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New York Giants coach Bill Parcells collects elephants. Also linebackers. Sometimes it's hard to tell them apart.
When the Giants face John Elway and the Denver Broncos in Pasadena on Sunday in Super Bowl XXI, eight linebackers will be in uniform, and never in NFL history has there been a bigger, rougher, deeper collection on one team. They set the tone for a defense that held San Francisco and Washington, two of the league's more potent offensive clubs, to three points, total, in the playoffs. The Redskins couldn't convert a single third or fourth down in 18 tries. The 49ers were 2 for 14.
Two exceptional quarterbacks melted under this defensive onslaught. The 49ers' Joe Montana wound up in the hospital with a concussion. The last view of Washington's young Jay Schroeder was of a worn and dazed battler slowly sinking to the turf in exhaustion. Now it's John Elway's turn.
The Giants' front line is good, not great. The secondary is average. The linebackers control the tempo. They're big enough to take on an offensive guard or tackle and nifty enough to clamp on wide receivers in the short zones. They're smart and tough, working at maximum efficiency in a scheme devised by Parcells, a former linebacker and linebacker coach himself. But the first thing you notice about them is their size.
Carl Banks, who generally lines up against the tight end on the outside, is the lightest at 232. According to the most recent training-room figures, the weights top out at 250 for the only rookie in the bunch, Pepper Johnson. Lawrence Taylor, who usually plays outside on the weak, or open, side, goes 248. So does Harry Carson, who plays the weak inside position, and his running mate at ILB, Gary Reasons, weighs 245. The average for the group is 6'3½", 244½ pounds.
There have been great starting units in the past—Russell, Ham and Lambert on the Steelers; Nitschke, Robinson and Caffey on the Packers—but it's a game of situation substitution now, and the Giant linebackers attack in waves. Reasons became a rookie starter in 1984 and a budding superstar in '85. Then Andy Headen, a shockingly fast 6'5", 245-pound former quarterback and defensive back, became his situation sub on passing downs. Johnson bloomed late this season. In the first playoff game against the 49ers, the Giants would bring in Headen on second down and Johnson on third.
Byron Hunt, another pillar at 6'5", 245 pounds, had a brilliant rookie season in 1981, taking over for Brad Van Pelt in the playoff run. In 1984 the Giants selected Banks on the first round, the third player picked in the entire draft.
Banks played in a frenzy this season, especially in the stretch run. He's only a notch behind Taylor in ability. Hunt had been in the shadows but when he replaced Taylor (who had bruised his right thigh) in the Washington game, the defense didn't even lose a beat.
Reasons, Headen, Johnson, Hunt, Banks—it's like a never-ending variety show. Bring down the curtain on one act, raise it for the next. First the ventriloquist, then the acrobats, then the dancing poodles. Even the eighth guy on the Giants' linebacker roster, 242-pound Robbie Jones, is talented enough to start for many other teams.
The constant factors are Taylor, who still causes offenses to assign two, sometimes three, watchdogs to him, and Carson, the finest inside run-jammer and goal-line specialist in the game today.