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

Joe Starkey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Football

Ham wasn't playing against Smurfs all the time, either. Do you remember Earl Campbell? He was a 232-pound battering ram for the Houston Oilers. He was heavier than Najee Harris and ran like an Olympic sprinter.

Do you remember the tight ends Ham had to deal with? Russ Francis stood 6-6, 240 pounds. Dave Casper was 6-4, 240. For comparison sake, George Kittle is 6-4, 250.

Yes, players generally are bigger and faster today, but it's not like human beings have evolved into an entirely different species.

Speed is maybe a bigger factor than weight here, and I don't know what Ham's 40-time was. But I know what Chuck Noll once said about his quickness: "Ham was the fastest Steeler in the first 10 yards."

I also know Ham was among the savviest players ever to man that position. I'm not saying he'd figure out how to be a Hall of Famer in 2022, but he'd surely figure out a way to play something other than special teams.

"I have never seen anyone play the outside linebacker position better than Jack Ham," Tony Dungy once said. "Fundamentals, technique, awareness and athleticism were all exceptional. He was the total package."

There were other 70s Steelers who could not only play, but star in the league today, even if you took them "as is" from 1976. Mean Joe Greene (6-4, 275) was just five pounds lighter than Aaron Donald. I'm guessing he'd do OK. Mel Blount stood 6-3, 205, which would still have him hovering over most cornerbacks and plenty of receivers. Legend has it he ran the 40 in 4.4 seconds. He could beat you with his body and his brains.

I'm not quite believing what Blount told the the All Things Covered Podcast with Patrick Peterson and Bryant McFadden last year, but his point is well taken.


"If I was playing in today's game, and they're throwing the ball what, 80% of the time, I'm coming out of every game with, I'm not lying, two interceptions or more," Blount said. "I had 11 interceptions in 1975. On average, they were throwing the ball 13 times a game. ... I might get sometimes two, three targets a game."

Jack Lambert's another one. Ham, in the aforementioned interview, called Lambert the greatest linebacker of all time. Lambert stood 6-4, 220 and often dropped deep into the middle of the field to make the Steelers' Tampa 2 defense work.

Make a little weight adjustment — then imagine a 6-4, 245-pound Lambert on the prowl.

Or how about Terry Bradshaw? People act like quarterbacks just started running the ball. Bradshaw was a Josh Allen-like fullback when he wanted to be. He ran for nearly 2,300 yards and 32 touchdowns. And at 6-3, 215, with a rocket arm, I'm guessing he'd thrive in today's pass-happy league.

We'll never know, but the debate doesn't hurt anybody.

I'm glad Whaley sparked it.

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