For the past seven years the organization has put together a group of writers, broadcasters and historians and it gathered during the spring to discuss the qualifications of various candidates for inclusion in The Hall at Patriot Place presented by Raytheon.
There are a lot of opinions typically flying around the room, and many are well thought and insightful looks at the players and coaches of the past. As a member of the committee, though, there is one person who routinely gets and keeps my attention.
Ernie Adams is listed in the Patriots media guide as the football research director. Some have called him the team's mystery man, as Adams prefers to remain behind the scenes and away from the spotlight – but few if any hold Bill Belichick's respect the way Adams does.
Adams has been tied to Belichick going back to their days together at Phillips Academy, and he's actually been tied to the Patriots even longer than the coach. Adams' NFL career began in 1975 as an offensive assistant on Chuck Fairbanks' staff, where he remained until Fairbanks left in 1978.
As part of those teams, Adams got a first-hand look at some of the most talented collections of players the Patriots have ever had. So, when Adams offers his views on the like of Leon Gray, a Pro Bowl left tackle for the team from 1973-78, and Fairbanks himself, it's no wonder he commands the room like no other.
Adams recently sat for the Patriots.com camera to discuss two of the three newly named nominees – Tedy Bruschi is the third – and his outlook is worth listening to.
"The hallmark of those Patriots team in the late-'70s was our ability to run the ball and our offensive line," Adams explained. "John Hannah could very well be the best offensive lineman in the history of the league. He played right next to Leon. I think John would be the first to tell you a big part of the reason he was so good is he knew he was going to get great play from left tackle. The two of them together, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a better guard-tackle combination anywhere that I've seen in the league."
Running the football was indeed the hallmark of those teams. The 1978 Patriots still own the all-time record for most yards rushing in a season with 3,165 (they averaged 4.7 yards per carry on 671 attempts in an era when every defense knew a run was coming). That group also racked up 30 touchdowns on the ground.
The 1976 team may have been even better. That group piled up 2,948 yards on 591 attempts, averaging 5 yards a carry and scoring 24 rushing touchdowns in just a 14-game season.
For his roles on those teams, Gray was a two-time Pro Bowl selection as well as a member of the Patriots All-Decade team for the 1970s. He was a dominant performer before animosity over his contract led to his trade to Houston, where he continued to play at a high level.
"Leon Gray was everything you'd want as a left tackle," Adams said."There are very few teams in the history of the National Football League who have run the ball over the course of a season for over 200 yards per game. The '76 Patriots and the '78 Patriots were two of those teams. A lot of that was Sam Cunningham running behind Leon Gray.
"Pass protection – then as now the left tackle is on the quarterback's blind side. You never had to worry about having Leon Gray pass block for Steve Grogan at left tackle. You think of left tackle you think of someone like Leon Gray and somebody who plays the position like that.
The man who orchestrated those great teams was Fairbanks. He arrived following a successful stint in college at Oklahoma and immediately transformed the moribund Patriots.
"When Chuck Fairbanks came to the Patriots as general manager and head coach after the 1972 season the Patriots were a bad football team in every respect," Adams began. "When Chuck left after the 1978 season, they were one of the best teams in the league. The reason was Chuck was in complete control. All the players who were brought in, all the coaches who were brought in, all the decisions that were made were Chuck's. He had a great knack for getting the entire organization to perform exactly the way he wanted."
Fairbanks, who recently died following a battle with brain cancer, created a legacy with his innovative schemes and methods, one of which was the introduction of the 3-4 defense to the NFL.
"There are a lot of things that we, the current 2013 edition of the Patriots, do that have their genesis back in some of the things Chuck Fairbanks did in the 1970s," Adams explained. "The way we set up our practice schedule, we break it down in five-, six-, seven-minute increments exactly the way Chuck did it. So much of our defense Bill Parcells learned here with the Patriots when he coached the linebackers in 1980 and brought to the Giants and we've continued that. The way we call our offensive plays – all based on the system that started with Chuck.
"Chuck could walk into one of our meeting rooms today and say, 'a lot of this looks familiar.'"
"The last three years Chuck was here we could go out and beat anybody in the league. The year we lost in the playoff game in 1976 to the Raiders, the only game the Raiders lost that year was in the regular season to the Patriots, 48-17. We lost the playoff game, we don't have a Lombardi Trophy to show for it, but that was as good a team as there was in the league."
Cast Your Ballot for 2013 Patriots Hall of Fame Enshrinee
A 19-person nomination committee selects Tedy Bruschi, Chuck Fairbanks and Leon Gray as the 2013 Patriots Hall of Fame finalists. Fans are encouraged to vote for the person most deserving of hall of fame enshrinement.
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