State Your Case: Bob Kuechenberg
(Photo courtesy of Miami Dolphins)
Talk of Fame Network
by Ron Borges
A guy who spent his career opening up holes for others now needs someone to open one up for him. Truth be told, Bob Kuechenberg not only needs it; he deserves it.
You can't talk to anyone who played on or against the Miami Dolphins of the 1970s who won't tell you Kuechenberg wasn't the best offensive lineman on a team that won two Super Bowls, went to four and became the only undefeated team in the modern history of the NFL (17-0 in 1972). Yet his old offensive linemates, Larry Little and Jim Langer, are both in the Hall. So is Bob Griese, the quarterback Kuechenberg protected as if he was his son; Larry Csonka, the fullback he bowled people over for; and Paul Warfield, the wide receiver who got into the Hall in part because Kuechenberg was so adept at keeping Griese upright. They're in while Kuechenberg has remained out in the snow for 31 years.
One explanation why an eight-time finalist never made it through the door in Canton seems to be that he simply played too long. Langer and Little both retired several years before Kuechenberg, who lasted 14 seasons before hanging it up after starting 15 games in 1983 and making his final Pro Bowl at 36. Because of that, they became Hall-of-Fame eligible before he did and were both inducted, meaning if Kuechenberg were added 60 percent of that Dolphins' line would be enshrined.
It is the same problem Jerry Kramer and L.C. Greenwood of the Packers' and Steelers' dynasties respectively have long faced without gaining induction despite considerable support. It's not that anyone says there's a limit to how many enshrines are allowed from any team, but it feels, at least in Kuechenberg's case, that he kept hitting a glass ceiling -- a victim, perhaps, of a numbers crunch.
A six-time Pro Bowl performer (one more than LIttle and the same number as Langer), Kuechenberg came to the Dolphins in 1970 by a circuitous route. Drafted in 1969 by the Philadelphia Eagles, who finished 2-12 the previous season, Kuechenberg quit shortly after training camp began but came back only to be cut several weeks later. He was then signed and cut in a week by the Atlanta Falcons before agreeing to play semi-pro ball for the Chicago Owls of the Continental Football League that fall.
Kuechenberg often has said that 1969 season "was for the birds. The Eagles, Falcons and Owls.''
Don Shula signed him the following year, and he started five games at left guard for the Dolphins that 1970 season before becoming a full-time starter in 1971. The only time he would relinquish that position for the next 13 years was when he was shifted to left tackle in 1978. Kuechenberg made the Pro Bowl that season too, and despite being undersized at 6-2, 253 pounds, remained at left tackle in 1979 before moving back inside and making two more Pro Bowls (1982-83) at left guard before retiring. According to Dolphins' game books, he was called for holding only 15 times in 196 NFL games. That may not be a record, but it's a sure sign of his dominance.
Asked about who he would give a free pass into the Hall of Fame to if he had the power, Hall-of-Fame coach Don Shula told Talk of Fame Network, "That's an easy one for me. I had a guard by the name of Bob Kuechenberg, Kooch was just a great football player. He blocked some pretty good tackles that we played against and did a good job but he's never gotten that final recognition, which is that Hall-of-Fame jacket. Some day, I hope I'm around to see him accept.''
Shula, who has more victories than any coach in NFL history, also once said "Bob Kuechenberg did more to help my team win than any player I ever coached.'' Considering he coached Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino and Griese, that's saying a mouthful.
A mouthful is often what you got playing against Kuechenberg. He was a hard-nosed, physical player whose approach to the game was best reflected in Super Bowl VIII when he played with a 10-inch metal rod inserted in his broken forearm. That day he pummeled Vikings' Hall-of-Fame defensive end Alan Page with it, the cast around his arm in tatters by the time the game was over. Miami won.
His former offensive line coach that day, Monte Clark, once said of Kuechenberg: "There's not a tougher guy in America. You have to kill him to beat him. He played in the Super Bowl the year we went 17-0 with a cast on a broken arm. After the game, (the cast) was like pulp because he beat Alan Page in the head with it so many times. Kooch was a great short-yardage blocker. He could take a guy who was about two inches off the ground, get down, dig him out and put him on his back. He was very tenacious. Tough. Great competitor. Never made mistakes.''
Outspoken and some might say grumpy, Kuechenberg has always spoken his mind. When his final year of eligibility as a modern-day candidate ended without induction, in 2009 he said, "Now you get thrown in the swamp.''
He was referring to the HOF Senior Committee, from where his former teammate Nick Buoniconti emerged in 2001 to win enshrinement. That is now the only opening left for the 67-year-old Kuechenberg and it's a hole someone else will have to clear out for him.