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April 21, 2015

Is Al Wistert the greatest living Eagle?

Eagles NFL

For years, many considered Concrete Charlie -- former Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik -- the greatest living Eagles player. But that all changed last month when the hall-of-famer passed away at the age of 89, leaving a void in the hearts of those lucky enough to have watched him play.

In addition to Bednarik, the debate for the franchise's all-time greatest player would undoubtedly include names like Brookshire, Brown, Van Buren, and White. Unfortunately, some of the greatest Eagles players are no longer with us, and in the wake of Bednarik's passing, there is no consensus as to whom should replace him as the franchise top player.

With that in mind, we've decided to take a look at some of the greatest living Eagles, the kind of guys Jeff Lurie would want to trot out before a big playoff game -- if/when that time comes -- to help get the fans fired up.

Here's a closer look at lineman Al Wistert, who spent his entire NFL career with the Eagles and was named an All-Pro four straight years:

BY THE NUMBERS: 95 G (1943-1951); 1x Pro-Bowler; 4x All-Pro (AP); Member of Eagles Hall of Fame; Had his No. 70 retired by the Eagles; Member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's All-1940s Team; Part of the Eagles NFL Championship teams in 1948 and '49. 

HOW HE GOT HERE: Wistert (Michigan) was selected by the Eagles, who were at the time combined with the Steelers, in the 5th round (32nd overall) of the 1943 NFL Draft. 

Wistert, who played on both sides of the ball, was immediately impactful for the Eagles, who failed to post a winning record in any of the 10 seasons the franchise existed prior to his arrival. In his first season (1943), the "Steagles" were 5-4-1, beginning a stretch of seven-straight winning seasons, which included three title game appearances and two NFL championships.

HOW HE LEFT PHILLY: Wistert retired young, relatively speaking, at the age of 31 in 1951. However, if you consider the fact that he played both sides of the ball -- and rarely missed a snap -- Wistert's nine seasons in Philly suddenly morph into something closer to 18 seasons.

Furthermore, Wistert was named a first-team All-Pro by at least one major publication in six* of his nine seasons with the Eagles and 24** times overall, suggesting that he was the best lineman of his era, something later confirmed by his inclusion on the Hall of Fame's All-1940s Team.

*1944-49
**He was named to multiple All-Pro teams in a single season several times, including five times each by the New York Daily News and UPI (United Press International), four times by the Associated Press (AP), three times by the International News Service, Pro Football Illustrated, and the Chicago Herald-American, and once by the Sporting News.

Jason Lisk wrote the following on Pro-Football-Reference.com about just how tough it can be to compare Wistert to his contemporaries, not to mention players from other eras.

It's difficult to compare Al Wistert to other candidates for senior selection who played after 1950 because he played a very different game as a two way player, where versatility was far more important. From the accounts I can find, he was considered adept on both sides of the ball in both college and the pros, praised for his technique and variety in offensive blocking, and in his ability to make sure tackles and control his area defensively. Offensively, he blocked in front of Steve Van Buren for one of the best rushing attacks of the era, and defensively, he was part of teams that consistently ranked in the top 3 in both passing and rushing rate stats and recorded shutouts in the 1948 and 1949 championship games.  [pro-football-reference.com]

Those two championship teams remain the only in NFL history to shutout the opposition in consecutive title games.

WHAT HE LEFT BEHIND: Lisk is far from the only one who believes Wistert should be in the Hall. Here's what CSN Philly's Ray Didinger, a Hall-of-Famer in his own right, had to say:

In the book “The Hidden Game of Football,” author Bob Carroll wrote that of all the players who were not yet in the Hall of Fame, the one who was most deserving of that honor was Wistert.

Carroll used a simple formula to arrive at that conclusion. He tallied the consensus All-Pro seasons for each player (five for Wistert), the first-team All-Pro selections (two) and second-team selections (one) and awarded points for each. Wistert had the most points among the two-way tackles, including eight who are already in the Hall of Fame.

In his book “Pro Football’s 100 Greatest Players”, George Allen selected Wistert as one of his top 10 defensive linemen. He wrote: “Wistert seemed to be born with perfect balance. He always played in perfect position and seldom was off his feet. He was a superb pursuit man and seemed somehow to get in on every play.”  [CSNPhilly.com]

It's hard to really quantify what Wistert meant to the Eagles. I mean, it's difficult enough to do so with current-day offensive linemen, let alone one that you likely have never seen play, which may be part of the reason he had to wait until 2012 to be enshrined in the Eagles Hall of Fame (formerly known as the Honor Roll), despite the fact that his No. 70 was the first to be retired by the organization.

Here's what Sam Donnellon of the Daily News wrote in 1999, when Wistert and his teammates were honored at halftime a game to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their back-to-back titles in 1948-49:

It was also, said one participant, an affair long overdue. Wistert, an All-Pro tackle out of the University of Michigan, was captain of the '48 and '49 Eagles. He's been involved in countless celebrations over the years with his college alma mater, but despite having his Eagles No. 70 retired, felt largely overlooked by the various Eagles administrations.

"I think, for the most part, they've kind of forgotten me," he said, as the cheers died down after the ceremony. "It hurts. Number 70 was the first number ever retired for a player by the Philadelphia Eagles. Why, until this day, was I not in their [Honor Roll]? Most of the nine years I played, I was an All-Pro tackle."

To his credit, current owner Jeffrey Lurie tried to address Wistert's hurt with this weekend's celebration.

Maybe Wistert was overlooked because of his position. Or maybe it was because the organization, since it was sold to 100 investors in 1949, never has benefited from long-term, stable ownership.

"I don't know why," he said. "They haven't forgotten Chuck Bednarik and the championships we've won. And Steve Van Buren. You think being a captain would mean a little something.

“I’m a little disappointed in that. And I think it also has shut me out of the [Pro Football] Hall of Fame. They say, 'If I'm not good enough to be in their hall of honor here, how do I belong in the Hall of Fame?' But if anybody would check the record, my God, there's no question..."  
[philly.com]

It's interesting that Donnellon mentions stable ownership since Wistert finally had his day (alongside former QB Randall Cunningham) in 2012 under Jeffrey Lurie, the longest-tenured and arguably most successful owner in franchise history.

But his lack of recognition by the NFL overall remains puzzling. Part of that could have more to do with when he played than how he played. At the time he retired (1951), the Pro Football Hall of Fame was not yet in existence, and Jason Lisk wrote on Pro-Football-Reference.com about how that may have caused Wistert to be overlooked in later years:

So why is Wistert still not in the Hall? I suspect it is just that he slipped through the cracks, and if the Hall had been in existence when he retired and he was eligible five years later, he would have been in shortly thereafter. The Pro Football Hall of Fame had its inaugural class in 1963, and was still in its infancy when Wistert was honored by the college football hall of fame in 1968 at about the same time the pro football hall of fame added Stydahar, Kinard, and Edwards. Then, the clear choices among the stars of the late 1950s and early 1960s, who played at a time when the game was hitting greater heights in popularity with television playing a greater role, were reaching eligibility, and those older stars who had not made it in were pushed aside by generations that remembered them less and less with each passing year. You would have to be near eighty years old now to have seen Wistert play, so there are few first hand accounts, and certainly no advanced statistics to rely on. Still, using the awards and how he was perceived at the time, it is pretty clear that Wistert is a glaring omission. He seems like the exact kind of player the Senior Committee should be considering as a strong candidate for inclusion.  [pro-football-reference.com]

SIGNATURE MOMENT: Winning the NFL Championship in 1948 and 1949.

FULL STORY AND VOTE: WHO IS THE GREATEST LIVING EAGLE?


  •  •  THE OTHER CANDIDATES    •  •

• Eric Allen, CB

Bill Bergey, LB

• Harold Carmichael, WR

• Brian Dawkins, S

• LeSean McCoy, RB

• Tommy McDonald, WR

• Donovan McNabb, QB

• Wilbert Montgomery, RB

• Brian Westbrook, RB

  •  •  HONORABLE MENTIONS  •  •  •

• Randall Cunningham, QB
• Ron Jaworski, QB
• Seth Joyner, LB
• Pete Retzlaff, WR
• Clyde Simmons, DE
• Troy Vincent, CB

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