Eric Allen from the Jets Official Site has been doing some stellar work, putting together this terrific Klecko2Canton project which throws support behind Jets legend Joe Klecko's candidacy for consideration as a hall of fame inductee.
The seniors committee will meet in August, seeking two candidates to be nominated. There's growing support for Klecko to be named as one of the candidates from media and from current and former players. However, we've been researching into Klecko's past and watching his game film in detail in an effort to try and fairly assess his candidacy.
This will not be a fluff-piece, solely focusing on his positives and highlights, as we wanted to give an unbiased view as much as possible in order to reach a justifiable conclusion in terms of his abilities and achievements.
Joe Klecko retired after the 1988 season, aged 35. He played 10 of his 11 years with the Jets and was a four-time pro bowler and two-time all pro. He was the AFC's defensive player of the year in 1981. The Jets retired Klecko's number 73 in 2004. At the time he was only the third player in team history to have that honor.
Klecko's life could have turned out extremely differently. After high school, the undersized Klecko hadn't received much interest from college programs and instead opted to become a truck driver. He was still playing football in a semi-professional league.
Eventually, he reluctantly took up a scholarship offer to play at Temple and made an instant impact with a five-sack game as a freshman. He led the team in tackles over each of his last three years and was a two-time all-American. However, he was only drafted in the sixth round by the Jets, presumably as teams stayed away from him due to his lack of size.
It would prove to be one of the best picks in franchise history as Klecko was effective in a rotational defensive tackle role as a rookie but then became a full-time starter thereafter.
After a few productive years on a middle-of-the-pack team, Klecko finally started to gain national recognition in his fifth season. Playing defensive end as part of the fabled "Sack Exchange" Klecko's 20.5 sacks led the league and paced the team to a league leading and franchise record 66 sacks on the year.
The team broke a 12 year playoff drought by finally making the postseason and Klecko was named as a first-time pro bowler, an all-pro and the AFC's defensive player of the year.
1982 saw Klecko miss most of the year after injuring his knee. However, he displayed toughness by defying the odds to return in the postseason, helping the Jets to reach the AFC title game. Had Klecko been healthy all year, the Jets probably would have had homefield advantage, which would ultimately make all the difference as Miami famously watered the field to slow down the Jets' offense and won a controversial "Mud Bowl" 14-0.
That was as close as Klecko would ever get to the big game, although he played a big part in getting the team to the postseason on two further occasions.
After they missed out in 1983 and 1984 despite Klecko once again being named to the pro bowl in each year, he moved to nose tackle in 1985 and was again named as a pro bowler, leading the team to a wild card. That was despite the fact the Jets had arguably the strongest division in the NFL with the 12-4 Dolphins being the only team to beat the Bears all season and the 11-5 Patriots eventually reaching the Super Bowl.
Klecko played a similarly important role in 1986 as the Jets exploded out of the gates with a 10-1 start. However, yet another injury showed how important he was to their success as they lost their last five games without him by a combined 122 points, giving up 45 or more in three of them. He briefly tried to return in week 14 only to re-injure himself and land back on the injured reserve list for good.
That was basically the beginning of the end for Klecko, who played in just seven games in the strike-shortened 1987 season, recording one sack. He signed for the Colts in 1988 but retired after a season without much statistical production.
Now let's look in more detail at what Klecko brought to the table, based on in-depth research and film study and divided into categories.
Klecko was listed at 6'3" 265 pounds but even that might have been an exaggeration. He was certainly undersized for a defensive lineman, especially when he was playing inside. However, he did have big hands and a low body fat percentage.
Despite that lack of size, Klecko was renowned for having what was referred to as "farm boy strength". According to a book called "Chasing the American Dream" Klecko was capable of bending quarters between his fingers and there are tales of him effortlessly lifting teammates above his head. He was a monster in the weight room, capable of benching 500 pounds, and a master of using his strength to obtain a leverage advantage in the trenches.
Klecko also possessed explosiveness, as he was regarded as having one of the quickest get-offs in the entire league.
While he may have lacked the natural speed and athletic agility of his teammate Mark Gastineau, Klecko more than made up for this with effort and hustle in pursuit.
Klecko is basically unique in NFL history because he's played three different positions (defensive tackle, defensive end and nose tackle) and been named as a pro-bowler at all three.
Perhaps Dan Hampton is the closest comparison we can make to Klecko as he too was a four-time pro bowler and achieved this both at defensive end and defensive tackle. However, he would only line up at the nose in passing situations when the Bears would line up in their 46 defense. Hampton made it to the hall of fame 15 years ago.
Klecko started his Jets career as a defensive tackle, despite being undersized. However, they soon looked to exploit his speed by moving him outside. In 1985, he was moved to nose tackle where he would usually line up at an angle, shading the center. However, at times he would still line up directly opposite the center and play a two-gapping role.
Despite Klecko's success at nose tackle in their 3-4 defense, the Jets still typically went to a four man front in passing situations with Klecko coming off the edge.
Klecko's motor is regarded as one of his primary attributes. Hall of fame guard Joe DeLamielleure once said that Klecko "never took a play off ... Ever."
This is immediately apparent from his film as Klecko was more often than not double teamed, but would keep battling and often create a surge or eventually get free from his blocker(s).
Here's a great example of him refusing to give up on a play even after initially being blocked out of it:
During games, Klecko would rarely come out of the game, unless it was injury related. In fact, he suffered the 1982 knee injury that caused him to miss most of the year in garbage time of a blowout win, admitting later that he should have been out of the game by then.
Unlike his colleague Gastineau, Klecko was regarded as an excellent run defender. His production alone is phenomenal, as he generally averaged around 100 tackles per season regardless of his position. His career high of 139 tackles in 1978 would be a ridiculous number for a modern day defensive lineman, but 95 tackles from the nose tackle position in 1985 is arguably even more impressive.
Klecko wasn't just a stat-stuffer though, as he did a lot of the dirty work in the trenches, often taking on double teams to enable the linebackers behind him to clean up. It's no coincidence that Lance Mehl, who played on the right side behind Klecko was twice as statistically productive as the other starting linebackers in Klecko's signature 1981 season. Mehl even credited Klecko with making his job easier himself.
When playing inside, Klecko had to deal with even more double teams and the move to nose tackle seemed specifically designed to exploit that fact.
Klecko won battles in the trenches due to his peerless hand-fighting technique. A combination of big strong hands and boxing techniques meant that he was constantly able to get his hands inside and gain leverage to drive his man back:
Leverage was at the heart of Klecko's success against the run, as well as when rushing the passer. His ability to get under the shoulder pads of his opponents with his low centre of gravity allowed him to stand up his man and get them off balance.
There was one game where Klecko seemed to have met his match - against the Bears in 1985. In that game, Klecko uncharacteristically allowed himself to be driven out of some plays up the middle and the Bears rushed for 116 yards and went on to win 19-6.
Let's add some context to those numbers though. The Bears went 18-1 on their way to winning Super Bowl XX and being regarded as one of the greatest teams of all time. However, the Jets had them in a one possession game into the fourth quarter.
Even those 116 yards are misleading as it took them 40 carries to get there and 40 yards came on quarterback scrambles or end arounds. They actually held hall of famer Walter Payton to just 53 yards on 28 carries.
Remember, this is Klecko on a "bad" day.
Klecko's ability to stand up his man and shoot gaps were an asset in goal line situations. However, teams knew this and actively ran away from him.
Interestingly, in these situations he almost always lined up on the edge, even when he was starting on the interior.
Klecko perhaps doesn't get the respect he deserves for his pass rushing prowess based on his official stats which give him credit for just 24 sacks. However, he had another 51 sacks in his first five seasons which don't get counted because the sack wasn't an officially recognized statistic back then. Ironically it was the success of the Sack Exchange that led to it being officially recorded from then on.
While moving back inside probably had an adverse effect on his overall sack numbers, Klecko was still capable of generating pressure and recording sacks up the middle. Although he still played as an edge rusher in pass rushing situations, he still generated plenty of his production (7.5 sacks and five forced fumbles in 1985) from the nose position.
His ability to rush both outside and inside made him an ideal player to run a stunt with and he would exploit the fact that he was usually either too strong or too quick for his match-up, if not both.
It was also obvious how much fear he struck into opposing quarterbacks. You can see how he flushes the quarterback from the pocket and spooks him into this wobbly interception:
The most effective way to stop him was to double team him, but that was a dangerous proposition with Gastineau also on the line. Even when doubled Klecko would keep battling to collapse the pocket or disengage.
Klecko wasn't known for having an array of pass rush moves, but he didn't really need any to be successful.
When coming off the edge, Klecko converts from speed to power in the same way all the best modern day pass rushers do and he uses his hands well to get them inside for the initial thrust but then would still be able to get off the block, often by tossing his man aside like a rag doll.
On the inside Klecko was an effective stunter but primarily relied on the bull rush to collapse the pocket. Seahawks center Blair Bush said that he and his teammates called that move "The Klecko Skate" and you can see why:
Again, it's all about leverage, as many of Klecko's sacks from the inside saw him get off so quickly at the snap that he had an immediate leverage advantage, which no offensive lineman could recover from due to Klecko's impressive strength:
You wouldn't typically see Klecko use a spin move, but he was capable of spinning away from a blocker as he did on this play:
One of the most fascinating games to watch saw Klecko at his absolute apex in the 1981 playoff game against the Bills. Time and time again, Klecko would rock the left tackle back on his heels and the tackle would be forced to resort to cutting him low to prevent him from getting to the quarterback, although Klecko was still consistently pressuring low, often by crawling on his hands and knees.
Finally, in the second half, Klecko set up his blocker superbly by again driving him back but this time anticipating the cut block as he beat him upfield, instead throwing off the block to the inside to beat his man cleanly for a big sack:
As already noted, Klecko compiled some remarkable tackle numbers over the course of his career. You don't put up numbers like that if you're not a competent tackler.
With his superhuman strength, Klecko wasn't about to let anyone break free from his grasp and would often bring his man down by hauling him to the ground with a handful of jersey or with one arm:
Klecko didn't miss a chance to make a tackle very often. Here's a rare example of where he failed to get off his block in time and overbalanced but, even on this play, he forced the cutback and his teammate should really have made the play:
Klecko will chase down plays in backside pursuit and can unleash some heavy hits, although he might get penalized for the way he'll drive his man into the turf if he played in the modern era.
Klecko had a knack for forcing fumbles, with five in 1985 and several more over the course of the rest of his career:
Batting down passes or even getting his hand up in the passing lane was the one thing Klecko didn't seem to do much of and he didn't drop into coverage either.
Like sacks, passes defended weren't tracked in those days, so it's difficult to know if he ever did much of that during his career. There doesn't seem to be any mention of it online and Klecko usually seemed more preoccupied with winning his matchup and trying to register a sack. From previous film studies, some players who use their hands well in the trenches perhaps don't get them up in the passing lane as much and perhaps Klecko is another such player.
He never had an interception, but here's one rare example of him getting his hands on a pass:
Klecko's career began in an era where NFL rosters didn't typically carry specialists so he saw some special teams action when he was young.
He had some success too, blocking two extra points and a field goal in 1978. His five career kick blocks left him tied for the all-time franchise lead.
This paid off on a game winning play against the Bengals in 1987. With the scores tied, Klecko was expected to rush the gap on Jim Breech's game winning attempt late in the game. The Bengals were obviously keying on him because of his ability to penetrate but he crossed them up by dropping off the line. This left a gap for Barry Bennett to block the kick which was returned for the winning score by Rich Miano.
Klecko might have embraced the role of "Big Ol' Bulldog" as Sherrif Buford T. Justice famously called his character during his cameo role in "Smokey and the Bandit II" but he was no meathead.
Klecko was actually extremely witty off the field and smart and instinctual on it. He had a knack of reading the snap count, which he later revealed was because he watched the quarterback's right foot.
Hall of famer Anthony Muñoz once praised Klecko for his ability to "mentally adjust" which he implied was unique.
It was rare to see but Klecko would get over exuberant at times, crashing down inside and losing contain on a bootleg or jumping the snap count a bit too early and drawing a flag. However, he generally played with good vision and kept plays in front of him.
Klecko demonstrated impressive toughness over the course of his career, playing hurt quite often, including his banner 1981 year, which saw him playing through a severely sprained foot in early October that he had to ice up during the week for the rest of the year.
He was, of course, known for being hard-working and reliable, which was on display once he joined the Colts in 1988 and was thanked by the coaches for the leadership he had brought.
Klecko's attitude to Gastineau's sack dance spoke volumes. He admitted that many of the players in the locker room didn't like it. Klecko liked to scrap with teammates and opponents, once famously getting angry with his teammate Marty Lyons after Lyons pulled him off a pile. However, when Gastineau's over-the-top sack dance started a brawl with the Rams in a 1983 game, Klecko reacted more as a peacemaker.
Clearly Klecko obviously preferred a more team-oriented approach to winning. This was evidenced by the fact that he insisted the Sack Exchange nickname referred to all four linemen, not just himself and Gastineau.
Since retiring Klecko has had some minor legal troubles but largely stayed out of trouble during his career.
As already noted, Klecko played through a sprained foot in 1981 and missed most of the 1982 after rupturing a tendon in his knee. He missed four games with a hamstring injury in 1984, but didn't miss time in 1985 despite a couple of preseason injuries.
It was his knee injury down the stretch in 1986 that basically finished him off. He needed knee surgery again in 1987 and ended up playing in just seven games.
While he played 15 games in his final season, he was no longer statistically productive and finally took the advice of doctors who had been telling him to retire for some time.
The testimonies from his peers alone are enough to build a strong case for Klecko's hall of fame candidacy. Clearly he had an elite motor, hand techniques, instincts, speed and strength. Add in incredible toughness and a relentless desire and you can see why his peers talk about Klecko in such glowing terms.
The film only backs this up. Regardless of which role he was given, Klecko was so disruptive that the offense had to tailor their gameplans towards mitigating the damage he could do and yet he still managed to generate tremendous production.
Joe Klecko is a hall of fame level talent who put together a hall of fame-worthy career. Hopefully, he will get in this year. If he doesn't, he will one day...and when that happens it will be long overdue.
Information and gifs were sourced from a variety of sources, including NFL films, the New York Times, the Jets Official Site, Brian Bassett's 2008 tribute article for the TJB Hall of Fame and this fantastic article from Sports Illustrated from right before he broke out and became a star.