Sports Legend Revealed: Was Jack Lambert ejected from a game for hitting a quarterback too hard?
FOOTBALL LEGEND: Jack Lambert was ejected from a game for “hitting a quarterback too hard."
STATUS: I'm Going With False, But There’s Some Truth to It.
This week and last, I will be featuring a legend involving one of the two teams playing in this year's Super Bowl. Last week I featured a Green Bay Packers legend and this week a Pittsburgh Steelers legend! Next week, after the Super Bowl, I'll do another legend on whichever team wins!
At the end of the classic John Ford western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, there's one of the most legendary lines in the history of cinema. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." I think of that when the legendary defense of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers is discussed, specifically the career of linebacker Jack Lambert. In his book on the greatest linebackers in National Football League (NFL) history, Jonathan Rand described Lambert thusly:
It's no knock on Jack Lambert to say the myth is bigger than the man. Lambert was, after all, on the light side for a middle linebacker. And the Lambert myth is so entertaining, so full of what both the bloodthirsty and romantics think pro football is all about, that only a killjoy would dare debunk it. And like many myths, those about Lambert contain some truth. So in the interest of truth - or should we say half truth? - the myth is a good place to start.
Very well-written by Rand, but at the risk of being a "killjoy," I thought it would be fun to examine one of the many Lambert myths, specifically that he was ejected from a game once for "hitting a quarterback too hard."
Perhaps the most concise description of this legend came in Mark Stewart and Jason Aikens' fun 2006 book, The Pittsburgh Steelers (Team Spirit), which contains a bunch of different interesting stories from Steelers history. In the book, they state: Was Jack Lambert ejected from a game for tackling too hard?
Legend has it that he was. In a game against the Cleveland Browns, Lambert was thrown out after a ferocious tackle that left quarterback Brian Sipe seeing stars. There is no rule against hitting a player as hard as you can, but that is what the official accused Lambert of doing when he ordered him to leave the field.
A great Steelers Tribute site repeated the same story, along with a quote from Lambert about his ejection: "Dreith said I hit Sipe too hard. I hit him as hard as I could. Brian has a chance to go out of bounds and he decides not to. He knows I'm going to hit him. And I do. History."
Before discussing the specific play, let's take a look at Jack Lambert's career.
Lambert was drafted by the Steelers in the second round (46th overall pick) of the now-legendary 1974 NFL Draft. That was the draft that saw the Steelers draft an astonishing four Hall of Fame players! Besides Lambert, they also drafted wide receiver Lynn Swann in the first round, wide receiver John Stallworth in the fourth round and center Mike Webster in the fifth round. The closest any other team has come to drafting that many Hall of Famers in a single draft is two (including the Steelers themselves when they drafted quarterback Terry Bradshaw and cornerback Mel Blount in 1970)!
Lambert was on the small end for linebackers, but he made up for it with his strength, speed, ability to quickly read the offense before him and, perhaps most of all, his ferocious tenacity. In addition, Lambert was an intimidating presence up the middle. During high school, he had lost his four top front teeth in a basketball game (he was on the wrong end of an elbow to the mouth). He had a partial denture that he would wear in public, but he did not wear it during games, so it game him an even more disturbing look to opposing offenses.
He won the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award as he helped the Steelers go on to win their first Super Bowl in 1975, and was a key part of the Steelers' remarkable four Super Bowl victories between 1975 and 1980. During this period, Lambert was a Pro Bowl selection every season and was first team All-Pro in the four seasons the Steelers won the Super Bowl. In 1976, following just his second year in the league, he was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Lambert had a reputation for hard hits on opposing players, but in many ways, his reputation was more fearsome than his actual incidents on the field. In an excellent article in Sports Illustrated in 1984, Paul Zimmerman examined how Lambert's reputation really could be traced to four incidents, three of which involved Brian Sipe!
The first incident, and perhaps the most famous, occurred during the 1976 Super Bowl (the Super Bowl following Lambert being named Defensive Player of the Year). Steelers kicker Roy Gerela missed a 33-yard field goal. The Steelers were playing the Dallas Cowboys that year, and Cowboys free safety Cliff Harris tapped Gerela on the helmet and told him, "Nice job." Lambert, naturally, took exception to Harris showing his teammate up, so he threw Harris to the ground. No flag was thrown, but the referees were considering ejecting Lambert until he talked them out of it.
The next incident came in 1978, in a game against the Browns when Lambert was called for a late hit on Cleveland quarterback Brian Sipe. It was a 15 yard roughing the passer penalty. Lambert was mobbed by the Browns bench, but he was not ejected. He was, though, called into NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle's office to explain his actions. A week after the incident, Lambert and the Steelers were playing on Monday Night Football and Lambert drew more attention to himself by complaining to a reporter about how quarterbacks get too much protection. His choice of expressing this disapproval, though, was stating, "Quarterbacks should wear dresses."
The incident at hand, though, took place in 1981 in a game in Pittsburgh against the Browns. But for full understanding of the 1981 game, we should also note the 1983 game, which took place at the end of the season and marked Sipe's last game as a Brown.
In both instances, Lambert hit Sipe as Sipe was releasing the ball. In both instances, the referee Ben Dreith, ruled that it was a late hit/roughing the passer.
Dreith, by the way, is a bit of a legend in his own right. One of the most respected referees in the history of the game, Dreith is perhaps most famous for his 1986 unnecessary roughness penalty call on the New York Jets' Marty Lyons as Lyons began punching Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly in the head after a tackle, "We have a personal foul on number 99 of the defense — after he tackled the quarterback, he's giving him the business down there, that's a 15-yard penalty." "Giving him the business" became a much-repeated phrase among NFL fans, and was even used decades later by a college football referee to explain an unnecessary roughness penalty.
OK, so first thing's first. According to the NFL rulebook on what a referee can eject a player for (on top of a 15-yard penalty), they list (emphasis added):
15 Yards (and disqualification if flagrant) Striking opponent with fist. Kicking or kneeing opponent. Striking opponent on head or neck with forearm, elbow, or hands whether or not the initial contact is made below the neck area. Roughing kicker. Roughing passer. Malicious unnecessary roughness. Unsportsmanlike conduct. Palpably unfair act. (Distance penalty determined by the Referee after consultation with other officials.)
So clearly, if a referee determines that the defender has flagrantly roughed the passer, he can eject him from the game. And that is exactly what Dreith determined in the 1981 game. Cleveland defender Ron Bolton said of the play that it was a "killer shot." That was the 1981 game. In the 1983 game, though, when Dreith once again ran Lambert from the game for a flagrant roughing the passer call, that play was considered by many to be an instance of Dreith over-reacting/punishing Lambert based on reputation. Next, the above quote, "Dreith said I hit Sipe too hard. I hit him as hard as I could. Brian has a chance to go out of bounds and he decides not to. He knows I'm going to hit him. And I do. History" is actually a conflation of two separate quotes. From 1981:
"Dreith said I hit Sipe too hard," Lambert said. "Did you?" "I hit him as hard as I could."
"Brian has a chance to go out of bounds and he decides not to. He knows I'm going to hit him. And I do. History."
From early 1984:
"I was seriously thinking about changing my uniform number after that game," he said. "I felt that I'd been thrown out because I was No. 58. because I was Jack Lambert. At the Pro Bowl this year I was talking to one of the officials. He said, 'I saw films of that Cleveland game. What did you do?' I said, 'Hey, no kidding." "But Brian was the quarterback. He lay on the ground like a sniper had shot him, so they threw me out. It's big entertainment now, protect the quarterback, $200 to your favorite charity."
As you can see, it is really the 1983 ejection that caused Lambert the most consternation, but years later Lambert would still describe the 1981 incident as being ejected for "hitting the quarterback too hard."
I can understand Lambert's frustration with the 1983 incident (as having seen both hits, it did seem to me that it was perhaps a bit of a "reputation" call, especially as it was the same referee from the 1981 game), but I think the 1981 incident was correctly called, and I do not think it is fair to label it today as being ejected for “hitting the quarterback too hard,” but rather as a properly called flagrantly roughing the passer. The difference might not seem like much, but it is clearly an important distinction if Lambert years later was still arguing that it was the former rather than the latter. Thanks to Paul Zimmerman, Jonathan Rand, Mark Stewart and Jason Aikens and Russell Schneider for the information used for this piece.
Be sure to check out my Sports Legends Revealed for more sports legends! For other interesting Pittsburgh Steelers legends, be sure to check out.... Did the Steelers and Eagles actually combine teams for a season?
Here is an entire installment of three separate legends involving the "Immaculate Reception," including "Was video replay used in making the call?" "Did the referee ask about the size of his security detail before he made the call?" and "Was Franco Harris only in position to make the catch because he wasn't running hard on the play?"
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Photo: Jack Lambert in 1980. Credit: Associated Press.