Cross-Generational Comparisons of NFL Greats

Nov. 11, 2016


In my last article I wrote about the debate over who was better, Emmitt Smith or Barry Sanders?

Our next great debate that football fans can't seem to get enough of is, who was a better linebacker, Dick Butkus or Lawrence Taylor?

My first response to this is, why compare a middle linebacker to an outside linebacker? They are after all, two completely different positions, with very different responsibilites. In my opinion, Dick Butkus was the best MLB to ever play the game. I think most would agree. It is also my opinion that Lawrence Taylor was the best outside linebacker to ever play the game. Again, I think most would agree.

So why is this not a good enough answer for some people? I suppose some people just like to debate, even when the topic they are debating about doesn't really make much sense. Some, like myself, will usually take the side of the player they remember from their childhood. Some will take the side of the modern player, because they are bigger,faster, stronger.

I started watching football as a child in 1969, and I was pretty much addicted to the game for the next 12 years, so anyone who played between 1969 and 1980 is glued to my memory. If you were fortunate enough to see Dick Butkus play, he is likely glued to your memory. Everyone who watched him play, or had the misfortune to play against him, will never forget how hard he hit.

But there was a lot more to him as a football player than just hard hitting. He had no weaknesses as a player. He was a gifted athlete who could do it all. A once in a lifetime player. One can't help but wonder how much better he could have been, had his career not been cut short by ravaged knees.

Lawrence Taylor began his NFL career in 1981, eight years after Butkus retired. Although I was still a big football fan, I was no longer a child, and no longer in awe of football players, as I was when Butkus played.. That contrast enables me to look at Taylor differently from the way I looked at Butkus.

Taylor was a different breed. As much as I can not condone his off the field behavior, I can't deny his incredible talents as a football player. He had a motor that never stopped, and like Butkus, had no weaknesses. He was so incredibly gifted, that it was almost as though he was playing two positions at once. An outside linebacker/defensive end.

But lets be clear about one thing: these great players played in a different era from today's game. In fact, these guys played in eras different from each other.

There are some who will argue that Butkus, and other players from his era wouldn't be as good if they played today. Why wouldn't they be as good I ask? I get the usual answer, because players today are bigger, faster, stronger.

Okay fine, but why are they bigger faster, stronger?

There are many reasons. Genetics, better training methods, better knowledge of nutrition – what foods to eat, what vitamins and supplements to take. Advanced methods in surgery – arthroscopic surgery. Vast improvements in rehabilitation and physical therapy for injuries.

So if Butkus were playing today instead of 45 years ago, wouldn't he have all these same benefits that the modern day player has? Wouldn't that in turn make him - bigger, faster, stronger?

What if Lawrence Taylor had been born 10 years sooner? His NFL career would have started in 1971 instead of 1981. Would he have been as good? Would he have been as dominating a player? Would he have been as big? As fast? As strong?

We'll never know. Taylor was born when he was supposed to be born, and Butkus was born when he was supposed to be born. Playing this cross generation/time warp game gets too weird for my taste, and the debate could last forever.

I've always believed a great player would be a great player no matter what era he played in, or under what rules he played under. Lawrence Taylor and Dick Butkus were two of the all-time greats to play the game of football. I'm glad I had the pleasure of seeing both of them play. They were both special for different reasons.

There were many other great linebackers to play this game too. At MLB there was Ray Nitschke, Willie Lanier, Ray Lewis. At outside linebacker there was Jack Ham, Bobby Bell,Ted Hendricks.

I'll leave it to the great debaters to decide who was the best of the best. I'd rather cherish the memories.

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