Pasadena, Calif. — Somebody is sure to dispute this, but the best athletes in Super Bowl XXI on Sunday between the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos will be the linebackers. The reason I say this is that they have to be able to do so many things well. They are what they are because of their size, speed, durability, and intelligence. And please don't minimize the importance of the latter, or the fact that every National Football League coach considers linebacker a skill position.
If all the outside and inside linebackers handle their multi-assignments correctly, they can control virtually every inch of the line of scrimmage in key situations. They do this by pressuring the quarterback, turning the running back inside, yelling to teammates whenever there is a cutback or reverse, and taking away the short pass.
This latter assignment is very important because, if that pass is completed (especially in a third-down situation), it often results in the opposing team's maintaining possession of the football. Linebackers who become victims of this play too often usually wind up selling vacuum cleaners in Kearney, Neb.
Two linebackers who are not apt to disappoint their coaches or anyone else on Super Sunday are Lawrence Taylor of the Giants and Karl Mecklenburg of the Broncos.
These two have the resiliency of huge springs, the pursuit of foxhounds, and hands like frying pans. Both are 6 ft. 3 in., weigh in the neighborhood of 240 lbs., and move almost as well laterally as they do straight ahead. They are so mentally tough that, if they had pet canaries, the birds would probably sing bass.
Pro linebackers are often the same people who were catching passes and running with the ball in high school, but who either outgrew those positions or came into a situation in the pros where there was no immediate room for them. But because they had the quickness to adapt to another position, showed a flair for responsibility, and could instantly read the type of play unraveling in front of them, they were able to find permanent homes as linebackers.
Taylor, a first-round draft pick out of North Carolina who was recently named the NFL's Most Valuable Player, is a problem for the opposition because he seldom gets fooled, gets to where he is going so quickly, and has such great upper body strength. Runners seldom break tackles against Lawrence, and quarterbacks have trouble eluding him once he gets into the backfield, as evidenced by his 20 sacks this season.
Scouting reports on Taylor say he plays better in unstructured situations, where his instincts take over and he just goes after whoever has the ball.
John Madden, a CBS-TV analyst and former Oakland Raider head coach, sums up Taylor as follows: ``Two years ago I thought he was the best player in the league, the most dominant defensive force in pro football. When a game had to be won, he won it. That is, as much as any one man can. Then in 1985 I thought he fell off a little, that maybe there were other linebackers around who were just as good. Now I think he's somewhere in between, but still great.''
Mecklenburg, meanwhile, is just beginning to get the kind of recognition from opponents that translates into all-pro honors. In fact, Karl, a 12th-round draft choice in 1983, didn't even become a starter for the Broncos until midway through last season, and actually began his pro career as a lineman.
There always seemed to be a question about his speed, about what position he should play, and about his potential for improvement.
What finally got the riveted attention of coach Dan Reeves was the man's determination. ``In practice he never let up,'' explained defensive coach Stan Jones.
Because Karl wasn't particularly bulky or muscular, the Broncos at first underestimated his strength. But after they had watched him blow by people who were supposed to stop him in practice, and excel in all of the team's agility drills, the word starter suddenly appeared to them in big, bold letters.
Bronco publicists also got excited when they discovered that Mecklenburg had married his childhood sweetheart, had been a pre-med student majoring in biology at Minnesota, and likes to take his wife and son, Luke, to the zoo.
Although Taylor and Mecklenburg are not cut from the same mold (except physically), they are both Streetcars Named Desire in terms of their all-out hustle and determination on the playing field. And they have rung the bells of enough opposing quarterbacks, running backs, and offensive linemen to prove it!