State Your Case: Brad Van Pelt
Named the NYG's Player of the Decade for the 1970s
(Published February 2020)
Brad Van Pelt looked the way the NFL wants an outside linebacker to look.
He also played the way the NFL wants an outside linebacker to play.
At 6-5, 235 pounds, Van Pelt was the game’s prototypical strongside linebacker. He had the size to take on tight ends, the bulk to shut down the run and the speed to seal the perimeter of a defense. He became the model for what the Giants and everyone else in the NFL wanted at the position – and a decade later New York found that same player (Carl Banks) with a first-round draft pick from the same school (Michigan State).
But Banks played on great teams, helping the Giants win two Super Bowls, and was voted to the 1980s’ NFL all-decade team. Van Pelt did not play on great teams.
During his 11 seasons in New York, Van Pelt’s Giants managed to win only 49 of their 154 games. The Giants reached the playoffs just once during the Van Pelt era, beating the Eagles in a wild-card game in 1981 and then losing to the eventual Super Bowl-champion San Francisco 49ers in the NFC divisional round.
Yet Van Pelt’s performance shined for a decade. He was voted to five consecutive Pro Bowls from 1976 through 1980 and was a first-team All-Pro from 1977 through 1980. The Giants even named him their 1970s’ Player of the Decade, and Van Pelt was inducted into the franchise’s Ring of Honor in 2011.
But the absence of a championship ring hurt him in the Hall-of-Fame selection process. Of the 321 Hall-of-Fame players, 66 percent of them won championships. There are only 39 defensive players in Canton who did not win a title. So another great defensive player has slipped through the Hall-of-Fame cracks without his career ever discussed or debated.
Van Pelt deserved that discussion.
Van Pelt was an elite athlete. He was an all-state quarterback in high school in Michigan and all-league in both baseball and basketball. He went on to collect seven letters at Michigan State in baseball, basketball and football, earning All-America honors on the gridiron in both 1971-72 as a safety. He won the Maxwell Award as the nation’s best college football player in 1972 and also was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals that winter as a pitcher.
The Giants did not have a first-round draft pick in 1973, and Van Pelt slid into the second round over concern he might choose baseball over football. The Giants claimed him with the 40th overall pick of the draft, moved him to linebacker and he became an instant mainstay on one of the NFL’s worst teams.
Unfortunately for Van Pelt, Lawrence Taylor did not arrive until 1981 and Bill Parcells did not arrive until 1983. So when the winning began in 1984 in New York, Van Pelt had already moved on to Oakland.
Van Pelt finished his career as a part-time starter on three playoff qualifiers – the Oakland Raiders of 1984-85 and the Cleveland Browns of 1986. But the Raiders lost in the wild-card round in 1984 and the divisional round in 1985. Van Pelt’s last chance for a championship evaporated when John Elway engineered “The Drive” that January in the AFC title game against the Browns. Ironically, the Giants would win their first Super Bowl that post-season.
Van Pelt wore jersey number 10 at both Michigan State and with the Giants as a reminder of his roots as high-school quarterback. He intercepted 20 passes in his NFL career, recovered 13 fumbles and recorded 24 ½ sacks.
Strongside linebackers historically don’t flash the stats of the weak-side pass rushers. You must watch the tape to see the completeness and efficiency of their games. The tape says Brad Van Pelt deserves discussion.