October 19, 2006

Reflecting on Pigskin Glory: Football’s Real L.T.

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So, I’m sitting on my couch watching the Giants game last weekend, when out of nowhere, a clip flashes on the screen between plays.

“I like to think some of the guys today are emulating me,” the face says with a smile.

I do a double take. No way! I say to myself, “It’s L.T.!”

All of a sudden, Fox is spewing a 30-second barrage of Lawrence Taylor highlights. At one point he chases down a running back from the opposite side of the field. Moments later, he leaps over a blocker, speeds around another and flattens an unsuspecting quarterback. In another second he’s holding off an offensive guard with one hand as he rushes the quarterback, and with his free hand, grabs the signal caller’s jersey and throws him for a sack.

And then the game reappears. Holy s—, this guy’s amazing.

I search for him on Wikipedia: “Retired Hall of Fame American football player … considered by many to be the greatest defensive player in NFL history.”

I look up his name on YouTube and essentially got three sets of results. One set was a bunch of videos of him sacking Joe Theisman and snapping Theisman’s leg in distinct pieces, ending Theisman’s quarterback career and commencing his television one. Another set is a group of the greatest NFL hits, on which Taylor makes numerous appearances. Finally, there’s my favorite, called “A Hitter’s Game.” It’s an NFL Films clip about Taylor’s revolution of pro football.

OK, so the Wikipedia and YouTube part didn’t actually happen right then. I already know all about Taylor, but the TV highlights got me thinking: Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about this guy? He’s responsible for modern football.

Is it because he was a drug addict? Is it because it’s hard to compare playing eras? Whatever the cause, Taylor is the reason football is played the way it is, and his impact needs to considered.

Linebackers may be the best athletes on the football field today, possibly in all of professional sports. But before Taylor, linebackers, and all of defense in fact, were completely different.

“You had big guys [on defense], but you didn’t have the great athlete that, now, the guys have to account for and, now, guys have to put two people on him,” said football head coach Jim Knowles ’87. “He’s making a lot of guys a lot of money today because all these guys who are pass rush specialists, he started that whole trend. … It really changed everything even at our level.”

At right outside linebacker, Taylor was the first defensive player to have, as the NFL Hall of Fame explained in his profile, “the speed to run past offensive linemen and the strength to out-muscle them.” Taylor could cover receivers and pursue runners, as well as dominate blockers, ruling games unlike anyone had ever seen. But Taylor’s greatest asset was his blitzing. Coming from the quarterback’s left, his hits on quarterbacks were lethal because they came from most quarterbacks’ blind side (most are right-handed). A blind-side hit on a fragile quarterback by football’s most ferocious and hard-hitting player could end careers and single-handedly defeat teams. Theisman’s injury became the model for the problem Taylor could cause with old blocking schemes and offenses.

“Before I saw Lawrence Taylor, I never saw a defensive player win a game by himself,” Hall of Fame coach John Madden once said.
“The offenses started throwing the ball more, and then he came along and made them readjust all their schemes to be able to account for the great defensive player,” Knowles said.

For the first time in years, offenses had to adjust to Taylor and attacking defenses, not the other way around, and this created modern football.

Taylor spawned the need for a new breed of offensive lineman, and consequently, they ballooned in size and speed, especially on the quarterback’s blind size. (Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, recently published a book about this evolution.) Blocking schemes changed to stop Taylor from blitzing unhindered. Before him, backs had picked up linebackers on all plays. But Taylor — who amassed 132.5 sacks in his career, the second-highest total ever at his retirement — could run through or around them to the ball carrier. New formations were created, such as Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs’ twin eight end or single back sets, in order to get a bigger player to block Taylor.

“To actually have to create a special scheme on your offense to handle one guy, that had never been done before. Whether you’re going to block him with the tackle and the back’s going to help him out, all these things,” Knowles said. “He got the defenses to change to become more aggressive, and then conversely, he forced the offenses to reevaluate all their protections and how they handle things to take care of things.”

By the time of Taylor’s retirement, teams were drafting and training players in Taylor’s mold all over the defense. An arms race for players with greater speed and strength ensued between offenses and defenses at all positions. New offensive weapons and strategies, including the aforementioned anti-Taylor tactics, became widespread. Defenses started blitzing on nearly every down from every position, and the front-eight defensive players — now strong and fast enough to play multiple roles — started mixing coverages and blitzes to confuse and overpower offenses.

“I think defense all of a sudden became more glamorous,” Knowles, a former Cornell lineman, said. “You had the ability to make big plays on defense. The offense was now throwing the ball more, and you had the chance to be a big play guy on defense, and because of what he did, it made it more attractive to your great athletes.”

At the collegiate level, the change was slower to arrive, but it’s here today, and you can see it in every game.

“Scheme-wise, we may not have many players yet who are as good as Lawrence Taylor, but we still take a lot of things from [him],” Knowles said. “You know, taking one of our better athletes, putting him against someone else who’s not quite as good. I think a lot of those thoughts in scheming up defense relate back to how he started that going.”
Knowles, a former defensive coordinator at Western Michigan, spoke of utilizing Jason Babin, now of the Houston Texans, in this way.

“You always start to look for those matchups now, that up until [Taylor’s] time probably were never even explored,” Knowles said.

Things have changed offensively as well.

“We look for the best athlete that we can get at left tackle because of those matchups that the defense is trying to create — you need to protect your quarterback,” Knowles said.

This is why linemen like Kevin Boothe ’06, now with the Raiders, are so highly coveted.

Ever year, teams search for the next L.T. But there has never been another Taylor, and there likely never will be. So the next time you’re watching football, whether it’s the NFL or a Cornell game, take a second to appreciate what you’re watching and, more importantly, who you have to thank for it all.

Josh Perlin is Sun Assistant Sports Editor. My Pitch will appear every other Thursday this semester.