Is Lawrence Taylor worth a million and a half a year? Sure, why not? Can a 31-year-old NFL linebacker miss 44 days of training camp as a holdout, practice for four and then step onto the field without missing a beat? Evidently—as long as the oxygen is handy on the bench. Finally, and this was asked of Taylor after he sacked Randall Cunningham three times in the New York Giants' 27-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night, has he rendered preseason camp obsolete? "Well, I wouldn't go that far," he said, "but you certainly don't need six weeks of it."
Now it would be simplistic to say that Taylor was the whole story as the Giants ended a two-year, four-game jinx the Eagles had on them. If you're looking for reasons why New York made it appear easy (10 Philly points came in the last 5:19), you should know that the Giants tamed a pass rush from an Eagle front four that had been Phil Simms's personal horror show, knocking him out of two of the teams' last four games, and had registered 15 sacks in those games. Simms was dusted only once this time, a scramble sack that lost one yard.
Also, the Eagles suffered from a severe case of the shorts on offense, with their best possession receiver, running back Keith Byars, hampered early by a bruised hip and their new gang of speed receivers just about invisible.
But here's what Taylor, who removed himself from every third series or so to take deep pulls of oxygen on the sidelines, meant to the Giants: With LT on the field New York could play a long-yardage defense that featured only one down lineman, nose-guard Erik Howard, as the middle man in the three-man rush, flanked by Taylor and linebacker Pepper Johnson. And the Giants were able to exert pressure with it, while eight guys played their zones and combination coverages downfield. The first time the Giants showed it, on Philly's third play of the game, Taylor flushed Cunningham out of the pocket. Cunningham threw on the run to tight end Mickey Shuler. Everson Walls, the old Dallas Cowboy who is New York's new right cornerback, swooped in and intercepted, setting up a quickie field goal.
With Taylor on the field, Cunningham knew there was at least one pass rusher he would have a tough time outrunning. That was shown dramatically in the third quarter, Philly's worst of the game, when Cunningham took off on a sprint. Taylor chased him down from behind, knocked the ball loose with that patented slap of his and held the gain to two yards after Cunningham caught a bit of luck when the ball popped back into his hands.
LT was his old self, if a little shaky in the stamina department, relying more on spins and speed moves than on his power rushes of the past. But he was a force, a presence. "When you see LT out there busting his butt on that three-man rush, it rubs off on you," said Johnson, the most active and consistently the most effective Giants defender in the game. "Pass rushing is mostly determination anyway. If you see him doing it, you can do it."
Even as thoughtful and introspective an athlete as Carl Banks, the left linebacker, found himself caught up in the Taylor thing. "The LT factor can dictate the outcome of a game," he said. "He's not just a great defensive player, he's a great football player. Star quality, like Michael Jackson."
And for 44 hot, sweaty, training camp days, while the Giants were working themselves wobbly-legged in two-a-days, Taylor was knocking in par putts, and his agent, Joe Courrege, was telling the Giants that LT was worth $10 million over four years. Nine years in the league, nine years in the Pro Bowl—that should be worth more than the measly $1.21 million he was to make in 1990, the option year of his six-year contract. "He wanted to be the highest-paid defensive player in football, and that's understandable," New York general manager George Young said.
When it got down to where the two sides were a million bucks apart—the Giants offering $4.5 million over three years, Taylor asking for $5.5 million—everyone knew it was just a matter of time. Everyone except the people who believed those silly trade rumors: LT to the Eagles for Reggie White; LT to the Oilers; LT to anyone Courrege reached by phone and asked, "Are you interested?"
"The Eagles called to verify that I had given them permission to seek a trade," Young says. "That's all they said. I got a call from the Oilers to say that they had no interest. And those are the only people who called. Honest. As far as that rumor that the Eagles would keep the thing alive just to keep him away until they played us...well, they simply don't play that kind of pool. They play hard on the field, but neither of us is in the enemy business.
"I'm never cocky about contracts, but I could see no way, knowing the man involved, that he wouldn't want to be on the field for our first game—against the Philadelphia Eagles."
And on Sept. 5, four days before the game, LT upstaged coach Bill Parcells's regular news conference to announce that he had signed. "I'm home," Taylor said. "Coach Parcells knew, I knew, everybody knew I was not going to leave New York."
The deal is for three years at the Giants' reported $4.5 million figure, $1.55 million coming this season, which would put him ahead of White (base salary: $1.35 million) and Buffalo Bills end Bruce Smith ($1.3 million) as No. 1 on the list of highest-paid defensive players. But then you have to take away the $66,000 that LT owes in absentee fines, and wait to see if he collects the $175,000 he could earn in incentive bonuses and to see if end Chris Doleman actually signs for the $1.6 million the Minnesota Vikings are rumored to be considering paying him. This No. 1 business gets complicated.
On Sunday night Taylor proved he was worth every penny. His first sack actually should have been a shared sack with left end Eric Dorsey, both players having reached Cunningham at once. His second was a flash sack, a brush of the hand and quick in-the-grasp whistle from referee Gordon McCarter, which drew boos from the Giants Stadium fans who had paid to see Cunningham run. The last sack, though, was vintage LT, coming in the third quarter when the Eagle offense had a net of 29 yards. Tackle Matt Darwin moved out to block Taylor, with fullback Anthony Toney lurking outside for mop-up duty. LT spun away from both of them to nail Cunningham five yards deep.
"The way they were playing me, I had to spin a lot tonight," Taylor said after the game. "Let's face it, my stamina was not good. If it was, I could have had a couple more tackles [he was credited with seven unassisted tackles, second highest among the Giants]. When I was holding out I kept hearing how old I was, like I needed a cane or something. My legs were sore from practice, and at the end I was tired...it seemed like the whole world was caving in. That's when I got the personal foul penalty for a head slap. It always happens when you don't think, and when you get tired you don't think. But give me a couple more weeks. I'll be back."
Which should make the handicappers who picked New York to go all the way this season very happy, because once again, just as they were in their Super Bowl season of 1986, the Giants are a linebacker-oriented team. Banks is perhaps the most technically correct outside linebacker in the game, playing both run and pass. Steve DeOssie and Gary Reasons, who split the strongside inside plugger position, are sound enough, and Johnson, at weak inside linebacker, a pass coverage position, is the x factor. He was all over the place Sunday night, stepping up into the hole to take on the guards, dropping back into coverage on wideouts underneath. He has Pro Bowl written all over him.
Right now New York needs a high-level defense because its offense (227 yards against Philly) still hasn't come together. It has some flash: First-round draft pick Rodney Hampton, a running back out of Georgia, is a smooth, effortless-looking pass receiver (he had a 12-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter), and 5'7" Dave Meggett is still a terrifying punt returner (68 yards for a score two minutes later). Simms, who looked as effective as ever, hit Mark Ingram in stride for a 41-yard touchdown that made the score 27-10 and just about put the game away early in the fourth quarter. But it wasn't a consistent, move-the-chains offense, and the running game the Giants lived on last year produced only 79 yards (20 on a Simms scramble) for a 3.3 average per attempt.
The Eagles' problems are worse. Tight end Keith Jackson, who has caught 144 passes in his two Pro Bowl years with the club, is a holdout, and no resolution to this standoff is in sight. He has two years to go on a rookie contract calling for a reported $2.25 million over four seasons, a richer package than those received by the five players drafted immediately before him. The team's owner, Norman Braman, has said the Eagles don't renegotiate or extend rookie contracts.
Removing 144 catches from an offense as fragile as Philly's is tough; the Eagles are now left with an attack that's nowhere, not even with the trio of rookie flyers at the wideouts—a group so breathtakingly fast, it was reported, that Philadelphia could afford to cut its goal line receiver, Cris Carter (11 TD catches last year). One rookie, second-round pick Mike Bellamy from Illinois, pulled a groin muscle Sunday night. The other two, third-rounder Fred Barnett from Arkansas State and fifth-rounder Calvin Williams from Purdue, looked lost. Cunningham went deep twice, throwing a high, arcing banana to veteran Mike Quick that was intercepted, throwing another away when Barnett was covered.
So shaky were the wide receivers that even on third-and-long the Eagles didn't go into the standard NFL three-or four-wideout package, preferring to keep their regular people in the game and flanking the 238-pound Byars. And when they needed a quick score, trailing 27-10 with 13:13 left, they put together a 14-play drive that lasted almost eight minutes.
The teams meet again in two months. By then Philly might have the kinks out. But so will LT.