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 227⅓ pounds. There were 17 who weighed less than 220. Ten years previously, in 1974, the 105 outside backers went 6'2⅓", 226⅔, 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."