Underrated Vikings: Henry Thomas

The Vikings have an extraordinarily rich history at defensive tackle — arguably more than any other franchise. With Alan Page and John Randle, they the two best sack producers from the defensive tackle position in NFL history. Between Kevin Williams and Keith Millard, they have seven first-team All-Pro appearances. The fourth Purple People Eater, Gary Larsen, is well-known as is the second half of Williams Wall, Pat Williams (no relation to Kevin).

Lost in all that star power is Henry Thomas, who has quietly amassed one of the best pass-rushing careers a nose tackle could hope to put together.

With 93.5 sacks in his career, Thomas has more sacks than any nose tackle I can produce records for, even using an extended sack list going back to 1960 (the credit for which, mostly, belongs to John Turney of the Pro Football Researcher’s Association).

Thomas is essentially the most productive pass-rushing nose tackle in history.

That is a bit disingenuous — the 4-3 understanding we have of the nose tackle didn’t take the NFL by storm until Jimmy Johnson imported his Miami defense to Dallas. Hank Stram’s odd front evolved into the 3-4 fairly quickly, and that version of a nose tackle doesn’t generate too many sacks.

Prior 4-3 defenses, like Tom Landry’s 4-3 Flex, would line up tackles head-up over the guard with the middle linebacker over the center.

That said, Thomas’s pass-rushing compares well to any defensive tackle going back to the 1960s. We can take a look at elite interior defenders — including 3-4 defensive ends and strong side closed ends like Howie Long and Reggie White — and see how Thomas stacked up historically. We can include Hall of Fame players and those players that are close to (or deserve to be in) the Hall as well.

Thomas is above some incredible talents, and players who indisputably deserve to be in the Hall. He’s a half sack from Bob Lilly — who generally ends up in the discussion with Page, Joe Greene and Merlin Olsen as potentially the greatest defensive tackle of all time.

But Thomas’ production needs to be put in context of elite nose tackles. Competing against flex defense players or players positioned as three-techniques under emphasizes the difficulty of getting to the quarterback from between the guard and center.

That’s stunning. And this is not to put down players like Vince Wilfork — who should be in consideration for a bust in Canton. Instead, it serves to underscore how ridiculous Thomas’ production in the context of his given role was.

It wasn’t just because of his era, either. It’s true that it was more difficult for Greene or Curley Culp to generate sacks because of how often teams passed and the fact that they played fewer games per season, but that alone doesn’t account for the difference in career sack production.

To account for that, we can take a look at global sack environments for players and adjust for how difficult or easy it was to generate a sack in the NFL based on league-wide sack rates, games played and league-wide passing attempts.

Thomas didn’t have an unusually long career compared to his contemporaries, either. If we only look at the best three years of sack production, and era adjust those, Thomas comes out looking excellent as well.

As a result, Thomas was part of some record-setting duos. As William F. Reed at Sports Illustrated pointed out:

The Vikings picked Thomas in the third round of the ’87 draft,and he quickly became one of the best picks in franchise history. In 1991 and ’92 Thomas was named to the Pro Bowl. Since 1982, when the NFL began tracking sacks, no two players from one team have combined for more sacks in a regular season than the 27 he and Keith Millard had in 1989. And with their 21.5 sacks in 1993, Thomas and John Randle are second on that list.

What’s mind-blowing about Thomas’ sack production is that those sacks occurred while he was holding down the fort for freelancing Randle. Like Linval Joseph is for the Vikings today, Thomas’ primary job was to diagnose, eat up blockers and clean up in the run game more than get to the quarterback.

And Thomas was astounding at it. Thomas led the team in tackles in 1989 and 1990, falling to second to Chris Doleman by one tackle in 1991. Over those three years, he averaged an astonishing 101 tackles a year.

Stat keeping for tackles in the NFL was spotty (the league leader would often have over 200 tackles in that era) so the total number isn’t comparable to rates today, but it’s still meaningful — he led all defensive tackles and nearly every defensive linemen over that time span.

Not only that, the Vikings defense finished in the top ten of Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic seven times while Thomas was there (a tenure of eight years). They placed fifth or better five times. In run defense DVOA, they were in the top ten five times and ranked eleventh twice more. On average, they ranked sixth in overall defensive DVOA and ninth in run defense DVOA.

“Henry was a very underrated player. He allowed others on the team to do well because of the way he played. Keith Millard, John Randle, and I were able to succeed because of Henry Thomas.” – Chris Doleman, quoted in Vikings 50: All-Time Greatest Players in Franchise History by Jim Bruton.

Known for his quickness and ferociousness, Thomas was an explosive player. Adept at playing the run, Thomas’ prodigiousness has only been held back and overshadowed by other Hall of Famers on the roster. With Doleman, Keith Millard and later Randle sucking up spotlight, “Hardware Hank” didn’t end up getting his just due.

Perhaps what helped him the most was his voracious film study and ability to absorb information. In an interview he did with Tom Speicher for Viking Update, he revealed how he got an edge on the competition and earned a fast track to a starting spot.

“They gave us a playbook at minicamp and I took out all the pages and copied the defensive plays and brought them home with me,” he says. “Between May and June, I was practicing in the driveway, and my mom would call out the plays and stunts. When camp started, I had it all down. So while everybody else was second-guessing themselves, I was balls to the wall 100 miles per hour. I knew where I was going and what I was supposed to do.”

In Esera Tuaolo’s book, Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL, Tuaolo detailed how Thomas was instrumental in teaching him how to study film.

Minnesota played a four-man front with a nose guard—sometimes called a nose tackle—lined up across from the center and shaded to one side. The other inside lineman, the under tackle, lined up across from the guard. Henry Thomas was the Vikings’ starting nose guard. He had played in the Pro Bowl in 1991 and 1992. He knew I was trying to take his job.

During training camp, I would ask Henry how to do things. He would say, “If you make the team, I’ll show you.” He’d say it with a smirk. I’ ask him something else, and he’d say, “If you make the team.” It became a joke between us.

Henry was very smart, a great player. Once I made the team and proved myself to Henry, he taught me some of the tricks. I learned a lot from him, such as listening to the quarterback’ cadence and what number a team liked to snap the ball on for each down. For instance, about 80 percent of the time, an offense will go on “one”—the first “hut”—on first down. Some quarterbacks would try to throw off the defense with their rhythm; others would never stray from it. Henry taught me to study the quarterback on film. Some quarterbacks would look right and left, and as soon as they looked forward, you knew they were going to get the ball. I had never paid much attention to details like that.

There’s no greater evidence that Thomas is underrated than the fact that finding information on him, a relatively recent player, is a frustratingly difficult task. Despite having played for 14 years with two Pro Bowl appearances and 93.5 sacks to his name, there aren’t many contemporaneous accounts online with much information on Thomas.

He probably should have earned a Pro bowl spot in 1988, when he accumulated 6.0 sacks and anchored the top defense in the NFL. That was a fantastic year for nose tackles, but mostly in the AFC—Bills legend Fred Smerlas and Cincinnati stalwart Tim Krumrie earned spots for the AFC along with Miami’s Brian Sochia. But in the NFC, Thomas had to deal with being overshadowed by teammate Keith Millard and the 49ers’ Michael Carter.

In 1989 and 1990, Thomas racked up 9.0 and 8.5 sacks respectively, with 203 tackles, Thomas lost out to the Lions’ Jerry Ball both times. In 1989, teammate Millard overtook him again and in 1990 it was the Giants’ Erik Howard.

It doesn’t seem right that a nose tackle for a team that consistently placed at the top of the league in defensive tackle sacks (between 1988 and 1990 only Millard, Ray Childress and Michael Dean Perry had more) didn’t earn All-Pro consideration, much less a Pro Bowl nod. Ball was a stunning player for a few years — possibly the best run-stopper in the NFC — but Thomas’ impact was overwhelming.

Only two defensive tackles had more tackles than Thomas over his Vikings tenure — Tim Krumrie and Greg Kragen (another historically underrated tackle) — and those two combined had fewer sacks than Thomas did. Thomas also has two interceptions in that span over their combined zero interceptions. In that time span, he forced 11 fumbles while Kragen and Krumrie combined for eight — and Thomas returned two fumbles for a touchdown. Kragen and Krumrie combined for one.

Combined, no defensive tackle has more tackles, sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles than Thomas, and he is the only one with at least 500 tackles, 40 sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. That his numbers in those categories are substantially larger than that (640 tackles, 56 sacks, 2 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles) is a testament to his phenomenal capability and his singular influence on opposing offenses.

Thomas never got enough love during his playing career and now it seems he doesn’t get much now. Thomas is certainly underrated.

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