State Your Case: Cromwell was the 1980s’ safety standard

Nolan Cromwell photo courtesy L.A. Rams

When it came to sports, Nolan Cromwell could do anything. He proved that on baseball fields, basketball courts and running tracks but it was on the football field that he best made that fact clear.

There are many ways to view the four-time Pro Bowl safety, 1980 NFC Defensive Player of the Year and 1980s All-Decade selection, but the easiest might be through the eyes of someone regularly tasked with coaching against him when Cromwell was one of pro football’s most dominating defensive backs.

“I don’t know how you’d compare one great athlete to another in pro football,’’ former Atlanta Falcons head coach Leeman Bennett said of Cromwell in 1981. “So maybe we can agree on this. I don’t know a better one than Nolan.’’

Before Cromwell was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the second round in 1977 he was an All-Big 8 safety at Kansas for two years when injuries to the Jayhawks’ quarterback demanded reinforcements be found at that position. Rather than turn to the backup quarterback, head coach Bud Moore turned to Nolan Cromwell, who didn’t hesitate.

Running the wishbone offense, Cromwell rushed for 294 yards in his first start against Oregon State. In case anyone thought that was a fluke he ran for 187 the following week against Wisconsin, finishing the season with 1,223 rushing yards and being named Big 8 Offensive Player of the Year.

He started for two seasons as the ultimate running quarterback before arriving in Los Angeles in 1977 and returning to safety. Cromwell was a nickel back his first two seasons in L.A. before taking over at free safety in 1979. He would start all but five games over the next eight years, earn four Pro Bowl selections, be named first team All-Pro three times and second team once while leading the league in interceptions with eight in 1980. He was to many the yardstick by which all other free safeties of his era were measured.

Cromwell was also widely considered the best holder for place kicks in the league and was recently selected by Talk of Fame Network’s special-teams guru Rick Gosselin as the starting holder on his all-time special teams squad both for his unfailing ability to get any snap down in proper position but also for this threat to turn fake kicks into first down runs.

He played a key role in the Rams’ 1979 Super Bowl team that lost to the Steelers, a loss Cromwell once explained in self-deprecating fashion.

“Take away the two passes to (John) Stallworth and give us back the interception I dropped, and we win,’’ he said. Of course, take away Nolan Cromwell and the Rams likely wouldn’t have been in the game in the first place.

The following season, Cromwell led the NFL in interceptions with eight and was named NFC Defensive Player of the Year. He made four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances to kick off the new decade. But following the strike-shortened 1982 season, head coach Ray Malavasi and defensive coordinator Bud Carson were replaced by John Robinson and Fritz Shurmur.

With that change came a more conservative defensive approach that no longer allowed Cromwell the freedom to take chances and use his instincts as well as Carson’s gameplan to make plays. He was eventually moved from free safety to strong safety by Shurmur and although he remained a starter his role was slowly muted.

“When they changed the style of defense in 1983, I guess there’s no question it had an adverse effect on my career,” Cromwell once told the Los Angeles Times. “Bud Carson’s defense was very aggressive, an attacking-type defense that made things happen. He didn’t sit back and wait for you to come to him, he comes at you. Not a lot of people scored many points on us and the defense won games for the Rams back then.

“When John was hired, the defense was very, very conservative, very predictable. At first, it was simple and it worked pretty well, but they stuck with that theory for the last five years of my career. We were so simple and predictable, it took a lot of the incentive out of it, for myself, anyway. The game plan stayed exactly the same and it became almost boring.”

A starter for eight consecutive seasons (1979-86) and an All-Pro for half of those years, Cromwell shared time in 1987 before retiring and moving into a 25-year career in coaching, mostly as an NFL assistant.

He was special-teams coach on the Packers’ Super Bowl XXI championship team that defeated the Patriots when kick returner Desmond Howard return a New England kickoff for a late game touchdown. He would reach the Super Bowl two more times as an assistant, the following season with Green Bay and with the Seattle Seahawks in 2005 where he served as wide receiver coach.

Is being an all-decade selection, a four-time All-Pro and the 1980 NFC Defensive Player of the Year enough to get a man into the Pro Football Hall of Fame? It hasn’t yet been enough for Nolan Cromwell but his credentials cry out to have his candidacy given a full throated debate among the Hall’s 48 voters.


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  1. bachslunch
    June 19, 2018

    Nolan Cromwell (honors of 3/4/80s) would indeed be an interesting player to get into the room at some point. There are far less deserving options available who have gotten such chatter. Reportedly, he looks very good in film study, at least for his first several seasons. My understanding is that his level of play deteriorated after an injury partway through his career.

    It’s also his misfortune to be one of a huge group of candidates at what is probably the worst-snubbed position regarding the HoF. I’m hard-pressed personally to push to the head of the line in front of folks like Cliff Harris, Johnny Robinson, Eddie Meador, Bobby Dillon, Deron Cherry, and Jimmy Patton, but he’s not a bad option to consider, either.

    Ron, good case made, good article. Thanks, enjoyed.

  2. John Turney
    June 19, 2018

    At his peak, no one had more range and insticts than Cromwell other than Ed Reed. He’s one of those who was better than his All-Pro credentials. He was a hitter, smart, played cornerback in the nickel and dime after becoming a starter.

    Change of scheme and knee injury cost him All-Pros/Pro Bowls after 1983.

    • June 23, 2018

      I agree both on Nolan and on the low number of safeties in the Hall. Happy that we finally got Kenny Easley in. He waited too long. Hopefully Nolan will at least get his day of debate. His play earned it.

  3. Mary
    June 20, 2018

    Love the write up Ron. Nolan does deserve more consideration for the HOF debate. If the Rams had won the 79′ Super Bowl, would that have given him more consideration? As you wrote, “Of course, take away Nolan Cromwell and the Rams likely wouldn’t have been in the game in the first place.” Great point! John, you are so correct. The change in scheme due to the coaching change is what changed, not Nolan. He had the natural instincts and was always a team player. Had the scheme not changed, Nolan would have many more records in the books. He was a great player and is even a better man. I hope there will be more debate….. there should be more players at this position inducted into the HOF!

    • June 23, 2018

      With nearly 70% of all HOFers also having played on NFL or SB championship teams, it is clear there is a bit of a “bias” for top players who also won championships. Not sure if it is simply heightened recognition or something else but with the recent enshrinement of Kenny Easley there is still hope t hat a great safety can and will be recognized.
      I also agree that the scheme change really hurt Nolan. Range was so much a part of his game, as you know, and Shurmur’s scheme seemed to take a lot of that way from Nolan’s game.
      BTW, we’d love to get him on the show this week (we tape on Tuesday 6/26). Any chance we could get him on for 15 minutes? YOu can check out past shows and interviews on the site to get some idea what we’re about. Players and coaches seem to enjoy it and we know our listeners love hearing from these guys again.
      Please let me know.

  4. Ramon
    June 25, 2018

    Growing up a Rams fan I admire his love for the game. He led the rams in tackles . Also a great holder on special teams even though he was as starter on defense. Had knack for the ball !! Tenacious hitter , swatting and great communication on defense!! He does belong in the HOF period!!

  5. Chuck Rodgers
    June 26, 2018

    Nolan Cromwell #21 deserves to be in HOF. He was one of the elite safety’s in the NFL for an excellent Rams team. He is comparable to other safety’s in HOF, if not better.

  6. Taylor
    June 26, 2018

    Growing up a huge football fan, and then working for the University of Washington football team for two years, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve met a number of Hall of Fame players, Warren Moon and Joe Montana to name a few of them (Warren broadcasts for the Huskies, and Joe’s son Nick played there for a few years before transferring out). Nolan may not have the same credentials, but man was he an all-world athlete. His range was insane much like Earl Thomas today. If he’s not getting consideration, something is wrong the with voting group for sure. Great player, great husband, and great father. Hopefully he doesn’t have to wait as long as Kenny did either!

  7. Pat Gehr, Ph.D.
    June 26, 2018

    With an impressive history from KU collegiate QB and Rams FS to Super Bowl-winning special teams coach with the GB Packers and later WR coach for the NFC Champs, the Seattle Seahawks, Cromwell is deserved of an NFL Hall of Fame induction.

  8. Gary Horchem
    June 26, 2018

    In my opinion, Nolan Cromwell was the best safety to ever play the game! He was the best all around athlete in the league when he played, and probably the best to ever play. He was an excellent coach as well, he just understands the game more than most people ever will. I can’t understand why he hasn’t already been in the HOF. He sure deserves to be there!

  9. Randy Farrar
    June 29, 2018

    I am a 55 year old man living in Virginia who grew up from the age of 8 as a LA then later St. Louis Rams fan and now back to LA. Nolan is by far my all time favorite Ram. He was not only the talent but the class of the time. He was the best safety of the late 70’s and early 80’s. He redefined the position. He also was a great special teamer. He was the 1st non QB I can remember that held for PAT and FG. He allowed them to pull the fake at anytime. He was a superb athlete. It was later in the 80’s when I learned what a great option QB he was at Kansas. He really allowed the Rams to only have to carry 2 QB’s. In a pinch he could have done that as well. He was my role model and idol. I was always #21 no matter what sport I was playing. I hope he gets to Canton so I can proudly be there and wear his jersey at the induction! Cheers to one of the truly good guys in Professional Sports.

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