State Your Case: Isiah Robertson

The 1971 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

(Published November 2020)

History has whiffed on Isiah Robertson twice in his football career.

The first time came in 1980 when the Pro Football Hall of Fame committee selected its all-decade team for the 1970s. Four outside linebackers were named to the team: Jack Ham, Ted Hendricks, Bobby Bell and Robert Brazile. All four are now in the Hall of Fame.

There is no issue with Ham. Not only was he the best outside linebacker of the decade, you can make a case he was the best outside linebacker ever to play the game. He went to seven of his eight Pro Bowls in the 1970 decade and was a six-time first-team all-pro. He since has been named to both the NFL’s 75th and 100th anniversary teams.

Bobby Bell and Ted Hendricks also were named to the 100th anniversary. But Bell played only five seasons in the 1970s before retiring after the 1974 season. He went to three Pro Bowls. Hendricks played all 10 seasons of the decade but only went to four Pro Bowls. Brazile entered the NFL in 1976 and went to four Pro Bowls.

Overlooked in the voting was Robertson, who arrived in the NFL in 1971 and went to the Pro Bowl six times in the decade. He was a first-team all-pro twice, as many as Hendricks and more than Bell. Like Brazile, he was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. More importantly, Robertson was a key contributor on one of the best teams of the decade.

The Los Angeles Rams won 98 games in the 1970s, one fewer than the four-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. The Rams captured six division titles and appeared in four NFC title games during Robertson’s eight seasons in Los Angeles. The Rams led the NFL twice in both defense (1973 and 1978) and scoring defense (1974 and 1975) during his stay. The Rams also led the NFC in run defense three consecutive seasons (1973-75).

Robertson’s Pro Bowl seasons all came during the seven years Chuck Knox served as his head coach. But Knox left Los Angeles for Buffalo in 1978, inheriting a team that had won only five games over its previous two seasons. He improved the Bills’ standing to 5-11 finish in 1978, then traded for Robertson in 1979. Knox wanted both his ability and leadership and rewarded Robertson for his move East with one of the richest contracts ever given to an outside linebacker – a four-year deal for $1 million.

Inside of two seasons the Bills became AFC East champions – their first division title in 14 seasons. Buffalo led the NFL in defense that 1980 season and led the AFC in pass defense in each of Robertson’s first three seasons.

And that’s where history whiffed on Robertson a second time.

Robertson retired after the strike-shortened 1982 season, having helped his teams win seven division titles and reach the playoffs eight times in his 12 seasons. He became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1988 but his 25-year window of eligibility expired in 2012 without him ever reaching the semifinals in the selection process, much less the finals.

And a career worthy of Hall of Fame discussion never received that discussion.

Southern University has produced its share of great players in the NFL. Mel Blount, Harold Carmichael and Aeneas Williams all left Southern for busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Robert Holmes started a Super Bowl for the Kansas City Chiefs, Ken Ellis became a Pro Bowl cornerback for the Green Bay Packers and Maurice Hurst earned a spot on New England’s 1990s all-decade team.

But only one Southern product ever became a first-round NFL draft pick – Robertson, who was selected 10th overall by the Rams in 1971. He arrived in Los Angeles with great expectations and delivered on them from the start, intercepting four passes on his way to his first Pro Bowl and that Defensive Rookie of the Year acclaim.

Over his 12 seasons, Robertson intercepted 25 passes, recovered 15 fumbles, sacked 26 quarterbacks and scored five defensive touchdowns. His 4.5 speed was on display throughout. He returned interceptions 76 yards against Philadelphia in 1975, 59 yards against Washington in the playoffs in 1974 and 49 yards against the Giants in 1973.

Robertson also returned an interception for the Bills 16 yards for a touchdown against Cincinnati in 1979 and a fumble 15 yards for a score against Minnesota in his final season with the Rams in 1978. He has since been inducted into the New Orleans, Southern, Louisiana, SWAC and Black College Halls of Fame. His greatness has been recognized everywhere he has worn a football uniform except the NFL.

That’s an oversight that needs to be addressed. Robertson died in a fatal car crash in 2018 but he and his career should not be forgotten.


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