It has been announced that among the list of 54 NFL legends, Joe Klecko is a Hall of Fame semifinalist. Klecko has earned just about every defensive honor, award, or title that exists. He lacks only two achievements, and considering his last season was in 1988, he is not likely to win a Super Bowl. There is one more however, that is within reach: The Pro Football Hall of Fame. Klecko’s list of achievements is lengthy and diverse. A few of them are such rare accomplishments that it may be decades before the next player achieves them. So what are his feats, and if they are so extensive, why is he not already in the Hall of Fame?
He won Defensive Player of the Year for PFWA in 1981 (technically PFW DPOY at the time). For the same season, he won Sports Illustrated Player of the Year. Klecko was named to three All-Pro teams, including two first team honors. He went to four Pro Bowls. He received the George Halas Award in 1982, annually awarded for overcoming adversity in a season. His number 73 jersey was retired by the Jets in 2004. He was also an inaugural member of the New York Jets Ring of Honor in 2010. There is no doubt these are standout achievements, but alone they are not what makes Klecko so special. His real bid for the Hall of Fame is built from a remarkable legacy that the average NFL fan is probably unaware of.
While sacks were not an officially kept statistic until 1982, just one year earlier Klecko logged an incredible 20.5 sacks. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, this places Klecko in a tie for 13th all-time for single season sack leaders. Pro Football Reference did a phenomenal job when they recently added sack stats for players all the way back to 1960, although these must be kept as unofficial. By just one year, Klecko was robbed of 40 years worth of fans seeing his name atop one of the most revered stats in pro football. This also unofficially made him the NFL leader in sacks for the year 1981. Similarly, his eternally unofficial career sack total equals 78.
The Truly Unique
This section is the story of Joe Klecko that will get him into the Hall of Fame, if anything does. Klecko was undisputedly the best player on one of the greatest defensive fronts of all time: The New York Sack Exchange. In his playing career, Klecko played alongside Mark Gastineau and was considered the better of the two players. For reference, Gastineau’s *official 22 sacks was the single season record that stood for 17 years. In 1981, Klecko and Gastineau *unofficially each tallied over 20 sacks in the same year. They are to this day the only teammates to ever do this, unofficially or otherwise.
There is another largely unknown fact about Klecko’s career that limited his statistical output, but also made the numbers even more impressive upon reflection. Klecko played his dominant 20.5 sack season as an edge rusher, which was specifically 4-3 defensive end for the Jets in 1981. For this year, he earned a first team All-Pro and Pro Bowl nod. By 1983, his coaches had changed his position to 4-3 defensive tackle. Despite this, he was still so dominant that he earned a second team All-Pro and two more Pro Bowl appearances. If this wasn’t enough, 1985 saw him again switch to a 3-4 nose tackle. Another dominant year earned him his second first team All-Pro and fourth Pro Bowl.
Is it Enough?
To earn both All-Pro and Pro Bowl at three different positions is one of the rarest claims any NFL player can make. While it is anecdotal, the praise heaped upon him by opposing offensive linemen of the era is notable. It is impossible not to question what he could have accomplished if allied to play on the edge for his entire career. His official sack totals will always unfairly keep him off of the all time lists. Joe Klecko is a Hall of Fame semifinalist, and it’s not the first time. How many more times will it take the selection committee to get this legend the bust he deserves?