May 5, 2023 12:00pm

The NFL and Linebackers

We asked Power Poll NFL.

Photo of Rick Gosselin
NFL Correspondent

The 1960s Kansas City Chiefs and the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers played a 4-3 defense and both franchises placed two linebackers on the NFL’s 100th anniversary team.

The Chiefs, who won the last Super Bowl played by an AFL team, placed middle linebacker Willie Lanier and outside backer Bobby Bell on the 100th anniversary team. The Steelers who won four Super Bowls in the 1970s, placed middle linebacker Jack Lambert and outside backer Jack Ham on that team.

But in this week’s NFL Power Poll, when we asked our panel of former players, coaches, officials, talent evaluators, writers and broadcasters to identify the greatest linebacking corps in history, the 1980s New York Giants outpolled the Chiefs, Steelers and both the 1980s Bears and Saints. The Giants received 79 of the 195 votes cast, followed by the Steelers at 69, Bears at 22, Chiefs at 18 and Saints at 7.

The 1980s Giants won one Super Bowl featuring Carl Banks, Harry Carson, Gary Reasons and Lawrence Taylor. Carson and Taylor are in the Hall of Fame and Taylor joined Bell, Lanier, Ham and Lambert on the 100th anniversary team. Banks was a 1980s NFL all-decade pick.

“A ton of great choices,” said Bob Papa, the radio voice of the Giants. “But any group with LT wins. Carson also is a member of the Hall of Fame and a strong argument exists for Banks. Ask Anthony Munoz or any member of the (Washington) Hogs if Carl Banks was a Hall of Fame player.”

The third member of the Kansas City linebacking crew that won Super Bowl IV was Jim Lynch, himself a Pro Bowler. The Chiefs are the only defense to win a Super Bowl that ranked first across the board in the four major defense categories – run, pass, total and scoring.

“I went with the Chiefs mainly because offenses were more dangerous and dynamic in the AFL era,” said Barry Wilner, a Hall of Fame voter and long-time NFL writer for the Associated Press. “That often is forgotten when evaluating and comparing.”

The third member of the Pittsburgh linebacking crew of the 1970s was Andy Russell, who was seven-time Pro Bowler.

“The Steelers’ trio helped win four Super Bowls in six seasons,” said Nick Pugliese, the sports editor of the Palm Beach Post. “That’s good enough for me.”

The Bears lined up Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary with Pro Bowlers Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson on the outside. The Saints lined up four Pro Bowlers across in their 3-4 scheme – Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson inside and Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling on the outside. Mills and Jackson are both in the Hall of Fame.

In our second question, we asked who was the best linebacker in the senior pool not in the Hall of Fame And offered up eight quality candidates, including two who have already been mentioned – Carl Banks and Wilber Marshall. We filled out the ballot with Maxie Baughan, Mike Curtis, Joe Fortunato, Randy Gradishar, Clay Matthews and Tommy Nobis.

Mathews won with 46 votes, followed by Banks with 41, Marshall 27, Gradishar 26, Curtis 24, Nobis 20, Baughan 7 and Fortunato 2. Nobis and Fortunato both made all-decade teams and Gradishar was the 1978 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

But it was Matthews, who played 19 seasons and went to four Pro Bowls, who prevailed. He played his first 16 seasons with Cleveland and last three with Atlanta. He intercepted 16 passes, recovered 14 fumbles and collected 82 ½ sacks.

“Clay Matthews played every linebacker position in Marty Schottenheimer’s 3-4 defense,” said Tony Grossi of ESPN/Cleveland and a Hall of Fame voter. “Ultimately, it robbed him of the recognition he deserved because he wasn’t able to dominate a position and collect Pro Bowls at one spot.”

Maxie Baughan went to nine Pro Bowls in the 1960 decade, including his rookie season in 1960 when he helped the Philadelphia Eagles win an NFL championship.

“Watching the old footage, Maxie Baughan may have been the surest tackler of all time,” said Bob Grotz of the Delaware County Daily Times. “Has anyone ever seen him miss a tackle.”

Grotz wasn’t alone.

“I voted for Maxie -- but I thought long and hard about Nobis,” said Hall of Fame wide receiver Drew Pearson of the Dallas Cowboys. “I remember him decking me about 20 yards downfield over the middle my rookie year at Fulton County Stadium.”

Pearson wasn’t the only pollster with a positive vibe for Nobis.

“Tommy Nobis is a victim of playing on bad teams,” said D. Orlando Ledbetter, the NFL writer for the Atlanta Constitution-Journal. “One day this will be rectified.”

Mike Curtis was a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker with the Colts but is best remembered for decking a fan who ran onto the field and tried to steal the football.

“I have a soft spot in my heart for Mike Curtis, who was like a junior Dick Butkus,” said Rick Telander, a sports columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times. “Put them all in. Give us some easy choices!”

Telander is right – they probably all belong. At least a case can be made for each.

“People seem to forget Wilber Marshall was a spectacular talent who provided the fear factor in the ’85 Bears defense,” said Wayne Larrivee, the radio voice of the Green Bay Packers. “His speed and explosion were second to none and he always arrived at the quarterback in a bad mood.”

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of significant key players in American sports today. It's member list draws on people from media, team management, and league management. It is not a scientific survey, but the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those who know most about the sport.

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