George Saimes played safety in a way that made all his Buffalo Bills’ and later Denver Broncos’ teammates feel, well, safe. If he was behind you, the man in front of you was going to end up on the ground.
“George Saimes was one of the surest tacklers I ever saw,” Saimes’ former teammate in the Bills’ secondary, Booker Edgerson, recalled at the time of Saimes’ passing five years ago at 71. “If he got his hands on you, more than likely, you were going to go down.”
Saimes was so adept at his job that when the American Football League’s all-time team was named after the end of the league’s 10-year run in 1970, he was selected a starting safety along with the Kansas City Chiefs’ Johnny Robinson. Only one member of that secondary, Willie Brown, has been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an injustice that remains difficult to fathom 48 years later.
With the election of Jerry Kramer this year, Robinson is now considered to be the best senior candidate not in the Hall. While that may be correct, how far behind can someone like Saimes be if, for half his 10-year career, he was found worthy of being named an AFL All-Star?
A consensus All-American fullback and defensive back at Michigan State in 1962, Saimes was drafted by both the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL and the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL. Such was the fierceness of the rivalry for players between the two leagues that the AFL didn’t really care who signed its draftees as long as the NFL didn’t.
That’s how a player who would become an immediate starter in Buffalo and one of the finest safeties in league history ended up in a Bills’ uniform. If owner Ralph Wilson’s pockets and Michigan connections from his years as a successful business man in Detroit were enough to sign Saimes, then so be it.
Saimes became the Bills’ defender of last resort, a security blanket for one of the best defensive teams of his era. He was an immediate starter in 1963 and an anchor of Buffalo teams that won AFL championships in 1964 and 1965.
So adept was Saimes at protecting teammates like Edgerson, who played corner on those championship teams and seldom worried about receivers getting behind him because of Saimes’ looming presence, that his former coach in Buffalo, Lou Saban, brought him to Denver in 1970 after an injury-riddled 1969 season in which he played only eight games for the Bills.
Prior to that season, Saimes missed only one game in his first six years in Buffalo, years in which his thumping tackling ability made him a legend throughout the AFL. If you were a receiver then, it was said, you did not want to be running through the middle of the Bills’ defense looking for an opening because more than likely what you’d find instead was yourself on the ground.
If Saimes had a deficiency it was that he often proved Al Davis’ old sobriquet about defensive backs was true. “If they could catch, they’d be playing offense,’’ Davis used to say. In Saimes’ case, he was probably right, even though he had a career-high six interceptions in 1964, his first All-AFL season.
“We used to kid him about it and say, ‘If you had great hands and great eyesight, you could’ve had at least 50 or 60 interceptions,” Edgerson recalled after Saimes’ death on March 8, 2013. “At least he knocked the ball down.
“But we know there wasn’t a better safety before him, and I don’t think there’s been any since, especially in terms of tackling and the intelligence of playing in the secondary with the receivers.
“I think that there should’ve been some consideration for him going into the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, a lot of defensive backs in the ’60s and ’70s never really got that consideration.”
Had Saimes’ sure tackling, 22 interceptions in only 121 games and status alongside Robinson as one of the AFL’s two greatest safeties been enough to convince voters to induct him he would not have had to drive far for the ceremony. Born and raised in Canton, the home of the Hall of Fame and the founding spot of the NFL, George Saimes returned there after a long career as an NFL scout for the Washington Redskins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Houston Texans to live out his life in the relative peace and quiet of his Ohio hometown. It was a far cry from being in the midst of the mayhem every fall Sunday for 10 years — years where Saimes’ presence was always felt.
Wrestling opponents to the ground is the first aim of defensive football. Few, if any, were better at it than George Saimes, who left a mark both on the game and on everyone he ran into during it. It’s a mark that left him a member of the Bills’ 5oth anniversary team and forever considered one of the two greatest safeties in AFL history.
That certainly seems a career worthy of no less than Hall-of-Fame discussion. And just maybe more than that.