It was March 1986 when Gunther Cunningham first experienced the thrill of discovering a gifted pass rusher. Cunningham, the defensive line coach for the San Diego Chargers at the time, had traveled to Stillwater, Okla., to scout a prospect from Oklahoma State named Leslie O'Neal. Coaches and scouts from six other NFL teams were there when Cunningham arrived, but when he was asked if he wanted to work out O'Neal individually, Cunningham declined, saying that at 6'4", 251 pounds, O'Neal was too small to play defensive end. Actually, Cunningham had already seen enough of O'Neal and was trying to keep from tipping his hand. As O'Neal went to work for the other scouts, Cunningham—grinning like a mad scientist—scurried up a hill overlooking the field and marveled at the prospect.
O'Neal displayed impressive coordination, quickness and a feel for pass rushing that couldn't be taught. The Chargers were impressed enough to make him the eighth pick in the '86 draft, and O'Neal did not disappoint them. In his first season, he set an NFL rookie record with 12� sacks, and during a 14-year career with the Chargers, the St. Louis Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs he has piled up 132�. What Cunningham, who was reunited with O'Neal in K.C. in 1998 and is entering his second year as Chiefs coach, found that day in Stillwater was the kind of weapon every team is looking for now. The pass rusher who comes from the outside with strength, speed, athleticism and attitude has become one of the league's glamour players, a power forward in shoulder pads who can turn a team's fortunes around.
Last season no rookie made a bigger impact in the NFL than Tennessee Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse (page 114). The 16th choice in the draft, Kearse accumulated 14� sacks, won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and helped the Titans make the jump from three consecutive 8-8 seasons to 13-3 and within a whisker of beating the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV. Maybe that explains why it was a good off-season to be a free-agent defensive end. Kavika Pittman, owner of 10 career sacks during a four-year career with the Dallas Cowboys, got a seven-year, $28 million deal ($3.15 million signing bonus) from the Denver Broncos. Orpheus Roye had one fewer sack over the same span with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he parlayed those nine takedowns into a six-year, $30 million contract ($7.5 million signing bonus) with the Cleveland Browns. Finally, Phillip Daniels, who racked up 21� sacks in four seasons with the Seattle Sea-hawks, landed a five-year, $24 million deal ($8 million signing bonus) with the Chicago Bears.
The first two picks in the draft were a pair of Penn State players who excel at getting to the quarterback: Defensive end Courtney Brown went to Cleveland, and outside linebacker LaVar Arrington was selected by the Washington Redskins. Not coincidentally, the Redskins used the next selection to take a player who specializes in stopping pass rushers: Alabama left tackle Chris Samuels (page 126).
"It seems as though the prototype [pass rusher] these days is a guy who has enough athletic ability to play basketball but can't shoot his way onto the team," says Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "People are looking for the guy who weighs between 225 pounds and 290 pounds. He's too big to be a linebacker and too small to be a defensive end. LaVar Arrington [6'3", 250 pounds] and Courtney Brown [6'4", 279 pounds] are the kind of bodies that people are looking for."
Looking for a great pass rusher is one thing; getting your hands on one is another. The best excel in three areas: anticipating the snap and getting a fast first step; beating the blocker with sound technique; and closing on the quarterback. "Getting off the ball is everything," says Howie Long, a Hall of Fame defensive lineman with the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders from 1981 through '93. "If you watch the defensive line from the line of scrimmage, you can always spot the great pass rushers because they're off the ball a full yard ahead of everyone else."
In today's NFL, Kearse is the gold standard. When he worked out before the 1999 draft, Kearse ran the 40 in 4.43. Even more impressive was how quickly he covered the first 10 yards. A fast defensive lineman may run between a 1.60 and 1.65; an average player does maybe a 1.70 to 1.75. Kearse clocked in at 1.51 seconds.
As critical as physical attributes and technique are, no player will get to the quarterback without the right temperament. In other words he had better be intense and driven yet patient. "If a guy doesn't have success rushing the passer immediately, he might start wondering if he can ever do it," says Anthony Mu�oz, who thwarted many a pass rush as a Hall of Fame tackle with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Adds Kevin Greene, who had 160 sacks during a 15-year career with the Los Angeles Rams, Steelers, Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers, "Everybody gets blocked. A young pass rusher has a tendency to shut down after he gets blocked once or twice. The key is to stay alive—to keep fighting, twisting, scratching and clawing."
Ravens Pro Bowl defensive end Michael McCrary, who has had double-digit sacks in three of his last four seasons, agrees. "The key is not to get frustrated," he says. "You have to keep fighting because the opportunity will come. A common mistake among young players is that they show their move with a stance or a certain angle, and once they get engaged, they quit."