With the retirement of Justice Alan Page and the airing of NFL Network's documentary "A Football Life", we're reminded again of the dual careers of one of the most impactful people to step on the field and in the court in the state of Minnesota. The NFL Network did an excellent job profiling Page (excerpt here), but there's so much more to his story, both from a personal perspective to me, and to the NFL as a whole.
The dominance that Page put together on the football field, to him, remains a shadow of his legacy as one who fought tirelessly for justice—both legal and situational—well after his football life was over.
There's no shortage of ways to describe how much more important his post-football life is to him than his football career, but it remains the fact that he'll be remembered by most of the state as one of the most dominant football players of all time.
Somehow, in that shuffle, a player of his caliber has become underrated historically. Yes, people will consistently put together lists of the best defensive tackles or best defenders in the NFL and include Page, but it is difficult to overstate the gap between Page and his contemporaries at the position.
We know the names of some of the most heralded pass-rushers in the NFL: Reggie White, Bruce Smith, Lawrence Taylor, Deacon Jones and so on. The best defensive tackle of all time is usually supposed to be Joe Greene, Merlin Olsen, Randy White or Bob Lilly; possibly Warren Sapp breaks the list—though Alan Page doesn't receive the same regard. He's mentioned in lists, but never at the top. A look through lists (here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). When putting together a team to defend the planet, an extraordinary list of experts ignored Page (and they had some pretty good reasons, if I'm going to at least pretend to be objective).
This is perhaps one of the more unusual circumstances in player perception in NFL history. While it may not be as odd as the curious regard held for Paul Hornung or the relative amount of lip service paid to Sid Luckman and Otto Graham, it's still unusual to see such a dominant player downplayed, even though his accomplishments are singularly unique in the NFL pantheon.
Jim Brown is not only in the debate for the best running back of all time, he's the frontrunner. Mel Blount and Night Train Lane compete with Darrelle Revis and Deion Sanders for the best cornerback honors. Bruce Matthews and Randall McDaniel are mentioned alongside Larry Allen and John Hannah.
The point is that either there's a clear number one (like Jim Brown) or a healthy debate up top (Allen/Hannah/Matthews/McDaniel) where various experts would rank the contenders number one in different ways at different times. For defensive tackles, Alan Page is constantly ranked #2 or #3 on lists, but almost never #1, despite the fact that #1 changes hands between Merlin Olsen, Joe Greene and Bob Lilly (and, at times—Warren Sapp or Randy White).
But why should we consider Alan Page the best? We could look at ancillary things, like the fact that he was the best player on the best scoring defense in NFL history, or that we voted him to be the greatest Viking of all time. Or, I guess, the fact that he was the first-ever defensive player to be voted MVP and the only defensive tackle to earn that distinction.
On the other hand, we could take a look at what we have, which involves a surprisingly deep look into statistics. For me, NFL statistics really take on more importance after 1960 (assuming we include the AFL, and then also make appropriate adjustments for AFL vs. NFL play).
There are a lot of reasons, but they ultimately revolve around the talent pool: the league was fully integrated by then, there were no post-war football recruitment headaches, the number of teams in the NFL/AFL adequately reflected the amount of talent available, there were virtually no two-way players, and there was enough prestige in professional football for premier college football players to actually want to play in the NFL (of the 11 1950 Consensus All-Americans, only six chose to play in the NFL the year they were drafted. One initially chose baseball, two chose the armed services, and two chose the CFL over the NFL).
The integrity of that data isn't great, but occasionally there are instances of individuals or organizations going to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of such data. One of those people is John Turney, who was committed to the art of the sack and found it a tragedy that some of the greatest pass rushers in history weren't counted among the greats because of the NFL's (and Elias Sports Bureau's) reluctance to go back and count sacks from before 1982.
So he decided that he would do it.
While initially an individual project, he eventually enlisted the support of many others, including the Pro Football Researcher's Association, NFL teams and NFL Films. He went over old game film, newspaper microfilm and media guides to confirm and many times change team sack counts. Deacon Jones, a huge supporter of the project for obvious reasons, had his apocryphal 26-sack season reduced to 22 by Turney because Jones was counting sacks in postseason games as well. Coy Bacon's 26-sack season would also be 21.5 because Bacon was counting half-sacks as full sacks.
Because of Turney, we can produce a more accurate list of players with 100+ sacks. This is updated as of 2014:
|1||Bruce Smith (200)||27||Clyde Simmons (121.5)|
|2||Reggie White (198)||28||Jacob Green (116)|
|3||Deacon Jones (173.5)||29||Harvey Martin (114)|
|4||Kevin Greene (160)||30||Sean Jones (113)|
|5||Chris Doleman (150.5)||31||Lyle Alzado (112.5)|
|5||Jack Youngblood (150.5)||32||Dwight Freeney (111.5)|
|7||Alan Page (148.5)||33||Randy White (111)|
|8||Lawrence Taylor (142)||33||Robert Mathis (111)|
|9||Michael Strahan (141.5)||35||Greg Townsend (109.5)|
|10||Jason Taylor (139.5)||36||Andy Robustelli (109)|
|11||John Randle (137.5)||37||Mark Gastineau (107.5)|
|11||Richard Dent (137.5)||37||Pat Swilling (107.5)|
|13||Rickey Jackson (136)||39||Terrell Suggs (106.5)|
|14||Jared Allen (134)||40||Ed Jones (106)|
|15||Carl Eller (133.5)||40||Trace Armstrong (106)|
|15||John Abraham (133.5)||42||Elvin Bethea (105)|
|17||Claude Humphrey (132.5)||43||Neil Smith (104.5)|
|17||Leslie O'Neal (132.5)||43||Kevin Carter (104.5)|
|19||Coy Bacon (130)||45||Dexter Manley (103.5)|
|19||Al Baker (130)||46||Fred Dryer (103)|
|21||Jim Marshall (127)||46||Jack Gregory (103)|
|21||DeMarcus Ware (127)||48||Jim Jeffcoat (102.5)|
|23||Derrick Thomas (126.5)||49||Tommy Hart (101)|
|24||Cedrick Hardman (126)||50||Charles Haley (100.5)|
|25||Julius Peppers (125.5)||50||William Fuller (100.5)|
|26||Simeon Rice (122)||52||Ezra Johnson (100)|
|52||Andre Tippett (100)|
That list—Turney's effort—is part of the reason Jack Youngblood finally earned a Hall of Fame bust, and you'll notice that Alan Page is the highest-ranking defensive tackle, 7th overall.
But we can do one better. We can take a look at historical sack totals for interior defensive players (3-4 DEs and 4-3 DTs), adjust them for the number of passing dropbacks the team they played for saw, and adjusting once more for the sack rate of the league at the time (it was easier to sack in the 1970s because of pass protection rules, but there were fewer passing dropbacks, for example).
In the offseason, I decided to create a table of the best pass-rushers from an interior defensive position (who have played at least three seasons in an interior role) and adjust their career sack totals for a 2014 NFL season. I also peppered in some very good modern players. The results are a knockout in favor of Page as the best interior pass-rusher since 1960, and likely of all time.
|Player||Sks||Gms||Yrs||Opponent Dropbacks||Effective Opp Dropbacks||Sk%||Sk/100 Gms||Median YrSack Rate||Eq. 2014 16-Game Season|
TWO AND A HALF SACKS BETTER than the second-best pass-rusher from the position, a name you may be familiar with. And that's an average. It is not really conceivable to imagine a defensive tackle averaging about 12 sacks a year (Ndamukong Suh has peaked at 10.0 sacks in a year, and Geno Atkins met that mark once, in 2012).
There is, of course, one defender where it is conceivable. I was going to include JJ Watt, but I didn't know what to do with his continued outside presence—as he has taken more and more snaps from edge positions each year as his career has gone on, something Pro Football Focus has documented; 60 percent of his pass-rush snaps last year came from 4-3 defensive end alignment. Page's production from the inside is unmatched, even after accounting for era. Including Watt's four-year career (before this year, a "disappointing" year for him, even as once again the top 3-4 DE/4-2 DE), Watt would place above Page. If we include 2015 games, he does not (by marginal, marginal amounts).
Page's best season was the one right before his weight controversy troubled the front office and coaching staff—in 1976 (not his MVP season), he logged 18 sacks, or 19.1 sacks in the 2014 equivalent.
If you only look at the best three years a player has produced, Page's 1974-1976 averages an era-adjusted 14.6 sacks a season, while Merlin Olsen's 1967-1970 produced an era-adjusted 11.2 sacks in a 2014-style 16-game season.
Page has played at multiple weights, though the one that catches our eye the most is the 224-pound weight. Sure, he logged 11.5 sacks in 10 games at that weight and that is one of the most impressive things I've heard from a DT, but he's also played at over 250 pounds (and I've heard 260 at times, though I find that harder to believe). He played at 240 pounds at Notre Dame, and started his rookie year at 245.
About his weight, I was able to ask Alan Page about how he played at 224 and what he did in the weight room to make himself so effective.
"As my good friend Buddy Ryan would say, in talking about spending time in the weight room, he said 'If you know what you're doing, all that time in the weight room might not hurt you. If you don't know what you're doing, all that time in the weight room isn't going to help you.' It's the simple truth."
That is only one element of production. Page did not lack for pressure, and it doesn't take long to watch his games to see his impact. NFL Films kindly gave us quite the highlight reel, which you should be able to see below until the NFL decides to take it down because fun is illegal.
Even if you simply watch a game (Alan Page was heavenly in the first half of Super Bowl IV), it's easier to notice him than virtually any other defensive player. Watching him attack the passer is different than watching other defensive tackles. His ability to get off the ball is incredible, and what's more is that despite the fact that Gary Larsen played much more of a nose tackle role, Alan Page was double-teamed much more often than most three-techniques in his era and in the modern era—and in many games, more than Larsen.
He will of course tell you that they produced because of the combination of teammates they had, not simply him. When asked about his production, he directed attention to the unit as a whole. He also credited working against a strong offensive line, and Mick Tingelhoff to their success.
"It's hard to say which was the chicken and which was the egg," Page said of the offensive line/defensive line interaction. "We happened to have four defensive linemen who would be hard pressed to have somebody leading them. But [Mick Tingelhoff's] view of the world was not inconsistent with ours ... it's good to have somebody on the other side of the ball who understands that. I suspect you could be intimidated if you didn't have somebody who was just as comfortable doing the same thing."
Alan Page's tackle totals are literally unbelievable. It's not that he ranks fourth in the Vikings' unofficial tackle count with 1,120 tackles—that's hard to swallow on its own—it's that his season totals are out of control; he had (according to the Vikings) 146 tackles in 1974. That's higher than any individual seasonal total that Pro-Football-Reference has for a DT, a database that goes back to 1983.
The tackle stat is a contentious one, and one I've outlined as problematic several times. Turney didn't go back to verify those tackle stats, but no one really had ever accused (like they did John Randle or Jim Marshall) of being weak against the run, and his tackle stats provide sideways evidence to that fact. At least for defensive tackles, much more than linebackers or defensive backs, the tackle statistic is better at pointing to quality—because nearly all DT tackles are good plays.
To account for tackle inflation, one can take a look at "tackle share," and see how many of the team's tackles Page was responsible for. Team tackles aren't easy, so it's easier to simply look at the number of running and passing plays their team played against. We don't get sideline "tackles" or touchdowns and so forth, but you get some general idea of how many tackles they could conceivably be responsible for.
You can't get tackle totals for everybody (notably, I don't have Joe Green or Merlin Olsen), but it does provide an approximation. Alan Page's 20.6% is the highest of any interior defender I found (predictably, John Randle's 7.8% was one of the lowest among Hall of Fame defensive tackles, which isn't so much a slight as it is a good way to figure out the shape of his career—after all, Warren Sapp's 8.3% is hardly much better). Second was Randy White's 18.9%.
If you wanted to include J.J. Watt, he was in the middle at 13.8%, while Geno Atkins was at the bottom at 6.8%. Ndamukong Suh's 10.6% was very good for modern defenders (and of course not as good as Watt's).
Alan Page is my hero. Before I liked watching football and before I was aware of the history of the NFL, I was able to meet Alan Page as he read stories to me and a bunch of my classmates as a kid. He talked about his career and what he does—and importantly, who we could become and what we could do.
I had no idea he ever played football. He didn't mention it. It wasn't important to him. My teacher was the one who ended up bringing it up, a Hall of Fame player!
That in many ways embodies the person that Page is. I've been able to meet him a few times since then, and if you visit his office, there's memorabilia everywhere. Pieces of history plucked from the past and brought to life in his legal office, each a reminder of who he strives to become. And not a single one recalls his football career.
Instead you see signs from the 1960s recalling Jim Crow, ads from papers in the 1850s demanding slaves be returned, evidence of privacy laws that encouraged police to ignore domestic violence. As you could tell from the documentary the NFL Network aired, there are even more in his home—one of the largest private collections of Jim Crow memorabilia.
All of them, to him, remind him of the power that the law has to recognize—or deny—fundamental human dignity. It's a tireless struggle, and one that can overwhelm a person. To him, it needs to be tireless despite the overwhelming nature of the responsibility.
Law is a powerful tool, but for Page it's about something more far-reaching.
When I asked him about how we can best fight racism in the 21st century, he took a moment before unleashing an essay.
"Education is a tool that all of us can use to deal with disadvantages, particularly those associated with race," he said. "It gives the person a lot, particularly those that have been discriminated against. It gives them a tool that they can use. That's part of the equation."
For Page, education is one of the key tools in our arsenal to deal with modern prejudice. Changing minds isn't as important as changing action, however.
"Here we are, well down this road, and not having made much progress, or at least as much progress as we need to. We need to figure out how we ensure that. I'm not so much concerned with how people feel, so much as how we treat people different simply because of their race. So how do we change things so that we start treating each other like people? That's the real challenge. I don't much care what people think, just how they act.
That's really all we can ask. We all have our biases and I think it's incumbent upon all of us to understand that we have those biases and address them as we go through our daily life."
Of course, knowing that racism was codified into the law in the Jim Crow era but today practiced by people instead of enforced by the hegemony of law, Page knew that more covert or harder to detect forms of bias were the new challenge. "We have made biases hard to detect," he acknowledged. "I've said on many occasions, making it harder to detect is not the same as making it go away.
"Ultimately, it's not about confronting biases, but treating people based on who they are and what they do, not on some stereotype or preconceived notion. That's the only way we're going to get around that, all 330 million of us. We need to do that on a daily basis. Not sort of think about it here and there."
To that end, all of the accolades, statistics and recognition he gets as a football player are useful. While it doesn't make him a better person, it makes him more well-positioned to deal with bigger problems. "It's given me a bigger platform," he told me. "And quite frankly it's given me some privilege that a lot of people don't have. I happen to think that, given that, I have some obligation to do what I can to help others achieve sort of the same kind of success, if you will."
Alan Page's Hall of Fame speech was more about what society needs to do than it was about his playing days, as many of you know—and much of NFL Network's documentary focused on that.
His presenter, Dr. Willarene Beasley, was a local high school principal and told us this much about Page the person:
Who is this Alan Page? Alan is characterized as being his own person, having a desire to control his own destiny. He is persistent, he is a hard worker, he has gained acceptability and respectability. He is a strong willed person and he takes a stand for what he believes. He is an intellect, he's analytic, he's altruistic, has the desire to help others. He is noted for his independence and his individuality He is often characterized as being different; he always has been and probably always will be. But the most important thing is that Alan is a role model for our youth.
As Alan stands tall, the State of Minnesota and the Minnesota Vikings, all of the players past and present stands tall, because Alan is the second Viking to make it to the Hall of Fame. The defensive football players on every team, the Chicago Bears and the State of Illinois, former football coaches, his fans all stand tall. The University of Notre Dame, the University of Minnesota, Central Catholic High School all stand tall with this alumnus who has reached national prominence.
Millions of blacks and other minorities stand tall today for Alan has helped to change the stereotypes of blacks. He not only excelled in sports, but he excelled in education. Millions of parents in education stand tall today for the position that Alan has taken on education and so youth all over the country too stand tall for Alan brings hope and pride in serving as a role model for all of them.
The justice system, his fellow lawyers and his attorneys in the Attorney General office stands tall with Alan. The nation and the world stand tall for Alan has worked hard to help fulfill the American dream. He is concerned with the American dream not alluding minorities or other blacks. So Alan has said on numerous occasions that people like Martin Luther King and Jessie Jackson have made many sacrifices so we can all share in the American dream.
I would submit to you today that Alan Page too is helping to fulfill that American dream. Just as Alan has played defensive tackle for the Vikings and the Bears now through the Page Educational Foundation, his defensive is tackling problems. Problems with education by scholarship. High unemployment rate, eradicating poverty, elevating self esteem, embellishing freedom and equality of opportunity, reducing the dropout rates of students of low social economy status. Diminishing adolescent pregnancy, drug use, crime, he is intensifying hope, so we all benefit as a result. He not only reaches out to pull other youths along but through his $100,000 scholarship programs he requires that other youths will pull other youths along so you are going to have youth role modeling other youth.
And finally, all of us who have come in contact with Alan today, all of you who are witnessing this enshrinement, you stand tall too for Alan. Alan sums it up best in a poem by Alfred Lloyd Tennison and I will just do an excerpt, "I am a part of all that I have met."
Page's speech embodies who he is. I recommend you read all of it, because this long ode to Page would be made even longer by half again as much by quoting only the most profound parts. It's basically a policy speech wrapped in inspirational and commemorative pageantry. The end of it is poignant enough as it is.
Yes, the things I'm suggesting are simple. But I've learned from school, from football, and from the law that even the biggest, scariest problems can be broken down to their fundamentals. And if all of us cannot be superstars, we can remember to repeat the simple fundamentals of taking responsibility for ourselves, and for the children of this country. We must educate our children. And if we do, I believe that will be enough.
That he was able to balance all of his interests and then pursue a law career is incredible. To him, it was nothing special. When asked about it, he simply argued, "It's pretty simple. You figure out what's important, and you do it. Football is important. Whether there are aspects about it that I liked or disliked, it was important. It was important to do it and to do it well -- as well as I could. And the same with the law. As human beings, we have the ability to do more than one thing at a time, so I tried to do everything as well as I could."
Check out the Page Education Foundation. His retirement from the State Supreme Court has let him ramp up his work towards his passion for justice, not diminish it. It's more time to fix what he sees, not a reward for a career well-deserving of a break.
"It's gonna be a work in progress," he replied when asked about his future plans. "I'm going to be working on the Alan Page Education Foundation more than I can now, I'm going to be spending lots of time on that. My daughter and I have written a couple children's books, and we're going to be working on the next ones and hopefully stay engaged in trying to figure out how we solve some of the educational problems that we see."
The idea that he can do more than he already has is astounding in itself. The Page Education Foundation has given over $12 million in scholarships to underprivileged youth in the Twin Cities, to children who meet the requirements—among them 50 volunteer hours in service projects.
The Pioneer Press has a great piece breaking down the impact of the Page Education Foundation, both from the personal standpoint of a recipient and the holistic standpoint of its larger impact. The foundation has an 89.1 rating on Charity Navigator, and perhaps one of the best that relies solely on individual donations.
If you can catch a rerun of A Football Life: Alan Page, I urge you to do it. If for nothing else, it's worth watching for the endless amounts of swag Alan Page has.