(Ralph Neely photos courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys)
Talk of Fame Network
There are two Dallas offensive lineman in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Rayfield Wright and Larry Allen. But there should be a third.
Neely played with Wright on the great Dallas teams of the 1970s, and there was no better pair of tackles. Wright manned the right side; Neely manned the left and together they helped make the Cowboys one of the most productive offenses and most successful teams anywhere.
Neely was a four-time All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowler. Wright was a six-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler. He’s also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and an all-decade choice. But Neely was an all-decade choice, too. Plus, he’s the guy Hall-of-Fame defensive end Willie Davis called the best tackle he faced.
So why isn’t he in Canton? I wish I knew.
So many deserving players from those Dallas teams belong in Canton: Lee Roy Jordan, Chuck Howley, Cliff Harris and Drew Pearson to name four. Neely is another. Not only was he an all-decade choice for the NFL’s 1960s’ team, but he joined Bob Brown and Forrest Gregg as the club’s tackles. Brown and Gregg are in the Hall. Ralph Neely is not.
And somebody’s going to have to explain that one to me.
“He could slide, he was light on his feet, he had long arms and he was athletic as hell,” said Gil Brandt, former head of player personnel for the Cowboys and now a Sirius XM NFL radio host. “He was just too good coming out of college to be a second-round pick.”
Yet that’s what he was, with the NFL Baltimore Colts and AFL Houston Oilers each choosing him there. The reason: Simple. At the University of Oklahoma, where he starred, the Sooners were so run-centric that Brandt said “if they passed five times (in a game), was a lot.”
Result: Scouts labeled him one-dimensional.
But Dallas saw something in him that others did not, with Brandt saying the Cowboys had him ranked as their fifth-best player that year. After a trade with the Colts, who were convinced they couldn’t sign him, and a series of legal maneuvers, the Cowboys finally gained the rights to Neely and plugged him at tackle – first right, then left -- and the difference was immediate.
“If I were talking to Hall-of-Fame voters,” said Brandt, “I’d tell them to look at our record from 1965 when he arrived, and see how the team responded until the end of his career.”
OK, so let’s see: In 1965, Neely’s rookie season, the Cowboys were 7-7. A year later they were 10-3-1 and led the league in scoring with 445 points. Then they were 9-5. Then 12-2. Then 11-2-1, 10-4 and 11-3. I think you get the idea.
In Ralph Neely’s 13 seasons with Dallas the club reached the playoffs 11 times, the Super Bowl four times and won two Lombardi Trophies. They were 131-49-2, and Neely was there for the entire ride, playing every game in 10 of those years and all but two in 12 of the 13.
“I don’t think anyone then had any idea how important offensive linemen were,” said Brandt. “But we did. That’s why we made him a tackle.”
And a damned good one.
“Do I think he’s a Hall of Famer?” said Brandt. “I do.”
I do, too, but I’d like to hear more. That’s why I’d like to see Ralph Neely discussed by the Hall’s board of selectors. For too many years Ralph Neely’s been buried under a pile of yesterday’s forgotten stars, and it’s time we discover just what we missed.
We owe him that. We owe the Hall that, too.