Cross-Generational Comparisons Of NFL Greats
In my last article I wrote about a debate that NFL fans have had over the years: Who was a better running back, Emmitt Smith or Barry Sanders? Making comparisons isn’t easy because each running back had a different running style.
In this article let’s look at another longstanding debate: Who was a better linebacker, Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears or the New York Giants’ Lawrence Taylor?
My first response is why compare a middle linebacker with an outside linebacker? These are different positions with different responsibilities. It’s my opinion that Dick Butkus was the best MLB to ever play the game. I also believe Lawrence Taylor was the best OLB to ever play the game.
But even if some people agree with that assessment it won’t be a satisfactory answer to others.
Why? I suppose some people just like to debate–even when the point they argue doesn’t make much sense. Others will favor the player whom they remember from childhood (I’m in that category). A third group will likely take the side of the modern player because today’s players are bigger, faster, and stronger.
I started watching football in the late 1960s and soon became addicted to the game. For me, NFL players who played between 1969 and 1980 are glued to my memory, including Dick Butkus. Anyone who watched him play in person–or had the misfortune of playing against him–will never forget how hard he hit.
But there’s more to Butkus than “he was a hard hitter”: he had no weaknesses. A once-in-a-lifetime player, Butkus could do it all. One can’t help but wonder how much better he could have been had his career not been cut short by ravaged knees.
Then there’s Lawrence Taylor, a player who began his NFL career in 1981–eight years after Butkus retired. Although I was still a big football fan when he played, I was no longer a child–no longer in awe of football players as I had been when Butkus played. That contrast enables me to look at Taylor differently from the way I look at Butkus.
Taylor was an incredible football talent. He was so gifted that it was almost as though he was playing two positions–OLB and DE–at once. He played with a motor that never stopped and, like Butkus, had no weaknesses.
But let’s be clear about one thing: these great players played in a different era from today’s game. In fact, these guys played in eras different from each other.
Some will argue that Butkus (and other players from his era) wouldn’t be as good today as they were back then. The argument? Today’s players are bigger, faster, and stronger.
Okay, fine! But why are they bigger faster, stronger?
There are many reasons, including better training methods and better knowledge of nutrition (what foods to eat and what vitamins and supplements to take). There are also advanced methods in surgery–arthroscopic surgery, in particular–and vast improvements in rehabilitation and physical therapy for injuries.
So if Butkus were playing today, wouldn’t he be taking advantage of those advancements? Of course he would. And my bet is that those advantages would make him ‘bigger, faster, stronger’ than he was when he played years ago.
What if Lawrence Taylor had been born 10 years earlier than he was? His NFL career would have started in 1971, not in 1981. Would he have been as good? Would he have been as dominating a player? Would he have been as big? As fast? As strong?
We’ll never know. That’s why playing this ‘cross-generation’ game gets too weird for my taste.
Where do I settle? I’ve always believed a great player would be a great player no matter in what era he played. Lawrence Taylor and Dick Butkus are two of the all-time greats to play the game of football. I’m glad I had the pleasure of seeing both of them play. They were both special for different reasons.
And they weren’t the only great linebackers to play the game, either. Names like Ray Nitschke (Green Bay), Willie Lanier (Kansas City), and Ray Lewis (Baltimore) come to mind at MLB. At OLB there were greats, too, players like Jack Ham (Pittsburgh), Bobby Bell (Kansas City), and Ted Hendricks (Oakland).
Let the debaters decide who was the best of the best. Me? I’d rather cherish the memories.