My Exchange with Paul Zimmerman About NFL All-Time Best Players (Part 3)

We look at linebackers, the defensive backfield, special teams, and team defense in this final installment of my memorable exchange with sportswriter Paul Zimmerman.

Almost every all-time team lumps together linebackers as if there is no difference between the linebacking positions. But Dr.Z and I agreed that there are big differences between the outside linebacker and middle linebacker positions–differences in assignments, skills, and talent required. For instance, it would have been a mistake to line up Dick Butkus as an outside linebacker, just as it wouldn’t make sense to have Lawrence Taylor play MLB. Their natural skills/abilities would have gone to waste.

Courtesy: Playball

At outside linebacker, Zimmerman chose Lawrence Taylor, Ted Hendricks, Jack Ham, and Dave Wilcox with honorable mention going to Chuck Howley and Bobby Bell. I had Bell as #3, right behind Taylor and Ham. I was surprised Zimmerman didn’t have him ranked higher.

Said Zimmerman on Taylor: “He wasn’t a linebacker in the real sense of the word. He was more of a rush-wingman, the best pass-rushing linebacker the game has ever seen. And while he was solid against the run, his coverage responsibility was almost zero.”

While that last sentence may be interpreted as a criticism, that’s not the way I looked at it. Taylor was fortunate to have had two coaches–Bill Parcells and Bill Belichek–who recognized they had something special in Taylor. Taylor’s specialty was rushing the quarterback, and nobody did it better. Taylor’s talents would be wasted by giving him a lot of pass coverage responsibility. So, they let him loose to go after the QB.

About Hendricks, Z said: “Ted was a Rhodes Scholar finalist, highly intelligent. He was technically sound and was seldom out of position. He played all aspects of his position extremely well.” On Ham, Zimmerman thought he was “very effective against the power sweep and the best pass coverage linebacker the game has ever seen.” And he thought Wilcox “had an almost unnoticed skill of nullifying tight ends.”

Of Wilcox, former 49ers defensive coach Mike Giddings said: “Many strongside linebackers get hooked to the inside on running plays. Wilkie never got hooked. It was a point of honor with him. And he could rush the passer when needed. There was one game when we (the coaching staff) decided to turn him loose on the quarterback. He had three sacks and two forced fumbles. It was just that he was too valuable in his regular job.”

My picks as the top middle linebackers were Dick Butkus, Willie Lanier, Ray Nitschke, and Ray Lewis. Dr. Z was in full agreement. He gave Lanier a slight edge over Nitschke on range but said, “both were very effective against the run and in pass coverage.” And Z had a lot to say about Butkus, but his commentary wasn’t about Butkus being a hard hitter (what you often hear and read). And while some say Butkus would be out of the game on passing plays if he were playing today, the fact is that he’s not playing today. Nor did Ray Lewis play in the 1960s. They played when they played.

Zimmerman summed up Butkus this way. “Butkus didn’t have great range for the downfield passes, but he was very good at covering the short stuff. He couldn’t close on a shallow receiver as quickly as Ray Lewis, though. Ray was the best I’ve ever seen at that. But Dick didn’t get tied up in traffic, and he had great instincts. You have to remember that middle linebackers weren’t expected or needed to cover the downfield stuff when Butkus played. Football was more of a running game at that time.”

Teammate Ed O’Branovich evaluated Butkus this way: “Dick wasn’t fast when it came to running the 40-yard dash, but when it came to lateral movement, no one was faster.” Vince Lombardi called it “competitive speed.”

Another misconception about Butkus, Zimmerman concluded, is that he beat offensive lineman ‘senseless.’ “Not true,” said Hall of Fame guard Jerry Kramer: “The last thing Dick wanted to do was take you on. Instead, he wanted to get rid of you as quickly as possible so that he could get to the ball carrier.”

As we move on to defensive backs, once again, we agreed there’s a big difference between strong safety and free safety. He had Ken Houston as his #1 strong safety, as did I. I had Larry Wilson and Ronnie Lott as my top two free safeties, but Dr.Z disagreed. “Willie Wood was better than both of them.” He had Wilson as a close second, but he thought Lott was a bit overrated. “He had his best years at cornerback, and he was better at strong safety than free safety,” said Dr. Z. He also had Brian Dawkins and Cliff Harris high on his list.

Courtesy: Ronald Martinez//Allsport

As for hardest-hitting defensive backs, he picked Hardy Brown (1948–1960), Jack Tatum, and Cliff Harris. At cornerback, I picked Herb Adderly, Mel Blount, Deion Sanders, and Willie Brown. Zimmerman only chose two–Sanders was one, and his #1 cornerback was Jimmy Johnson.

“Sanders had the best closing speed ever,” said Zimmerman. “He would bait you by letting you catch a couple of short passes. It was almost impossible to beat him man-to-man, but he would get bored covering zone and the short stuff. But there was no such weakness in Johnson, who got very little recognition for the first eight years of his career because the 49ers were a lousy team and hardly ever on TV. Another reason is that he didn’t have a lot of interceptions in his career. That’s because quarterbacks were afraid to throw in his area. He played most of the 1971 season with a cast on his broken wrist, and they still wouldn’t throw in his area.”

We turned attention again, this time to Special Teams. Dr. Z picked Deion Sanders as his punt returner and Gale Sayers for kickoff returns. At kicker, he chose Adam Vinatieri. And while almost everyone picks Ray Guy as the #1 punter, I chose Sammy Baugh.

But Zimmerman disagreed on both Guy and Baugh as the top punters. “Baugh’s high average was built on quick kicks, and Ray Guy’s career gross average is lower than anyone in the game today. “Tommy Davis (49ers 1959–1969) was the best punter I ever saw,” said Zimmerman. “He was getting a 4.8 hang time while punting into a strong San Francisco wind.”

As for the best defense ever? At #1, Dr. Z picked the Steelers 1972–1978. The others were (in no particular order) Cowboys 1966–1978, Rams and Vikings– the late 60s and 70s, respectively, Bears 1984–1988, and Ravens early 2000’s. What was the most overlooked defense? He thought they were Lions 1952–1967, Packers 1960s, and Bills 1960–1966.

As they often say about very notable people: “They don’t make them like that anymore!” Well, that assessment probably applies to Paul Zimmerman. But what I know for sure is that I always enjoyed reading his material, and I’m delighted that our paths crossed–unexpectedly and oh, so, wonderfully.

I grew up in Northern NJ. I grew up in the 1970s. I was always a big sports fan. I enjoy writing about old school sports and weightlifting.

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