game has consistently taken on a bigger and bigger role in NFL strategy. Teams have found it is more efficient than running. The league has found it generates interest and has continually adapted the rules to encourage more passing.

The different rules and styles have rendered lifetime statistical records meaningless.

In 1977, the last year before the NFL made defensive backs contacting receivers more than 5 yards down the field illegal, the all-time completion percentage record holder was Ken Stabler. His career completion percentage was 59.9 percent at that point. During the 2022 season, the league-wide average completion percentage was 64.4 percent.

The NBA career points record has been broken three times since 1966. The MLB career homerun record has been broken twice in the last century. Meanwhile, the NFL career passing yards record has been broken four times since 2007.

By now hopefully you can see that using aggregate numbers for players from different eras isn’t apples to apples.

There are deeper problems in evaluating pro football history, though. There are a number of positions where relevant statistics do not even exist. For pass rushers like Klecko, sacks tend to be the coin of the realm. However, they did not become an official statistic prior to 1982, leaving out some of Klecko’s best years.

That leaves us to lean on memories and narratives for pre-1982 pass rushers and players at other positions without a great statistical framework. Klecko actually had a great narrative. Again, he was a Pro Bowler at three different positions. For whatever reason, some narratives stick while others don’t. Klecko couldn’t seem to get much traction for a long time.

I really don’t think we collectively do a good job putting sports history into its proper context. We don’t appreciate the greatness of players from older generations enough. The motto of many sports fans tends to echo Barney Stinson’s mantra, “New is always better.

I can’t tell you how many times on this site or other spaces online over the last year I’ve heard somebody claim that if Patrick Mahomes retired today, he'd be a top ten or even top five quarterback of all-time.

Look, it’s one thing to say Mahomes is on his way to being the best quarterback of his generation. You could say, “If he stays on his current trajectory, he’s got a real chance at going down as one of the ten or maybe even five best ever to play when all is said and done.”

I don’t care how great a quarterback’s first five seasons are. You can’t tell me five years puts Mahomes ahead of Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino, or (yes) Aaron Rodgers historically. And that’s before we mention other obvious names like Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, or Tom Brady.

And I don’t completely blame people for doing it. It’s not like NFL fans have an infinite amount of time on their hands to study the history of the league in an in depth way. I just wish we were a little more cautious with these proclamations because if you’re going to declare somebody is a top five quarterback ever, you really should have a grasp on whom the competition for the honor is.

It isn’t easy, though. Most of the players I listed were before my time, and I’ve been watching the NFL for three decades. Many fans and analysts have watched the NFL for far less time.

Even if you saw some of these guys play, memories fade. When relying on memories that are decades old, it is easy to forget what it was like watching them in the moment. You lose track of some of the details that set these guys apart. Frankly I think there’s also something to the idea that great players aging in retirement can impact our perceptions. Joe Montana is 67 years old. Look at him now, and it’s probably tough to believe that this old man who played so long ago could have been in the same ballpark as Tom Brady.

And at the risk of diving into playing armchair psychologist, I think we want to believe we are seeing something unprecedented right now. It’s what makes sports special. It only works if the guy playing today is greater than anybody who came before.

I’m not trying to be preachy here. I get it. This isn’t about today’s young TikTok generation failing to appreciate the past. Much like, “Nobody wants to work anymore,” these things have been passed down through the ages from one generation to the next.

This brings me back to Klecko. I’m really glad that he got into the Hall of Fame now. Enough memories of his greatness have faded, and it would only get worse through time. The next few years might have represented a real tipping point where he might have been completely dismissed and/or forgotten.

I don’t think it’s a surprise that Klecko’s election to the Hall of Fame came just two years after the great website Sports Reference went back and did research on sacks between 1960 and 1981. This brought Klecko’s unofficial career sack total from 24 to 78 and added a transcendent 20.5 sack season in 1981. Again numbers swayed votes in a sport where statistics aren’t king.

What can we do about all this to make sure the next Klecko doesn’t fall through the cracks?

There’s no simple answer, and it isn’t easy. As fans and members of the media, I hope we can use the awesome resources now at our disposal to get a fuller understanding of the game’s history. It’s through these resources that Sports Reference came across data that likely swayed things in Klecko’s direction. At the very least, the next time you are about to put a player on his position’s Mount Rushmore you could take a second to think about where that player is at in his career and some of the players who came before him.

The media and especially the league could do a far better job exploring the history of professional football. In my opinion NFL Network is one of the biggest disappointments in sports media of the 21st century. The league is sitting on the greatest archival treasure of any professional sports organization, the NFL Films library which contains decades of footage and inside looks at the way the league is run. While NFL Network has a handful of outstanding productions using that footage, such as its A Football Life series, the network also provides breathless hours of coverage of irrelevant events like OTAs and three hours of Good Morning Football each day. No offense to anybody on that show, but couldn’t we settle for two hours of good morning football and dedicate 60 additional minutes each day to teaching fans something about the history of the game?

In the future other greats will fall through the cracks. I’m happy Joe Klecko won’t be one of them. So will my dad. Maybe he’ll think I had something to do with. Do me a favor, and don’t correct him if he does.