State Your Case: Russ Craft

Played offense, defense and returned kickoffs and punts for 1940s Eagles

(Published June 2020)

The NFL has always placed a premium on versatility.

The more a player can do, the more value he has to his team. That was especially true in the 1940s when NFL rosters consisted of just 33 players – and the Philadelphia Eagles had the most versatile player in the league in Russ Craft. In fact, there have been few players in the league’s history as versatile as Craft.

Craft played both ways, as a halfback on offense and cornerback on defense. He also returned both punts and kickoffs for the Eagles, held for placement kicks and served as the personal protector on punts. He also spent his entire career covering both punts and kickoffs on the kicking downs.

Craft helped the Eagles reach three consecutive NFL title games from 1947 through 1949. They lost the first one to the Chicago Cardinals, then beat the Cardinals in the rematch in 1948 and repeated against the Los Angeles Rams in 1949.

Let’s start from the beginning. Craft was a second-team All-SEC running back at Alabama who was drafted by the Eagles in the 15th round in 1943. But his career was delayed by three years while he served in World War II. And Craft was late reporting to his first training camp with the Eagles because he was invited to play in the College All-Star game – the first of three he would play. He also would play against the All-Stars twice as a member of the NFL champion Eagles.

Craft didn’t start on offense in Philadelphia. He came off the bench as a blocking back. The Eagles didn’t need his hands on the football – not with two Hall of Fame weapons already in the offensive huddle in halfback Steve Van Buren and end Pete Pihos. But Craft threw his 5-9, 175-pound body around as a blocker and was willing to do so for Van Buren, who won three consecutive NFL rushing titles from 1947-49.

Craft played offense, defense and returned punts in each of his first five seasons in the NFL. He also returned kickoffs as a rookie and in 1950. In the 1947 playoffs he collected both an interception and a rushing touchdown. He caught two TD passes in 1948 and scored a unique touchdown on defense in 1949, ripping the ball out of Hall of Famer Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch’s hands after a reception and returning the “fumble” 21 yards for a score. In 1950, Craft returned a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown against the Rams and also intercepted an NFL-record four passes in one game against the Cardinals.

The NFL instituted the Pro Bowl in 1950 and Craft was passed over in the voting despite a career-best seven-interception season. Craft did go to the Pro Bowl in both the 1951 and 1952 seasons, however. In 1952, he scored his first career touchdown on an interception, returning a Babe Parilli pass 32 yards against the Packers. Craft also blocked three extra points by the Steelers in a game that preseason.

The Eagles blasted the defending Eastern Conference champion Browns 49-7 in October 1952, but Cleveland roared back a month later to hand Philadelphia a 28-20 defeat. The Browns’ Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown offered a simple explanation for the turnaround.

“Russ Craft had to leave the (second) game with an injury in the first quarter,” Brown explained. “When you take Russ out of that Eagle defense, I can name my score.”

Craft was named team MVP of the Eagles in 1952 and was a team captain in both 1952 and 1953. He moved on to the Steelers in 1954 to become a player/coach and scored his final NFL touchdown that season, returning an interception of Cleveland’s Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham 81 yards.

Craft intercepted 22 passes and recovered 15 fumbles in his nine-year career and scored touchdowns five ways – rush, reception, interception, fumble return and kickoff return. He also averaged 28.5 yards in his career on kickoff returns.

Craft was named to the 25th anniversary team of the Eagles in 1957, the 50th anniversary team in 1982 and 75th anniversary team in 2007. Chances are his greatness will be remembered once again in 2033 when the Eagles get around to selecting their 100th anniversary team.

Craft was on the original slate of candidates for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1963 but disappeared shortly thereafter. His candidacy has since been lost in the pages of time. But a player with his versatility and production should not be forgotten.

Paul Brown is arguably the greatest coach the NFL has ever seen. He took the Cleveland Browns to 10 consecutive championship games from 1946-1955. Having coached 11 Hall of Famers, he knows what greatness looks like. 

“Russ Craft was a great player who deserves every consideration for the Hall of Fame,” Brown said. 

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