Andy Reid, Eagles Wrong About Linebackers, Part I: The Dawn of the Super Bowl
Anyone paying attention to the Philadelphia Eagles during Andy Reid's reign knows that the 13-year coach has an aggressive disinterest in the linebacker position. In his entire tenure, he has only had two quality players at the position, Jeremiah Trotter and Carlos Emmons.
Trotter was a big, physical, charismatic middle linebacker with a relentless motor. He was a leader, and he made plays all over the field. Reid didn't draft Trotter, mind you. He was already here when Reid came.
Andy Reid did acquire Carlos Emmons, who was a 6'5", 250 strong side linebacker who was best known for making tight ends disappear. He was also stout against the run. Although he was signed as a free agent under Reid, it also happened that general manager Tom Modrak was the one in charge of player personnel at the time. Modrak came from the Steelers organization and so did Emmons.
Since 2000 when Emmons was signed, the Eagles have no drafter or signed a single impact player at linebacker. The philosophy seems to be that all that matters on defense is rushing the passer. It's important for sure, but you would think a team that blitzed as much over the past decade as the Eagles have, you would want some athletic linebackers to help the cause.
So Reid seems to think linebackers are unnecessary to win. Why don't we take a look and see if linebacking has played a significant role in teams winning the Super Bowl?
There are 45 years worth of champions to look at, which is a pretty strong sample size.
Let's start with the 1960s and 1970s.
Green Bay Packers: 1966-67
Most people are in agreement that Vince Lombardi was a pretty significant person as far as football is concerned. They even named a trophy after him, which Andy Reid hasn't been able to see yet. Were linebackers important to Lombardi?
The Packers of the 60s had a middle linebacker by the name of Ray Nitschke. Perhaps, you've heard of him. He's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also a two-time first team All-Pro and made it to a Pro Bowl.
OK, so Lombardi had one great linebacker. Well, he also had outside linebackers Dave Robinson and Lee Roy Caffey. Each were named first team All-Pro once and each made it to the Pro Bowl.
The linebacking core of the team that won the first two Super Bowls had accumulated one Hall of Fame induction, four first team All-Pro selections and five Pro Bowls.
That's a pretty impressive start for linebackers in the Super Bowl era.
New York Jets: 1968
In 1968, the underdog Jets of the upstart AFL were the surprise champions. Surprisingly, even the Jets had two linebackers that were Pro Bowl quality.
The New York defense was led by five-time All Pro and five-time Pro Bowler Larry Grantham. As an outside linebacker, he took the Jets from a last-place team to a Super Bowl champion in nine seasons.
The Jets also had middle linebacker Al Atkinson who had 21 career interceptions. Atkinson was also voted to the Pro Bowl in the 1968 season.
So the New York Jets defense defeated Johnny Unitas and deployed two linebackers that made a combined five All-Pro teams and six Pro Bowls.
Kansas City Chiefs:1969
The 1969 Kansas City Chiefs may best be known for coach Hank Stram's "65 toss power trap" call in NFL Films footage of Super Bowl IV, but there was definitely more substance than that.
A nasty defense was led in the middle by Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier. "Contact" was a ferocious hitter and an exceptional playmaker in his NFL career, with 27 interceptions and 18 fumble recoveries. He was named All-Pro three times and was an eight-time Pro Bowler.
Lanier was joined by another Hall of Famer—outside linebacker Bobby Bell. Bell was a speedy and versatile linebacker evidenced by his nine career defensive touchdowns. Bell was named All-Pro six times and voted to nine Pro Bowls.
The Chiefs' third linebacker, Jim Lynch was also voted to a Pro Bowl, giving this corps a total of two Hall of Fame inductions, nine first-team All-Pro selections and 18 Pro Bowl appearances.
Baltimore Colts: 1970
The Baltimore Colts have always been and will always be linked to the field general, Johnny Unitas. But their defense helped them win championships, and on this Super Bowl squad, they were also very good at linebacker.
Outside linebacker Ted Hendricks was a freak. Standing 6'7" and weighing in at 220 pounds, Hendricks was a playmaking machine and a devastating tackler. Hendricks was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990, and he was also a four-time All-Pro and an eight-time Pro Bowler.
Joining Hendricks was middle linebacker Mike Curtis, who was a great player in his own right. Curtis was twice named an All-Pro and was a four-time Pro Bowler, giving the Colts' linebackers a Hall of Fame induction, six first-team All-Pro selections and 10 Pro Bowls.
Johnny Unitas clearly didn't have to do it alone.
Dallas Cowboys: 1971
The first thing most think of with the Dallas Cowboys is the "lone star" logo, but among their linebacker corps, there was more than one.
The unit was led by middle linebacker Lee Roy Jordan who was a Hall of Fame finalist in 1988. Jordan was once a first team All-Pro and went to five Pro Bowls. He was known to his teammates as "Killer," for his competitiveness and demanding leadership.
On the outside were menacing Dave Edwards on the strongside and speedy Chuck Howley on the weakside. They were the anchor of Tom Landy's "Doomsday Defense." Edwards never received any formal honors, but Howley was first team All-Pro five times and a six-time Pro Bowler.
The Doomsday linebackers had a Hall of Fame finalist, six first-team All-Pro selections and 11 Pro Bowls between them.
Miami Dolphins: 1972-73
The Miami Dolphins were second team in NFL history to repeat as Super Bowl champions and the only team to finish with a perfect season. The Dolphins are the first team in the Super Bowl era to have just one All-Pro caliber linebacker, but the one they had was pretty good.
Nick Buoniconti anchored the middle of the so-called "No Name Defense" in Miami. Buoniconti was known for his fiery leadership from his middle linebacker position. He was quoted as saying that for him, "Every play is like life or death." He played like it as evidenced by his 32 career interceptions.
Buoniconti was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001, and he was a five-time first-team All-Pro.
Buoniconti was also voted to eight Pro Bowls in his 14-year career.
Pittsburgh Steelers: 1974-75
This probably doesn't even need to be explained, as the Pittsburgh Steelers and linebackers are pretty much synonymous. No team in professional football is more intertwined with the position than the Steelers. Maybe Andy Reid should take note that the team with that distinction is the franchise with the most Lombardi Trophies at six.
This group is almost indescribable. Jack Lambert in the middle, flanked by Jack Ham and Andy Russell.
Lambert is known as possibly the epitome of a middle linebacker. Smart, quick, great range and one of the most intimidating human beings to ever walk the planet Earth. He was the linchpin that held the "Steel Curtain" together. A Hall of Famer, Lambert was a six-time All-Pro and went to nine Pro Bowls.
Jack Ham is also in the Hall of Fame. He was known for his ability to diagnose plays, and he was never caught out of position. He made big plays from the outside, with career totals of 32 interceptions and 21 fumble recoveries. Ham was named an All-Pro six times and was an eight-time Pro Bowler.
Andy Russell was not as esteemed as his two teammates, but he went to the Pro Bowl seven times. This legendary group produced two Hall of Famers, 12 first team All-Pro selections and went to a combined 24 Pro Bowls.
Oakland Raiders: 1976
The linebacker group was led by its outside linebackers Phil Villapiano and Ted Hendricks. The Hall of Famer, Hendricks won his second Super Bowl ring in Oakland. He was a dominating force on the right side.
Hendricks had 26 career interceptions, he blocked 25 field goals/extra points, recovered 16 fumbles and recorded four safeties in his career.
Villapiano played on the left side, he intercepted 11 passes and recovered 18 fumbles in his career. He was also named to four Pro Bowls.
Combined, Hendricks and Villapiano had a Hall of Fame induction, four first team All-Pro selections and 12 Pro Bowls.
Dallas Cowboys: 1977
While not as famed as the original "Doomsday Defense" in Dallas, there was still some talent in this group. The Cowboys became the first team to win a Super Bowl without a single All-Pro linebacker.
Bob Breunig patrolled the middle of the field for the Cowboys, and he finished his career with nine interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. He was voted to three Pro Bowls.
On the left side was Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson. Henderson was one of the league's fastest linebackers. He was athletic enough that he even returned a kick 97 yards for a touchdown. His career was cut short due to drug and alcohol problems but not before he was voted to the 1978 Pro Bowl.
The least-accomplished linebacker group thus far still combined for four Pro Bowl appearances.
Pittsburgh Steelers: 1978-79
The Steelers repeat as Super Bowl Champions for the second time in the decade behind the play of linebackers Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Robin Cole. Cole adds one Pro Bowl to the total.
Lambert, Ham and Cole combine for two Hall of Fame inductions, 12 first team All-Pro selections and 18 Pro Bowls.
Through the first 14 Super Bowls, 11 champions had at least one Hall of Fame linebacker, all but one had at least one All-Pro and no team won a championship without at least one Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker.
From 1966-1979, it seems as though linebacker has been an important piece of the championship formula.
Will that trend hold, or did the game pass linebackers by?
Find out in Part II tomorrow, when we cover the 1980s.