Our 1980 All-Pro team features 12 players who have never been in a Pro Bowl, a 30-year-old safety who has never been picked for anything and a left-footed placekicker who tried a 73-yard field goal (a bad hold messed up his shot at the eternal highlight film). We saw every player at least three times this season, either in the flesh or on TV (a video cassette recorder helped). Anyone who missed more than four games, or a quarter of the season, on account of injuries wasn't considered. When two people were dead even, we went with the one who had received less recognition in his career. We picked a 4-3 defense rather than a 3-4, and this needs some explanation, because slightly more than half the NFL teams use a 3-4.
First of all, a 4-3 is easier to pick, because the positions are more clearly defined; for instance, how many people really know who plays the strong-side inside linebacker and who goes on the weak side? And if you pick two middle linebackers, do you just pick the best two or do you pick strong side and weak? And when you choose a middle guard, is he the best pure middle guard or a tackle, a Randy White say, projected to the middle? Besides, many 3-4 teams go into a 4-3 as soon as they smell a pass coming. And I think you'll see a number of 3-4 teams switching back to the 4-3 next season because stopping the run isn't so important anymore, and a heavy, traditional four-man rush is the only way to play pass defense and survive nowadays.
Wide Receivers—John Jefferson, San Diego, and Pat Tilley, St. Louis. Jefferson was one of the easiest picks on the board, but Tilley won by a nose over Green Bay's James Lofton on consistency and attempted blocking. Harold Carmichael of the Eagles was a clear choice after 10 games, but then went into a tail-spin and caught only 11 passes in the last six. The man most feared by cornerbacks was the Patriots' Stanley Morgan. He can burn deep, but he can drop 'em, too.
January 5, 1981
Tackles—Mike Kenn of Atlanta and Marvin Powell of the New York Jets. Kenn put it all together this year, his Big Ten run-blocking ability, which he always had, plus some nifty pass blocking, which he had to learn. Everyone will be lining up to tell me how much Powell has slipped since 1979. What can I say? The guy looked good when I saw him, and no tackle can so thoroughly dominate an opponent when he's right.
Guards—John Hannah of New England and Herbert Scott of Dallas. Hannah might be the best ever. Scott was an agonizing choice over San Diego's Doug Wilkerson, perhaps the finest puller in the NFL, and keep an eye on San Francisco's Randy Cross.
Center—Rich Saul, Los Angeles. He's the guy, remember, who said he would play only two quarters a game, pick any two. Ah well, midsummer madness. Pittsburgh's Mike Webster did a heroic job, playing with torn cartilage in his knee.
Quarterback—Brian Sipe, Cleveland. The world has finally recognized Sipe, a big-play man with the lowest interception rate in football, an unusual combination. No quarterback, though, had a better game when it counted more than San Diego's Dan Fouts had against the Steelers.
Running Backs—Earl Campbell, Houston, and Walter Payton, Chicago. Campbell makes a picker's job easy. Give us more of these, please. Last year I chose St. Louis' O.J. Anderson over Payton and suffered over it for 12 months. I mean, Walter is just so tough, so dedicated. He simply doesn't miss a start. Sorry, Billy Sims, you'll have to wait a while. I'm not going to go through the same thing again.
Tight End—Kellen Winslow, San Diego. If my life depended on completing a seven-yard pass, though, I'd throw it to Houston's Dave Casper. Winslow is aided by the fact that you have to double-cover everybody in the San Diego offense except Don Macek, the center, and I'm sure Coach Don Coryell will figure out a way to get Macek the ball someday. The anti-Winslow faction claims he really lines up as a wide receiver, and blocks accordingly. Sorry. You can't overlook Winslow's 89 receptions for 1,290 yards.
Ends—Art Still. Kansas City, and Ed (Too Tall) Jones, Dallas. We don't take sack statistics into consideration because 1) they are kept by club officials and not regular statisticians, and 2) they don't begin to tell the story, because the guy who forces the sack gets nothing while the one who inherits it gets the credit. Still's an all-rounder, playing the run as well as the pass. Ditto Too Tall, who never has been a Pro Bowl choice in his six years in the league. Too Tall was a very narrow pick over Chicago's freewheeling Dan Hampton.
Tackles—Louie Kelcher, San Diego, and Randy White, Dallas. When White is up for a big game, there's none better, but I've seen him go into a fog, too. Kelcher won by an eyelash over teammate Gary Johnson, a better pass rusher than Kelcher but not in Louie's league as a crusher. My favorite middle guard in the 3-4 is Miami's Bob Baumhower, but Buffalo's Fred Smerlas is a wrecking ball out there.
Outside Linebackers—Ted Hendricks, Oakland, and Jerry Robinson, Philadelphia. Medical science might reveal why Hendricks turned into such a monster again this season; I certainly can't figure it out. No linebacker flies to the ball as quickly as Robinson does. Pittsburgh's Jack Ham played hurt. Houston's Bob Brazile was better than any of them in individual games, but not in enough.
Middle Linebacker—Jack Lambert, Pittsburgh. I can hear him now: "How can that jerk pick me this year when I had a better year in '79 and he picked Harry Carson?" Well, I look at it this way. The 3-4 linebackers are sharing the position, and they come out on passing downs, so, really, they're doing about 60% of the job Lambert does. Lambert plays all the time and very few middle men have his downfield pass-coverage responsibilities.
Cornerbacks—Lester Hayes, Oakland, and Pat Thomas, Los Angeles. Hayes is a throwback, an old bump-and-run-style defender who covers from the line of scrimmage; he had 13 interceptions this season. Thomas is an emotional choice. I love the way he plays football. He gets a slight edge over Kansas City's Gary Green.
Strong Safety—Bruce Laird, Baltimore. This is the kind of pick that makes me very happy. For nine years I've been thinking, "Gee, this guy really gets the job done," and people have been telling me, "Well, he's limited." Sipe says no defensive back gives him as much trouble. The Patriots' Russ Francis says Laird just keeps getting better. Houston's Vernon Perry, our sleeper last year, played hurt all season, but was still effective.
Free Safety—Nolan Cromwell, Los Angeles. Another clear choice. Nobody can really figure out what a free safety does on the field, but at least this guy is visible in every game. Cromwell, a hurdler in college, will dominate this position for a long, long time.
Kicker—Fred Steinfort, Denver. He was 5 for 8 past 50 yards, 3 for 5 on 55-yarders or better. Clearly, Steinfort, a first-year Bronco who had failed in Oakland and Atlanta, has a cannon for a leg; also, his overall percentage was good (26 for 34) and he missed only one extra point.
Punter—Dave Jennings, New York Giants, won it on best overall average and best net, subtracting touchbacks and returns, without a great punt coverage unit to back him up. With the Giants he got lots of practice.
Rookie of the Year—Billy Sims, who else?
Coach of the Year—Chuck Knox, Buffalo. Runners-up: Leeman Bennett, Atlanta, and Sam Rutigliano, Cleveland. Emotionally, you always go for the guy who turns a loser into a winner, or, as Bum Phillips says, "There's still room in coaching for coaching."