There will never be a defensive backfield like the Oakland Raiders Soul Patrol of the 1970’s ever again. They were the most intimidating and greatest group of all time.
The 70’s will always be remembered as the greatest era for the NFL. It’s the era when there were many great teams and great quarterbacks. Without a salary cap some backups on the great teams could start elsewhere. Defenses could do as they please with little to no protection for QB’s and WR’s. Television helped make the Superbowl become a must see event. Teams like the Raiders, Steelers, Dolphins, Chiefs, Cowboys and Vikings made this a decade of excellence. The Steel Curtain, the No Name Defense, Doomsday, and the Purple People Eaters are all revered names in NFL lore. When the Steelers met the Raiders in the mid 70’s, there were no less than 22 hall of fame coaches, owners, and players on the field at one time. That will never happen again.
“There was nothing like them”, said HOF QB Fran Tarkenton about the Soul Patrol in a KNBR radio interview. “In 1979 the NFL created the 5 yard chuck rule because of Atkinson, Tatum, Brown, Thomas and the Raiders. Wide Receivers could not get off the line of scrimmage against them. Atkinson and Tatum and the rest of the gang were so physical and strong that I’d have to wait and hope my guys could get open before I got killed”.
The wide receivers of the 70’s never get their due because their numbers weren’t the pinball numbers of today. In today’s NFL, if you exhale near a receiver it is a penalty. In the 1970’s it was literally survival of the fittest. They had to worry about the great physical play of the era and you could not be a wide receiver unless you could go over the middle. I’ve seen pass interference penalties in today’s game where a defensive back literally brushed by a player. The rules are so comical now that records are being broken almost weekly. The 70’s on the other hand was an extremely brutal and tough era, and the most talented and toughest defensive backfield of them all was the Soul Patrol in Oakland.
Oakland the King of Professional Sports:
The center of the sporting world in the 70’s was Oakland California. In 1975 a team lead by superstar Rick Barry silenced all the east coast and their writers by sweeping the Washington Bullets for the NBA title after writers practically laughed at their chances. The Oakland A’s dynasty had an amazing 3 straight World Series Championships beating national league royalty in the Dodgers, Reds, and NY Mets. And then oh by the way, for a 25 year stretch the Raiders were the winningest team in all of US sports with several division titles, and 3 superbowl wins. No city ever had so many titles in such a short time.
The Soul Patrol embodied what the Oakland Raiders were all about. They were tough, borderline dirty, intimidating and extremely confident. Each member played their role in a defense that still today is revered.
George Atkinson Jr.: (“Butch” 6’ 0”; 180 lbs.)
There may have never been a tougher Raider than George Atkinson. Listed as 6 feet tall, many say it was more like 5’ 10” but no one had the guts to tell him that.
Atkinson was an intimidator that roamed the field like a lion ready to pounce. He was the trash talker of the group often seen taunting and intimidating players that were much bigger than he was. He once broke Russ Francis nose with a vicious forearm hit, and his hits against Lynn Swann of the Steelers are a part of NFL history. He had blazing speed and in fact still holds the single game record for punt return yardage for the Raiders at 205 yards.
Atkinson took it very personally when someone tried to block him low. He learned from Tatum to go after a Wide Receiver if they tried to hit their knees or ankles. In some films you can actually see Raiders defensive backs going towards blockers to actually hit them after they tried to hit them low. All time great Paul Warfield once said when you went over the middle against Oakland and didn’t account for Tatum and Atkinson, you would not be in the game long without being carried off the field. Against the run, he could go through blockers and make amazingly hard tackles. If you ran wide against the Raiders, their DB’s would make you pay. Atkinson loved to make players pay.
Willie Brown: (6’ 1”; 195 lbs.)
Amazingly Hall of Famer Willie Brown was never drafted when he graduated from Grambling St. He was signed by the Buffalo Bills who cut him and then he was picked up by the Denver Broncos. He soon became an all star but was traded to the Raiders in 1967 where he played for the rest of his career. Unlike the other 3 members of the soul patrol, Brown was fast, graceful and laid back. He wasn’t a talker but a great defender who was a shut down corner. He had good size and played the run very well, but he was a master of the bump and run, man to man game that the Raiders loved so much. His famous interception in the Superbowl with the great announcer Bill King’s call of old man Willie is as famous as any highlight NFL films has.
Skip Thomas CB (Dr. Death; 6’ 1”; 205 lb.):
In a day when cornerbacks were just as important in attacking the run as they did the pass, Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas role was to make everyone that came near him remember that he hit them. What is funny is he was nicknamed Dr. Death by Raiders great Bob Brown who said Skip Thomas looked like the cartoon character Dr. Death.
Skip Thomas was a vicious tackler who was the king of the clothesline tackle. Many times his padded arm was seen knocking the ball out of wide receivers hands. When he hit people, sometimes he would actually launch his whole body and his arm swung like a Russian sickle. It was intimidating, violent and sent the message to not come his way. He had a two year stretch of 6 interceptions per year. Due to the great talent of Willie Brown, teams would try to pick on Skip Thomas and usually the results were not good.
People forget that in the Super Bowl, Minnesota moved their fine wide receiver Sammy White around so that Thomas mostly guarded him in the first half. White didn’t catch a pass in the first half and Thomas was on him like glue. As the great Raiders announcer Bill King once said, “the Raiders have 3 safeties when Dr. Death was playing cornerback”.
Sadly and ironically he passed away too soon in 2011 also at the age of 61, but he will always be remembered for his talent, toughness and personality as one of the great members of the Soul Patrol.
Jack Tatum Safety (Assassin; 5’ 10”, 205 lb.):
Ronnie Lott called him his inspiration and the standard bearer for NFL safeties. John Clayton said there was never a harder hitting safety in the NFL. Once during the Super Bowl break, the NFL show with Cris Collinsworth was discussing players that should be in the Hall of Fame, and to a man they all said the same name. Chris Berman and many others kept bringing up one man; Jack Tatum.
He may have been the most intimidating force in NFL history this side of Dick Butkus. John Madden said many times he was mentally saddled with the hit on Darryl Stingley which paralyzed Stingley for the rest of his life. Many close to Tatum said he really never got over it up to his death in 2010 at the age of 61 due to complications from diabetes.
Earl Campbell said no one ever hit him harder than his touchdown run where he and Tatum hit head on. Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton said he thought Tatum knocked Sammy White’s head off in the Superbowl hit that Tatum laid on him when the Raiders dominated the Minnesota Vikings. Even his counterpart George Atkinson said once, “he hit a tough Denver TE Riley Odoms so hard it sounded like a gun shot. Odoms was in agony and his eyes rolled back. I thought he had killed him”.
I remember a story that Ahmad Rashad told. He said that days before the Vikings were to play the Raiders in the Superbowl, Tatum had walked into a room where the Vikings were relaxing and playing cards. Tatum walked into the room and into the closet and just stood there for a couple of minutes. He then walked out of the closet and left. Rashad said that not one Viking laughed or said a word until they saw Tatum walking out of the building. Rashad said that it was a mind game of intimidation and he said it worked. He said, “we laughed; we just made sure Tatum couldn’t hear us”.
Tatum was a linebacker playing safety. He also was dominating against the run and would take on guards and tackles at any given notice. Many game films show Tatum chasing blockers trying to hit them before the blockers would try to block them. Tatum was vicious, fearless and ready to hit anyone. He epitomized the great physical play of the day, and what the Raiders defense always tried to do; stop the run and make the quarterback go down, and go down hard. With a good pass rush, the Raiders defense was hard to beat as was seen in their dominance.
With today’s rules there will never be hits and aggressive play like the Soul Patrol did. Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers pretty much do as they please and the Soul Patrol would not be allowed to do what they did best; intimidate, make plays, and be legends. In the most physical era, the Soul Patrol was like a pack of wolves ready to take down any sized prey. They remain the greatest defensive backfield of all time.