Here's another explanation. Speed. Outside linebackers in the old days were sturdy guys who had to stand up to the sweeps and off-tackle plays and cover a back in the flat. Racehorses need not apply. Bobby Bell changed that. "We made the Chiefs switch Bell to outside linebacker," the Raiders' Al Davis says. "We'd send Clem Daniels on deep routes out of the backfield. No one had done that before. They didn't know how to stop him."
For four years, 1963 through '66, Daniels had an amazing set of receiving stats. He averaged 22.8 yards a catch in '63, an unheard-of figure for a back, then 16.6, 15.8 and 16.3, and scored 21 TDs on receptions. The Chiefs, who played the Raiders twice a year, did the logical thing. They took their fastest man, the 6'4", 228-pound Bell, who had run a 4.5 and had played quarterback, tight end and tackle at Minnesota, and switched him from defensive line to outside linebacker—and thus created the prototype speed-linebacker. Bell is the only outside linebacker in the Hall of Fame. Then the Oilers came up with George Webster, who had been a roverback at Michigan State. And the Packers switched Dave Robinson, another great black athlete, from tight end and down defensive end, his positions at Penn State, to outside backer, where he became All-Pro. This set the tone, although it took the rest of the NFL world a while to catch on, as it usually does.
What does the future hold for this position that's so loaded with superstars? George Young says the outside linebackers will be called upon to do even more things as the new 45-man roster cuts down situation substitution. Jack Reynolds, the veteran 49er middle linebacker, says that eventually all you'll see will be blitzers and coverage guys, teams will play a 4-7 defense and all the oldtime techniques will be nothing but memories.
"Yeah, there's a lot of great physical talent out there," he says, "and some of them are so talented that they don't work much on techniques, on reading and recognition, and because of that their careers are going to be shorter. In the old days a guy could fall back on techniques, but some of these guys, well, when they start losing a step or they're not as strong, they'll find themselves replaced by a new guy faster and stronger."