Sooner or later the All-Pro pickers will get around to lining up their defense in a 3-4. So far no one has done it, but it would seem to be logical, because 17 of the 28 NFL teams now use the three-lineman, four-linebacker formation. After much soul-searching we decided to stick with the 4-3 because in passing situations four linemen replace the three of the 3-4, and practically everything is a passing situation these days.
Offensively the big problem this year was how do you sort out two running backs from that great mass of talent? In what is supposed to be the era of the pass, an unprecedented 15 rushers have gone over 1,000 yards. How come? The answer is that more individual runners are being showcased. One guy carries the ball 20 times, the second back is a blocker. He'll get a rushing attempt every now and then just to keep him interested, but the theory is that because a team runs the ball only 32 times a game, the best runner might as well carry most of the load. Last year seven runners had 250 or more carries. This year the number has almost doubled. Next year it'll be higher still.
We selected Billy Sims and Tony Dorsett because of their game-breaking ability, also their pass-catching skill, short or long. I can hear New Orleans Coach Bum Phillips now: "It's just a damn crime, leaving George Rogers off an All-Pro team." O.K., guilty as charged. The Saints' rookie led the league in rushing with 1,674 yards but he lacks the pass-receiving dimension. The Eagles' Wilbert Montgomery would be our fourth man, except I'm always watching him with one hand over my eyes, the way he throws that little body of his around. He's the Larry Brown of 1981; he plays too tough for his body. The Redskins' little halfback was all through by the time he was 28. Our All-Pro runners of 1980, Walter Payton and Earl Campbell, are both struggling with offenses that can't take the heat off them.
Ken Anderson is our quarterback, and just about everyone else's. He had the lowest interception rate in the NFL, operating in an offense that likes to throw the ball downfield. Little Alfred Jenkins, pro football's skinniest wide receiver, was chalk. He's the master of the circus catch on the deep sideline route. The second pick was a bit tougher—James Lofton over the Broncos' Steve Watson. Lofton had more catches, Watson more touchdowns. I broke it down, game by game, and rated them against each other. Lofton won, 9-6, going into the last weekend, and he finished much stronger down the stretch. His teammate John Jefferson is still the receiver every quarterback would like to throw to, but he just didn't have the numbers, thanks to his early sitout. San Francisco's Dwight Clark is the NFL's most underrated wide receiver.
December 28, 1981
Our tight end, Kellen Winslow, isn't really a tight end. He's a slotback in Don Coryell's complicated scheme. But with all those catches you've got to put him somewhere, and at least he looks like a tight end.
The Jets' Marvin Powell is número uno at tackle. Our second choice, Henry Lawrence, might raise some eyebrows, but the Raiders do most of their damage on the right side now, and he's the reason. The Bengals' Anthony Munoz is a very, very close third.
The Patriots' coaches had this to say about John Hannah's performance at left guard: Going into the 14th game of the season, he had participated in more than 800 plays and, according to their grading system, failed to perform his assignment fewer than 20 times. It was the best year Hannah has ever had. Our other guard, Doug Wilkerson, leads a line that has given up only 18 sacks, although the Chargers threw the most passes in NFL history. Runner-up is the 49ers' Randy Cross.
I was all set to pick the Jets' Joe Fields at center but then I took another, closer, look at Mike Webster and I saw him manhandling people, just flipping them around like a ranch hand bucking barley bags. Joe will have to wait another year.
Defensive End Joe Klecko is our Player of the Year. Plays the run, plays the pass, plays hurt. The defensive line is what turned the Jets around this year. (Klecko's mate on the other flank, Mark Gastineau, is a pure sacker who's still learning to play the run.) Too Tall Jones is an All-NFL repeater from last year. His work at forcing and jamming things doesn't show up on the tackle-and-assist sheets.
Doug English is the finest defensive tackle we've seen all year. Randy White is flashier, but less consistent. The runner-up, Bob Baumhower of the Dolphins, is the best of the 3-4 noseguards.
The gifted rookie Lawrence Taylor raised pure hell from his right-linebacker post. His blitzes (9½ sacks) forced the opposition to keep a tight end or running back on permanent guard duty. Why Mike Douglass didn't get selected for the Pro Bowl is a mystery. He's clever and fierce, an all-out performer who had 16 solo tackles against the 49ers. My next choice would be Minnesota's Matt Blair, then Denver's Bob Swenson, then Oakland's Rod Martin.
Jack Lambert is one of the last of a dying breed, a 4-3 middle linebacker who doesn't come out of the game in passing situations. And he's just as tough as ever against the run. The best inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense is Houston's Gregg Bingham. Like Lambert, he stays in the game on passing downs. Bingham hasn't been picked to anything since the 1973 all-rookie team but I haven't seen him have an off game this year.
Super rookie Ronnie Lott has achieved exalted cornerback status; people just don't test him anymore. Mark Haynes has done a complete volte-face from last season and now forces on runs and plays the pass with equal skill. I'm sorry to see that the Rams' Rod Perry didn't make the Pro Bowl. On straight coverage he's as good as any.
Gary Fencik and Nolan Cromwell are our safeties, on consistency. Our kicker, Jan Stenerud, wasn't a Pro Bowl choice, despite the fact that he set an alltime record for field-goal percentage (22-24), including four of five from 44 yards and longer. Hey, what does a guy have to do? Pat McInally is the pick over Detroit's Tom Skladany for punter, because Pat didn't have that nice indoor arena to kick in. In three games in enclosed stadiums this year he averaged 50.5 yards per punt.
Finally there's Roy Green. When he's on offense, as a deep passing threat, he makes things happen. Ditto as a defensive nickel back. When he got hurt in the Giant game two weeks ago, the Cardinal offense went poof. Somewhere there's got to be a place for this man on any All-Pro team.
ZIMMERMAN'S ALL-PRO TEAM
WIDE RECEIVERS—Alfred Jenkins, Atlanta, and James Lofton, Green Bay.
TIGHT END—Kellen Winslow, San Diego.
TACKLES—Marvin Powell, New York Jets, and Henry Lawrence, Oakland.
GUARDS—John Hannah, New England, and Doug Wilkerson, San Diego.
CENTER—Mike Webster, Pittsburgh.
QUARTERBACK—Ken Anderson, Cincinnati.
RUNNING BACKS—Tony Dorsett, Dallas, and Billy Sims, Detroit.
ENDS—Joe Klecko, Jets, and Ed Jones, Dallas.
TACKLES—Doug English, Detroit, and Randy White, Dallas.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS—Mike Douglass, Green Bay, and Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants.
MIDDLE LINEBACKER—Jack Lambert, Pittsburgh.
CORNERBACKS—Mark Haynes, Giants, and Ronnie Lott, San Francisco.
STRONG SAFETY—Gary Fencik, Chicago.
FREE SAFETY—Nolan Cromwell, Los Angeles.
WIDE RECEIVER AND NICKEL BACK—Roy Green, St. Louis.
KICKER—Jan Stenerud, Green Bay.
PUNTER—Pat McInally, Cincinnati.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Bill Walsh, San Francisco.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Joe Klecko, Jets.