Football 101: No. 52, Joe Schmidt
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Joe Schmidt may or may not be the first great middle linebacker in the NFL. There are historians who will point to Bill George, who only JUST preceded Schmidt and was the terrific middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears before a guy named Butkus came along.
But even if Joe Schmidt wasn’t first — and I would argue, with all due respect to George, that he was — there is no question at all that Schmidt was the first TRUE middle linebacker in the NFL, which is to say he was the first to control every aspect of the game from that spot. He was great against the run, even greater against the pass, and he was the one guy offenses had to account for on every single play.
Schmidt grew up in Pittsburgh, of course. I add the “of course,” because if you are ever asked, “Where was that NFL all-time great from?” you should always answer Pittsburgh. Here’s an all-Pittsburgh team that I threw together quickly (apologies for any misses):
QB: Joe Montana or Dan Marino or John Unitas or Joe Namath or Jim Kelly (Matt Ryan watches sadly from the bench).
RB: Tony Dorsett and Mercury Morris (with Curtis Martin as backup).
WR: Brandon Marshall, Tyler Boyd.
OL: Jimbo Covert, Russ Grimm, Rich Saul, Bill Fralic, Joe Stydahar.
DL: Aaron Donald, Sean Gilbert, Jason Taylor, Randy White.
LB: Sam Huff, Jack Ham, LaVar Arrington.
DB: Darrelle Revis, Ty Law, Ross Fichtner, Mark Kelso.
Point is, yes, of course, Joe Schmidt came from Pittsburgh. He didn’t just grow up AROUND football, he grew up INSIDE football. His father died when he was 13. He was playing semi-professional football with his brother when he was 14. He went to play football at the University of Pittsburgh and famously gave a rousing speech before the Notre Dame game that inspired an upset victory in South Bend. In the game, Joe Schmidt had a key 60-yard interception return AND was knocked out cold in the fourth quarter. He would have to spend 10 days in the hospital.
The guy was all football.
There are a lot of Joe Schmidt stories like that. Jerry Glanville tells probably the best one. Schmidt was taken by the Lions in the seventh round of the 1953 NFL draft. It’s funny because in the second round, Detroit picked an All-Big-10 running back out of Indiana named Gene Gedman. And after the draft, they worried that Gedman might not sign and instead go play up in Canada. When he showed up to play with the Lions, they actually held a little parade for him in Detroit.
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Meanwhile, Schmidt — who would become one of the greatest players in team history — was an afterthought. Heck, he was a longshot to even make the team. He was just 6 feet tall*, weighed maybe 220 pounds, didn’t impress anyone as the All-American athlete. Old photographs show a player who seemed to be slightly balding, looking roughly 10 years older than he was.
*”I used to be 6-foot-3,” Schmidt would say, “before I started tackling all those fullbacks.”
Plus the Lions had won the NFL title the year before.
Lions: NFL Champions. Those were the days, right?
Schmidt not only made the team, he became an immediate starter and a leader.
Anyway, we’ll get back to that. Let’s go back to Glanville’s Schmidt story. Not long after he got to Detroit, Schmidt was playing in a preseason game and he got kicked in the eye — this was before facemasks. And, as happens when someone gets kicked in the eye, he started bleeding profusely. At halftime, he needed 22 stitches.
His position coach alerted him that he would be starting the second half anyway.
“I don’t think I can see,” Schmidt said.
“You can see out of the other eye, can’t you?” the coach said.
“Remember,” Glanville would say, “this was a PRESEASON game.”
Joe Schmidt was a star with the Lions before middle linebacker was even an NFL position. His first three years, he was a left linebacker. Then he played a position called middle guard. But all along, he was fantastic because he was constantly in motion, he was a great tackler, and he had otherworldly instincts in pass coverage. He was named first-team all-pro in his second season — and seven more times after that.
It was right around 1957 that Schmidt began playing the position that he would make famous — middle linebacker. “Schmidt didn’t exactly create the middle linebacker position,” the Pro Football Hall of Fame writes about him. “[But] without question, he was the first to play the position with such finesse that even the masses in the stands could see the growing value of the ‘defensive quarterback.’”
Yes, he was really the first middle linebacker to be the quarterback for the defense, and that’s because of the variety of his game. The defender in the middle of the field had always been responsible for stuffing the run, and Schmidt was as good at that as anybody. His most famous game was probably the 1957 NFL Championship Game, when he led a defense that held Jim Brown to just 69 yards rushing on 20 carries.
But in addition to that, Schmidt was excellent in pass coverage — he also intercepted a pass in that ’57 title game (which the Lions won 59-14) and intercepted 24 passes in his career. He also recovered 17 fumbles in his career; the guy was all over the field. His instincts were second-to-none; he just was drawn magnetically to the football.
I like what football historian Bryan Frye writes about him: “Turn on film from the pre-merger era, and you are likely to see quite a few defenders who just run around like recently decapitated chickens without actually doing anything. Schmidt wasn’t one of those guys.”
And it’s true — when you look back at 1950s football film, you do see all sorts of silly, fun, slapsticky football with players falling down and then getting back up and running some more, and players named Crazy Legs running dizzily from one sideline to another and breaking a million tackles because the same defender had run them down three or four times.
But Joe Schmidt looks like a 2022 football player in the 1950s. He blankets receivers and makes textbook tackles and just looks like he’s better at this game than anybody else out there. Jerry Glanville utterly idolized him and called him the greatest linebacker in the history of the NFL. There’s an argument.