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."