Joe Starkey: Would Jack Ham really be a backup in today's NFL?

Joe Starkey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Football

PITTSBURGH — I'm hoping for Doug Whaley's sake that his take on Jack Ham didn't make it into his second interview for the Steelers' general manager job.

It might not have gone over well.

It made for great radio, though, on Whaley's weekly Wednesday appearance on The Fan Morning Show. Ears perked when the topic turned to whether Ham — a 6-foot-1, 220-pound Hall of Fame outside linebacker for the 1970s Steelers — could play in today's NFL.

"He'd be a backup special teams player today," Whaley said. "He couldn't play in this era. He just couldn't."

Some consider it a fool's errand to compare players across eras. I consider it good fun. My first thought went to what Ham might say, and it turns out he was asked just such a question in an interview with the Pro Football Hall of Fame from December 2000.

Question: "Do you believe that you and Jack Lambert would play as well today against such bigger and stronger opponents?"


Ham: "That's all relative. If I was playing today, there would be a redshirt year in college, which I never had. Second, the weight lifting is different. I would be playing at 240 instead of 220. So, things have changed ... things are now year-round as far as conditioning and lifting goes."

In other words, of course he believes he could thrive in today's game with a little weight adjustment. But what if you plucked a 220-pound Ham out of a game in 1976 and dropped him into a Steelers-Browns game next season at Heinz Field? Would he just be a small, slow guy earning league minimum?

I must admit, my thoughts wandered that way. But then I came to my senses. I have to believe Jack blankin' Ham could play somewhere on your defense in any era. Darius Leonard plays inside linebacker pretty well for the Colts at 221 pounds. West Virginia's Kyzir White starts for the Eagles at 216 pounds. James Farrior played part of his time with the Steelers at 218.

How about Ham as your weakside linebacker in a 4-3 defense? How about some sort of hybrid safety/linebacker position? He did, after all, record the most takeaways (53) in history by any non-defensive back. He had 32 interceptions.


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