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.