State Your Case: Fred Smerlas


Smerlas, Fred action

(Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bills)

By Ron Borges

Talk of Fame Network

Things tend to disappear in the Bermuda Triangle, but nobody in Buffalo ever thought Fred Smerlas would vanish there, too.

When Smerlas first arrived, along with rookie inside linebacker Jim Haslett, to join veteran inside linebacker Shane Nelson in 1979, coach Chuck Knox was one year into the rebuilding of the beleaguered Bills. Knox wanted to forge a vice-like 3-4 defense that would dominate the middle. In that trio he had what became known as “the Bermuda Triangle’’ because running backs went in there and disappeared.

After years of failure in Buffalo, that defense would become a unit ranked first in 1980, seventh in 1981 and second in 1982. Then Knox departed for Seattle after going 4-5 in the strike-shortened 1982 season. Anchored by their defense, Knox’s Bills had reached the post-season the previous two seasons, ending a playoff drought that dated back to their final years in the American Football League.

The defensive anchor was Smerlas, a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro at the nose who revolutionized the position with his unusual combination of size (300 pounds) and athleticism. Smerlas was a master of leverage, a trait learned as a collegiate heavyweight wrestler at Boston College, and he used that knowledge and strength to overpower centers and control the heart of the Bills’ defense.

Rival coaches used game film of Smerlas’ technique to train their own nose tackles. At the height of his dominance, Smerlas was named one of the 200 Greatest Football Players of all-time by Pro Football Weekly, at the time considered the Bible of the sport.

As a rookie, Smerlas made 57 tackles and recovered three fumbles. That was high production for a nose tackle in a defense designed for him to do the dirty work while the inside linebackers, Haslett and Nelson, got the glory…and the tackles. Smerlas became a full-time starter the following season and would go on to make the most consecutive starts by a nose tackle in NFL history (110, including three playoff games).

If part of ability is availability, Smerlas was without peer, starting every game for the Bills for 10 seasons before a feud with coach Marv Levy resulted in Levy leaving him unprotected on the Plan B free-agent list. So Smerlas signed with the San Francisco 49ers in 1990, landing the biggest contract of his career. But by then he had played 11 years at one of the game’s most demanding positions, and it had taken a toll.

A spate of knee injuries limited his playing time in San Francisco and later New England, where he finished his career. Who knows what might have happened had Smerlas remained to anchor the Bills’ defense that began its four-year run of frustrating Super Bowl defeats the year after he left. But few of his peers would debate who was the dominate nose tackle of his time.

Nose tackle is a position with few statistics to delineate such dominance, which is one reason only two pure nose tackles, Bill Willis and Curley Culp, are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Smerlas was the next great player at that position, dominating for a decade at a thankless locale but one that is critical to the success of any 3-4 defense.

Of those who have played the position, few were more dominant or more resilient than Fred Smerlas, a player whose Hall-of-Fame candidacy deserves to be debated but never has — and now seems lost, 23 years after his retirement, in the Bermuda Triangle that is playing the game’s historically most unnoticed and underrated position.

 

 

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10 Comments

  1. September 2, 2015
    Reply

    Fred was absolutely one of the finest nose tackles in nfl history. When I was the line coach at the Bengals and the Panthers we had to make special plans to block Fred. He had strength quickness and extraordinary moves for a big man. He could lift centers right out of their shoes. On plays away from him he generally was the first one to make the hit as he hustled more than the others on pursuit. He had a devastating swat followed by a swim or rip on his pass rush. Fred smerlas deserves to be in the NFL HOF. His energy and sportsmanship made him one of the most popular as well as talented players in his career.

  2. Kevin Chapman
    September 2, 2015
    Reply

    Fred should be in the Hall Of Fame. The man was double teamed his whole career and was still a BEAST! This coming from a Patriot fan, who has NO LOVE FOR THE BUFFALO BILLS!
    #Put The Big Greek In The Hall

  3. Anonymous
    September 2, 2015
    Reply

    Shame on the sports writers for not seeing this a decade ago. Put him in.

  4. mihi mcnanie
    September 2, 2015
    Reply

    definitely one of the BEST defensive nose tackles in the history of the NFL!!! fred needs to be nominated into the HALL OF FAME!! let’s get this DONE!!

  5. Rockpile
    September 2, 2015
    Reply

    Fred Smerlas wanted to finish his career in Buffalo. With FIVE Pro Bowls under his belt, and 107 consecutive starts, he was benched in favor of a younger Jeff Wright. Fred’s main problem with being simply REPLACED was that he wanted to compete for the starting job. Let the better “nose” win! This is not a knock on Jeff Wright, it is a knock on sports politics. It could be argued that the larger and more experienced Smerlas may have stopped the running game in Super Bowl XXV, and thwarted the game plan that kept Kelly and his explosive offense on the bench. It is sad he played through the 2-14 seasons, and released before the Super Bowl years.

  6. Rich Quodomine
    September 3, 2015
    Reply

    Made the argument for Smerlas along with Klecko. Advanced stats can help their cause, and both should be in.

  7. Lou Piccone
    September 4, 2015
    Reply

    Freddie and I were teammates, there are not enough football adjectives to describe this mans play. Just to cut to the chase….put him in the HOF….you don’t have to wait until the guys so old he can’t enjoy it!

  8. Anonymous
    September 18, 2015
    Reply

    Absolutely deserves to be in, to be so good for so long at a position that has an extremely short shelf life is remarkable. One of the most dominant ever to play the nose. If he had been on more winning teams its possible he would’ve had 7 or 8 pro bowls. PUT HIM IN

  9. bachslunch
    March 19, 2016
    Reply

    Fred Smerlas has a good HoF argument (3/5/none honors are competitive for the position at the time) and adds value to that with a long career. I’d vote for him.

  10. Arthur Karelas
    August 18, 2017
    Reply

    Simply the best nose tackle ever. His professional credentials clearly prove it.

    Fred Smerlas is of Greek descent- he must have Spartan blood in him because he never gave up.

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