Maybe you had to be here, alive and lucid, to understand.
To see his epic greatness. To see his singular dominance. To absorb his eminence.
Before the scourge of social media, before Twitter and Facebook and “Snap Face” (as Bill Belichick would say), before the Internet and online gangsters, before cell phones and smart phones and the instant ADD ingestion of news…
We watched two games on Sunday, and one game on Monday. If you lived in New York City, or the Tri-State Area, you were forced to watch the New York Jets and the New York “Football” Giants.
Back in the 1970s, that was a form of capital punishment, an inhumane way of treating football fans. Our football teams were a reflection of the time and the town. In the madness of the Son of Sam, the blackout, the Wild-West mayhem of Travis Bickle’s NYC, our teams were as rancid as the unswept sidewalks.
So those of us born in the late-’60s who became football fans in the mid-’70s, chose any team but the locals. Most kids scampered toward the Dolphins, Raiders, Cowboys, or Steelers.
Until 1981, when the Giants made the greatest draft pick in team history, if not NFL history.
This little-known linebacker from Virginia, who played college ball for North Carolina, had a nondescript name but a biblical game.
Brandon Marshall, the hybrid wideout / personality who does a fine job on Showtime’s Inside the NFL, went way out on the limb this week, asserting that JJ Watt was the greatest defensive player in history. Better than Taylor.
Sorry, Brandon. While Marshall is the best Jets pass-catcher since Keyshawn Johnson, another loquacious wideout, roamed the Meadowlands, he took a big leap, sans a safety net.
JJ Watt is toying with NFL offenses, pawing and swatting 300-pound linemen like a cat torturing a rodent. He is as dominant as any lineman can be right now, what with league rules gelding great defenders by the day.
If you could sign any player to play defense right now, you pick Watt. He’s in his prime, plays through endless injuries, and is the kind of athletic freak you find once a decade. Not since Reggie White have we seen one man wreak the kind of mayhem we see from Watt.
But, to paraphrase the political maxim, you’re no Lawrence Taylor.
Lawrence Taylor, who quickly ascended to a sobriquet — LT — became a behemoth the instant he walked onto an NFL gridiron, landing on the Meadowlands like a meteor. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but the sack became a statistic right after his rookie season.
Like Wilt Chamberlain in the NBA, the league literally changed upon Taylor’s arrival. Not only with sacks becoming a stat, but also the way offenses are designed to protect the passer. Bill Walsh, the play-caller nonpareil, designed an entire game plan to account for No. 56, and was the first to designate a tackle whose sole role was to block LT.
Up until Taylor, tight ends and running backs were enough to account for a linebacker. But Taylor bull-rushed so many staggering fullbacks, and tight ends that he literally changed the game. Taylor was too strong for backs, too quick for lineman, and was fast enough to chase down halfbacks.
As Watt pines for an NFL MVP award, it’s no coincidence that he would be the first defender to bag the award since 1986, when Taylor won it. There’s a reason it’s been 30 years since a defender was branded the best player in the sport. With the rules slanted so profoundly toward offense in general and quarterbacks in particular, the nouveau offense short-circuits the scoreboard. Indeed, of the 29 recipients since 1986, 21 are quarterbacks, and the rest are running backs.
Taylor befuddled the best minds in the sport. The 1980s saw a roll call of Canton coaches, from Walsh to Bill Parcells to Joe Gibbs to Tom Landry. Taylor was so disruptive and destructive, required so much attention, he freed up his talented teammates — Carl Banks, Harry Carson and Pepper Johnson — to roam the field with impunity.
A quarter century after his retirement, Taylor is buried in the middle of the sack-pack, with 132. It doesn’t speak to his singular talent. With all due respect to Deacon Jones, the Fearsome Foursome, Purple People Eaters and the Steel Curtain, Taylor made pass-rushing a weapon, a specialty, a W-2 payroll gig, a vice president of the new world order.
Since Taylor retired, a conga line of sack specialists have flooded the draft board. Reggie White, Bruce Smith and Michael Strahan are the best at the craft, but they were followed by several high-end pass rushers, like Jevon Kearse, Chris Doleman and Kevin Green.
Mark Gastineau, another Big Apple icon, made the sack dance a theatrical necessity. A member of the famed New York Sack Exchange (NYSE), Gastineau could do little other than stalk the QB. He couldn’t defend the rush, couldn’t pick a pass, couldn’t cover a tight end. But when you can get 20 sacks a season, you become a vital member of any defense. The skill is particularly pronounced now, with teams passing the ball exponentially more every year. The NFL went from the plodding, predictable sequence of run, run, pass, kick to a pass-first extravaganza of shotgun formations and moveable parts. Only a quarterback could make the City of “Omaha!” an essential noun in the football and American lexicon.
Taylor also lined the pockets of left tackles. Before LT’s reign, offensive lineman were largely paid the same wage, and for the same skill: run-blocking. Now a left tackle becomes the most coveted player after quarterback. Johnathon Ogden, Orlando Pace, Jake Long, and Tony Boselli were among the first to see swollen, rookie contracts. O-Linemen were often picked in the back-end of the first round, signed to a template deal, and happy to be employed, and maybe, if lucky, to be part of a special sobriquet, like “The Hogs” in Washington.
Taylor made sacking the QB as strategically crucial as any page in the playbook. He made earrings masculine. He made the hard-partying, pro athlete an emblem of ’80s slick, like Don Johnson on South Beach, chasing criminals in Armani suits and Ferraris, all on a detective’s salary. In the 1980s, as NYC crawled out of the crisis of the 1970s — the city was literally bankrupt — Gotham became the axis of excess.
And the athletic party animal came with the new wealth of Wall Street, Gordon Gekko gone rogue. Along with Taylor we had Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and perhaps the king of the psycho-celebrity, Mike Tyson. And not necessarily in that order. Indeed, most will tell you that no athlete made the nightclub jump up and down like piano keys the way Taylor would.
Like Doc and Darryl, Taylor succumbed to the lure of drugs, got lost in the back alleys of NYC nightlife, where the demons congregate. If there was a dim-lit corner on the frostbitten streets of Hell’s Kitchen, Taylor found it. Before Times Square became a sterile homage to the tax and tourist dollar, it was a place that catered to every dark impulse of the human condition. It didn’t detract from LT’s greatness. But there was a Mickey Mantle quality to Taylor, flawless on the field, yet wholly flawed off of it. Even in their biblical greatness, there was a lingering ‘what if?’ scent to them.
But just as no one doubts Mantle’s divinity in the 1950s, no one who was alive and lucid in the 1980s even chirps at the assertion that Taylor was the greatest defensive player in pro football. Not even the calcified old-timers, who were reared on Ray Nitschke or Sam Huff or Dick Butkus, could dispute LT’s dominance. We’ve come to learn that LT wasn’t the nicest man in the world, but he was its greatest football player.
JJ Watt is making Defensive Player of the Year his personal, annual party. He’s so good no one can even summon a second name for the award. Revis Island has slowly sunk into the Atlantic. Though still excellent, Richard Sherman doesn’t seem to be quite as sublime as he was the night he terrified Erin Andrews with a saliva-laced assault on Michael Crabtree. Luke Keuchly, perhaps the most naturally gifted defender in the sport, doesn’t stay healthy enough long enough to warrant a serious look.
No, the world is Watt’s. He’s that good. He’s earned every dime in his bulging bank account. But JJ is still no LT. We can sack that debate right now.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.