When thinking about the 2012 Cowboys, it’s easy to focus on Dallas’ star offensive players. Unfortunately, that overshadows the fact that we’re witnessing the prime of the career of what will end up being the best 3-4 outside linebacker in the history of pro football.
There is nothing DeMarcus Ware could have done, or could do in the future, to convince most football fans that he ranks ahead of Lawrence Taylor in any all-time list. That’s not unique to Taylor; some would find it unfathomable to vault a cover corner over Deion Sanders, a middle linebacker over Dick Butkus, or a running back over Jim Brown. So let’s just get that out of the way. To many, ‘LT’ is the best 3-4 outside linebacker ever (if not best linebacker or defensive player, period) and that will never change. To them, this post won’t change your mind one bit. To others, allow me to make the case that when he retires, Ware will have been the best player to ever play his position.
The 3-4 defense didn’t enter the NFL until 1974, when the scheme was brought to Houston, Buffalo and New England. Putting aside Taylor, the best outside linebackers to play in this scheme include names like Robert Brazile, Tom Jackson, Ted Hendricks, Clay Matthews, Andre Tippett, New Orleans’ Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Cornelius Bennett and Derrick Thomas. In today’s game, it’s probably Ware and Terrell Suggs, who also splits his time playing as a 4-3 end. With all due respect to Suggs, and other active stars like Tamba Hali, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, Aldon Smith, Clay Matthews and Cameron Wake, no current player has the body of work to compare to Ware.
The Cowboys star has been named an AP first-team All-Pro four times; among 3-4 outside linebackers, only Taylor has more selections. Taylor (10), Robert Brazile (7), Rickey Jackson (6) and Ware are the only 3-4 linebackers to have been named to six Pro Bowls, and Ware has been a selection in each of the last six years. Ultimately, outside of perhaps a vocal minority that would argue for Derrick Thomas over Taylor (and more on that tomorrow), Ware’s case as the best 3-4 outside linebacker of all-time comes down to whether you could put him ahead of Taylor as a player1.
The role of the 3-4 outside linebacker is complex, as a well-rounded player must be adept in pass coverage and capable at stopping the run. But the sexiest and most important role of the 3-4 outside linebacker is to get after the quarterback. A 3-4 outside linebacker, like a defensive end in a 4-3 or 5-2 scheme, shoulders the primary pass rush responsibilities for his defense. At least relative to other elite players at his position, Taylor was not particularly known for his coverage or run stuffing skills. What made him “LT” was his ferocious pass rushing ability. While certainly important, I don’t think we can get very far when comparing Taylor to Ware as a pass defender or a run stuffer. Over the last four years, Pro Football Focus has consistently rated Ware as not just excellent as a pass rusher, but elite in coverage and well above average in run support. But even putting those facets of their games aside, for those who view Taylor as the best 3-4 linebacker of all-time, nearly all of them also consider him the best pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker of all time. But how does he compare to Ware?
Ware has played in the NFL for seven seasons, accumulating 99.5 sacks in 112 games. In Taylor’s first seven seasons, he played in 101 games2 and recorded 83 sacks. Ware has the edge there, averaging 0.89 sacks per game to Taylor’s 0.82 sacks per game. Since his second season, Ware has been unstoppable, averaging 15.25 sacks over his last six years. Taylor’s best six-year stretch (in terms of sacks per game) came from ’84 to ’89, when he recorded 87.5 sacks in 88 games, or 15.9 sacks per 16 games. But what looks like a slight edge to Taylor is actually a significant edge to Ware. Let’s take a closer look at Taylor’s peak (’84 to ’89) to the last six years for Ware.
Sack rates3 are significantly lower now than they were in the ’80s. From ’84 to ’89, the league average sack rate was roughly 8.3%, compared to just 6.6% over the past six seasons. Holding pass attempts equal, there are only 4 sacks in today’s game for every 5 sacks during Taylor’s prime. More advanced blocking schemes, shorter passing routes, rules changes, and a host of other factors have simply made sacks less common in today’s NFL. Since sacks occurred 25% more frequently 25 years ago, averaging 15.25 sacks per 16 games in today’s era is significantly harder to achieve than averaging 15.9 sacks per 16 games was in Taylor’s era.
Of course, that’s holding pass attempts equal. But this paragraph might surprise you. From ’84 to ’89, the Giants faced 3,278 pass attempts in the 88 games in which Taylor played. Remember, those Giants teams generally were very good, winning 67% of those games and sporting an excellent rush defense. As a result, New York’s opponents passed frequently, and often in obvious passing situations. It’s true that teams generally pass more often in modern times, but the Cowboys the last six years have faced 3,515 pass attempts. As a result, Taylor’s Giants (37.25) faced more pass attempts per game during his prime than did the Cowboys of 2006 to 2011 (36.6 pass attempts per game).
Considering the eras in which they played, and the number of pass attempts they faced, it’s easy to argue that Ware’s sack numbers are more impressive. Of course, the natural response from the Pro-Taylor camp would be that Taylor’s sack numbers understate his true value. What might be the reasons for that?
- An elite pass rusher is often the focus of the opposing offense, preventing him from piling up good sack numbers. But those Giants teams were stacked in the front seven. Leonard Marshall was an excellent 3-4 pass rushing defensive end and he lined up right in front of Taylor in the Giants base defense. He had 15.5 sacks in ’85 and 12 more in ’86, far more than any defensive end Ware has ever played with. Carl Banks, Harry Carson, Pepper Johnson and Gary Reasons were excellent linebackers who made Taylor’s life a lot easier. Jim Burt and Erik Howard both made Pro Bowls at nose tackle. Sure, defenses would focus on Taylor, but he played in one of the best front sevens of his era. I don’t think anyone would make the case that Ware’s supporting cast is on that same level (or all that close to it). Offenses spend the week before playing the Cowboys figuring out how to block DeMarcus Ware, just like they did with Taylor. But in Ware’s case, he’s often the sole elite force that blocking schemes need to account for. Taylor’s Giants played a 2-gap 3-4 scheme; with an athletic and powerful defensive end like Marshall in front of him, that made it even more difficult for offenses to get multiple blockers on Taylor.
- The “overrated because he plays for Dallas” line of reasoning is often invoked in sports arguments, but it doesn’t hold up when comparing him to a player on the Bill Parcells New York Giants. As far as hype goes, Taylor was fortunate enough to be at the intersection of playing in New York, being the dominant pass rusher in the league once sacks started being officially recorded, and being a dynamic and charismatic defensive star capable of making incredible highlights as ESPN began taking over the sports nation.
- One could argue — quite accurately — that sacks alone are a poor measure of pass rushing ability or just defensive disruption in general. And that’s true. If the Taylor supporters want to argue that while Ware was better at getting sacks, Taylor was better at hurrying and disrupting the quarterback, there would be little evidence to support or contradict that position. According to Pro Football Focus, Ware had 56 hurries in 2009, 20 more than the next best player. He added another 100 hurries the past two seasons, ranking 2nd in that metric in both years. And while Taylor forced 33 fumbles in his career, Ware is already at 27.
Taylor recorded just 18 sacks after his age 31 season; I suspect that Ware won’t suffer a similar dropoff and will have a more gradual decline. Absent injury, Ware is likely to end up with more career sacks than Taylor, and perhaps more than any 3-4 outside linebacker ever. Unless you want to argue that Lawrence Taylor was much better against the run the Ware, or that Taylor was much better in coverage than Ware, or that Taylor was a much better pass rusher but sacks alone don’t tell the story, Ware will likely end his career as the most productive 3-4 outside linebacker of all-time. Taylor will always be labeled as someone who ‘changed the game’ and ‘revolutionized a defense.’ But unless you want to argue that no one can ever run the two minute drill better than Johnny Unitas, no one could ever run pass routes better than Don Hutson, or no one could ever play bump and run coverage than Willie Brown, you have to consider that someone could come along and improve on what we’ve seen. In DeMarcus Ware, I think we’re seeing just that.