Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier recently created a list of the most underrated players in NFL history — players who not only were snubbed from the Hall of Fame, but almost lost to the historical record despite greatness (or near-greatness) as an athlete. Tanier peppers the list with some current players he thinks are not receiving their due praise as well, like Philip Rivers.
Of the 25-player list, only one Viking appears — Jim Marshall. It makes some sense that there’s only one Vikings player on a limited list. After all, there are 32 teams and the Vikings are not among the group of teams with a Super Bowl ring to their names.
Still, the Vikings only have six Hall of Famers from their incredible 1969-76 run, despite having the best record in the NFL over that period. While they weren’t able to get over the final hump, many of the individual players from that era — and other eras — deserve high praise.
Each day this week, we’ll look at some of the players in the Vikings’ past who deserve to be better remembered, but we’ll start with the defensive end Tanier isolated: Marshall.
Marshall is certainly worthy of the recognition. If counting unofficial sacks since 1960 (instead of merely official sacks since 1982), Marshall’s 127 sacks ranks 23rd, ahead of Hall of Famers like Andy Robustelli (37th), Elvin Bethea (42nd) and Charles Haley (50th).
With 30 fumble recoveries, he ranks second all-time among defensive players in the statistic (behind Rod Woodson and just ahead of Jason Taylor).
This historical sack list is one I’ve been updating every year, and the initial work comes from football historian John Turney. Because internet archives get deleted and his work gets reported in dribs and drabs, over half of the database now comes from manually filling in the holes.
That work allows us to do some interesting analysis that might highlight why a player like Marshall has been more notorious as a Hall of Fame snub than a repeat finalist.
There are some criticisms that Marshall is a bit of a compiler — that he was never particularly impressive in one year but lasted a long time to accumulate those statistics.
Though that’s somewhat fair and true, it’s not enough of a criticism that it makes sense to dismiss his Hall of Fame candidacy. After all, Jerome Bettis’ efficiency numbers weren’t great, but he compiled enough yards over a long career for a Hall of Fame berth.
If peak production is important, Marshall does pretty well over his best three-year span — beating out Julius Peppers’ best three-year span in his own peak. Marshall averaged 12.2 sacks per 16 games in his best three-year span, while Peppers averaged 11.5 sacks per season in his own best span. So too with Terrell Suggs (10.2), Howie Long (11.7) and he’s within rounding error of Chris Doleman’s 12.2.
His peak production is particularly impressive after adjusting for era.
One can compare a player’s overall body of work with the opportunities they’ve been presented with. In the 1970s, for example, teams passed significantly less often and there were fewer games in a season. On the other hand, sack rates were higher per pass attempt — in 1976, 9.1 percent of drop backs ended in a sack. That was the highest rate in the Super Bowl era. In 2016, it was 5.8 percent — the lowest that rate has ever been in league history.
After accounting for pass attempts, games played (and missed) and league-wide sack rates, Marshall ends up with the 24th-best peak among all sack producers (defensive linemen and outside linebackers) in the Hall of Fame and ahead of inductees like Taylor, Kevin Greene, Richard Dent, Robustelli, Rickey Jackson, Elvin Bethea, Lee Roy Selmon, Doleman, Charles Haley and Long.
This kind of analysis doesn’t give credit to iron men who miss few games, so it understates Marshall’s overall impact by giving credit to players who missed games.
Marshall, at the time, was generally recognized as the third-best lineman among the Purple People Eaters behind Alan Page and fellow defensive end Carl Eller. That meant he was a perpetual also-ran in postseason recognition; he was selected as a second-team All-Pro defensive end four different years by various organizations (United Press International, Newspaper Enterprise Association, New York Daily News and Sporting News) and generally has limited postseason honors.
His Wikipedia page lists four Pro Bowl appearances, but two of those years (1968 and 1969) were the only ones without AFL participation and the only ones listed for Marshall in the Vikings media guide. His Pro-Football-Reference page only lists those two as well.
His best sack years 1969 (14), 1964 (11.5), 1963 (10.5) and 1968 (10) are fairly underwhelming as career-bests. His contemporaries would often hit 15 sacks in their best year, sometimes 20.
Each of the following players had peaks over 15 sacks in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Deacon Jones, Coy Bacon, Jack Youngblood, teammates Eller and Page, Cedrick Hardman, Harvey Martin, Bill Stanfill, Elvin Bethea, Jack Gregory, George Andrie, Jethro Pugh, Jim Katcavage and Verlon Biggs. Jones, Bacon, Martin and Katcavage exceeded 20 in their peak years (Jones multiple times).
Given the spotty nature of stat keeping in that era, especially for sacks for players that had short but bright careers, there’s a good chance there are even more players with 15-plus sack seasons.
It’s easy to see why Marshall was passed over so many times for All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. Still, consistency deserves a reward as well. It may be better to be consistently elite like Jones and Page were, but being consistently the third-, fourth- or fifth-best pass-rusher for nearly 20 years of play merits recognition.
Because awards are apportioned via individual seasons, the NFL never honors players over the course of a three- or five-year period. As discussed above, Marshall’s three-year peak is fairly good among Hall of Fame and near-HOF contemporaries. In fact, the three-year adjusted peak rankings of that list of 15-sack players bodes well for Marshall:
As a reminder, career compiler Bethea is in the Hall of Fame.
These three-to-five year peak periods range from 1961 to 1978 (mirroring Marshall’s overall career) meaning that at any one time, only two or three of the above players would actually be rivaling Marshall for total sack numbers. If one looked just at the 1967-71 stretch, where Marshall was most productive, there are few players that would beat him.
Some of these sack totals are estimated rather than confirmed; Ike Lassiter’s sack total uses known quantities for 1967 and 1969 but assumes a fairly generous 1968 result. Some players, like Mel Branch, Dan Birdwell and Diron Talbert don’t even have reasonable estimable metrics for their totals. Doug Atkins ended his career in 1969, so he can’t really be a competitor in the five-year category.
Those statistical problems aside, we can examine the larger point: Marshall’s three-year peak saw him as the second- or third-most productive defensive end (Pugh was a tackle), depending on Lassiter’s true total — above the more celebrated Eller. Marshall performs about the same over the five-year span, with the lone exception of defensive end Biggs leapfrogging him (Page does as well, but like Pugh, he was a tackle).
The NFL doesn’t offer a three-year “Pro Bowl” or honor, meaning that defensive ends who put together sack totals of 9.5 one year, 18.5 another year and 6.5 the third year will end up receiving more postseason honors than one with 13.5 sacks each of those years — despite earning six more sacks overall in that time span.
Marshall is a difficult player to figure out because of his consistency — there are no explosive one-year totals to point to, and therefore little in the way of single-season awards. Despite the lack of those awards, he deserves much more respect in Hall of Fame discussions than he generally gets and certainly qualifies as underrated.
But there are other Vikings that may deserve consideration for such a list, not just Marshall. We’ll cover those as the week continues.