Was Erich Barnes a dirty professional football player or was he just being aggressive?
Whenever old-time football and the way it was played those may years ago is discussed, Barnes' name almost always finds its way into the conversation. And with good reason.
For the better part of 14 seasons, he was the scourge of the secondaries of three National Football League teams – the Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Browns. The 6-2, 200-pound cornerback played with such a dynamic force, such an intimidating style, he was constantly the subject of the dirty/aggressive argument that didn't disappear until he retired following the 1971 season. The ferocity with which he hit opposing receivers is the stuff of legend. It helped land him in six Pro Bowls.
All parts of the body were fair game whenever Barnes honed in. Made no difference whether it was the ankles or the head. When he had the prey in his crosshairs, someone was going down. Hard.
In the nine games he played against the Browns, Barnes was labeled dirty by Browns loyalists. But when he wound up with Cleveland in 1965, dirty became aggressive. It was all a matter of perception.
Half of his 14 seasons were spent with the Browns, five of which saw them advance to the postseason, including three ill-fated trips to the NFL championship game (1965, 1968 and 1969). He wound up with 45 career interceptions, returning seven for touchdowns.
When Barnes retired from the NFL, he moved back to New York City and became a special-events consultant, working with corporate organizations. He retired from that job 10 years ago, but still remained very active.
Barnes, now 72, has lived in Yonkers, N.Y., for the last 20 years, but travels frequently to Florida. "I like to do a lot of volunteer work," he says. "I play in a lot of tennis and golf outings."
He is very active with the NFL Alumni Association and the NFL Players Association "when the cause is called for. And I try to do as much for local organizations as I can without being in the way."
The Orange & Brown Report recently caught up with Barnes and revisited the old aggressive/dirty argument.
You were a very confident player. What about your physical and emotional makeup allowed you to play that way?
I consider myself very fortunate playing for as long as I did. The average player played only three or four years in that game. And for me to figure out a way to stay out of the way for 14 years is almost a miracle. I guess you have to have a little talent, know the game and be especially alert all the time. Staying in top physical condition was the key to it. I had my style of play and was dedicated to that. I never changed too much.
How would you describe your style of play?
I was sort of like a dictator and intimidator. I never changed my style. I adjusted it from time to time. I kept the receivers off guard. I never let them get into a rhythm. I always wanted the receiver to go where I wanted him to go. That's the reason I never did take to that bump and run. If it wasn't for the bump and run, I think I would have played another two, three more years. I never agreed in getting in the guy's face and then chasing him.
Some people considered you an aggressive player. Other people considered a dirty player. What did you consider yourself?
Well, it all depends. When I was with the Giants and I would come into Cleveland, they used to call me dirty. When I went to Cleveland, the Giants would call me dirty and Cleveland would call me aggressive. It all depends on where you were playing. Of course, I learned my whole style of play from the Bears. That's where I attain all my talent from.
Did it bother you that people thought you were dirty?
No. I was sort of – I'm using the word legend, not to say I'm a legend – but I was a legend in my time. I was a big, fast defensive back. I was world-class sprinter and could run with all those guys. And I was a hitter. What happened was it took time to see guys come up and change that style of play. Before me, there was Night Train Lane, who was a big, strong defensive back who hit. At that time, they didn't call guys dirty. They called them aggressive. The game was rough and aggressive. (Bears coach) George Halas used to say that the greatest compliment you can pay a defensive back is that he's a hitter. I got kick out of people putting tags on me. That's better than saying you're no hitter at all.
What about some of the receivers? Did they have any comments for you after you delivered some good licks on them?
No. I played in three decades and I saw the game change drastically. I saw the mind-set of the players change also. The longer you play, the quicker you learn to keep your mouth shut. You don't catch touchdown passes and start dancing in the end zone. That's what they do now. They couldn't do that then because most of the defensive backs didn't take (kindly) to that, especially me. All that means is that next time, you're going to get hit harder.
How much of your game was intimidation?
Part of it. You knew the guys you could intimidate. And when I say intimidate, I was a little bigger and if I could manhandle those smaller receivers, I would. But in most cases, most of the (receivers) were aggressive. Guys like Bobby Mitchell were aggressive and just as tough as you were. The key to it was when the guy caught the ball, you had to let him know he was going to get hit and give him a few more things to think about.
You mention Mitchell. Anyone else give you problems?
They all gave me problems. I never underestimated any receiver. Speed never bothered me. I always figured I could run with most guys. The problem I was concerned about was with guys like Paul Warfield, who was fast and had 100 moves in between.
What were the rivalries like back then?
When I was with the Bears, the big rivalries were with the (Baltimore) Colts and (Green Bay) Packers. When I moved on to the Giants, the big rivalry was with the Browns. That was the game. You could see the whole mind-set change when the Browns came up on the schedule. And when I got to Cleveland, the big rivals were always the Giants and Dallas Cowboys. We had a lot of fun playing against the Cowboys.
How about Pittsburgh?
Pittsburgh was fun. But we didn't play Pittsburgh with the (same) mind-set, at least in my opinion. We were always more concerned with Dallas than Pittsburgh. At that time, Dallas had progressed more than Pittsburgh. The Steelers didn't get rolling until I was out of the league. And most the time, we handled the Steelers pretty well.
What are your remembrances of Cleveland?
I was very happy playing there. I grew up in Indiana (Elkhart) and my team, as a kid, was the Cleveland Browns. My idols were Lenny Ford and Marion Motley. I used to come up (to Cleveland) on a train. My buddies and I would stand outside the gate and we walked in for a buck if we got a ticket. Then we would take the train back home. We would do that at least twice a year.
So when you came to play for the Browns, what were your thoughts?
I was very happy to play for my boyhood idol team. I knew most of the guys. It was a lot of fun.
You had the chance to play a year (1965) with Jim Brown. What was that like?
It was a delight playing with him because it sure was no fun playing against him. He was what you call a gentle giant. He was tough, man. Nobody wanted to tackle him . . . period. Anybody said they wanted to tackle him, they were sort of exaggerating a little bit. That whole crew was tough.
That 1965 team played the championship game against Green Bay. You guys were favored to win that game. What happened?
All I can remember going back that far is that we lost that game (laughing).
You played for some good coaches. Who's the best you played for?
I always enjoyed all the coaches I played for. The easiest coach to play for was George Halas.
There was no pressure playing for George because he was the coach and he owned the team.
How much NFL football do you watch today?
Not as much as I thought I would. I watch more college football than I watch pro football.
I don't know. I seem to get hooked up to the college game. It's easier for me to watch. With the pros, I get a little more into the game. I see guys making mistakes that . . . I say, "Aw, man, c'mon. This is professional football. Why did you let the guy catch that ball?" I end up talking to myself for the stuff I didn't do when I was playing. With college kids, you understand that because they're young boys and learning.
Compare the way they play the game in the NFL today with the way they played it when you broke into the league.
The rules have changed a lot. I'll speak to my position. It's a little tougher playing the corner (today) because once you go down the field a couple of yards, you can't touch the receiver. So you have that disadvantage. And guys are coming downfield and running across the field wide open untouched. Years ago, you couldn't have done that because somebody was going to tag you before you got halfway across the field. The rules really have changed a lot. It's nice to play linebacker (now) because they cut out the crack back block. They used to line up those receivers in the slot and crack back on the linebacker. That's why most of your linebackers had bad knees.
It doesn't seem to be as rough a game today as when you played.
It's an offensive game (today), more or less. The games are set for the offense. They want to score points. They're maybe one or two rules changes away from playing two-hand touch.
If you were in your prime and playing today, could you play today's game with the kind of mind-set you had when you first came into the NFL?
I think so. I could adjust to it. My style of play was basically like the rules are set today. I didn't want receivers too close to me. I figured if a receiver got too close to me, he's too close for comfort. That means he could run right past me. I would try to stay at a distance where I could aggressively move on the ball and get there about the same time the ball got there. The guys are doing the same thing today. You notice they're starting to draft bigger defensive backs and they backing off the (receivers), letting them come down the field 10-15 yards and then getting more aggressive with them. I don't care what happens over the years. It still looks like to me the name of the game is the teams that can block and tackle the best are going to win most of the games.
One last question. You were a six-time Pro Bowl player in your 13-plus years in the NFL. Any thoughts about the Hall of Fame and Erich Barnes?
You should see the letters and e-mails I get wondering why I'm not in. Especially every time they see another defensive back get in, people just go nuts and I get maybe 200 or 300 a year. It doesn't bother me personally. I know that I went out every week and did my best. I never considered myself in a position that I wasn't as good as the next guy. I knew for sure, and I still know, I was as good as anybody who ever played the position and I'm satisfied with that. I don't think there's anybody in the Hall of Fame who was better than I was. I was as good as anybody in there. And I admire all the guys in there. Herb Adderley and all of my buddies, they belong there. The fact I'm not in there, that doesn't bother me that much.