Football 101: No. 31, John Hannah
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I don’t think you can talk about John Hannah without talking first about that legendary curmudgeon Paul Zimmerman — the renowned Dr. Z to those of you old enough to remember the old Sports Illustrated. When considering how the NFL became the dominant force in American culture, you have to save a chapter for Z, who more or less invented a whole new way to cover professional football, a way that is super-familiar to all football fans today.
The Doctor covered it from the inside.
That is to say, nobody dove deeper into the minutiae, the details, the technicalities of professional football. You know the expression, “Ask him the time, and he’ll tell you how a watch is made?” Well, Z wasn’t at all interested in the time or watches. He just wanted to break down the intricacies of interior line play and the subtleties of covering receivers in the slot.
One of my favorite Z features was every year was when he would rank the best and worst NFL announcers. But here’s the thing: He didn’t rank them the way you or I might — consider how funny they are or their storytelling abilities or how much drama and enthusiasm they infuse into the game.
No, for Z the question was: Do they give me the correct ball mark on each and every play? See, Zimmerman charted every game he ever watched, and he charted them from beginning to end. His charts were detailed and complicated and, above all else, accurate. He didn’t have time for any announcer who said imprecise stuff like, “He gained about four yards,” or “they will mark the ball around the 20.”
That was how you got an F from Z.
Football, to Zimmerman, was a game of precision. He was an offensive lineman himself, going back to his days at Stanford and Columbia. His idol was George Orwell, the ultimate practitioner of precise language. As such, a Paul Zimmerman story did not contain hyperbole, exaggeration, puffery or excessive elegance. Like a good offensive lineman, he hit you in the chest.
As he did in a classic 1981 Sports Illustrated cover story.
“See now, it’s starting. Ah, what a parade. Simply magnificent. All the great linemen in NFL history, the offensive linemen, those quiet, dignified toilers in anonymity. …
“What’s that you say? You want to know who’s the best of them? The very best? Now how can someone pick something like that? The mere act of it would be an insult to so many players who were so great in their eras. You say I must? OK, fasten your seat belt. The greatest offensive lineman in history is playing right now and probably hasn’t even reached his peak. He is John Hannah, the left guard for the New England Patriots, out of Alabama. He stands 6-foot-2 1/2 and his weight fluctuates between 260 and 270 (no lineman can honestly claim only one weight). He is 30 years old and is in his ninth year and is coming off the best season he ever had. He is a pure guard.”
That is how a glaring John Hannah ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated under the headline “The Best Offensive Lineman of All Time.”
And that is the biggest reason why, to this day, so many people still list John Hannah as the greatest guard in NFL history.
It wouldn’t be exactly right to say that Zimmerman pulled Hannah out of obscurity … but it’s also not entirely inaccurate. Hannah spent his career playing for mediocre New England Patriots teams. In his entire 13-year career, the Patriots won their division only once. They finally made it to the Super Bowl, but only in Hannah’s final season (and they got run over by the ’85 Bears). The year Zimmerman wrote the story, the one that named Hannah the best of all time, the Patriots would go 2-14 and be the worst team in football.
When Z pulled Hannah out of offensive line obscurity, he was a four-time All-Pro, certainly a good thing but hardly the stuff of legend. He was not the most famous offensive lineman in the NFL, not with Art Shell and Dan Dierdorf and Mike Webster around. He was not even the most famous guard; Gene Upshaw and Conrad Dobler and Larry Little were better-known across the league.
Hannah was not even first-team All-Decade in the 1970s — he was beaten out by Little and Buffalo’s Joe DeLamielleure.
But … Zimmerman saw what others could not or would not see: Hannah truly was unparalleled. He came from a football family. His father, Herb, had been a star offensive lineman at Alabama (and briefly for the New York Giants) and his younger brother Charley would play 12 seasons in the NFL. And John simply understood the game in deeper ways than most. He was also strong and fast and absolutely terrifying when pulling.
Z talked at length about Hannah’s incredible 1980 season, but for our purposes it might be even better to talk about 1978. That year, the New England Patriots ran for an astonishing 3,165 yards, which was a 16-game NFL record until the Lamar Jackson-Mark Ingram Ravens broke it in 2019.
But here’s what makes that record so incredible — unless you’re a deep-in-the-weeds Patriots fan, you probably can’t name a single running back on that team. You look at the other top-rushing teams, and a name immediately comes to mind — 1973 Bills (O.J.), 1984 Bears (Payton), 1976 Steelers (Franco), 1972 Dolphins (Czonk and Mercury Morris), 2006 Falcons (Michael Vick).
But those Patriots? Maybe you remember Sam “Bam” Cunningham because of the nickname; he ran for 768 yards. After that, you’ve got Andy Johnson (675 yards), Horace Ivory (693 yards), the go-go quarterback Steve Grogan (539 yards) and Don Calhoun (391 yards). That group ran for more than 3,000 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry without a feature back.
See, it didn’t matter who got the ball. Not with John Hannah leading the way.
He was also a brilliant pass blocker because of what Patriots G.M. Bucko Kilroy (what a great name) called “phenomenal, repeat, phenomenal lateral agility and balance, the same as defensive backs.” Hannah’s hand skills were unparalleled, as you might expect from a guy who was once the best high school wrestler in the country.
Perhaps the greatest compliment was paid by No. 32 on this list, Jim Parker, who has his own case as the best offensive lineman ever. Parker, as mentioned in that essay, had no affection for modern players. But he loved Hannah.
“If you want me to rate myself, compared to him,” Parker told Z, “I’ll say that I sure would have enjoyed playing alongside him.”
As great as their performance in 1978 was, the 1976 team was even better. With Hannah and his running mate tackle Leon Gray, in a 14 game schedule the 1976 Patriots ran for 2,948 yards (over 200 per game) and get this - averaged yes averaged 5.0 yards per carry. And again the backs doing this weren't exactly hall of famers - Sam Cunningham, former Georgia qb Andy Johnson, Don Calhoun and qb Steve Grogan who recorded a then record 14 rushing tds for a qb. The Patriots were 11-3 that season, handed the Super Bowl champion Raiders their only defeat of the season (a 48-17 thumping) and would like have defeated the Raiders in the playoffs but for a very questionable roughing the passer call on nose tackle Sugar Bear Hamilton. Of course, there would be payback a quarter-century later (the Tuck Rule game) but you all know that part of the story!
One of the things I like best about these football stories is the back story of players I knew so little about, sometimes not much more than their name and position. Really interesting to learn some deeper aspect about them. Lance Alworth, who was in this series earlier- one of my favorite players as a kid- partly his name, partly that cool Chargers uniform, partly those catches- but I knew absolutely nothing about him. So these are often a real treat. In the Baseball 100 there was much less of that going on. Some of the Negro League players, some of the real oldsters, and Arky Vaughn. Pretty much every other player on the list I knew some, or a lot, of stuff about them. So any player on this list 1970’s and earlier are my favorites to read about.