Would Hall of Famer Jack Ham really be a backup in today's NFL?

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Jack Ham (59) linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers in action, 1980. Location unknown. (AP Photo)

I'm hoping for Doug Whaley's sake that his take on Jack Ham didn't make it into his second interview for the Steelers' general manager job.

It might not have gone over well.

It made for great radio, though, on Whaley's weekly Wednesday appearance on The Fan Morning Show. Ears perked when the topic turned to whether Ham — a 6-foot-1, 220-pound Hall of Fame outside linebacker for the 1970s Steelers — could play in today's NFL.

"He'd be a backup special teams player today," Whaley said. "He couldn't play in this era. He just couldn't."

Some consider it a fool's errand to compare players across eras. I consider it good fun. My first thought went to what Ham might say, and it turns out he was asked just such a question in an interview with the Pro Football Hall of Fame from December 2000.

Question: "Do you believe that you and Jack Lambert would play as well today against such bigger and stronger opponents?"

Ham: "That's all relative. If I was playing today, there would be a redshirt year in college, which I never had. Second, the weight lifting is different. I would be playing at 240 instead of 220. So, things have changed ... things are now year-round as far as conditioning and lifting goes."

In other words, of course he believes he could thrive in today's game with a little weight adjustment. But what if you plucked a 220-pound Ham out of a game in 1976 and dropped him into a Steelers-Browns game next season at Heinz Field? Would he just be a small, slow guy earning league minimum?

Other small linebackers thrive today: I must admit, my thoughts wandered that way. But then I came to my senses. I have to believe Jack blankin' Ham could play somewhere on your defense in any era. Darius Leonard plays inside linebacker pretty well for the Colts at 221 pounds. West Virginia's Kyzir White starts for the Eagles at 216 pounds. James Farrior played part of his time with the Steelers at 218.

How about Ham as your weakside linebacker in a 4-3 defense? How about some sort of hybrid safety/linebacker position? He did, after all, record the most takeaways (53) in history by any non-defensive back. He had 32 interceptions.

Ham wasn't playing against Smurfs all the time, either. Do you remember Earl Campbell? He was a 232-pound battering ram for the Houston Oilers. He was heavier than Najee Harris and ran like an Olympic sprinter.

Do you remember the tight ends Ham had to deal with? Russ Francis stood 6-6, 240 pounds. Dave Casper was 6-4, 240. For comparison sake, George Kittle is 6-4, 250.

Yes, players generally are bigger and faster today, but it's not like human beings have evolved into an entirely different species.

The total package: Speed is maybe a bigger factor than weight here, and I don't know what Ham's 40-time was. But I know what Chuck Noll once said about his quickness: "Ham was the fastest Steeler in the first 10 yards."

I also know Ham was among the savviest players ever to man that position. I'm not saying he'd figure out how to be a Hall of Famer in 2022, but he'd surely figure out a way to play something other than special teams.

"I have never seen anyone play the outside linebacker position better than Jack Ham," Tony Dungy once said. "Fundamentals, technique, awareness and athleticism were all exceptional. He was the total package."

Other Steelers from '70s would shine today: There were other ‘70s Steelers who could not only play, but star in the league today, even if you took them "as is" from 1976. Mean Joe Greene (6-4, 275) was just five pounds lighter than Aaron Donald. I'm guessing he'd do OK. Mel Blount stood 6-3, 205, which would still have him hovering over most cornerbacks and plenty of receivers. Legend has it he ran the 40 in 4.4 seconds. He could beat you with his body and his brains.

I'm not quite believing what Blount told the the All Things Covered Podcast with Patrick Peterson and Bryant McFadden last year, but his point is well taken.

"If I was playing in today's game, and they're throwing the ball what, 80% of the time, I'm coming out of every game with, I'm not lying, two interceptions or more," Blount said. "I had 11 interceptions in 1975. On average, they were throwing the ball 13 times a game. ... I might get sometimes two, three targets a game."

Jack Lambert's another one. Ham, in the aforementioned interview, called Lambert the greatest linebacker of all time. Lambert stood 6-4, 220 and often dropped deep into the middle of the field to make the Steelers' Tampa 2 defense work.

Make a little weight adjustment — then imagine a 6-4, 245-pound Lambert on the prowl.

Or how about Terry Bradshaw? People act like quarterbacks just started running the ball. Bradshaw was a Josh Allen-like fullback when he wanted to be. He ran for nearly 2,300 yards and 32 touchdowns. And at 6-3, 215, with a rocket arm, I'm guessing he'd thrive in today's pass-happy league.

We'll never know, but the debate doesn't hurt anybody.

I'm glad Whaley sparked it.