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Randy Gradishar: a linebacker’s linebacker

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One of the linchpins of the Orange Crush defense, linebacker Randy Gradishar, a monster tackling machine, was the soul of the legendary unit.

Denver Broncos v Oakland Raiders Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Good morning, Broncos Country!

While the 2020 season remains in doubt, it seems a good time to recall a simpler year when the football was less complicated - and the uniforms were much cooler.

On our Something Something Broncos podcast this week, Tim, Jess and I talked about the historic Orange Crush defense, clearly the most underappreciated unit in NFL history.

The Orange Crush - built primarily by then-coach John Ralston and molded by defensive coordinator Joe Collier and named by Woody Paige during their “magic season” in 1977 - included dominant players at every position. Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Louis Wright, Lyle Alzado and Barney Chavous were added in the early and mid-70s to join Paul Smith and Bill Thompson, players drafted under Lou Saban before the AFL-NFL merger.

That 1977 Broncos’ squad claimed the NFL’s No. 1 defense against the rush and were a decent 11th against the pass. But most impressively, the Orange Crush allowed only 10.6 points per game that season, the third fewest in the league.

Although the fierceness of the Orange Crush is well-documented in the annals of NFL history, we know this historic unit has not gotten its due as not a single player from that esteemed defense of the 70s is in the Hall of Fame.

And there is no player’s absence more tragic than that of Randy Gradishar.

Gradishar, the Ohio State linebacker who rightfully was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998, was taken 14th overall in the 1974 NFL Draft by the Broncos and never missed a game.

Hayes called Gradishar “the best linebacker I ever coached” and Pro Football Weekly personnel scout Joel Buchsbaum said the linebacker was “maybe the smartest and most underrated. Had rare instincts, was faster than [Hall of Fame Steelers linebacker Jack] Lambert, and very effective in short-yardage and goal-line situations.”

In just his second year in the pros, No. 53 had 132 total tackles, three sacks, intercepted three passes and was named to his first Pro Bowl.

If the mean and nasty Lyle Alzado was the “heart” of the Orange Crush, Gradishar was its “soul.”

As the 1978 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Gradishar was a monster tackle machine - but in an era when tackles weren’t tabulated. Jim Saccomano, former vice president of PR and marketing for the franchise, and the Broncos went back and did some unofficial calculations to determine that No. 53 accumulated around 2,000 tackles (solo and assist) in his 10-year career.

That’s an average of 200 tackles a year.

According to denverbroncos.com, Gradishar played 145 games with 134 starts in his career, amassing 2,049 tackles, 19.5 sacks, 20 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries and four defensive touchdowns .

As Saccomano noted earlier this year when Gradishar was being considered (and maddingly passed over again) for one of 20 senior spots in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020, “Randy made all the tackles.”

And he never let up. Named to seven Pro Bowls, two AP first-team All-Pro selections (1977-78) and two AP second-team All-Pro selections (1979, ‘81), Gradishar was crowned the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 1978.

Gradishar was inducted into the Broncos’ Ring of Fame in 1989 and has been named a Broncos’ first-team 50th Anniversary Team member and Broncos Top 100 Team member.

He’s still waiting - and so are we - for the Pro Football Hall of Fame to honor that legendary career with a bust in Canton.

Broncos’ News - docllv’s picks of the day

Broncos Legends: A look back through Ring of Famer Randy Gradishar’s Broncos career
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Orange Crush – Denver Broncos History
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Dear Hall of Fame, this Broncos’ linebacker’s inclusion is long overdue - Mile High Report
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