They emerged through necessity. They arose when the defense was battered by the rulesmakers and crying for help. From the gloom of despair came the outside linebackers, the greatest collection of athletes ever to play one position in the history of the National Football League. In high school and college they had been tight ends and safeties and defensive ends and even running backs, but in the pros, if they had size and speed and brains, they became outside linebackers, an elite group designed to combat the hyped-up offenses and their new rules. They became the saviors of the defense.
The defensive coaches designed seemingly impossible tasks for them: Protect the flanks, watch for cutbacks and reverses, prevent the tight end from hooking and cover him downfield, cover the running backs flaring out or going deep, clamp on a wide receiver. And if you can handle all that we'll do you a favor. We'll let you rush the passer, only, uh, it's not going to be as a stand-up linebacker. You've got to drop down to a three-point stance and beat a 280-pound tackle. And, oh yes, you'll have to be smart, and instinctive, too. You'll have to read on the move and make instant decisions, and....
And they've done it. They've done it all, in a manner exceeding those desperate coaches' wildest hopes. They've emerged as the flamboyant, dazzling superstars of the game, the true superstars of history, based on all-around football skill. No position has so many great players.
What's that you say? The real stars are the guys with the ball, the ones who throw it or catch it or run with it? Or possibly the cornerbacks who have to cover those fancy receivers? We don't buy any of that, for the simple reason that those people can be deficient in every area of the game except one and still be successful. So what if the great thrower can't run, or the great runner can't block or catch a pass, or the great deep receiver won't go over the middle or hit anybody? So what if the cornerback skilled at man-to-man coverage is a patsy against the run? They can still make the Pro Bowl. But the outside linebacker with only one skill won't play regularly (although he might find a niche in a specialized situation, such as the nickel defense), because an opponent's offense will quickly zero in on him and make him its target. There are too many ways an offense can hurt him. Every player except the quarterback takes a crack at him.
September 3, 1985
Tight ends and running backs are his natural enemies. Tackles, sometimes guards, pick him up when he's rushing. Guards and centers get a shot at him when he's playing inside in nickel or dime defenses, as the Redskins' Rich Milot does. Wide receivers try to prove their manhood against him, cracking down from the blind side on sweeps. Last year a wild-eyed Miami rookie wideout named Fernanza Burgess cracked the Raiders' Jack Squirek's jaw with his helmet and put him out for a month and a half.
"An outside linebacker," says Art Rooney Jr., the Steelers' personnel chief, "is like a great gymnast in the Olympics, except that when he comes out of his floor exercises someone's gonna punch him in the teeth. What I'm saying is, they've got to be skilled athletes but tough, too."
They create an unforgettable set of images—the Giants' Lawrence Taylor or the Patriots' Andre Tippett blasting over an offensive tackle on sheer strength; the Steelers' Mike Merriweather running downfield with Dolphin wideout Mark Duper; the Saints' Rickey Jackson hurdling blockers on his way to the quarterback; the Raiders' Rod Martin flying across the field, spotting the running back five yards and making the tackle; the Jets' Lance Mehl taking a perfect drop and stealing two of the Raiders' Jim Plunkett-to-Cliff Branch passes in the last three minutes of an '83 AFC playoff game.
Almost every team has an outside linebacker who would have been a perennial All-Pro in the old days, a guy who bears the scouting notation: "Can disrupt your offense."
"If you don't have one," says the New York Giants' general manager, George Young, "you'd damn well better get yourself one."
Some teams have two or more high-powered performers, some of whom might be interchanged to fit specific situations. Washington Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard, for instance, calls Monte Coleman "the best nickel linebacker in football."
So, who are the recruits in this army of superstars? These are the linebackers we feel are the best, the most interesting and the underrated, and this is the way the scouts evaluate their strengths and, yes, weaknesses:
THE BLUEST OF THE BLUE-CHIPPERS
Lawrence Taylor, Giants—No. 1. Can and has turned games around singlehandedly. Has the speed to get there, then the crunch. Must be awarded special attention. Plays better in unstructured situations, either by design or circumstance. Had an odd year in '84. Seems to have regressed somewhat...less willing to play within the defensive framework. One technical weakness: If he flies out to the flat and then has to retreat for a back hooking inside him, he might miss the tackle.
Clay Matthews and Chip Banks, Browns—The best pair in football. Matthews coming off his finest year in NFL. Had his most sacks ever (12). Takes great pride in man coverage. Only negative: injury history—broken ankle, broken arm. Banks came back from off-year in '83. Low sack total last season (2½) misleading. Fine blitzer but comes from strong side. Plays inside backer in goal-line defenses and one of the best at it. Slight problem with cut blocks, based on his size (6'4"). Interesting to see how he plays in '85 after club tried to trade him in the maneuvering for Bernie Kosar.
Tom Jackson, Broncos—Best in big-money games. Swiftest in the league (4.55) when he came up in '73 and picked up smarts as speed dropped. Was written off when two-TE offense came in, but he destroys blocking angles with his quickness, blasting in from weak side. In '84 had the finest of his last five years.
Hugh Green, Bucs—1984 a washout after auto accident. Made his mark playing in John McKay's controlled zone concepts, but expect big fireworks this year when he's turned loose under Leeman Bennett's former Atlanta Grits Blitz LB coach, Doug Shively. Should have dominating year.
Rod Martin, Raiders—Ranges all over the field, though he slipped a little in '84. Groin injury probably worse than they're letting on.
Mike Douglass, Packers—Undersized but effective vs. the run because of moves and great athletic skill. Sideline-to-sideline ability. Can make the big free-lance play. Effective blitzer. Power teams try to wear him down.
Keena Turner, 49ers—Finally recognized in '84 after years of top-level open-field football. Plays in open areas better than anyone. Fine coverage and ball instincts. Only LB on field in dime defense, and offenses try to run at him.
Andre Tippett, Patriots—The Lawrence Taylor of the AFC. Only OLB who plays as a down lineman on the power (left) side in four-man rush. Devastating hitter. A speed-and-crunch player who can be fooled by misdirection.
Mike Merriweather, Steelers—Surprises people with great closing burst to the ball. Has two-gear speed and causes big trouble when he goes into high. More effective as finesse than power blitzer. Will clamp on WR, but still green on coverage techniques.
Rickey Jackson, Saints—Eye-catching athlete who causes major problems for offenses. Sometimes flies out of control but can turn a game.
Lance Mehl, Jets—Exceptionally smart, technically sound, reads the QB better than anyone. Off year in '84 because of ankle injury and unsettled nature of personnel around him. Non-blitzer in Jets' scheme, hence no Pro Bowls in past, but that might change under new defensive coach Bud Carson.
Otis Wilson, Bears—On the fringes for years. Finally tuned in to Buddy Ryan's defenses and had success. One of the best when under control. When out of control will make the big play, the big mistake.
LONG AND MERITORIOUS SERVICE
Matt Blair, Vikings—Exceptional LB for years, finally showed some mileage in '84. Injury problems, system, slight loss of speed, etc. Bud Grant will bring him back to life.
Brad Van Pelt, Raiders—Smart and effective strongside LB whose speed failed him in '84. Height (6'5") still makes him effective.
Bob Brazile, Oilers—An enigma through the years. Godzilla one series, invisible the next. Smart player. Always had speed. Can still cover. Not quite as aggressive as he once was.
Reggie Williams, Bengals—Speed, explosion, brains. Undersized at six feet, 228, he tends to wear down during the course of a season.
Woodrow Lowe, Chargers—Opponents always graded him higher than his own team did. Underrated career. Still quick and sound and a sure tackler.
Bob Brudzinski, Dolphins—Steady force despite team's LB confusion last year. Respected greatly by opponents. Plays better close to the line.
ON THE FRINGES OF GREATNESS
Al Harris, Bears—Unsung hero last year. Coverage ability shocked some people. Anthony Dickerson, Cowboys—Strange player. Breathtaking speed but never has put it all together. Johnnie Cooks, Colts—Bounced around from ILB to DE, finally settling at OLB, his natural spot. Will come on in '85. Charles Bowser, Dolphins—Fastest outside rusher in NFL. If you can't stop him, goodby. Bruce Scholtz, Seahawks—Tall (6'6") and imposing. Specializes in stuffing tight ends.
Garry Cobb and Jimmy Williams, Lions; John Anderson, Packers; Joel Williams, Eagles; Rich Milot, Redskins; Al Richardson, Falcons.
Lawrence Taylor is the epitome of the modern-era, big-play linebacker. Unstructured, maybe, but how do you structure a hurricane? The first thing you notice is the power, the ferocious hitting ability generated by a 243-pound man running at 4.58 speed. "He plays the game in a bad mood," George Young says, "and loves to play."
It is November 1983, Giants vs. Redskins. The Skins are on their way to the Super Bowl, the Giants are on the road to 3-12-1. It is early in the second quarter and the Giants already are down 10 points in a game they will lose 33-17. Joe Theismann is back to pass and Taylor is blitzing from the right side. Joe Jacoby, the 300-pound tackle, slides over to block him. Teams learned long ago that you don't try to pick up Taylor with a back, the matchup in the old days. You give him one of the big boys, a guard or tackle, with a tight end or back to help out. Taylor grabs Jacoby by the shoulder pads and throws him. He flushes Theismann out of the pocket and the quarterback is off and running. George Starke, the 260-pound right tackle, peels back to pick up Taylor, who knocks him to the ground without breaking stride. Taylor catches Theismann 15 yards downfield. That's 560 pounds of linemen he has disposed of and a 4.6 quarterback he has run down. It's a play no human being in pads and cleats should be able to make.
It's frightening to think of what would happen if Taylor ever put it all together, if he combined the diagnostic ability of a Jack Ham or Ted Hendricks with his other abilities. The Competition Committee would probably devise a handicap system, packing him with weights like a racehorse.
His coach, Bill Parcells, has schemes made to order that let Taylor take a running start so he can crash in from the right side. "When he came up in '81," Young says, "his play became the stereotype for that position, especially on the right side, the open side away from the tight end. It caused a lot of teams to reevaluate the role of the rightside backer as a constant blitzer."
There is a tendency for people who have short memories to refer to Taylor as the greatest outside linebacker in history—though he has played only four NFL seasons. His game is still not complete. They forget, for instance, the Chiefs' Bobby Bell, the first of the great size-and-speed linebackers, or Ted Hendricks, who disrupted opposing offenses for 15 years, or the Steelers' Jack Ham, who would be my choice as the best ever.
Ham never weighed as much as 220. None of the Steel Curtain linebackers did. Chuck Noll was looking for beef on the line and speed and smarts behind it. Ham didn't blitz much, although with his 4.65 speed (people forget he was that fast) and great savvy he would have been good at it. Guys like Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood did the pass rushing, thank you kindly. But Ham was the perfect technician. He came to the Steelers well-schooled in the subtle techniques, such as pass drops, which he learned at Penn State under linebacking coach Dan Radakovich, an NFL assistant for 11 years. Penn State, which played a 4-4 defense, was one of the few college teams that had two outside men with pure linebacker responsibility, rather than the combination of stand-up end and linebacker that you see nowadays. It's one of the reasons that the school produced so many well-schooled outside backers for the pros.
Ham had the savvy and the great instincts and, of course, the speed. On the field he was almost the direct antithesis of Taylor; he played with a cold professionalism that almost bordered on nonchalance.
"We were sitting on the bench during a game, and he was telling me about some stock deal he was interested in," says Andy Russell, the right linebacker on the Steelers' early Super Bowl teams. "Then we had to go out on defense. On the first play Jack read the pass and took a perfect drop, deflected the ball with one hand, caught it with the other, got tackled, flipped the ball to the ref and overtook me on the way off the field. 'Like I was telling you, it's really a good investment,' he said, like nothing at all had happened."
Ham's modern counterpart is Mehl, another graduate of the Penn State system. Mehl says he never broke 5.0 in the 40 until two years ago, "and that was because I finally learned how to run for the clock. At Penn State they put more emphasis on 10-yard times than 40s." Ham says, "If you run 40 yards on a football field it means you're chasing someone. The first two steps will determine whether you'll make the play or not."
Mehl's game is based on technique, those correct first two steps, and, yes, pass coverage, even without the great speed. On TV a typical announcer's cliché is, "Well, the offense finally got the mismatch they wanted...a linebacker covering a halfback." This statement shows a surprising lack of knowledge. Linebackers are supposed to cover running backs. It's the usual matchup. But guys like Mehl do it well because they don't give that back a clean burst deep.
"You look at the way a guy comes out of the backfield," Mehl says. "The wider he is, the less likely he is to go upheld, at least not as far. You've got to get the feel of him, make him go wide, cut down his angle. If he turns up tight, he might come right up the pipe, and that's what you've got to prevent. You've got to get a piece of him, force him into traffic, get that good jam. Sometimes you'll fake a blitz to hold him in for that extra second or two. If he gets by you, then you start yelling for help."
In 1983 Mehl intercepted seven passes. Bell, Dave Robinson, Chuck Howley, Dave Wilcox, Hendricks...only a very few of the great linebackers ever had that many in a season. When Mehl wasn't picked for the Pro Bowl, a sad realization dawned on him. The Pro Bowl is for blitzers. "I figured that if I didn't make it that season, I never would," he says. "Look, I know what my job is. Play the run, play my coverages. I don't think they're looking for me to be the Lawrence Taylor of the Jets."
The Patriots' Tippett got 18½ sacks last year, mainly from a down lineman's position on obvious passing downs, and earned a legitimate spot in the Pro Bowl. He is concerned, though, that as his pass-rushing skills have increased, his coverage ability has eroded. "I haven't been asked to do it as much; consequently I've lost that skill," he says.
The Packers' Douglass, one of the smaller linebackers at 214 pounds, specializes in giving the running back a good first shot. "Next time they'll think twice about trying to fly by you at full speed," he says. "They get scared of the big hit. The quarterback will look at them once, and if he sees they're having trouble he won't look back."
But perhaps the key to a linebacker's successful coverage of running backs is his knowledge of the trade, the instinctive reactions learned through many years of watching patterns unfold.
"After seven years in the NFL I'm actually faster, even though my 40 time is slower," Douglass says. "The quickness and burst are still there. I get off the ball quicker. And I don't take false steps. I don't get bad key reads. I take the best possible angle, instead of guessing. I'm not going the Magellan route anymore."
The weirdest matchup is linebacker on wide receiver. Not all the way down the field, of course, although Ham used to come up with some deep interceptions in playoff games. The linebacker will usually pass the guy off to a DB after a certain point. But it can be effective in the short areas, for shock effect if nothing else. The Steelers have been doing it for years, and they had success using Merriweather on wideouts last season.
"We do it for disguise purposes," says linebacker coach Jed Hughes. "He'll line up right over him, and they won't know how to read the coverage...man or zone or combination. Sometimes he'll run across his face and play the outside of him in a double coverage, with someone else taking him inside. Sometimes he'll give him that good, solid bump coming off the line. A guy like Merriweather can go upfield with a wideout, if he gets that good first bump. The whole idea is to destroy the man's progress."
Beathard says the one thing to look for when scouting linebackers is "instinct. If that's not there, then everything else will fall apart. It's more important than in any other position. A defensive back has a cushion of a few yards. For a defensive lineman, it's get off the ball and go. But a linebacker has no margin for misreading. If his instant diagnostic ability isn't there, then he's dead."
History may never award Denver's Tommy Jackson his rightful place. In the mid-to-late '70s he ran a 4.55 40 and made the Pro Bowl as a wide-ranging, free-spirited linebacker. After 12 seasons his 4.55 is now a 4.8. He's still quick, but he's a different player. "I've learned the game," he says. "I learned to study players.
"When we played the Chargers I'd read Dan Fouts's feet. Feet parallel and it was a run. One foot farther back and it was a pass. We did it three times before they caught on. For two or three years I could read the Raiders by the way they set their backs. If they offset them behind the quarterback it was a pass; straight behind him, a run. We'd fool them by pointing to Henry Lawrence, their right tackle, so they started thinking poor Henry was tipping the play. I heard that they used to get him after practice and work on his stance."
The contours of the outside linebackers have changed little in the last 10 years. In 1984, 117 of them were on the opening day rosters, and they averaged 6'2[2/5]" and 227‚Öì pounds. There were 17 who weighed less than 220. Ten years previously, in 1974, the 105 outside backers went 6'2‚Öì", 226‚Öî, and 16 were under 220. Contrast that with the growth in size of the people blocking them. Tight ends grew from 6'3½", 228 to 6'3¾", 236, and the offensive tackles rose from 6'4½", 258, to 6'5", 271.
What the outside linebackers have picked up, though, is speed, speed to make the quick burst on the artificial surfaces, to stay with a back downfield, to get a tackle moving faster than he wishes. And with the rise in speed has come an interesting phenomenon—the emergence of the great black outside linebacker.
Only one black outside linebacker ever made All-NFL before Dave Robinson was selected in 1967, and that was Tank Younger, in 1951, a Rams player better known as a fullback. Before 1980 only five had been chosen All-NFL, and two more had been All-AFL. Since then, black athletes have dominated. Seven have made the combined NFC-AFC, All-Pro team. In the last Pro Bowl, all six were black. In '83 and '84 it was five of six.
Some NFL scouts say the reason for the emergence of black linebackers is integration. Also, great outside linebackers at the small black schools often went unscouted.
Others offer a simpler explanation. "Let's be frank about this," one personnel director says. "The old-line NFL thinking was that black kids were too dumb to play linebacker."
Here's another explanation. Speed. Outside linebackers in the old days were sturdy guys who had to stand up to the sweeps and off-tackle plays and cover a back in the flat. Racehorses need not apply. Bobby Bell changed that. "We made the Chiefs switch Bell to outside linebacker," the Raiders' Al Davis says. "We'd send Clem Daniels on deep routes out of the backfield. No one had done that before. They didn't know how to stop him."
For four years, 1963 through '66, Daniels had an amazing set of receiving stats. He averaged 22.8 yards a catch in '63, an unheard-of figure for a back, then 16.6, 15.8 and 16.3, and scored 21 TDs on receptions. The Chiefs, who played the Raiders twice a year, did the logical thing. They took their fastest man, the 6'4", 228-pound Bell, who had run a 4.5 and had played quarterback, tight end and tackle at Minnesota, and switched him from defensive line to outside linebacker—and thus created the prototype speed-linebacker. Bell is the only outside linebacker in the Hall of Fame. Then the Oilers came up with George Webster, who had been a roverback at Michigan State. And the Packers switched Dave Robinson, another great black athlete, from tight end and down defensive end, his positions at Penn State, to outside backer, where he became All-Pro. This set the tone, although it took the rest of the NFL world a while to catch on, as it usually does.
What does the future hold for this position that's so loaded with superstars? George Young says the outside linebackers will be called upon to do even more things as the new 45-man roster cuts down situation substitution. Jack Reynolds, the veteran 49er middle linebacker, says that eventually all you'll see will be blitzers and coverage guys, teams will play a 4-7 defense and all the oldtime techniques will be nothing but memories.
"Yeah, there's a lot of great physical talent out there," he says, "and some of them are so talented that they don't work much on techniques, on reading and recognition, and because of that their careers are going to be shorter. In the old days a guy could fall back on techniques, but some of these guys, well, when they start losing a step or they're not as strong, they'll find themselves replaced by a new guy faster and stronger."