Mean Awards 1945-2017

The Mean Award, named for legendary tough guy and fulcrum around which the Steel Curtain defense revolved, is given annually to the league’s standout defensive tackle. With defensive ends, I have an unabashed preference for pass rushers. For tackles, on the other hand, I prefer a more well-rounded repertoire of skills. This is especially true for linemen who played prior to about 2004, when the value of passing increased from its already high level. While I look at the same stats that I looked at for their teammates on the edge, I pay much more attention to things that don’t show up in a player’s box score when trying to assess interior defenders. Of course disrupting the quarterback and making plays in the backfield against the run are both important, but I also take into consideration attention from double teams and quality of opponents, ability to help a teammate on a blitz or stunt, and endurance over the course of the season.1 Once again, stats are important, but tape wins out. Let’s get into the awards.

Mean Award Winners

The table below lists every Mean Award winner since 1945. Read it thus: In 1945, playing in the NFL, Vic Sears of the Eagles won his first Mean Award.

YearLeagueDTTeam#
1945NFLVic SearsPhiladelphia Eagles1
1946NFLBuster RamseyChicago Cardinals1
1947NFLDick HuffmanLos Angeles Rams1
1948NFLVic SearsPhiladelphia Eagles2
1949NFLVic SearsPhiladelphia Eagles3
1949AAFCArnie WeinmeisterNew York Yankees1
1950NFLArnie WeinmeisterNew York Giants2
1951NFLArnie WeinmeisterNew York Giants3
1952NFLArnie WeinmeisterNew York Giants4
1953NFLLeo NomelliniSan Francisco 49ers1
1954NFLLeo NomelliniSan Francisco 49ers2
1955NFLArt DonovanBaltimore Colts1
1956NFLRosey GrierNew York Giants1
1957NFLArt DonovanBaltimore Colts2
1958NFLGene LipscombBaltimore Colts1
1959NFLGene LipscombBaltimore Colts2
1960NFLHenry JordanGreen Bay Packers1
1960AFLBud McFadinDenver Broncos1
1961NFLGene LipscombPittsburgh Steelers3
1961AFLErnie LaddSan Diego Chargers1
1962NFLRoger BrownDetroit Lions1
1962AFLBud McFadinDenver Broncos2
1963NFLHenry JordanGreen Bay Packers2
1963AFLHouston AntwineBoston Patriots1
1964NFLBob LillyDallas Cowboys1
1964AFLTom SestakBuffalo Bills1
1965NFLAlex KarrasDetroit Lions1
1965AFLErnie LaddSan Diego Chargers2
1966NFLMerlin OlsenLos Angeles Rams1
1966AFLHouston AntwineBoston Patriots2
1967NFLMerlin OlsenLos Angeles Rams2
1967AFLBuck BuchananKansas City Chiefs1
1968NFLBob LillyDallas Cowboys2
1968AFLBuck BuchananKansas City Chiefs2
1969NFLAlan PageMinnesota Vikings1
1969AFLBuck BuchananKansas City Chiefs3
1970NFLAlan PageMinnesota Vikings2
1971NFLAlan PageMinnesota Vikings3
1972NFLJoe GreenePittsburgh Steelers1
1973NFLAlan PageMinnesota Vikings4
1974NFLJoe GreenePittsburgh Steelers2
1975NFLCurley CulpHouston Oilers1
1976NFLJerry SherkCleveland Browns1
1977NFLCleveland ElamSan Francisco 49ers1
1978NFLRandy WhiteDallas Cowboys1
1979NFLCharlie JohnsonPhiladelphia Eagles1
1980NFLGary JohnsonSan Diego Chargers1
1981NFLRandy WhiteDallas Cowboys2
1982NFLDan HamptonChicago Bears1
1983NFLRandy WhiteDallas Cowboys3
1984NFLMark GastineauNew York Jets1
1985NFLSteve McMichaelChicago Bears1
1986NFLReggie WhitePhiladelphia Eagles1
1987NFLTim KrumrieCincinnati Bengals1
1988NFLTim KrumrieCincinnati Bengals2
1989NFLKeith MillardMinnesota Vikings1
1990NFLMichael Dean PerryCleveland Browns1
1991NFLJerome BrownPhiladelphia Eagles1
1992NFLCortez KennedySeattle Seahawks1
1993NFLCortez KennedySeattle Seahawks2
1994NFLJohn RandleMinnesota Vikings1
1995NFLWayne MartinNew Orleans Saints1
1996NFLBryant YoungSan Francisco 49ers1
1997NFLDana StubblefieldSan Francisco 49ers1
1998NFLDarrell RussellOakland Raiders1
1999NFLWarren SappTampa Bay Buccaneers1
2000NFLLa'Roi GloverNew Orleans Saints1
2001NFLLa'Roi GloverNew Orleans Saints2
2002NFLLa'Roi GloverDallas Cowboys3
2003NFLRichard SeymourNew England Patriots1
2004NFLKevin WilliamsMinnesota Vikings1
2005NFLJamal WilliamsSan Diego Chargers1
2006NFLTommie HarrisChicago Bears1
2007NFLAlbert HaynesworthTennessee Titans1
2008NFLAlbert HaynesworthTennessee Titans2
2009NFLJustin SmithSan Francisco 49ers1
2010NFLKyle WilliamsBuffalo Bills1
2011NFLJustin SmithSan Francisco 49ers2
2012NFLGeno AtkinsCincinnati Bengals1
2013NFLJ.J. WattHouston Texans1
2014NFLAaron DonaldSt. Louis Rams1
2015NFLAaron DonaldSt. Louis Rams2
2016NFLAaron DonaldLos Angeles Rams3
2017NFLAaron DonaldLos Angeles Rams4

Quick notes.

The three men with the most Mean Awards are Arnie Weinmeister, Alan Page, and Aaron Donald, who have four each. Weinmeister didn’t have a ton of competition for the award, but Page’s career overlapped the careers of Joe Greene, Merlin Olsen, and Bob Lilly for six years. He won all four of his awards when the other three were active (though Lilly was at the end of his tenure). Donald hasn’t had a consistent rival at the position, but he has seen great seasons from other interior linemen and stood above them all.

Greasy Neal’s most important lineman, Vic Sears, won three awards. So did hulking standouts Big Daddy Gene Lipscomb and Buck Buchanan. as well as Cowboys legend Randy White.

Lilly, Olsen, and Greene join Page on my personal Defensive Tackle Rushmore. They earned two Mean Awards apiece. They would have won more were it not for each other’s existence, but that’s how it goes, I guess.

The Vikings have a rich history of defensive tackle play, from Page to Keith Millard, to John Randle, to Kevin Williams and Pat Williams. They are tied for the most awards, with seven. The other team on top, the San Francisco 49ers, are not generally associated with interior defensive line play. However, they had terrific seasons from Hall of Famer Leo Nomellini, shooting star Cleveland Elam, dynamic duo Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield, and Justin Smith, who was technically a defensive end but played inside enough for me to count as a tackle for the purpose of the award.

 

  1. By that, I mean the ability to play well at the end of games and once winter comes. The position is demanding, and the players are very large men who aren’t always known for their cardio. I often see defensive tackles start the season strong but wear down by the end of the year, even on lines with solid depth and reasonable rotations. However,  I do note when players rarely leave the field and try to account for that. Early in his career, Julius Peppers almost never left the field, and it was evident he wasn’t playing as fast at the end of the season. I place the blame more on coaching than on Peppers. The same can be said for the massive Dontari Poe, whose snap counts in Kansas City were absurd for a man of his stature.