State Your Case: Cromwell was the 1980s' safety standard
When it came to sports, Nolan Cromwell could do anything. He proved that on baseball fields, basketball courts and running tracks but it was on the football field that he best made that fact clear.
There are many ways to view the four-time Pro Bowl safety, 1980 NFC Defensive Player of the Year and 1980s All-Decade selection, but the easiest might be through the eyes of someone regularly tasked with coaching against him when Cromwell was one of pro football’s most dominating defensive backs.
“I don’t know how you’d compare one great athlete to another in pro football,’’ former Atlanta Falcons head coach Leeman Bennett said of Cromwell in 1981. “So maybe we can agree on this. I don’t know a better one than Nolan.’’
Before Cromwell was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the second round in 1977 he was an All-Big 8 safety at Kansas for two years when injuries to the Jayhawks’ quarterback demanded reinforcements be found at that position. Rather than turn to the backup quarterback, head coach Bud Moore turned to Nolan Cromwell, who didn’t hesitate.
Running the wishbone offense, Cromwell rushed for 294 yards in his first start against Oregon State. In case anyone thought that was a fluke he ran for 187 the following week against Wisconsin, finishing the season with 1,223 rushing yards and being named Big 8 Offensive Player of the Year.
He started for two seasons as the ultimate running quarterback before arriving in Los Angeles in 1977 and returning to safety. Cromwell was a nickel back his first two seasons in L.A. before taking over at free safety in 1979. He would start all but five games over the next eight years, earn four Pro Bowl selections, be named first team All-Pro three times and second team once while leading the league in interceptions with eight in 1980. He was to many the yardstick by which all other free safeties of his era were measured.
Cromwell was also widely considered the best holder for place kicks in the league and was recently selected by Talk of Fame Network’s special-teams guru Rick Gosselin as the starting holder on his all-time special teams squad both for his unfailing ability to get any snap down in proper position but also for this threat to turn fake kicks into first down runs.
He played a key role in the Rams’ 1979 Super Bowl team that lost to the Steelers, a loss Cromwell once explained in self-deprecating fashion.
“Take away the two passes to (John) Stallworth and give us back the interception I dropped, and we win,’’ he said. Of course, take away Nolan Cromwell and the Rams likely wouldn’t have been in the game in the first place.
The following season, Cromwell led the NFL in interceptions with eight and was named NFC Defensive Player of the Year. He made four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances to kick off the new decade. But following the strike-shortened 1982 season, head coach Ray Malavasi and defensive coordinator Bud Carson were replaced by John Robinson and Fritz Shurmur.
With that change came a more conservative defensive approach that no longer allowed Cromwell the freedom to take chances and use his instincts as well as Carson’s gameplan to make plays. He was eventually moved from free safety to strong safety by Shurmur and although he remained a starter his role was slowly muted.
"When they changed the style of defense in 1983, I guess there's no question it had an adverse effect on my career," Cromwell once told the Los Angeles Times. "Bud Carson's defense was very aggressive, an attacking-type defense that made things happen. He didn't sit back and wait for you to come to him, he comes at you. Not a lot of people scored many points on us and the defense won games for the Rams back then.
"When John was hired, the defense was very, very conservative, very predictable. At first, it was simple and it worked pretty well, but they stuck with that theory for the last five years of my career. We were so simple and predictable, it took a lot of the incentive out of it, for myself, anyway. The game plan stayed exactly the same and it became almost boring."
A starter for eight consecutive seasons (1979-86) and an All-Pro for half of those years, Cromwell shared time in 1987 before retiring and moving into a 25-year career in coaching, mostly as an NFL assistant.
He was special-teams coach on the Packers’ Super Bowl XXI championship team that defeated the Patriots when kick returner Desmond Howard return a New England kickoff for a late game touchdown. He would reach the Super Bowl two more times as an assistant, the following season with Green Bay and with the Seattle Seahawks in 2005 where he served as wide receiver coach.
Is being an all-decade selection, a four-time All-Pro and the 1980 NFC Defensive Player of the Year enough to get a man into the Pro Football Hall of Fame? It hasn’t yet been enough for Nolan Cromwell but his credentials cry out to have his candidacy given a full throated debate among the Hall’s 48 voters.