"Lester has worked hard to be one of the best," says Oakland Coach Tom Flores. "He studies the game plan. He's always well prepared. He's the best in the NFL at the moment, but the measure of a great defensive back is consistency. He must do it year in and year out."
Al LoCasale, Raider boss Al Davis' longtime executive assistant, maintains that another measure of a defensive back is his willingness to play man-to-man on the corner, as the Raiders expect. "The world is full of safetymen," LoCasale says, exaggerating slightly. "What we need more of is corners." By these standards, Hayes scarcely measures up, because if there was one position he didn't want to play it was cornerback.
"I thought I was the top safety in the whole '77 draft," says Hayes, who played at Texas A&M and was picked in the fifth round by the Raiders. "I didn't want to play cornerback. I kept asking Mr. Davis if I could play safety. The answer was always no. To me it just didn't seem to compute. It took me two seasons to convince myself that I could play corner. I was baffled for those two years. Now I've got no doubts. The thing is to put yourself on a plateau where you say you can't be beat. Logically, playing man-to-man—and the Raiders will play man-to-man as long as there's a Statue of Liberty—you're going to get beat. But it is imperative that you have a degree of cockiness. Bump-and-run coverage is my forte now. There's no mere mortal I fear. I am auspiciously euphoric."
For man coverage to be effective, there must be a strong pass rush, and the Raiders have one of the strongest, in large part the result of the ofttimes bewildering antics of Outside Linebacker Hendricks. "Ordinarily teams wouldn't be throwing so much to Hayes' side," said the old San Francisco quarterback, John Brodie, who, as an NBC commentator, was watching the Raiders practice last week. "Jimmy Johnson [who was All-Pro for the 49ers when Brodie played] never saw anywhere near the number of balls Hayes does, and a lot of that had to do with Dave Wilcox [the All-Pro linebacker on Johnson's side]. But Hendricks moves around so much, confusing the picture, that quarterbacks have no choice but to test Hayes, who is usually all alone with the man he is covering. And look what's happened—all those interceptions."
"We use Ted to confuse the offensive line," says Flores. "They don't know where he's coming from, and he's an excellent pass rusher. Last season we were taking him out in passing situations. This season, because we're rushing the passer more, we're keeping Ted in on every play. He doesn't even have to get to the passer. That big frame is enough if he gets up close. Trying to throw over him and John Matuszak, who's 6'8", is like trying to throw over a mountain."
"You can't really say I'm a linebacker," says Hendricks. "You can call me a fifth defensive lineman because I'm blitzing so much of the time. In man-to-man coverage, the linebacker is an endangered species, anyway. That's a great expanse of real estate out there. The thing to do is give the passer the least amount of time to see what's there, to pressure him into throwing too quickly."
Game situations dictate how Hendricks is deployed. In the AFC championship against San Diego he and the Raiders came to realize in the third quarter that when the Chargers went into a double tight-end formation, one of those ends, Greg McCrary, consistently stayed in to block on pass plays. Sensing a mismatch, Hendricks moved to McCrary's side. "A tight end isn't used to pass blocking," Hendricks says. "He's a power blocker on runs and a pass receiver. I had the advantage. From the third quarter on, I was blitzing."
"It's unbelievable the things Ted can do," says Owens. "He's always around the ball—for fumbles, sacks, interceptions. Our defense is made for Ted to do his thing. He's elusive, quick and strong. He looks like such a lanky guy at 225 pounds, but he does so many things to get around people. He put so much pressure on [Quarterback Dan] Fouts in the San Diego game that it dictated what happened in the secondary."
Hendricks was a skinny, 214-pound defensive end at the University of Miami who didn't seriously consider playing professionally until his senior year, 1968, when as the Mad Stork he made everybody's All-America team. "What position would I play?" says Hendricks. "Defensive end? They all weighed 270, like Bubba Smith. Linebacker? Remember Dick Butkus?" But play he did, and very well, for Baltimore. Then midway in his career, after he was traded off to Green Bay in 1974, he entered what he calls a "valley of fatigue." Oakland gave the Packers two first-round draft choices as compensation after signing Hendricks as a free agent in 1975. Last year he resented the Raiders' 3-4 defensive setup, which made him too much of a spot player. This season, at age 33, he has climbed out of the valley to the very peak of his 12-year career.
But Hendricks' value is as much inspirational as physical. "I've been around eight years," says Owens, "but I'd never been in the playoffs. I thought I should take a more serious approach to these games. Ted kept me loose. He made me realize that all we had to do to win was play the way we had been."