The Pro-Football Hall of Fame Needs to Stop Ignoring Jerry Kramer

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The Lombardi-era Packers guard, whose Hall of Famer teammate Bart Starr called him "probably the best player on our championship teams," is somehow still not a Hall of Famer himself.

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There's no easy bet to make on who among the 15 modern-day finalists will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame when the announcement is made this Saturday.

My best guess for which of the first-year eligibles will take the honor is the New York Giants' Michael Strahan, the 2001 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and single-season sacks leader. Jerome Bettis, the former Pittsburgh Steelers running back who was 5th in all-time rushing yards when he retired, is also likely to be voted in. Among the players known as senior nominees, Dave Robinson, a mainstay at linebacker on the Vince Lombardi Green Bay Packers teams that won three championships from 1965-1967, should also be enshrined, although this is the first year Robinson made the cut to the final selection.

But there will be a genuine irony if Robinson makes it. Of the 22 starters on Lombardi's mid-1960s championship teams, 10 are already enshrined at Canton. Robinson's selection would mean that half of the starters from those teams are now Hall of Famers. Just one all-time great of the Lombardi era, the player that Packers quarterback Bart Starr, himself a Hall of Famer, called "probably the best player on our championship teams" would not be in the Hall of Fame.

That would be Jerry Kramer, the Packers right guard for most of 11 seasons from 1958 through 1968. I mentioned Kramer and his omission from the Hall of Fame for The Atlantic about a year ago. Now I want to make the case even more emphatically: Jerry Kramer is one of the greatest players in pro-football history. If I were selecting an all-time team of players not in the Hall of Fame, I'd start with him.

In fact, if I were selecting an all-time, pro-football All-Star team, I might start with him, too.

Such extravagant praise demands explanation. It's long been an axiom in football that the toughest position to find a great player for is guard, which requires not only enormous strength for pass blocking but tremendous agility and quickness for run blocking. In addition, a great many coaches think that guards need even greater intelligence than quarterbacks. The late, great 49ers coach Bill Walsh once told me, "Quarterbacks have a whole brain trust choosing plays for them. Guards have a fraction of a second to identify who is coming into the backfield and from where."

Great coaches always start building great teams with their offensive line—think Vince Lombardi with the Packers when he started at Green Bay in 1959, or think Nick Saban with Alabama's championship teams over the last two years. And because guard is the most skilled position on the offensive line, it's generally the one that most great coaches focus on first. Kramer was the rock around which Lombardi's dynasty was built.

How good was Jerry Kramer? In 11 seasons, Jerry Kramer played in three Pro Bowls and was a five-time first team All-Pro (and second team All-Pro once). How good was he at both pass and run blocking? The quarterback who threw behind him, Bart Starr, is in the Hall of Fame as are the two runners, Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung, who ran through his blocks.

The signature play of the Packers during the Lombardi era was the "Green Bay Sweep"—or as some called it, The Lombardi Sweep—with Kramer and the Packers' left guard, Fuzzy Thurston, pulling out of the line and leading interference around either end. Yet these two men, Kramer and Thurston (himself a first-team All-Pro selection and two-time second team selection) are not in Canton.

How good was Jerry Kramer at both pass and run blocking? The quarterback who threw behind him is in the Hall of Fame, as are the two runners who ran through his blocks.

Kramer has other feats to recommend him for the Hall of Fame in addition to his All-Pro honors and championship rings. In the 1962 NFL championship game against the New York Giants, Paul Hornung, Green Bay's regular kicker, was injured and Kramer went in as the last-minute substitution, driving in three field goals to provide the margin of victory in a 16-7 Packers victory. And on December 31, 1967, on the frozen turf of Green Bay's Lambeau Field, Kramer delivered the most famous block in football history, enabling Bart Starr to score from the one-yard line and defeat the Dallas Cowboys 21-17 in the NFL championship game that would forever be known as "The Ice Bowl."

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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