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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 best 3-4 outside linebacker ever?

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.

The dominant defensive force of his 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.

  1. Taylor’s legend appears to grow every year, and as a mythical or historical figure, Ware stands no chance of surpassing him. []
  2. Ten of those eleven missed games due to labor issues. []
  3. Calculated as sacks divided by the sum of pass attempts and sacks. []
  • omar

    very nice article

  • Scott

    I am a huge Dallas Cowboys fan, and very much appreciate what Ware has done for Dallas. As the article states, Ware has equalled or surpassed the production of Lawrence Taylor despite playing along side inferior talent to the great Giant defenses of the 80’s. It is not out of the question that Ware will end up with a more productive body of work than the great LT.

    But I’m not going to quibble with Giants fans who want to put LT at the top of the list. Regardless of whether or not Ware proves in the end to be a better player than LT, even a Cowboys fan like me has to acknowledge that LT had a greater impact on the history of the game. In a similar vein, I know a lot of people who think Joe Namath doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. And based on Namath’s career achievements, it is hard to argue that he is worthy of that honor. But sometimes, it is not just the production a player has, but it is the influence he had on the game and how it is played.

    No one would argue that Cowboys HOF wide receiver Bob Hayes was the best receiver who ever played the game. But he is in the HOF because his speed caused the NFL to change the way it played defense. Taylor had a similar impact in that he changed how teams ran the offense. If there are fewer sacks per game now than there were 25 years ago, that is directly attributable to offenses being forced to change to combat players like Taylor.

    So, even a Cowboys fan needs to acknowledge the greatness of Taylor. That the argument that Ware might eventually become the best ever 3-4 linebacker in no way diminishes the greatness of Taylor. In fact, it is a tribute to Taylor that Ware is the player he is. Without Taylor to blaze the trail of greatness, players like Ware might not be given a chance to contribute in the way they do today. So if Ware proves to be the better player, he owes at least some of the credit to Taylor – as does every great pass rusher who has played since Taylor.

  • Tim Truemper

    Wonderful analysis using basic descriptive statistics. My take on people deciding the GOAT is based on subjective appraisal, that is the legendary impression or status a player as attained. For example, many people would label Dick Butkus as the greatest 4-3 MLB of all time. But per one PFR article, he may have been over rated (despite being greatly feared). For my book, I would take Willie Lanier as the MLB for my 4-3 defense, especially from that era. And then maybe Ray Nitcshke. But I digress.

    LT’s legendary status as Scott states above is significantly boosted by the way he was used in the 3-4 defense and the way he forced offenses to change to account for him. He was perceived as a novelty that enhanced his greatness. Now that so many teams use the 3-4, Ware is not so “different” except in consistency of high performance. What I am ultimately saying is that LT’s legendary status is boosted in how he was perceived, not just on performance. He was great, perhaps the greatest, but a case can be made for Ware. And the problem for Ware is that there is a subjective bias to elevate LT due to this “legend” quality ascribed to him.

    Insofar as Bob Hayes was the greatest receiver of all time, well…. I grew up watching the Cowboys in the 60’s. I loved Bob Hayes. I adored the fact he wore the number 22. I was enthralled that he was the fastest human at one time and was the fastest in the NFL (with Paul Warfield and Cliff Branch and Homer Jones all close behind). But he was not the greatest receiver. Not even for the years he was at the top of his game. And while the “legend” is that he changed the ways teams played defense in the NFL, that is somewhat overstated. Teams, such as the Colts, were already emphasizing zone coverage as the whole league was getting faster. Charley Taylor, Paul Warfield, Homer Jones all ran under 9.4 in the 100 and were exemplary in track in college. Overall team speed was improving and in the early 60’s passing TD totals for some teams were soaring (for example, YA Tittle threw 33 and 36 TD passes for the Giants in 1962 and 1963, respectively. Teams were trying to slow others down and make them “march” down the field. The Browns of the 1960’s were known for a “bend don’t break” style and instead were better at getting turnovers than limiting yardage. Anyway, my point being that Hayes was great, but definitely not the best. Despite all the love I had for “Bullet Bob.”

  • Wintermute

    I hope you’re getting paid for these articles, this one is a masterpiece.

    I would like to bring up the idea that ProBowls should not be used as any sort of honorarium. I am sure it was at some point in history (1970s?) but certainly in today’s era the ProBowl is like a college degree. Yeah, it sounds like an accomplishment but then you realize it’s value has been profoundly diluted. We all know the reasons why: back-ups to the back-ups make the ProBowl because the two men ahead of them have better things to do; the voting on the ProBowl is only through Week 15 (huh?); and they want to cancel it wholesale. It’s become a joke. Yeah, he made six ProBowls, so what? Everyone in Spain has a Masters degree. Diluted.

  • Paymon

    You mentioned Jim Burt (and Erik Howard) as a big reason for LT’s success, and I agree. Jay Ratliff is better than any of New York’s LT era nose tackles, so this point is muted.
    The second thing I disagreed with is that LT wasn’t DOMINANT against the run. Teams often didn’t seal the backside of a run play, especially if it was a play where the halfback got to the outside so quickly, partially helped by a toss to the half back rather than a handoff. When teams ran away from Taylor, however, they DID have to assign a player to block him, taking away a blocker that would normally be used to block out in front of the runner. He was so fast that he would run behind the line of scrimmage and chase down the running back for a loss or no gain, and too strong to be blocked by a receiver on a crackback. Sometimes the tight end (when they ran strongside; remember LT most often rushed from the defensive right to blindside the QB, and most teams put the TE on the right, making it the strongside) would peel back from the right and attempt to block the weakside backer in pursuit. For instance, New England liked to do this with Russ Francis, but LT was often too fast, too strong, and required a lineman. Even if the Tight end block was effective, it took away a key blocker to block a position that previously didn’t need it, and took away a blocker that would previously have focused on the SAM backer or help with a combo block on the DE followed by a block on the Strong Safety. Before LT, I saw QBs like Jim McMahon throw blocks to slow down the Will enough so he couldn’t run down the much faster running back from behind (who also had a head start and a toss; most Wills couldn’t catch up even if left unblocked). So LT changed offensive blocking not just in picking up a blitzing backer, but in run blocking as well. He was dominant against the run. Too fast to run away from without a serious seal on the backside, and too big to run straight at.
    I do agree with you that Ware may become as good as Taylor. I do think he’s as good or better in coverage, though neither willl ever be showcased for their pass coverage when they would be better served rushing.
    The main reason I think Ware may be in the same class as LT is mainly from one reason. Before LT, teams used a halfback or fullback to block dogs (blitzing backers). Taylor (and to a point, Andre Tippet too) ended that, but it would take years for teams to effectively change that. Those were some good years for #56. When they figured out they would have to use a tackle AND a tight end at least, they still had to train the tackles. The slight outward stance of the left tackle developed because of this, but it took awhile. When Ware came into the league, teams had adapted to the new breed of 3-4 outside dogs. He didn’t get a few years to go up against a single back, then two backs, then a TE, then a TE and a back, TE and two backs, then a tackle, then finally a tackle and a tight end. His was a different NFL, and offenses were prepared. It was simply more difficult for him. Yet he’s put up incredible numbers. That’s the respect I give to him, and he may be the first 3-4 outside backer that has earned the right to be mentioned with the like of LT. Like Bronco Nagurski, Sammy Baugh, Bill George, Roger Craig, Kellen Winslow and the like, LT was the first to revolutionize a position. Like all of them, he remains among if not the best AS WELL AS the first, which makes him the standard for all to follow. I do agree with you that Ware is on his way to meeting that standard.
    I do see a change in the NFL where this new breed of 6-6+ 265+ lb TEs will start to be developed to block, not just catch. The biggest will be converted to a new breed of super athletic left tackle. TEs in college converted to left tackles, or a hybrid. The first examples are Nate Solder, former college tight end in NE, Joe Staley, super athletic former college TE playing LT in S.F. (he even caught passes last year, and not just in the endzone), and Philly’s left tackle Jason Peters, who I believe was a TE as well. Between tackles like Staley, and tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, or the best blocker of all,, Jacksonville’s 6-6″ 275 lbs TE Marcedes Lewis (who is for real, not a linemen playing TE; he caught 58 passes for 700 yards and 10 TDs for his first Pro Bowl 2 years ago, and almost 500 yards last year in that offense), offenses can have tackle and tight end duos who may have even been able to slow down you know who.
    LT was the most dominating defensive player since I fell in love with the game and watched my first SuperBowl in 86-87 (Giants/Denver). He was phenomenal. I’ll look forward to watching Ware play more because of articles like this. Sincerely, Paymon

    • Chase Stuart

      Thanks for the comment. I agree LT had it easier, which is seen by the much higher sack rates during his era. Obviously teams aren’t using QBs to block OLBs anymore.

      To be clear, I wasn’t saying that Taylor was a bad run defender, just that I didn’t know how we would go about arguing that he was better against the run than Ware.

  • Danish

    Minor quibble since you are centering the debate aound their peaks; didn’t LT have a produtive season or two before Sacks was recorded? Are you ignoring that year or using some sort of uofficial number?

    To be clear, I don’t think this changes any of your conclusions, but full disclosure..

    • My calculations did include the 9.5 sacks he unofficially recorded as a rookie.

  • sam mandonald

    I think you make a valid case for Demarcus Ware being a slightly better pass rusher than LT. That said, You can’t put Ware in the same league as LT. I say that with no disrespect to Ware who I consider far and away the OLB in the game today. But LT averaged 100+ tackles & 10+ sacks a season from 1981-89. The man was a freak of nature against the run.

  • Dan Coyle

    This article reminds me of when sportscasters try to make a name for themselves by a risky or controversial take.

    You lost nearly all credibility when you suggested LT was not as strong against the run and was not a noted run-stuffer. Seriously?! https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=jnNP7mWAP5k

    You similarly lost credibility when you suggested LT had it “easier” bc of the era. He regularly faced triple-teams and beat them.

    Last, if you had any credibility left to lose, you lost it when you suggested Ware was better in pass coverage. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2RsKNUCYMOw

    LT also went to the pro-bowl when it mattered (before the whole thing became a joke bc of fan voting).

    Sorry, Ware cannot touch the dominance LT displayed. It’s not even close.