State Your Case: Richie Petitbon

A "body of work" candidate as a player, coach

(Published December 2018)

Few in NFL history knew defense like Richie Petitbon – knew how to play it, knew how to coach it.

Petitbon played safety in the NFL for 14 seasons and then spent 15 more seasons coaching it. He excelled in both capacities, winning NFL championships on the field and on the sideline.

And that’s the sticky part of Petitbon’s Hall of Fame candidacy. The Hall mandates that a candidate either be considered as a player … or as a coach … or as a contributor – with no overlap. There isn’t supposed to be any consideration of a candidate’s “body of work,” just the strongest facet of his resume.

Dick LeBeau, like Petitbon, was as superb a defensive coach as he was a defensive player. LeBeau intercepted 62 career passes and was enshrined in Canton as a cornerback, supposedly with no regard for the fact he invented the zone blitz, coordinated six top-ranked defenses and won two Lombardi Trophies as an assistant coach.

John Madden was an excellent coach who left as large a footprint on the game after he left the field. Madden did win almost 74 percent of his career games with the Raiders plus a Super Bowl, earning him enshrinement in Canton as a coach. But the voters were supposed to ignore his impact on the culture of football as both a TV analyst and the namesake of the “Madden” video game.

Petitbon likewise is a “body of work” candidate.

First, let’s examine his playing career. Petitbon arrived in the NFL as a second-round draft pick out of Tulane, the 21st overall selection by the Chicago Bears in 1959. He became a walk-in starter at cornerback as a rookie, intercepting three passes and returning one for a touchdown.

Chicago’s Hall of Fame coach George Halas moved Petitbon to safety in 1960 and he stayed there for the next 13 seasons – nine with the Bears, two with the Rams and two with the Redskins. Another Hall of Fame coach, George Allen, loved veteran players and traded for the 31-year-old Petitbon when he was with the Rams in 1969. When Allen became the head coach of the Redskins in 1971, he brought Petitbon along with him.

Petitbon won an NFL title on the field with the Bears in 1963, then helped the Rams win an NFC West title off the field in 1969 and the Redskins win an NFC title in 1972.

Petitbon intercepted 48 career passes and recovered another 13 fumbles, scoring three defensive touchdowns. He intercepted six passes for an NFL-leading 212 yards, including a Chicago franchise record 101-yard runback against the Rams for a touchdown, on his way to the first of four Pro Bowls in 1962. He intercepted a career-high eight passes in Chicago’s championship season in 1963 and his 38 interceptions with the Bears rank second in franchise history.

Petitbon began his second NFL career in 1978, returning to the Redskins under Jack Pardee to coach the secondary. When Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs became the head coach in 1981, Petitbon was promoted to defensive coordinator. Gibbs ran the offense and Petitbon the defense on a team that would win three Super Bowls over the next 11 seasons.

Petitbon’s units led the NFL in scoring defense in 1981, in run defense in 1983 and in pass defense in 1985. The Redskins collected at least 50 sacks in six of Petitbon’s 11 seasons as coordinator, including 66 in 1984. His Redskins also intercepted 34 passes in 1983 and forced 42 turnovers in 1989. Three of his defenses finished in the NFL’s Top 5 and two more finished in the Top 10.

Richie Petitbon was among the best at what he did as a player and among the best at what he did as a coach. That gives him a “body of work” worthy of Hall of Fame discussion.


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