The Pro Football Hall of Fame has announced its finalists for the Class of 2015 and once again, I feel strongly that one name is missing. That name is Lester Hayes. The only true Jedi to play in the NFL, also known as “The Judge”, which happens to be the best nickname ever for a cornerback. Sorry, Darrelle, Deion and Mr. Williamson. Lester Hayes was one of the greatest “shutdown” cornerbacks in NFL history. Literally, an entire side of the field was shutdown and opposing quarterbacks had to think twice before releasing the ball. He helped popularize the term “shutdown corner”. The term swag, was not coined when he played but he had more swag than he had cans of Stickum. He was a finalist for the Hall of Fame in 2004, a semifinalist in 2010, and now his case has been pushed aside, stashed in the corner, collecting dust behind a long list of candidates. Before you know it, the Seniors Committee will be reviewing the case of one of the greatest Raider players of all-time. Ladies and gentlemen, let me reintroduce to you, Lester Hayes.
Position(s): Cornerback Jersey #(s): 37
Born: January 22, 1955 (1955-01-22) (age 54)
NFL Draft: 1977 / Round: 5 / Pick: 126
College: Texas A&M
* Oakland / Los Angeles Raiders (1977–1986)
INT yards 572
Career highlights and awards:
* 5x Pro Bowl selection (1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984)
* 1x First-team All-Pro selection (1980)
* 5x Second-team All-Pro selection (1979, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984)
* NFL 1980s All-Decade Team
* 1980 NFL Defensive Player of the Year
* Raiders single season leader in interceptions with 13
1. He was voted to the All 80’s Decade Team, as a Second Team member. Now don’t let the Second Team status, fool you. There are Second Team members at the cornerback position in the Hall. For example, cornerback Roger Wehrli, of the Arizona Cardinals is a Second Team member of All 70’s Decade Team and he is in the Hall. Cornerback Darrel Green of the Washington Redskins, a Second Team member of the All 90’s Decade Team is in the Hall. In this case, Second Team just means the guys ahead of you, were just that “good”. Who are the two cornerbacks chosen ahead Lester for the First Team? Mel Blount and Michael Haynes. No argument there. Mel Blount, a member of the Steel Curtain was widely known for his physical play. He thoroughly dominated the opposition to the point where the NFL had no choice but to change the rules. And Michael Haynes, we will touch on his relationship with Lester in a bit. Nonetheless, if you are one of the best at your position for over the course of a decade, just being a member of the All 80’s Decade Team gives me the grounds to start the discussion.
2. He excelled after the implementation of “The Mel Blount Rule” that was used to enhance the passing game and handicap the cornerbacks. In the late 70’s, the NFL made it illegal to harass the wide receiver five yards past the line of scrimmage. Overnight, mediocre quarterbacks became legends and the passing attack was born. Somehow Lester still managed to earn the nickname “The Judge” during his career, which spanned from 1977- 1986. When he entered training camp in 1977 as a rookie, he had to adjust to a new style of man-man coverage while playing the cornerback position for the first time. That’s right, Lester was making the transition from a linebacker and an All-American safety at Texas A&M, to being lined up against the best wide receivers in the game. He learned the bump and run technique from Hall of Famer, Willie Brown. He learned the “Riddell technique” from Pat Thomas, a technique that made sure you planted the Riddell logo on your helmet into the numbers of the wide receiver. It’s tough for a wide receiver to slap a helmet away when it’s stuck in their chest. Then he faced Hall of Famer, Fred Biletnikoff in practice every day, learning how to apply this technique against a quick and crafty wide receiver. A true Jedi adapts and becomes one with the “Force”. In just 3 years, Lester was a Jedi Master at the cornerback position.
3. In 1980, he had the greatest year ever for a cornerback. He earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year, First-team All-Pro selection, a Pro Bowl Selection and a Super Bowl ring. He had 13 interceptions, 273 total interception yards, 2 fumble recoveries, and a touchdown. He was one interception short of Night Train Lane’s all time record, but he did set a Raiders single season record in interceptions. Another sign of his dominance, he had 4 interceptions called back because of penalties. No problem, he proceeded to add 5 more interceptions in the post season and one, he returned for a touchdown. It didn’t stop there. In the Pro Bowl, he was tested 11 times and only gave up one reception, for 15 yards. And he recorded one more key statistic. Yes, you guessed right. He had one interception in the Pro Bowl. That’s 19 interceptions. If you really think Stickum helped Lester position himself to be in the right place, at the right time, then you are simply, a hater.
4. Speaking of Stickum, let’s deal with this once and for all. Not only was it legal at the time, it was used by several position players. Stickum did not prevent Fred Biletnikoff from being inducted into the Hall. Tell me, who has an advantage with Stickum, the wide receiver who knows where the ball should be headed or the cornerback? Exactly. It is understandable that Lester’s infamous use and the amount of Stickum he plastered all over his uniform reached epic proportions. Also wearing the Silver & Black of Al Davis’s Raiders, doesn’t help his reputation as being a stickler to the rules but too much focus has been put on his sticky hands. What about the psychological impact that Lester had on wide receivers that lined up against him? Any mental advantage that you create from the cornerback position shows a high football IQ. He shook wide receivers confidence and broke their concentration just by his intimidating stance, the Stickum dripping from his claws and his linebackers approach to handling speedsters. Stickum was banned in 1981, and to many Lester lost his ability to summon the “Force”. Even Lester was quoted as saying, “I became a mere mortal.” People don’t realize that was just a clever Jedi mind trick. He went to the Pro Bowl in 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1984. He was selected Second-team All Pro in 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1984. Ask Art Monk and Charlie Brown what was it like to face a “mere mortal” in Super Bowl XVIII, 1984?
5. He always came up big in the playoffs. In his career, he was on the Raiders roster during 13 playoff games and 2 Super Bowls. He was a starting cornerback in 6 playoff games and 2 Super Bowls. As a starter, that’s when he left his mark on the biggest stages. He had 8 interceptions and 2 touchdowns as the starter on his own island when it counted the most. For instance, Hall of Famers such as Deion Sanders played in 11 playoff games with 5 interceptions and zero touchdowns. Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott has played 7 playoff games with 9 interceptions and 2 touchdowns. These statistics below should speak volumes about his playoff performances and his ability to get that game-changing turnover:
1980 – 12/28 – Week 17 – AFC Wildcard Playoff vs. Houston Oilers
2 interceptions, 1 touchdown on a 20-yard interception return.
1980 – 1/04 – Week 18 – AFC Divisional Playoff vs. Cleveland Browns
1980 – 1/11 – Week 19 – AFC Conference Playoff vs. San Diego Chargers
1982 – 1/15 – Week 11– AFC Divisional Playoff vs. New York Jets
1983 – 1/01 – Week 18 – AFC Divisional Playoff vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
1 interception, 1 touchdown on an 18-yard interception return.
1983 – 1/08 – Week 19 – AFC Conference Playoff vs. Seattle Seahawks
In Super Bowl XV, Hayes didn’t intercept a pass but he limited his man to just two receptions in the Raiders 27-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. We will discuss Super Bowl XVIII in a bit. Which leads us to my next point…….
6. Lester Hayes was a champion. He has two Super Bowl rings, victories in Super Bowl XV and Super Bowl XVIII. Lester was a problem to both opposing teams. Offensive coordinators had to be concerned with his side of the field. On a side note, he did not get any credit for his Super Bowl XV prediction. I guess the issue is that he declared it during warm ups, minutes before the game. Sitting in his Jedi stance, Lester clearly states, “Super Sunday, what a day, I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it, it’s like a dream come true. It’s unbelievable, yes, and we’re gonna win, we are gonna win. No question.” He didn’t stutter one word when he delivered that prediction. When it comes to Super Bowl predictions, we all know the quarterback’s voice is the only one heard.
7. Speaking of Super Bowl XVIII, the tandem of Lester Hayes and Michael Haynes had one of the best cornerback performances ever. Offensive heroics always get the spotlight but what they did was downright criminal. It is easy to forget how prolific the Washington Redskins offense was in 1983. They scored an NFL record 541 points, averaging a league leading 33.8 points per game. Joe Theisman was the league’s MVP throwing for 3,714 yards and 29 touchdowns. Wide receiver, Charlie Brown went to the Pro Bowl catching 78 passes for 1,225 yards and 8 touchdowns. Future Hall of Famer, Art Monk caught 47 passes for 746 yards and 5 touchdowns. Add in John Riggins who rushed for 1,347 yards and 24 touchdowns behind “The Hoggs”and you have a deadly offensive attack.
For starters, Art Monk only caught 1 pass for 26 yards and that happened in the 4th quarter. Charlie Brown caught 3 passes for 93 yards. That sounds good right? Well, his first catch was in the 3rd quarter. So for the first half, they did not catch a single pass. Need I say more? No. Let’s hear from the Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard, I’m pretty sure he had a lot to say after their 38-9 loss.
In the “Ultimate Super Bowl Book” written by Bob McGinn, Bobby Beathard delivered the truth. “Hayes and Haynes were the difference in the game. Haynes was still a Patriot during the teams’ regular season matchup, and his addition gave the Raiders two shutdown corners.” According to Beathard, “Hayes and Haynes changed our whole game plan.” Hayes had only one tackle, but had the left side of the field covered so effectively that Theismann hardly bothered to throw there.”
8. The NFL Network, the modern day authorities on the history of the NFL past and present, chose Lester Hayes and Michael Haynes as the best cornerback tandem ever. That’s ever! In the entire history of the game and all the great cornerback tandems to ever play, Lester and Michael were number #1. That means Lester, who was on the opposite side of Hall of Famer, Michael Haynes, could not be and was not, a weak link. If he was perceived as the lesser cornerback, he would have been targeted every single game. And there would be no way they would have been chosen as the top duo. Which brings us back to the previous point about Lester being a Second Team member on the All 80’s Decade Team. If it weren’t for the legendary, game changing Mel Blount, Lester Hayes and Michael Haynes as a tandem, would both be First Team members. This makes sense, given they are the best cornerback tandem ever. Give Lester his Gold jacket.
9. In a Sports Illustrated article, written by Paul Zimmerman, Raiders linebackers coach, Charlie Sumner, was quoted saying, “Lester plays 85% of the time in man coverage without help.” “We’ll play some man on the other side, but not as much. We can use combinations or roll a zone that way, too, while we’re keeping Lester alone.”
Charlie Sumner coached the Defensive backs in 1979, and the Linebackers from 1980–1983. Now many can debate, that a good pass rush and an aggressive blitz package, can mask the skills of a bump and run cornerback. After ten yards, a cornerback is screaming for help over the top and hoping a safety can prevent a big play. But this quote, from Charlie Sumner, provides proof that with Lester, a shutdown cornerback, the Raiders were able to take more risk with their blitzing schemes. That means the likes of Ted Hendricks, Rod Martin and Matt Millen all benefited. Funny, the NFL Network chose them as the 8th Best Linebacking Corps of all time.
10. Lester Hayes is ranked #83 in career interceptions with 39 interceptions. That number is not too high but it’s not too low. It all determines on how you value the number of interceptions in a players career. For example, Ken Riley who played for the Cincinnati Bengals is ranked #5 in interceptions with 65. He is not in the Hall. The great Arizona Cardinal, Roger Wehrli, is in the Hall with 40 interceptions. Michael Haynes is in the Hall with 46 interceptions, a number that some could say is low compared to the overall leaders. Although I could easily take the stance, that Lester and Michael Haynes career interceptions are a direct result of a quarterback’s reluctance to test to their sides, I’d rather focus on another angle involving interceptions. In 1980, it was no-brainer that Lester was selected to the Pro Bowl with 13 regular season interceptions. It gets interesting when you examine his interception numbers when he was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1984. Those numbers are 3, 2, 2, and 1. Lester was still considered the best in his position even with those low numbers. That tells me, that the level of respect that Lester earned and was given was off the charts. His impact was not always narrowed down to a number.