This video showcases three (3) of the NFL’s All-Time Greatest Linebackers….Green Bay Packer Ray Nitschke, Chicago Bears Dick Butkus and New York Giants Lawrence Taylor….for there may never be a trio of linebackers who were tougher, meaner or more intimidating than these guys….as each were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame during their first year of elligibility….providing proof of why this career highlights video of each is worth the watch
Ray Nitschke grew up in the outskirts of Chicago and idolized the Bears….as he hoped to be chosen by them in the 1958 NFL draft….but on December 2, 1957….he was chosen by the Green Bay Packers as the second pick of the third round….in what is considered the greatest drafting year in the history of the franchise….for this draft included two other significant Packers of the 1960s….fullback Jim Taylor of LSUand right guard Jerry Kramer of Idaho….who in their rookie season in 1958….experiences a dismal season as the Packers 10 – 1 – 1 by finishing with the worst record in the 12-team league.
A month after the 1958 season ended….Vince Lombardi was hired as head coach…..under whom Nitschke became a full-time starter in 1962….as the anchor of a disciplined defense that helped win five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls in the 1960s. Nitschke was the MVP of the 1962 NFL Championship Game….as he recovered two fumbles and deflected a pass that was intercepted. The Packers won, 16-7, and finished the season with a 14-1 record….then in Super Bowl I…..Nitschke contributed six tackles and a sack…..followed in Super Bowl II when Nitschke led Green Bay’s defense with nine tackles.
On December 17, 1972….the 9-4 Packers traveled to New Orleans to play the 1-11-1 Saints for Nitschke’s last regular-season game of his career. Nitschke recorded the only pass reception of his career in this game….with a 34-yard gain after a blocked field goal attempt for which he was blocking….and the Packers won the game 30-20….clinching the NFC Central division title the week before….which was their first playoff berth since Super Bowl II….before losing on the road to the Washington Redskins by a score of 16-3….as Nitschke would retire during the following year’s training camp, in late August 1973.
Dick Butkus was drafted in the first round by both the Denver Broncos of the American Football League and his hometown team the Chicago Bears of the NFL….when he signed with the Bears and did not play professionally with any other team. Along with fellow Hall of Famer Gale Sayers…..Butkus was one of three first-round picks for the Bears in the 1965 NFL Draft….after using the pick they acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Butkus and their own pick on Sayers….as the Bears also drafted defensive end Steve DeLong with their 3rd 1st round pick that year. Butkus was selected to eight Pro Bowls and was all-league six times. In his rookie season, Butkus led the Bears in tackles, interceptions, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries….and he regularly led the team in these categories throughout his career….in which he recovered 27 fumble….an NFL record at the time of his retirement. He was one of the most feared players of his era….appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1970 with the caption “The Most Feared Man in the Game.”….having one of his most productive seasons in 1970 with 132 tackles, 84 assists, 3 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries. One of Butkus’ greatest strengths was his ability to rip the ball from a ball carrier’s hands….and although back then the statistic was not kept…..it has been noted that Butkus would certainly be one of the all-time leaders in the forced fumbles category.
At one point, Butkus gained a reputation as one of the meanest players on an otherwise bad Bears team in the late 1960s….for during his tenure with the Bears…..they won 48 games, lost 74 and tied 4
In this lil ole chiweenie Sportsphile’s opinion….Butkus was the “baddest cat” to ever play the game….as evidenced by his ability to “blow-up” anyone who dare to enter his space with the ball. ….as he was selected the 70th Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century by ESPN….the ninth-best player in NFL history by The Sporting News….and the fifth-best by the Associated Press. The National Football League named him to their All-Time team in 2000. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
Lawrence Taylor made his NFL regular season debut on September 6, 1981 in a 24–10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles….playing a fairly non-discript game…..then in a game versus the St. Louis Cardinals later in the season….. Taylor rushed and sacked the passer when he was supposed to drop into coverage….and when told by Coach Bill Parcells that was not what he was assigned to do on that play….that what he did was not in the playbook,…to which he responded “Well, we better put it in on Monday, because that play’s a dandy.”He recorded 9.5 sacks in 1981….with his rookie season being considered one of the best in NFL history….as he was named 1981’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year….making him as of 2016 the only rookie to win an Offensive or Defensive Player of the Year award. Taylor’s arrival helped the Giants defense reduce their points allowed from 425 points in 1980 to 257 in 1981. They finished the season 9–7….up five games from the previous season….thus advancing to the NFL divisional playoffs…..where they lost 38–24 to the eventual Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers.…a win that was due partly to a new tactic 49ers coach Bill Walsh used to slow Taylor….as Walsh assigned guard John Ayers, the team’s best blocker, to block Taylor….and, although Taylor still recorded a sack and three tackles….he was not as effective as normal.
The 1982 NFL season….which was shortened to nine regular season games by a players strike….included one of the more memorable plays of Taylor’s career….where in the nationally televised Thanksgiving Day game against the Detroit Lions….as the teams were tied 6–6 early in the fourth quarter….that’s when the Lions drove deep into New York territory…..when Lions quarterback Gary Danielson dropped back to pass….and threw the ball out to his left toward the sidelines….when Taylor ran in front of the intended receiver….intercepting the pass and returning it 97 yards for a TD.….as this play was indicative of Taylor’s unusual combination of power with speed for a linebacker. He was again named Defensive Player of the Year.
After the 1982 season, Ray Perkins left the Giants to become the head coach of the University of Alabama….as the Giants hired Bill Parcells to replace him. In the coming years this change proved crucial to the Giants and Taylor…. for leading up to the 1983 season, Taylor engaged in a training camp holdout that lasted three weeks and ended when he came back to the team under his old contract with three games left in the preseason.…and although Taylor recorded nine sacks and made the All-Pro team for the third consecutive season in 1983….the Giants struggled as the team went 3–12–1….causing Parcells to receive heavy criticism from fans and the media….as Taylor was forced to play inside linebacker for part of the season….a position which allowed him less pass rushing opportunities, when Harry Carson was injured. Frustrated by the losing, Taylor began acting out by arriving late for meetings and not participating in conditioning drills in practice. After the season, Taylor was involved in a fight for his services between the Giants and the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League.….who Taylor was given a $1 million interest-free, 25-year loan by Generals owner Donald Trump on December 14, 1983….with the provision that he begin playing in the USFL in 1988.…of which Taylor regretted the decision and less than a month later attempted to renege….when his agent was able to negotiate by meeting with Trump personally and then the Giants which resulted in allowing Taylor to go with the Giants. Taylor got a 6-year $6.55-million package that also included a $1 million interest-free loan. The main results of these negotiations were threefold: 1) Taylor returned the $1 million to Trump, 2) the Giants paid Trump $750,000 over the next five seasons, and 3) the Giants gave Taylor a new six-year, $6.2-million-dollar contract.
The Giants’ record rebounded to 9–7 in 1984….as Taylor had his fourth All-Pro season.…after he got off to a quick start by recording four sacks in a September game. In the playoffs the Giants defeated the Los Angeles Rams 16–13, but lost 21–10 to the eventual champion SF 49ers.
In contrast to the previous season the Giants headed into the 1985 season with a sense of optimism after their successful 1984 campaign and a 5–0 pre-season record. The Giants went 10–6, and Taylor spearheaded a defense that led the NFL in sacks with 68….having had 13 of his own. One of the more memorable plays of his career occurred during this season in a Monday Night Football game against the Redskins,…as Taylor’s sack of Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann inadvertently resulted in a compound fracture of Theismann’s right leg….when after the sack a distraught Taylor screamed for paramedics to attend to Theismann. Although this sack ended Theismann’s career,…Theismann has never blamed Taylor for the injury. Taylor says he has never seen video of the play and never wants to. During the first round of the playoffs, the Giants defeated the defending champion 49ers 17–3….but lost to the eventual champion Chicago Bears in the second round 21–0.
In 1986 Taylor had one of the most successful seasons by a defensive player in the history of the NFL….as he recorded a league-leading 20.5 sacks and became one of just two defensive players to win the NFL Most Valuable Player award….as the only defensive player to be the unanimous selection for MVP in NFL history. He also was named Defensive Player of the Year for the third time….as the Giants finished the season 14–2….and outscored San Francisco and Washington by a combined score of 66–3 in the NFC playoffs….as he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated the week leading up to Super Bowl XXI with a warning from the magazine to the Denver Broncos regarding Taylor.…in a game in which the Giants overcame a slow start in Super Bowl XXI to defeat Denver 39–20. Taylor made a key touchdown preventing tackle on a goal line play in the first half by stopping Broncos quarterback John Elway as he sprinted out on a rollout.
With the Super Bowl win, Taylor capped off an unprecedented start to his career. After six years, he had been named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award (1981)….NFL Defensive Player of the Year a record three times (1981, 1982, 1986),…1st team All-Pro six times….becoming the first defensive player in NFL history unanimously voted the league’s MVP (1986)….as he led his team to a championship (1986).
The Giants appeared to have a bright future coming off their 1986 Super Bowl championship season….since they were one of the younger teams in the league….however, they struggled the next season by falling to 6–9 in the strike-shortened 1987 season.…in which Taylor caused strife in the locker room when he broke the picket line after early struggles by the team. He explained his decision by saying “The Giants are losing. And I’m losing $60,000 a week.” He finished the season as the team leader in sacks with 12 in 12 games played….but missed a game due to a hamstring injury….ending his consecutive games played streak at 106.
The Giants looked to rebound to their championship ways in 1988 but the start of the season was marred by controversy surrounding Taylor….when he tested positive for cocaine and was suspended by the league for thirty days….as it was his second violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy….for Taylor’s over-the-edge lifestyle was becoming an increasing concern for fans and team officials. The Giants went 2–2 in the games Taylor missed….and when Taylor returned….he was his usual dominant self as he led the team in sacks again, with 15.5 in 12 games played. The season also contained some of the more memorable moments of Taylor’s career….for in a crucial late-season game with playoff implications against the New Orleans Saints…he played through a torn pectoral muscle to record seven tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles. Taylor’s presence in the lineup was important as the Giants’ offense was having trouble mounting drives….as television cameras repeatedly cut to the sidelines to show him in extreme physical pain as he was being attended to by the Giants staff….cuz Taylor had already developed a reputation for playing through pain….asTaylor’s shoulder was so injured that he had to wear a harness to keep it in its place. The Giants held on for a 13–12 win, and Parcells later called Taylor’s performance “the greatest game I ever saw a player play.”….however, the Giants narrowly missed the playoffs in 1988 at 10–6 by losing tie-breakers with the Eagles in their division and the Rams for the Wild card.
In 1989, Taylor recorded 15 sacks….although he was forced to play the latter portion of the season with a fractured tibia which he suffered in a 34–24 loss to the 49ers in week 12….which caused him to sit out the second half of several games….in a season that the Giants went 12–4….and advanced to the playoffs where they lost an exciting, down-to-the-wire game to the L A Rams….eliminating the Giants 19–13 in the first round…. despite Taylor’s two sacks and one forced fumble.
Taylor held out of training camp before the 1990 season….eventually signing a three-year $5 million contract (making him the highest paid defensive player in the league) just four days before the season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. Despite sitting out training camp and the preseason, Taylor recorded three sacks and a forced fumble against the Eagles.….and he finished the season with 10.5 sacks and earned his 10th Pro Bowl in as many years….although the season marked the first time in Taylor’s career that he was not selected to the All-Pro team. The Giants started out 10 – 0 and finished with a 13–3 record. In the playoffs, the Giants defeated the Bears 31–3 and faced the rival 49ers in the NFC Championship Game…..which they won 15–13 after Taylor recovered a key fumble late in the game to set up Matt Bahr’s game-winning field goal. In Super Bowl XXV, they played the Buffalo Bills and won one of the more entertaining Super Bowls in history, 20-19….after Buffalo’s Scott Norwood missed a potential game-winning field goal as time expired.
Following the 1990 season, Parcells, with whom Taylor had become very close, retired, and the team was taken over by Ray Handley….as 1991 marked a steep decline in Taylor’s production. It became the first season in his career in which he failed to make the Pro Bowl squad….after setting a then record by making it in his first ten years in the league. Taylor finished with 7 sacks in 14 games and the Giants defense, while still respectable, was no longer one of the top units in the league.
Taylor rebounded in the early stages of what many thought would be his final season in 1992. Through close to nine games Taylor was on pace for 10 sacks and the Giants were 5–4….however, a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in a game on November 8, 1992 against Green Bay sidelined him for the final seven games….during which the team went 1–6. Before the injury Taylor had missed only four games due to injury in his 12-year career.
Taylor returned for the 1993 season enticed by the chance to play with a new coach (Dan Reeves)….and determined not to end his career due to an injury. The Giants had a resurgent season in 1993….as they finished 11–5 and competed for the top NFC playoff seed…as Taylor finished with 6 sacks….and the Giants defense led the NFL in fewest points allowed. They defeated the Vikings 17–10 in the opening round of the playoffs….then the next week on January 15, 1994 in what would be Taylor’s final game….the Giants were beaten 44–3 by the 49ers. As the game came to a conclusion, television cameras drew in close on Taylor who was crying. He announced his retirement at the post-game press conference saying, “I think it’s time for me to retire. I’ve done everything I can do. I’ve been to Super Bowls. I’ve been to playoffs. I’ve done things that other people haven’t been able to do in this game before. After 13 years, it’s time for me to go.”
Taylor ended his career with 1,088 tackles, 132.5 sacks (not counting the 9.5 sacks he recorded as a rookie because sacks did not become an official statistic until 1982), nine interceptions, 134 return yards, two touchdowns, 33 forced fumbles, 11 fumble recoveries, and 34 fumble return yard
Any way you cut the pie….Nitschke, Butkus and Taylor set the gold standard for NFL linebackers…..and still hold that position today.