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Dr. Z’s All-Time Team: Part II—Defense and Special Teams

In this excerpt from Paul Zimmerman’s unpublished memoirs, special skills on the defensive side swell the rolls of the all-timers far beyond the standard 11. Dig in for more on speed tackles, coverage linebackers and killer-style safeties

This week The MMQB is celebrating the life and career of Paul Zimmerman, the longtime Sports Illustrated writer known as Dr. Z for bringing a groundbreaking analytical approach to coverage of pro football. For Part I of Dr. Z’s All-Time Team—Offense, click here. For all of the stories from Dr. Z week, click here.

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ALL-TIME TEAM: DEFENSIVE END

We have flipped over to the defensive side of the ball, and we’re entering the world of specialization. This is what drove the editors crazy, my battery of designated skills. I wish to apologize, for those and for the various ties I’ve awarded, but there really are different positions within one label. Reggie White moved around all over the line during his career, but he always came home to the power side, left defensive end, because he could play the run, could stand up to a tight end with double-team intentions, could penetrate and throw a large shadow over the quarterback’s primary field of vision—the “front side,” it’s called.

Once I watched Eagles game film with him in his home in the Philadelphia suburbs, and he pointed out the minefield he had to dance through on practically every play. It was like watching a matador trying to take on three or four bulls. They set him up, turned him, dove at his knees, hung out and waited for blind-side hits, and I realized that this wasn’t just a big guy getting by with a variety of moves—speed rush, bull rush, his patented “hump move,” etc. It was a case of agility translating into survival. One particularly vicious looking play, against the Giants, when his back was half turned and one of the tackles drew a bead on the back of his knee and White just turned his body at the last minute to avoid the death blow, got me to instinctively cry out, “Watch out!” He got a laugh out of that.

Reggie White, September 1993.

Reggie White, September 1993.

“Is this normal?” I asked him.

“Not against every team,” he said. “With some others, though ... every game, every play.”

The argument against Deacon Jones and Richie Jackson is that they had the head slap to help them on their way to the quarterback. My argument is that even without that move they would have found a way to get in because they were such great competitors, such great athletic specimens. Neither argument is right or wrong, it’s just the admiration I share about the days when I was watching these two great players.

I think Deacon made more crawling sacks than any player who ever lived. When he was knocked off his feet the argument was just starting.

“The main thing is to keep going,” he said. “If I get blocked, I’ll claw my way in, even if I have to crawl.”

He was a run player, too, of course ... they all were in those days when the ground attack was big, not just a change of pace. Not many disputed the claim that he was the greatest defensive end of his era.

Deacon Jones attacking the Giants’ Tucker Frederickson, November 1968.

Deacon Jones attacking the Giants’ Tucker Frederickson, November 1968.

But Jackson occupies a special place in my memory because 1) no one ever heard of him, since he was an outlander from one of the AFL’s backwater franchises, and 2) he has never reached any serious level of Hall of Fame consideration, despite my lobbying for him every year in the preliminary balloting, mainly because knee injuries took the heart out of what could have been a glorious career.

Two stories stay with me. The first one was told to me by Stan Jones, who was the Broncos’ defensive line coach in 1967. The team had gotten Jackson, a nondescript linebacker and tight end for the Raiders, in a five-player trade.

“I was sitting on the porch of our dorm after dinner,” Jones said. “He pulled up in this old jalopy he’d driven nonstop from Oakland, 24 hours over the mountains. I looked at him and told him, ‘You seem a little big for a linebacker. I think we’ll try you at defensive end.’

“He was 26 years old. He’d been in the minor leagues for a while. He just stared at me and said, ‘Mister, I’m gonna play somewhere. I’ve driven as far as I’m gonna drive. Here’s where I make my stand.”

Richie “Tombstone” Jackson wraps up a Chief, November 1969.

Richie “Tombstone” Jackson wraps up a Chief, November 1969.

And he did. He became “Tombstone,” one of the most respected DEs in the game, “He was our enforcer,” said Lyle Alzado, who’d been on the same defensive line. “If a guy was Hollywooding you—you know, trying to show you up—they’d move Richie over to him and he’d straighten the guy out. The Packers had this 6’8” tackle, Bill Hayhoe. I faced him when I was a rookie, and he was grabbing me, jerking me around, making fun of me. I was having a terrible time. Richie said, ‘Lyle, is he Hollywooding you?’ and I said yeah.

“He moved over for one play. That’s all it took. He knocked him to his knees and split his helmet wide open. Remember that famous picture of Y.A.Tittle on his knees, with blood dripping down his nose? That was Hayhoe. They had to help him off the field.”

Howie Long will not get many votes for the all-time team because it’s generally picked by sack totals, and his were not impressive. Oh, he’d line up on the power side and jam up the run, and then move inside and face the meat grinder when he was called upon. He’d do all the nasty things, and if they awarded sack statistics in a fair manner, by sacks caused, not inherited, his totals would be out of sight, because he flushed a million quarterbacks into other peoples’ arms. He just never was a great tackler himself. He used to register a certain amount of bitterness when he’d read about some defensive end who was being plugged in as a wide-, or open-side, pass rusher.

Howie Long, November 1989.

Howie Long, November 1989.

“Just once in my life I’d like to see what that’s like, spending a whole season rushing from the open side,” he’d said. “What’s the record for sacks in a season?”

One more DE and then I’ll let it go. This concerns a freak player who could rush the passer and do very little else that endeared him to his teammates. Mark Gastineau of the Jets, hated by his fellow linemen because he would not run his inside stunts, taking it inside where the big boys lived. “I’m doing my thing,” he’d tell them. But man, what a pass rusher.

Mark Gastineau, October 1985.

Mark Gastineau, October 1985.

First of all, he had speed in the 4.5s to go with his weight, which was in the 290s. I’ve watched him in practice, during half-line drills, put on a relaxed kind of rush, with a dreamy look on his face, and come in untouched. I mean clean. Over and over again, and I’ll swear that it looked as if he was just walking fast. The problem was that offensive linemen simply could not judge his speed or his change of pace. A freak.

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ALL-TIME TEAM: DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Defensive tackle is a confusing position these days. You’ve got nose men playing a zero-technique, two-gap defense, and three-technique tackles, playing a one-gap, plus all manner of varieties. You’ve got base players who might be on the field for only the first play of a series and “reduced ends,” who would line up as a tackle, on the last one. It makes it confusing when you’re trying to pick an All-Pro team, because first, you have to locate your guy on the field, after you’ve made sure he was there in the first place. If you want, you could get real technical and pick a battery of players, one for each technique, or you could get lucky when someone makes it easy for you by excelling in all of them.

Such a player was Pat Williams, who started his NFL life as a sleek, mobile, 270-pound Buffalo Bill and gradually grew to a sturdy Minnesota Viking in the 320 to 330 range. In 2005 he had one of the greatest seasons I’ve ever seen a DT have. He could play the nose, and I saw him leave a trail of destroyed centers around the league, including Chicago’s All-Pro Olin Kreutz. He could move outside the guard in the three-technique and penetrate quicker than he could be blocked. He wasn’t like one of those typical, situation fat guys who gets yanked after his base, first or second down play, and spends the fourth quarter on the bench, sucking oxygen. He turned it on for all four periods.

Merlin Olsen draws a bead on Bart Starr, December 1967.

Merlin Olsen draws a bead on Bart Starr, December 1967.

I named him my defensive player of the year. I thought he was the most impressive power tackle I’d seen since the heyday of Merlin Olsen, and do you want to know what kind of postseason awards he reaped? None. Sackers get the glory. He had one sack. Of course, after he had established his credentials he got a steady diet of double-teams, but that was OK, he still collapsed the pocket and forced the QB onto other peoples’ sack statistics.

I’ve picked sacking tackles on my All-Pro team, but only if their run grades measured up. That’s why I never was as high as other people were on Alan Page, who had more sacks than any other tackle in history. Against the run, he was a liability. Pure rushers who, like ex-Viking John Randle, said they’d “pick up the run on the go,” were persona non grata. He never made the Sports Illustrated All-Pro list.

“All you’re doing,” said Mike Giddings, a high-powered personnel consultant for 13 NFL teams, “is neglecting the most dominant interior rusher in the game. And that’s what the game is, whether you like it or not ... pass rush and pass protection.”

My reasoning, which I tried to explain to him, was the following, and I had seen this so many times: First play the enemy runs is a trap at Randle. He’s so far out of position he takes himself and the guy next to him out of the play. Plus eight for the opponent. Second play is a draw aimed at you know who. He’s upfield and moving fast, when the back goes by without stopping to wave. Plus five. Third play is a pass, and Randle, showing a remarkable spin and burst move, sacks the QB for a six-yard loss and pounds his chest, to deafening roars (if it’s a home game). He has his sack and he can retire for the afternoon, and a season of those kind of games would give him 16 sacks, a huge number for a DT. All-Pro of course, but to me he is seven yards in the hole ... 13 allowed, six accounted for.

Bob Lilly, NFC Championship Game, January 1972.

Bob Lilly, NFC Championship Game, January 1972.

Now look at my trio, please— Merlin Olsen, Bob Lilly, Joe Greene. No excess weight hanging over the belt, skilled in all phases of the game, never off the field. Am I being simplistic? A lost soul crying for a less technical age? I don’t care. These are my guys. Lilly’s game represented near-perfect technique. A grabber and thrower, “hands that were so quick you just couldn’t beat him to the punch,” Dolphins guard Bob Kuechenberg said. A roughneck only when aroused or held to the point of madness. Tom Landry used to send weekly game films to the league office with special notations marked, “Holding fouls against Bob Lilly.”

Greene’s style was at variance with his name, Mean Joe. He could get nasty out there, but his game was based on quickness. So fast off the ball was Greene, so quick to penetrate, that the Steelers created a new alignment in his honor, the Cocked Nosetackle setup, in which Greene attacked the center-guard gap from an angle, or a tilted position. The bully boy on that defensive line, in fact the most feared player on the whole Steel Curtain Defense, was No. 63, Fats Holmes, the only player on that unit, oddly enough, who was never chosen for a Pro Bowl.

Joe Greene vs. the Raiders, November 1973.

Joe Greene vs. the Raiders, November 1973.

“After the game, just look at the condition of the guy who had to play against Fats,” Chuck Noll said. “That’ll tell you what kind of a player he was.”

Playing against Greene, the major fear was embarrassment, the whiff, the total miss, which happened more often than offensive linemen would like to recall.

Olsen was the quintessential bull rush tackle. Oh, you’ve got bull rushers now, but he did it play after play without letup, collapsing the pocket, piling up the run, breaking down the inside of the line while his teammate, Deacon Jones, mopped up outside. He was also one of the cleanest defensive linemen in the game. He hated nonstop holders, and especially cheap shot artists. The name of Cardinals’ guard Conrad Dobler would get him furious, even by casual reference. Once I told him that my newspaper, the New York Post, was doing a Dobler feature. And Merlin, who played all those gentle giants on TV, once his playing career was over, showed some real fury. “If you’re the one to write it,” he growled, “I’ll never speak to you again.”

Another time he admitted that Dobler’ s filthy tactics had forced him to do the only thing he ever regretted in 15 years of football.

“I arranged it with Jack Youngblood, the end playing next to me,” Olsen said, “that I’d set Dobler up and Jack would crash down from his blind side and cave in his ribs. Except that we weren’t very good at it. Dobler smelled it coming, he sensed it and turned at the last minute and Jack wound up hitting me. Dobler just laughed at us.”

“We should have practiced it a little more before we used it,” Youngblood said.

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ALL-TIME TEAM: LINEBACKER

The year was 1968. I had just covered the Penn State-Miami game in State College, and I was in the Nittany Lions’ trainer’s room talking to Mike Reid, the junior defensive tackle. Miami DE Ted Hendricks would win an award for top collegiate defensive lineman that year, next year would be Reid’s turn, and we were discussing how a player as freaky looking as Hendricks could be so good. I mean, he was 6’7”, 215, and his technique was to kind of lean over things and pluck ball carriers out of space with his inordinately long arms. Even his nickname was freaky, “The Mad Stork,” not exactly designed to put fear into people, unless they were parents with too many kids, worried about more coming.

Ted Hendricks, AFC title game, January 1981.

Ted Hendricks, AFC title game, January 1981.

“He’s, well, the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind going down into the pit with,” Reid said, “but I don’t think you’d ever get a clean block on him, either.”

It proved to be a remarkably accurate forecast of what Hendricks’ life as an NFL linebacker became. He didn’t leave a trail of shattered bodies or a memory of ferocious hits, but he just played everything so well. He was seldom out of position, he could move backward and knock down passes with those long arms, or rush forward and smack them back at the quarterback. Everything was done from a plane of high intelligence; he had been a Rhodes Scholar finalist in college.

My lasting memory? Somebody, sorry but I can’t remember who, ran a reverse at him. Now this just wasn’t done, but it was tried, and Hendricks sniffed it out immediately, and when the ball carrier had finished moving parallel to the line of scrimmage and was ready to turn upfield, there was Hendricks, just standing there. All momentum had been lost. They faced each other. Hendricks shrugged and held out his hands, palm up, like, “OK, now what happens?” A huge roar went up from the Raiders crowd, which always cherished such moments. The runner dropped to a knee. Second and 16.

For a guy who played such a correct, technically sound game on the field, he was pretty wacky off it. I found out when I spent a hilarious week on Oahu’s North Shore one off-season, trying to do a piece on Hendricks, who was an instructor at John Wilbur’s football camp. It’s hard to remember everything that happened, or to read the notes I somehow managed to take. I seem to remember a place called Juju’s and something about fright masks and an amateur-hour type of evening...not sure I was involved in it or not, I do remember asking him about his place of birth, Guatemala City, where his father had been stationed.

“You’ve never seen flowers like that in your life,” he said, and then proceeded to name the species of Hawaiian flora in our area. Then he got this faraway look.

“You know something,” he said. “I really should have been a florist.”

OK, Hendricks, nicknamed “Kick ’Em” by his Raider teammates for one lamentable lapse of judgment, is my all-purpose outside linebacker. And now we move to the field of specialization. Jack Ham was the best pure coverage linebacker, with second place going to...oh, I guess I’d have to say Chuck Howley of the Cowboys’ Doomsday Defense. Ham lined up on the left side of the Steelers’ defense, which was kind of unusual, because usually that was reserved for the strongside LB, skilled at playing the tight end. Maybe it was Ham’s instinctive ability to cut through traffic and stack up the power sweeps to the right, a big part of NFL offenses in those days, that kept him there. Maybe it was because Andy Russell, the right-side linebacker, was also an open-side kind of player, but it worked out just fine. Ham was such a force in coverage, and against the wide plays, that even the All-Pro and Pro Bowl pickers, who usually grade linebackers on sack totals, could spot his greatness. He blitzed very seldom.

Jack Ham, November 1975.

Jack Ham, November 1975.

Coverage was so instinctive to him that it never seemed like much of a big deal. “Jack and I were sitting next to each other on the bench,” Russell said, “and we were talking about the market and he was telling me about some stock he really liked. Then we had to go out on defense. First play they ran, Jack read the pass and dropped into his zone, deflected the ball with one hand, caught it with the other as he stepped out of bounds, flipped it to the ref and overtook me on our way off the field.

“‘Like I was telling you,’ he said, as if nothing at all had happened, ‘you ought to look into that stock; it’s really a good deal.’ ”

Ham and I were once talking about Lawrence Taylor. “Sometimes,” Ham said, “I think his playbook was written on a match cover.” In other words, LT’s coverage responsibility, so important in Ham’s scheme of things, was almost zero. His career interception total was nine. Ham’s was 32. Taylor, basically a defensive end in college, wasn’t really a linebacker at all, although he is generally acclaimed to be the best ever. He was an outside rusher who would occasionally line up in a stand up position, the finest in history at this special role created by Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick on the Giants.

Lawrence Taylor, December 1983.

Lawrence Taylor, December 1983.

Later in their careers both coaches searched for other players to fill this role, which turned a 3-4 defense into a 4-3 and back again. Parcells tried it with Greg Ellis on the Cowboys, with Belichick’s Patriots it was Willie McGinest and then Roosevelt Colvin, basically down linemen who would stand up at times but really were pass rushers at heart. Taylor, of course, was the greatest.

I’ve written how LT, toward the close of his career, became introspective, even philosophical about the game. A couple of years from the end of his career, we got into a talk about how a player knows when the end is coming. “I’ll tell you how I know it,” he said. “The power rush starts going. That’s the thing that people never realized. I’d get lots of sacks in different ways, but the best came from straight power, driving right into a guy and lifting him, because he didn’t expect it from someone who weighs 245. It’s the starting point for everything, the base of operations. But when you feel that going, and right now I do, then you can tell things are coming to an end.”

I lobbied hard for Dave Wilcox at the Hall of Fame Seniors Committee meeting. His was an almost unnoticed skill as the eras changed, playing the tight end, actually nullifying him, avoiding getting hooked on running plays, the typical modus operandi of the classic strongside linebacker. I think the quote that swung it for him was one from Mike Ditka: “Wilcox was the reason I quit when I did.”

Dave Wilcox, 1973.

Dave Wilcox, 1973.

I had ammo from Mike Giddings, the super personnel guy, who’d been Wilcox’s linebacker coach on the 49ers. “Strongside linebackers get hooked to the inside now on running plays, and it just doesn’t seem to matter,” he said. “How many times do you think Wilkie got hooked? Never. It was a point of honor with him.”

That was part of it, of course, but trying to get him the nomination as the Senior candidate, and then getting through the major enshrinement voting, based on a platform of not getting hooked, well, I think half of them would have looked at me as if I were telling them that he stayed away from the ladies on Bourbon Street.

No, I think the strongest thing that emerged, in addition to the Ditka quote, was a battery of testimony that Giddings provided, statements from just about every Niner who ever lined up behind Wilcox, about how much he had done for their careers. Plus, of course, many quotes from opponents who respected the world of old-fashioned values that he represented. And to the credit of the selectors and the Seniors Committee members, there was just something about Wilcox and the humility he showed in doing a specialized skill better than anyone else ever had.

Oh, he could rush the passer if he had to. Giddings mentioned the game in which they decided to turn him loose on the quarterback and he had three sacks and two forced fumbles. It was just that he was too valuable in his regular job.

At one time middle linebacker was such a glamour position that All-Pro teams would have two, sometimes even three MLBs on them. The TV special, “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” brought the position into focus, but what a cast of characters. How about if I give you 10 names, each of whom was called, by some publication or rating service, the best ever at one time. Dick Butkus, Joe Schmidt, Ray Nitschke, Willie Lanier, Mike Singletary, Lee Roy Jordan, Tommy Nobis, Chuck Bednarik, and most recently, Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher.

Believe me, each one had his supporters, and I can even throw in a couple more and make a case for them—Jack Lambert, the first MLB with really deep, downfield range, and Sam Mills, a personal favorite for his absolute genius on the field and ability to lift the performances of everyone around him.

OK, Dick Butkus is my No. 1, and I’ve spent many wee hours in press rooms and bar rooms waging the same battle over and over again. About 15 years ago, when run-stuffing middle backers started getting the hook on what were considered passing downs, I heard Butkus described as a player who would be on the field in base downs but not when it was time to throw the ball. That one has picked up momentum, and my only answer is to look at the people who are advancing it.