Defensive Backs have one job in the game of football – stop the pass.
Some backs play a finesse game. They read the opposing offense and try to put themselves in exactly the right place to make a play on the ball. Guys like Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders were masters at that game. It didn’t seem to matter where they were at on the field when the quarterback released the ball, they always managed to have a shot at the ball by the time it got near the receiver.
The problem with that style of play, though, was that it often requires a gamble. Guys who make a play for the ball run the risk of misreading the pass, which opens them up to give up very big plays. And when you are in the secondary, you can’t afford to give up big plays.
But there was another way to stop the pass that made for far greater success – intimidation. There is no stat line for intimidation, but it is nevertheless an invaluable weapon on defense.
That is exactly the game that Jack Tatum played, and nobody played it better.
Jack Tatum was without a doubt the single most intimidating man ever to play as a defensive back in the NFL. Quarterbacks and wide receivers had to always mark Tatum’s position on the field. Not because they were worried about his breaking up the pass, but instead because they were worried about his breaking up the wide receiver (literally).
While DB’s like Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders relied on gambles to try and make a play for the ball, Tatum relied on fear. Receivers facing Woodson or Sanders had to make sure to protect their routes and protect the ball. Receivers facing Tatum had to protect themselves. Tatum’s FOOTSTEPS could do more to disrupt a pass than Woodson or Sanders’ hands, and there is nothing more awe-inspiring than a defender whose footsteps alone are enough to instill enough fear as to cause a professional to fail!
Tatum may not have had the individual statistics to compete on the all-time rankings with some others to have played the game, but he was far more valuable to those organizations on each and every play of the game.
Tatum played football only one way, at full speed. His mission was to hit his target as hard as possible, every single play of the game. Receivers always knew when they were coming across the field and Tatum was waiting for them on the other side.
What made Tatum so successful in the secondary was his combination of speed and size. He was originally recruited as a running back for the Buckeyes, and did not make the transition to defense until midway through his freshman season. That was when his true value was realized.
Over the course of his Hall of Fame career in Columbus, Tatum earned First Team All-Big Ten honors for his play every year he started, and he was a two-time All American. In 1970, he was also named the Defensive Player of the Year, and was even a Heisman Trophy Finalist.
After Tatum made the transition into the NFL, he continued to build his reputation as a punishing tackler who could disrupt any play from anywhere on the field. It was that reputation which ultimately earned him the title of “The Assassin”.
He continued to dominate in the defensive backfield over an outstanding career of 10 seasons, which included three Pro-Bowl selections, two All Pro selections, and the Defensive Back of the Year award in 1973.
Tatum put 100% of himself into every single play. His aggressive style earned him recognition as one of the NFL’s “10 Most Feared Tacklers in NFL History”. And for all of the aggression and power that Tatum demonstrated on the field, it is vitally important to note that he was not a dirty player. Even his infamous hit on New England Patriots’ wide receiver Darryl Stingley, which tragically left Stingley paralyzed and became the dubious defining point in both of their professional careers, was a perfectly legal hit within the rules of the game during the 1970’s.
Although his career does not boast the same statistical dominance that some others have seen, Tatum was still the greatest defensive back of all time.