• Sal Maiorana

Merlin Olsen in memoriam: From the Fearsome Foursome to Father Murphy

What separated Merlin Olsen from perhaps every other defensive lineman who has ever played in the NFL was that the physical demands of the game were never as great as the mental challenge it presented.

“The key to consistency of performance is concentration,” he once said. “I probably held my ability to concentrate over a longer period of time than some athletes. Each game, at the beginning of each play, I thought of it as the most important play of the year. I went into every play as if the game depended on it.”

It was Olsen’s career-long quest to master the intellectual side of football; he would rather beat his opponent with brains rather than braw. But make no mistake, he had both, and his intelligence coupled with otherworldly ability during a 15-year career with the Los Angeles Rams made him a no-doubt-about-it first ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer.

Olsen – who died of cancer on this date 10 years ago at the age of 69 – played from 1962 to 1976 for five different head coaches during his days with the Rams. Though they had different styles and philosophies, those five men had one thing in common: Their belief that the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Olsen never had a bad year, a bad game, or for that matter a bad play.

Irv Cross, a long-time analyst in the 1970s and 1980s for CBS who played three seasons with Olsen in Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times in 1982, “I was amazed by his size just like everybody else, but more than that at his great intelligence. His ability to analyze the game was something everybody on the team recognized. It was just unbelievable that any one person would be gifted in so many ways.”

In the mid-1960s, a sack was something you bagged groceries in. That is, until Olsen, Deacon Jones, Rosey Grier, and Lamar Lundy came along. Nicknamed the Fearsome Foursome, this unit – Grier was replaced by Roger Brown in 1967 – dominated opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks feared for their lives.

“Every quarterback we met was so ready for the rush that he threw the ball quicker,” said Olsen. “We didn’t always get him, but we put the thought in his mind. Our philosophy was that they can’t double-team all of us. Somebody would be one-on-one and he’ll get the quarterback.”

Because sacks were not considered an official statistic prior to 1982, there is no official record of how many Olsen made, though research has unearthed that Jones made 173. If they counted, he would rank third in NFL history behind only Bruce Smith (200) and Reggie White (198).

Many of those takedowns came because of the great work Olsen did right next to Jones on the left side of the line. Jones, who went into the Hall of Fame in 1980, two years before Olsen, knew how blessed he was to have Olsen as his tag-team partner.

“I wouldn’t want to play on a team without the Mule,” Jones once said. ‘‘Merlin had superhuman strength. If I was beating my man inside, he’d hold him up and free me to make the tackle. If he had to make an adjustment to sacrifice his life and limb, he would make it. A lot of the plays I made were because he or the others would make the sacrifice.’’

And Olsen never minded letting Jones grab the glory that sacks produced.

“I constantly look for new ways to improve my performance,” Olsen said late in his career. “I critique myself. I say to myself, ‘Maybe there’s a better way to rush the passer or fight off a blocker.’ Just because you’ve been doing it a certain way for 50 years doesn’t mean there can’t be a better way.’”

But in truth, he could have searched forever and not found a better way than the way he did it. After all, how else could he have made an NFL record 14 straight Pro Bowls?

After his playing days were over, Olsen went into the broadcast booth and teamed with Dick Enberg on NBC’s coverage of the AFC for more than 15 years. He also tried his hand at acting and after establishing himself on Little House on the Prairie, he played several other roles and also got his own show, starring as Father Murphy for two seasons.

“He was ferocious and fearless on the football field and then the other probably more important aspect of his personality was he was a true gentleman,” said fellow Hall of Famer and former teammate Jack Youngblood when news of Olsen’s passing was announced 10 years ago. “We all know what a wonderful, tremendous football player he was, but he was so much more than that.”