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Great Linebackers Playing Together II

One of the many great pairs of Bears linebackers

One of the many great pairs of Bears linebackers.

Four years ago, I wrote version 1 of this article. With Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis retiring, I thought it would be fun to revisit the topic.

This post is NOT a look at the greatest linebacker groups ever. Instead, this post seeks to identify teams that had a bunch of great linebackers playing together while those players were in their primes.

The first thing we need to do is rate the linebackers. I used PFR’s Approximate Value system, which assigns a value to measure the approximate contribution of each player in each season since 1950. I then analyzed each player’s single-season AV score to come up with a base rating for each linebacker.1 It’s always difficult figuring out how to grade a player’s career, as you need to balance career length with peak production. I decided to average the best five years (they need not be consecutive) for every linebacker since 1950 to come up with a “peak AV rating” for each linebacker. Then I adjusted each linebacker’s peak AV rating for each season of his career depending solely on his age. That age adjusted score is the rating I’m giving each linebacker for each season of play, not his actual AV grade.2
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  1. One other note: I applied an AFL qualifier for players in the earlier days of the AFL. []
  2. If you used the actual AV score, you would essentially be compiling a list of the best defenses of all time and little more. []
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Better than Elway?

Better than Elway?

Today’s title gives a pretty good hint as to what today’s post is about. The table below shows the career Approximate Value for the top 50 players whose last game happened to be a Super Bowl victory. For reference, I’ve also includes things like number of games, Pro Bowls, 1st-team All-Pro selections, and number of seasons starting.

In addition to Lewis, Matt Birk of the Ravens also joins the list, and for the heck of it, I’ve included Anquan Boldin, who has hinted that he might retire. Full disclosure: I defined a player as “retiring after winning the Super Bowl” if his last season came during a year in which he played for the eventual Super Bowl champ. So Wes Chandler, who played for the ’88 49ers but retired in mid-season, is included in this list even though he shouldn’t be. Ditto Michael Dean Perry, who was on the Broncos in 1997 but actually finished the season with the Chiefs. I could filter out all the Chandlers and Perrys of the world, but my time is better spent elsewhere (for that matter, just about every person’s time is better spent elsewhere), and therefore I’ll present the full, overinclusive list instead of spending an extra hour of time fixing it and possibly not presenting it at all.

The table is sorted by the Career AV column; the AV column shows the player’s AV in his final season.
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Super Bowl XLVII Preview

Before we get to my preview, I feel the need to point you to some excellent Super Bowl previews I saw this week:

The Ravens can stop the zone read, but at what cost?

In Colin Kaepernick’s nine starts, the 49ers have averaged 159 rushing yards per game on 4.9 yards per rush and have rushed for 14 touchdowns; at the same time, they’ve averaged 8.1 ANY/A through the air. That makes them close to unstoppable, much like the Seahawks when Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch were dominating defenses over that same stretch.

The Packers could not stop the Pistol offense.

The Packers chose to let Kaepernick beat them on the ground. He did.

For San Francisco, their dominance starts up front, and their offensive line needs only sustained success to rival what the lines of the ’90s Cowboys or ’00 Chiefs delivered. According to Pro Football Focus, left tackle Joe Staley is the best tackle in the league, while right tackle Anthony Davis is the second best run-blocking tackle in the league (behind only Staley). PFF ranks both Mike Iupati and Alex Boone as top-five guards in the league, and places both of them in the top three when it comes to run blocking. Center Jonathan Goodwin also ranks as an above-average center, and the 34-year-old veteran is more than capable of anchoring a line filled with Pro Bowl caliber players. As if that wasn’t enough, Vernon Davis is one of the top two-way tight ends in the league, while TE/H-Back/FB Delanie Walker and FB Bruce Miller provide excellent support in the run game.

Without any schematic advantage, the 49ers have enough talented beef up front to have a dominate running game. But add in what Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman have been able to do with the Pistol formation and the zone read, and you have a running game that borders on unstoppable.

We saw that against the Packers, as Colin Kaepernick broke the single-game rushing record by a quarterback. The beauty of the zone read is that it gives the offense an extra blocker, an advantage the 49ers didn’t need. After the Packers were shredded by Kaepernick, the Falcons focused on containing the quarterback. Take a look at the photograph below, courtesy of Ben Muth of Football Outsiders.
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Lewis looks to cement his legacy

Lewis looks to cement his legacy.

Being a Super Bowl champion is a pretty nice bullet to place on your Hall of Fame resume. For players like Jerry Rice or Peyton Manning (or say, Steve Largent or Dan Marino), the failure to acquire a ring wouldn’t have prevented their induction; on the other hand, would Lynn Swann or Paul Hornung or a host of quarterbacks have made the HOF without a Super Bowl ring (or two, or three, or four?)

Just winning a Super Bowl guarantees nothing — Charles Haley and his five rings are on the outside looking in, as is Fuzzy Thurston, winner of six NFL titles. The borderline cases are the ones most helped or hurt by that Lombardi Trophy (or lack thereof) on the resume, and that class of players seems to be among the largest growing segment each year. So today, I’m going to take a look at how winning the Super Bowl could impact the legacies of certain Ravens.

Ray Lewis is a first ballot Hall of Famer regardless of what happens in Super Bowl XLVII, although his status as the game’s best inside linebacker of all-time might be boosted with a second Lombardi. The Ravens have been on a magical “Ride with Ray” and he’s been the face of a defense that’s turned from average in the regular season to excellent in the playoffs.

Ed Reed is another obvious Hall of Famer, even though unlike Lewis he was not a member of the 2000 Ravens teams that won the Super Bowl. Still, considering Troy Polamalu has appeared in three and won two of these games, Reed’s resume will look slightly less glamorous if he never is able to win a Super Bowl. And while it isn’t particularly relevant here, but I’ll just note that from 2005 to 2007, Bob Sanders made them a “Big Three” at the position, when Sanders won both a Super Bowl and a Defensive Player of the Year award. All three have battled injuries, showing just how dangerous the safety position can be in the NFL.
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13-time Pro Bowler

Will Lewis go out on top?

According to the SRS, this is as lopsided as championship games get. The Patriots are 12.8 points better than average while the Ravens have an SRS of just +2.9; therefore, you’d put New England as 13-point favorites at home (in reality, they are 8-point favorites). I’ve been a Ravens skeptic for a couple of months now, and never thought they were one of the best teams in the league.

In my week 11 power rankings, when Baltimore was 8-2, I wrote: “According to Football Outsiders, Baltimore has the best special teams since 1991 through 10 weeks. Schatz tweeted that Baltimore’s the 16th best team based on just offense and defense.”

A few days later the Ravens defeated the Chargers in the famous 4th-and-29 game, which certainly didn’t change my outlook on Baltimore. Then the Ravens tanked down the stretch, seemingly fulfilling their reputation as an average team. And let’s not forget: had Ben Roethlisberger stayed healthy, it’s possible the Ravens don’t even make the playoffs. Without the 13-10 ugly win over Byron Leftwich and the Steelers, both Baltimore and Pittsburgh would have finished 9-7 with the Steelers holding the tiebreaker. To be fair, the Ravens did not compete in a meaningless week 17 game, but the point is that the Ravens were barely above-average team during the season that got a few breaks along the way.
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The fountain of youth consists of two parts levitation and one part Matt Schaub

In a year where offensive fireworks dominated the headlines, here’s a piece of trivia on the other side of the ball: 36-year-old London Fletcher led the league in tackles. Fletcher, like Ray Lewis, is past the point where he can be referred to by his name alone. Instead, both get the honorific “ageless” before their names. The ageless Ray Lewis made his thirteenth Pro Bowl last season, putting him one behind Merlin Olsen and Bruce Matthews for the record. While it’s tempting to say Lewis is making Pro Bowl berths based on reputation now, I don’t think it’s his play is undeserving of such recognitiion. According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis was the 5th best inside linebacker last season. As for London Fletcher, he also registered in the top ten according to PFF. And while Fletcher was never as dominant as Lewis, ‘ageless’ simply has replaced ‘criminally underrated’ for Fletcher, a moniker that preceded his name most of the time for the last decade.

I think most of us know that it’s pretty incredible that these two are 37-years-old and still playing at high levels (well, at least we expect them to in 2012). But do we really recognize how truly rare this is? There are eleven modern era inside linebackers currently enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The table below lists them chronologically based on the year they entered the league. The columns show the “Approximate Value” or “AV” score (as defined by Pro-Football-Reference) assigned to each linebacker for each season during his thirties.

Linebacker3031323334353637
Mike Singletary181213159000
Harry Carson71013149600
Jack Lambert1717200000
Willie Lanier95500000
Dick Butkus156000000
Nick Buoniconti91116149010
Ray Nitschke16151097220
Sam Huff118860600
Les Richter119200000
Joe Schmidt172190000
Bill George171415919609
Average13
10875201

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