They emerged through necessity. They arose when the defense was battered by the rulesmakers and crying for help. From the gloom of despair came the outside linebackers, the greatest collection of athletes ever to play one position in the history of the National Football League. In high school and college they had been tight ends and safeties and defensive ends and even running backs, but in the pros, if they had size and speed and brains, they became outside linebackers, an elite group designed to combat the hyped-up offenses and their new rules. They became the saviors of the defense.
The defensive coaches designed seemingly impossible tasks for them: Protect the flanks, watch for cutbacks and reverses, prevent the tight end from hooking and cover him downfield, cover the running backs flaring out or going deep, clamp on a wide receiver. And if you can handle all that we'll do you a favor. We'll let you rush the passer, only, uh, it's not going to be as a stand-up linebacker. You've got to drop down to a three-point stance and beat a 280-pound tackle. And, oh yes, you'll have to be smart, and instinctive, too. You'll have to read on the move and make instant decisions, and....
And they've done it. They've done it all, in a manner exceeding those desperate coaches' wildest hopes. They've emerged as the flamboyant, dazzling superstars of the game, the true superstars of history, based on all-around football skill. No position has so many great players.
What's that you say? The real stars are the guys with the ball, the ones who throw it or catch it or run with it? Or possibly the cornerbacks who have to cover those fancy receivers? We don't buy any of that, for the simple reason that those people can be deficient in every area of the game except one and still be successful. So what if the great thrower can't run, or the great runner can't block or catch a pass, or the great deep receiver won't go over the middle or hit anybody? So what if the cornerback skilled at man-to-man coverage is a patsy against the run? They can still make the Pro Bowl. But the outside linebacker with only one skill won't play regularly (although he might find a niche in a specialized situation, such as the nickel defense), because an opponent's offense will quickly zero in on him and make him its target. There are too many ways an offense can hurt him. Every player except the quarterback takes a crack at him.
Tight ends and running backs are his natural enemies. Tackles, sometimes guards, pick him up when he's rushing. Guards and centers get a shot at him when he's playing inside in nickel or dime defenses, as the Redskins' Rich Milot does. Wide receivers try to prove their manhood against him, cracking down from the blind side on sweeps. Last year a wild-eyed Miami rookie wideout named Fernanza Burgess cracked the Raiders' Jack Squirek's jaw with his helmet and put him out for a month and a half.
"An outside linebacker," says Art Rooney Jr., the Steelers' personnel chief, "is like a great gymnast in the Olympics, except that when he comes out of his floor exercises someone's gonna punch him in the teeth. What I'm saying is, they've got to be skilled athletes but tough, too."
They create an unforgettable set of images—the Giants' Lawrence Taylor or the Patriots' Andre Tippett blasting over an offensive tackle on sheer strength; the Steelers' Mike Merriweather running downfield with Dolphin wideout Mark Duper; the Saints' Rickey Jackson hurdling blockers on his way to the quarterback; the Raiders' Rod Martin flying across the field, spotting the running back five yards and making the tackle; the Jets' Lance Mehl taking a perfect drop and stealing two of the Raiders' Jim Plunkett-to-Cliff Branch passes in the last three minutes of an '83 AFC playoff game.
Almost every team has an outside linebacker who would have been a perennial All-Pro in the old days, a guy who bears the scouting notation: "Can disrupt your offense."
"If you don't have one," says the New York Giants' general manager, George Young, "you'd damn well better get yourself one."
Some teams have two or more high-powered performers, some of whom might be interchanged to fit specific situations. Washington Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard, for instance, calls Monte Coleman "the best nickel linebacker in football."