Tag Archives: cornerbacks

Lester Hayes’ incomparable 1980

We’re coming up on the 35th anniversary of one of the greatest seasons ever by an NFL player. Was it as great as Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 rushing yards in 1984, Peyton Manning’s 55 touchdown passes in 2013 or J.J. Watt’s both-sides-of-the-ball ridiculousness last year? Well, it’s hard to compare one position to another, but put it this way: Nobody has come close to doing what Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes did in 1980 — not in the modern era, at least. And given the gap that exists between Hayes and The Rest, it’s possible nobody ever will.

Lester’s performance that season was truly off the charts — so far off that his record might be resistant to rule changes, a longer schedule and anything else that tends to make the past disappear. In 20 games that season, including the playoffs, he intercepted 18 passes . . . and had another four picks wiped out by penalties. It almost doesn’t seem possible.

And this didn’t happen just any old year, I’ll remind you. It happened in a year the Raiders won the Super Bowl (to just about everyone’s surprise). For his efforts Hayes won The Associated Press’ Defensive Player of the Year award, an honor much more likely to go to a lineman or linebacker than a DB.

Let me lay out the numbers for you, then I’ll get into the season itself. Hayes had a league-leading 13 interceptions in the regular season — one off Night Train Lane’s mark — and another five in Oakland’s four playoff games. His total of 18 is five more than anyone else has had since 1960. Five. (Before that, the seasons and playoffs were so much shorter that nobody really had a chance to pick off 18 passes.)

Here’s Hayes’ closest competition:


Year Player, Team G RS PS Total
1980 Lester Hayes, Raiders* 20 13 5 18
1969 Emmitt Thomas, Chiefs* (AFL) 17   9 4 13
1981 Everson Walls, Cowboys 18 11 2 13
1963 Fred Glick, Oilers (AFL) 14 12 DNA 12
1964 Paul Krause, Redskins 14 12 DNA 12
1964 Dainard Paulson, Jets (AFL) 14 12 DNA 12
1974 Emmitt Thomas, Chiefs 14 12 DNA 12
1987 Barry Wilburn, Redskins* 15   9 3 12
1976 Monte Jackson, Rams 16 10 2 12
1975 Mel Blount, Steelers* 17 11 1 12
1979 Mike Reinfeldt, Oilers 19 12 0 12
2006 Asante Samuel, Patriots 19 10 2 12
2007 Antonio Cromartie, Chargers 19 10 2 12

*won title

Yes, Hayes played in more games than the other defensive backs, and yes, some of them — the DNA (Does Not Apply) guys — didn’t even make the playoffs. But them’s the breaks. Besides, his interceptions per game of 0.9 is the highest of the bunch. (Next: Glick, Krause, Paulson and Thomas ’74 at 0.86).

It’s worth noting, too, that the league-wide interception rate in 1980 was 4.6 percent. Last year it was 2.5 — and if the Competition Committee continues to favor the offense, it no doubt will decline even further. That’s just going to make it harder to pile up 18 picks in a season. (Another way to look at it: In 1980 there were 627 INTs in 13,705 pass attempts. In 2014 there were 450 in 17,879 — 177 fewer in 4,174 more attempts.)

Now that the cold, hard data has been dispensed with, why don’t we take Hayes’ historic season interception by interception? Lester was quite a character, even by the Raiders’ oddball standards — the kind of player Twitter was made for. (Or maybe not. There was no telling, after all, what might come out of his mouth.)

Hayes considered himself, for instance, more than just an all-pro corner. In his mind, he was “the only true Jedi in the National Football League” (which was only to be expected, I suppose, of a player who claimed to have seen The Empire Strikes Back 300 times).

To Lester, money was “deceased presidents,” as in: “If the president of Australia doubled my salary and I was not under contract to the Raiders, I’d be on the first flight across the International Dateline. . . . It’s [all about] the deceased presidents, baby. In 1995, when the cost of bread is $5 per loaf, how is one to procure his loaf of bread?”

At Texas A&M, where he’d played linebacker, they called him “Judge.” That, he explained, stemmed from “a statement I made before we played Texas. I said our defense was going to hold court on Earl Campbell. I sentenced him to 2 yards on 20 carries.” (Campbell finished with 20 on 18.)

In 1980 Hayes was judge, jury and executioner as far as NFL quarterbacks were concerned. If they threw a ball anywhere near him, it was likely to wind up in his stickum-coated mitts (in the days when the Crazy Glue-like stuff was legal). How his season went:

● Week 1 (beat Chiefs, 27-14): Intercepted a Steve Fuller pass, setting up a field goal that made it 24-7 in the fourth quarter.

● Week 2 (lost to Chargers in overtime, 30-24): Had one of the Raiders’ five INTs against Dan Fouts.

● Week 3 (beat Redskins, 24-21): In the fourth quarter, with Washington at the Oakland 21, he picked off Joe Theismann’s throw to halt a drive.

● Week 4 (lost to Bills, 24-7): Returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown, the Raiders’ only score. Victim: Joe Ferguson.

● Week 8 (beat Seahawks, 33-14): Had two INTs, both off Jim Zorn. The first led to a TD, the second to a field goal.

● Week 9 (beat Dolphins, 16-10): From the AP account: “Lester Hayes had one interception, and would have had another — on which he rambled 95 yards for an apparent TD — had the play not been called back by an Oakland offside penalty.” QB: Uncertain (either David Woodley or Don Strock).

● Week 10 (beat Bengals, 28-17): A one-INT day could have been a three-INT day if two more picks hadn’t been nullified by offside penalties. The one he did get came on the final play of the first half when Jack Thompson threw up a Hail Mary.

● Week 11 (beat Seahawks, 19-17): With 4:20 left, he intercepted a Zorn pass and returned it 19 yards to the Oakland 39. The Raiders then drove to the Seattle 10, where Chris Bahr booted a game-winning 28-yard field goal.

● Week 12 (lost to Eagles in Super Bowl preview, 10-7): Picked off a Ron Jaworski pass at some point, but the newspaper stories don’t say when. (Unfortunately, the league’s gamebook archives only go back to 1981, which is why I have to rely on newspapers.)

● Week 13 (beat Broncos, 9-3): Another end-of-the-first-half-Hail-Mary job, this time at the expense of Craig Morton.

● Week 15 (beat Broncos, 24-21): Had a second-quarter INT. (Matt Robinson threw it.) It was followed by a field goal that put Oakland ahead to stay, 10-7.

● Week 16 (beat Giants, 33-17): The New York Times: “Late in the second quarter, with the Giants trailing by two touchdowns, [Scott] Brunner overthrew a pass to [running back Billy] Taylor. It was intercepted by Lester Hayes, his 13th steal of the season, and returned 50 yards” — helping to put another three points on the board.

● Playoff Game 1 (beat Oilers, 27-7): Thanks, once again, to the wonders of YouTube, I was able to find video of all five of Hayes’ postseason picks. This is the first — in the end zone in the third quarter, when Oakland had a tenuous 10-7 lead.

And this is the second, near the end, with Oilers quarterback Ken Stabler — Lester’s former Raiders teammate — facing a third-and-18 at the Houston 2:

Touchdown — Hayes’ second of the season. He also had two sacks that day. Just so you know: No defensive back has had a two-interception/two-sack game since the sack became an official statistic in 1982. Three linebackers have accomplished the feat, though – the Bengals’ James Francis (1992), the Dolphins’ Robert Jones (1998) and the Steelers’ Joey Porter (2002). That’s the kind of year it was for Lester.

● Playoff Game 2 (beat Browns, 14-12): Suckered Brian Sipe into two more INTs. Pick No. 1 came on a third-and-10 play from the Cleveland 48 midway through the first quarter:

Pick No. 2 was yet another a Hail Mary situation – just before halftime:

NBC analyst John Brodie made a classic comment during the replay: “A lot of fellas would be content to just bat it down. Not Lester. Put another skin on the wall.”

Exactly. Anything Hayes could get his hands on, he was going to catch. In that instance he was trying to keep the ball away from a 6-foot-4 former college basketball player (wideout Dave Logan), so who can blame him?

Amazingly — given all his interceptions — Lester didn’t have the most memorable INT in that game. The Raiders’ strong safety, Mike Davis, did, picking off a Brian Sipe pass in the end zone in the final minute to preserve the victory. The Browns were at the Oakland 13, in chip-shot field goal range, when Sipe tried to hit tight end Ozzie Newsome . . . and connected with Davis instead:

(The game was played in bitter cold, and Cleveland had already missed an extra point and two field goals. Coach Sam Rutigliano didn’t have a whole lot of confidence in kicker Don Cockroft at that stage.)Headline before AFC title game JJ Duel

● Playoff Game 3 (beat Chargers, 34-27): Much of the talk before the AFC title game was about the matchup between Hayes and John Jefferson — all-pro corner vs. all-pro receiver. And sure enough, in the early going at the Oakland 14, Fouts wanted to go to Jefferson, who had lined up in the right slot. But JJ slipped, which resulted in Lester’s 18th and last interception of the season:

Hayes never had another year like 1980. Nobody has another year like that. In fact, he never had more than four interceptions in any of his final six seasons, though he continued to make Pro Bowls. Whether this had anything to do with the banning of stickum in ’81 is an open question. He used it, uh, liberally (as the photo at the bottom shows).

Still, he had some nice moments after that, including this one during the Raiders’ 1983 playoff run:

Before the Super Bowl against the Redskins, he said (in typical Lesterese): “As long as I procure those 72,000 deceased presidents on my birthday [Jan. 22 — the date of the game], that’s all I care about. It’s my destiny to spend my birthday intercepting three passes and scoring three touchdowns, a feat no other defensive back has ever done. I will do a 360-degree reverse slam dunk [over the crossbar] after each TD. It’s inevitable.”

Alas, he fell three interceptions, three touchdowns and three 360-degree reverse slam dunks short, but no matter. The Raiders won anyway, 38-9. Besides, he’ll always have 1980. And when I say “always,” I’m pretty sure I mean always. Who’s ever going to have more 18 interceptions in a season?

Lester Hayes, his right hand covered with goo (stickum), reaches for a towel.

Lester Hayes, his right hand covered with goo (stickum), reaches for a towel.

In the days before diplomacy

Before players became so well behaved — in terms of their public pronouncements, I mean — Super Bowl Week was a lot more entertaining. I was reminded of this the other day when I came across a story that ran after the 1968 AFL title game between the Jets and Raiders.

Joe Namath’s team rallied to win the game, 27-23 – then went off to slay the NFL champion Colts, the biggest upset in pro football history. The visiting Raiders, who thought they were the better club (and may well have been), could only go home and stew for seven months.

In the walk-up to the Super Bowl, Jets cornerback Johnny Sample was doing what he did best: mouthing off. Sample was one of the early trash talkers — not quite as quotable, perhaps, as Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, but heck, Fred was practically Oscar Wilde.

One day Johnny was holding forth about the cornerback position — and about the notebook he kept that had detailed information on every man he covered. The Raiders’ Fred Biletnikoff, a future Hall of Famer, was just “an average receiver,” he’d decided. “You can’t compare him to the great receivers.”

This was a strange statement coming from Sample. Biletnikoff, after all, had torn him up in the AFL title game, catching seven passes for 190 yards and a touchdown. (In fact, Raiders owner Al Davis told The Boston Globe’s Will McDonough, “Fred has eaten him up the last three times he has played against him, and every time he does, Sample says he’s had a cold.”)

An enterprising reporter for the Oakland Tribune called Biletnikoff to get his reaction to Sample’s remarks. Fred was in a Los Angeles hospital at the time recovering from a collarbone injury that Johnny, apparently, had something to do with.

“The way I feel about it,” he said, “[Sample] should write a new book. He was really trying to shake me up in the first quarter, slapping at me and trying to talk me out of my game.

“When I dropped one on the 1-yard line, he said, ‘That’s the way it’s going to be today.’ But after I started beating him he didn’t say much for the rest of the game. I figure the game went 25 percent his way, 75 percent my way.”

I’m saving the best for last. Sample was suggesting at the Super Bowl that he might retire after the game — and it did, indeed, turn out to be his last season. How did Biletnikoff feel about that?

“I hope he doesn’t,” Fred said. “I’d like to play 14 games a season against him. That way I’d know my family is secure for a long time.”

Anyway, that’s what happened one day before Super Bowl III. Anybody say anything interesting today?

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The Jets' Johnny Sample (24) and the Colts' Tom Matte (41) go facemask-to-facemask in Super Bowl III.

The Jets’ Johnny Sample (24) and the Colts’ Tom Matte (41) go facemask-to-facemask in Super Bowl III.

Richard Sherman: Pick of the litter

Richard Sherman, the Seahawks’ ballhawk/cornerback, intercepted another pass in Sunday night’s 35-6 win over the Cardinals. That gives him 24 in his first four seasons (with a game to go), tying him for third most since the 1970 merger. Here’s where he falls on the list:


Years Defensive back, Team Int
1977-80 Lester Hayes, Raiders 25
1981-84 Everson Walls, Cowboys 25
1981-84 Kenny Easley, Seahawks 24
2011-14 Richard Sherman, Seahawks 24
1978-81 John Harris, Seahawks 22
1976-79 Mike Haynes, Patriots 22
1994-97 Keith Lyle, Rams 22
1988-91 Erik McMillan, Jets 22
2002-05 Ed Reed, Ravens 22

Sherman’s total is even more impressive when you consider how much lower interception rates are now (largely because of all the “adjustments” the NFL has made in the rules). In Lester Hayes’ first four seasons, 5.03 percent of all passes were picked off. In Sherman’s first four, 2.71 percent have been. Big difference.

When you look at it that way, Sherman has had the best first four seasons, interception-wise, of any defensive back in the last 45 years. His 24 INTs represent 1.26 percent of all picks from 2011 to 2014:


Years Defensive back, Team Int League INT %
2011-14 Richard Sherman, Seahawks 24       1,899 1.26
1981-84 Everson Walls, Cowboys 25       2,162 1.16
1981-84 Kenny Easley, Seahawks 24       2,162 1.11
1994-97 Keith Lyle, Rams 22       2,007 1.10
1992-95 Darren Perry, Steelers 21       1,974 1.06
1988-91 Erik McMillan, Jets 22       2,080 1.06
2002-05 Ed Reed, Ravens 22       2,096 1.05
1977-80 Lester Hayes, Raiders 25       2,425 1.03
1991-94 Aeneas Williams, Cardinals 20       1,950 1.03
1988-91 Eric Allen, Eagles 21       2,080 1.01
1997-00 Sam Madison, Dolphins 21       2,081 1.01

It might seem like we’re splitting hairs here, but note the gap between first (Sherman) and second (Walls) — 0.1 percent — is the biggest of all. (Next biggest: .05 percent between second and third.) The gap between top and bottom, meanwhile, is .25 percent. That’s a pretty sizable separation.

In other words, receivers may not be able to separate themselves from Sherman, but Sherman sure can separate himself from other DBs.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman does this to opposing receivers, too.

Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman does this to opposing receivers, too.

The statistical phenomenon that is DeAngelo Hall

Statistics were invented for a player like DeAngelo Hall. He isn’t that rare Shutdown Corner everybody lusts for — a Darrelle Revis or a Richard Sherman — and at going-on-31 his Pro Bowl years are probably behind him. The Redskins, strapped for cap dollars, deemed him expendable enough to release him during the 2013 offseason, though he eventually re-signed with them and played well enough to earn a four-year extension.

But Hall does have value, even if it’s declining. He may not be a great cover man, but he’s durable and — here’s where the stats come in — opportunistic. In fact, he’s the football equivalent of that guy at the beach with the metal detector. He’s always finding “loose change” by hanging around the ball. And he’s especially good at doing something with said ball once he latches onto it.

Stat No. 1: Because Hall came out of Virginia Tech early and was 20 when he played in his first NFL game, he played 143 games in his 20s. That gave him an unusual amount of time to make his statistical mark, and he took advantage of it. Consider: Since the big rule changes in 1978, the ones that turned the league into a Picnic for Passers, only one pure corner has had more picks in his 20s than DeAngelo did. The Top 10 looks like this:


Seasons Cornerback Teams(s) Ints
1981-88 Everson Walls Cowboys 44
2004-13 DeAngelo Hall Falcons, Raiders, Redskins 42
1999-07 Champ Bailey Redskins, Broncos 42
2003-10 Asante Samuel Patriots, Eagles 42
1992-00 Terrell Buckley Packers, Dolphins, Broncos 38
1991-97 Aeneas Williams Cardinals 38
1996-03 Donnie Abraham Bucs, Jets 36
1988-95 Eric Allen Eagles, Saints 35
1995-03 Ty Law Patriots 35
1989-96 Deion Sanders Falcons, 49ers, Cowboys 34

Note: Ronnie Lott (43) and Ray Buchanan (38) aren’t included because they got some of their interceptions at the safety spot (enough, at least, to take them below the cutoff of 34).

Granted, Hall has a tendency to gamble, but 42 picks are 42 picks, particularly in an era with low interception rates and a ton of one-possession games. Often, One More Takeaway can be the difference between victory and defeat. That’s what Hall, for all his flaws, gives you.

Stat No. 2: Last season Hall ran back two interceptions and one fumble for touchdowns. That brought his career totals in those categories to five and four. Only one other player in NFL history has returned at least four INTs and four fumbles for scores. Here are the 11 with 3 or more of each:


Seasons Player Team (s) Int TD Fum TD
1997-12 Ronde Barber Bucs 8 4
2004-14 DeAngelo Hall Falcons, Raiders, Redskins 5 4
1997-11 Jason Taylor Dolphins, Redskins, Jets 3 6
2000-09 Mike Brown Bears, Chiefs 4 3
2000-09 Adalius Thomas Ravens, Patriots 3 3
1991-04 Aeneas Williams Cardinals, Rams 9 3
1988-00 Cris Dishman Oilers, Redskins, 2 others 3 3
1989-98 Anthony Parker Vikings, 4 others 4 3
1969-81 Bill Thompson Broncos 3 4
1970-82 Lemar Parrish Bengals, Redskins, Bills 4 3
1964-79 Paul Krause Redskins, Vikings 3 3

Not a bad bunch. Williams and Krause are in the Hall of Fame, Taylor is surely headed there and I’ve never quite understood why Parrish’s eight Pro Bowls and excellence as a returner don’t merit him serious consideration. Also, did you notice that five of the 11 played at one time or another for the Redskins (for whatever that’s worth)?

Anyway, like I said, DeAngelo Hall was made for stats.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

R. C. Owens’ one-of-a-kind field goal block, revisited

History, as we all know, is a living thing. More information — better information — comes along, and the record gets revised. Earlier this week I published a post (and photo) about the Colts’ R. C. Owens blocking a field goal try in 1962 in a unique way: He stood back by the goal posts, jumped as high as he could and re-jected a kick attempted by the Redskins.

The newspaper accounts said it was an NFL first, and in all my research I’ve never come across another play like it. (I do remember seeing — on TV — a 1970 game between the Chiefs and Raiders in which Morris Stroud, the Chiefs’ 6-10 tight end, played “goalie” in the closing seconds and nearly blocked a 48-yarder by George Blanda (a boot that left the bitter rivals in a 17-17 deadlock). The Associated Press reported: “The ball barely made it over the crossbar and above the hands of . . . Stroud, who was stationed at the goal line.”

Reader/Facebook buddy/fellow blogger Jack Finarelli brought up another candidate in a comment: Erich Barnes, a six-time Pro Bowl cornerback with the Bears, Giants and Browns from 1958 to ’71. Wrote Jack: “I think I remember [him] doing this also in a game about 1961 or 1962. As I recall, it was considered a ‘blocked field goal’ and was open for recovery.”

So I did a little investigating. Turns out Barnes did do something like that — in 1969, when he was playing for Cleveland. (He may have done it as a Giant, too, but my search of The New York Times archive turned up nothing. It did, though, produce a photo of him blocking a field goal in the conventional fashion against the Rams in ’61.)

Screen Shot 2014-08-30 at 4.41.46 PM


Here’s the link to the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s story on The Game in Question. The relevant passage is as follows:

The Eagles got on the board in the second quarter after a freak play. Erich Barnes, who also was injured late in the game and may have a cracked rib, leaped high to deflect Sam Baker’s field goal bid.

Erich was playing right in front of the goal posts. He touched the ball and it bounced back in the playing field, where it was recovered by [Philadelphia’s] Tim Rossovich.

So the Eagles had a first down on the Cleveland 2-yard line. They took it into the end zone on two smashes by Tom Woodeshick.

Maybe that’s why Barnes’ play has been forgotten: because, unlike Owens’, it didn’t prevent the opponent from scoring. In fact, it cost the Browns four points — the difference between a field goal and a touchdown.

There’s also uncertainty about whether Baker’s boot would have gone through the uprights. According to United Press International, he “was short on a 44-yard field goal attempt, and Barnes, leaping high at the goal post in a bid to deflect the ball, batted it back on the playing field.”

Which is why it was a live ball — and why the Eagles were able retain possession. Had the kick gone into the end zone, as it (presumably) did in Owens’ case, it would have been ruled a touchback.

What we don’t know — because we don’t have the game film handy — is what UPI meant by “short.” It could have just meant the ball would have barely made it over to the crossbar. Or . . . it could have meant Barnes’ block was superfluous.

I’d like to think this blog can do this kind of stuff often — that is, try to get the facts as straight as we can. The truth, after all, is in the details.

Sources: newspaperarchive.com, The New York Times archive, Cleveland Plain Dealer archive, pro-football-reference.com.