Feb. 4 birthday: Lawrence Taylor
Rosa Parks was born 100 years ago today. So that probably trumps all other American birthdays.
Lawrence Taylor was actually the second pick in the 1981 NFL Draft -- behind Heisman Trophy running back George Rogers. Apparently, Bum Phillips -- who was coaching and basically running the Saints -- did not want Taylor, for whatever reasons. It should be said that the Saints did not exactly miss with that first pick. Rogers led the NFL with 1,674 rushing yards his rookie year, and he would have four 1,000-yard seasons in New Orleans and Washington. He was a big and bruising runner with speed, so he certainly was no bust.
It's just that Taylor was a revolutionary player. Right away, he dominated -- he was defensive rookie of the year AND defensive player of the year in 1981. There have been only a handful of players in sports who literally changed the way a game is played. I'd actually be curious who you think have been those players in various sports … but I would say most people agree that Taylor changed the game. He wasn't the first linebacker to be used as a blitzing weapon, but it's probably true that no linebacker had ever blitzed so often and that he disrupted quarterbacks passing more than any linebacker before him.
Michael Lewis has written that it was Lawrence Taylor, more than anyone, who prompted teams to discover new ways to protect the quarterbacks blind side, and I think that's a fascinating theory. I think it's also true that Taylor's success was a big reason why teams started drafting and developing their own blitzing linebackers like Andre Tippett and Chip Banks and Mike Merriweather and, eventually, Charles Haley and Derrick Thomas. BLT -- Before Lawrence Taylor -- the ideal linebacker was Dick Butkus or Jack Lambert, who played in the middle and stuffed running backs and read the quarterbacks eyes.
ALT -- After Lawrence Taylor -- the ideal linebacker came around the end and obliterated the quarterback.
A couple of things I did not know: One -- Taylor did not have double-digit sacks until his fourth season. In 1983 and 1984, he did not even finish in the Top 10 in sacks, and in 1984 Andre Tippett -- who was often called the AFC's Lawrence Taylor -- had 18 1/2 sacks to finish second in the NFL. Oh, he was still dominant, just not quite in the way he would be later. I think Taylor in those early years was much of an all-around linebacker who made big plays all over the field. It wasn't until 1986, when the Giants thoroughly unleashed him as a blitzed, and he led the NFL with 20 1/2 sacks. Not coincidentally, that was the year the Giants took a quantum leap forward and won the Super Bowl.
Two, there is no official "Forced Fumbles" statistic, and there should be. According to his Hall of Fame bio, he forced 33 fumbled in his career. I have no idea if this is a lot or not. It SHOULD be a lot -- I do not recall anyone hitting running backs or quarterbacks harder. But there's no reliable list. Forced fumble is a relatively new statistic.
The unofficial list on Pro Football Reference looks like so:
Jason Taylor, 47 forced fumbles.
Chris Doleman, 44 forced fumbles.
John Abraham, 43 forced fumbles.
(tie). Dwight Freeney, 43 forced fumbles.
Bruce Smith, 43 forced fumbles.
(tie). Derrick Thomas, 41 forced fumbles.
Rickey Jackson, 40 forced fumbles.
(tie) Robert Mathis, 40 forced fumbles
Julius Peppers, 38 forced fumbles
Richard Dent, 37 forced fumbles
(tie) Charles Tillman, 37 forced fumbles
But, of course, these numbers are incomplete and weird. Lawrence Taylor is not credited with any forced fumbles in his career by Football Reference, but Rickey Jackson, who played over almost exactly the same time period, is credited with 40. So I can't quite figure it out. My point is, I think forced fumbles are a pretty decent statistic to look at over a career. I wonder if at some point people will dig through the NFL Films library and painstakingly put together a full slate of defensive statistics -- it would be fun to know just how many fumbles Butkus or Willie Lanier caused, how many sacks Deacon Jones and Willie Davis had and so on.