State Your Case: Cliff Harris


 CliffHarris
(Photo courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys)

By Rick Gosselin

Talk of Fame Network

There are 22 position players selected to the 1970s NFL all-decade first team. Twenty of them are enshrined in Canton. Two are not — and both played for the Dallas Cowboys.

Safety Cliff Harris and wide receiver Drew Pearson must be wondering why the doors closed on them.

Particularly Harris. He was there the entire decade. Pearson did not arrive in Dallas until 1973. We’ll address his plight in a future State Your Case. Today let’s examine the Hall-of-Fame case for Cliff Harris.

The Pittsburgh Steelers became the NFL’s team of the decade for the 1970s with their four Lombardi Trophies. But the most successful team of the 1970s decade was the Cowboys, winners of two Lombardi Trophies. The Cowboys went to an NFL-record five Super Bowls that decade. They also advanced to the playoffs an NFL-record nine times in a single decade. Their winning percentage of 72.9 is the second best in NFL history in a single decade, behind only the 73.3 of the 1950s’ Cleveland Browns.

So the Cowboys were a very, very good team in the 1970s. And Harris was a very, very good player on that team.

Harris came out of Ouachita Baptist as a football cornerback and track sprinter. He made the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 1970 and became a rookie starter on a team coming off an 11-2-1 season.

Paul Krause was the prototype safety in the 1960s, a centerfielder whose impact was in the passing game. Harris was in the first wave of the NFL box safeties. He was a guy who crowded the line. His nickname was “Captain Crash,” and his hitting ability made him a force in run defense. His speed made him a force in pass defense.

How fast was he? Fast enough to return punts and kickoffs for the Cowboys early in his career. He averaged almost 29 yards per kickoff return in 1971 as the Cowboys were on the way to their first Super Bowl championship.

But his forte was hitting. Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Charley Taylor told me Harris put fear in your heart crossing the middle. And with Harris down in the box, the Cowboys led the NFL in run defense four times in the 1970s.

Ron Jaworski told me Harris was the best free safety of his era. Hall-of-Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton said the two best safeties he played against were Harris and Jake Scott. Bill Kilmer said Harris and Scott played a physical position before safety became a physical position.

Harris was a 10-year starter for the Cowboys and went to the Pro Bowl in six of those seasons. He was an all-NFC pick six times and an All-NFL choice five times. He led the Cowboys in tackles in 1976 and in interceptions in 1977. His Hall-of-Fame teammate Roger Staubach told me, “You can dissect Cliff 100 different ways and he’s still a fantastic football player.”

Yet Harris has been a Hall-of-Fame finalist just once — in 2004, in his final year of eligibility. He made the reduction cut from 15 to 10 before being eliminated. Two other Cowboys advanced to the finals that year, Bob Hayes and Rayfield Wright, and the voters clearly weren’t going to take all three.

So off to the senior pool Harris went, where he now sits with 10 other all-decade safety selections at Canton’s most overlooked position. The player, and his career, deserve a better fate than Harris has been dealt thus far by the Hall of Fame and its selection committee.

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