Is Lawrence Taylor worth a million and a half a year? Sure, why not? Can a 31-year-old NFL linebacker miss 44 days of training camp as a holdout, practice for four and then step onto the field without missing a beat? Evidently—as long as the oxygen is handy on the bench. Finally, and this was asked of Taylor after he sacked Randall Cunningham three times in the New York Giants' 27-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night, has he rendered preseason camp obsolete? "Well, I wouldn't go that far," he said, "but you certainly don't need six weeks of it."
Now it would be simplistic to say that Taylor was the whole story as the Giants ended a two-year, four-game jinx the Eagles had on them. If you're looking for reasons why New York made it appear easy (10 Philly points came in the last 5:19), you should know that the Giants tamed a pass rush from an Eagle front four that had been Phil Simms's personal horror show, knocking him out of two of the teams' last four games, and had registered 15 sacks in those games. Simms was dusted only once this time, a scramble sack that lost one yard.
Also, the Eagles suffered from a severe case of the shorts on offense, with their best possession receiver, running back Keith Byars, hampered early by a bruised hip and their new gang of speed receivers just about invisible.
But here's what Taylor, who removed himself from every third series or so to take deep pulls of oxygen on the sidelines, meant to the Giants: With LT on the field New York could play a long-yardage defense that featured only one down lineman, nose-guard Erik Howard, as the middle man in the three-man rush, flanked by Taylor and linebacker Pepper Johnson. And the Giants were able to exert pressure with it, while eight guys played their zones and combination coverages downfield. The first time the Giants showed it, on Philly's third play of the game, Taylor flushed Cunningham out of the pocket. Cunningham threw on the run to tight end Mickey Shuler. Everson Walls, the old Dallas Cowboy who is New York's new right cornerback, swooped in and intercepted, setting up a quickie field goal.
With Taylor on the field, Cunningham knew there was at least one pass rusher he would have a tough time outrunning. That was shown dramatically in the third quarter, Philly's worst of the game, when Cunningham took off on a sprint. Taylor chased him down from behind, knocked the ball loose with that patented slap of his and held the gain to two yards after Cunningham caught a bit of luck when the ball popped back into his hands.
LT was his old self, if a little shaky in the stamina department, relying more on spins and speed moves than on his power rushes of the past. But he was a force, a presence. "When you see LT out there busting his butt on that three-man rush, it rubs off on you," said Johnson, the most active and consistently the most effective Giants defender in the game. "Pass rushing is mostly determination anyway. If you see him doing it, you can do it."
Even as thoughtful and introspective an athlete as Carl Banks, the left linebacker, found himself caught up in the Taylor thing. "The LT factor can dictate the outcome of a game," he said. "He's not just a great defensive player, he's a great football player. Star quality, like Michael Jackson."
And for 44 hot, sweaty, training camp days, while the Giants were working themselves wobbly-legged in two-a-days, Taylor was knocking in par putts, and his agent, Joe Courrege, was telling the Giants that LT was worth $10 million over four years. Nine years in the league, nine years in the Pro Bowl—that should be worth more than the measly $1.21 million he was to make in 1990, the option year of his six-year contract. "He wanted to be the highest-paid defensive player in football, and that's understandable," New York general manager George Young said.
When it got down to where the two sides were a million bucks apart—the Giants offering $4.5 million over three years, Taylor asking for $5.5 million—everyone knew it was just a matter of time. Everyone except the people who believed those silly trade rumors: LT to the Eagles for Reggie White; LT to the Oilers; LT to anyone Courrege reached by phone and asked, "Are you interested?"
"The Eagles called to verify that I had given them permission to seek a trade," Young says. "That's all they said. I got a call from the Oilers to say that they had no interest. And those are the only people who called. Honest. As far as that rumor that the Eagles would keep the thing alive just to keep him away until they played us...well, they simply don't play that kind of pool. They play hard on the field, but neither of us is in the enemy business.